The Secrets of Self-Harm
She sat in my office stiff and straight-backed looking down at my desk as though something was keeping this 16 year old girls’ rapt attention. She twirled her hair. She bit her lip. She looked at her shoes. She fussed with the sleeves of the sweater she was wearing … in August … in Florida. Anything to avoid my eye gaze. She had no idea that I was as nervous as she was when I offered her a water bottle, a piece of chocolate, a Coke or anything that might build a bridge between the two of us.
One week fresh in my new office and new position in Girls Ministry, the walls were bare and still smelled of drying spackle and freshly covered paint. I desperately wanted to reach out to her, to crawl over my desk and scoop her up and hug her and tell her that Jesus sees her pain. But I waited, knowing that this needed to be in her timing. And I prayed for a breakthrough as we began to dig through the layers of conversation, attempting to lead her to the real reason we were gathered in my office. And then it happened. She said, “Miss Kim, I just hurt so much. That’s why a few years ago, I started cutting.”
In the first three weeks of being fresh in to Girls Ministry, I had no less than nine different girls tell me about their issues with cutting. I remember thinking to myself, I knew this was a thing, I just didn’t realize it was the thing. But it was and it still is the issue that is growing in sickening popularity among our society today. It has grown to such proportions that as Godly women engaged in our culture we can no longer live uninformed. As much as I wish this wasn’t the case, cutting and other forms of self-harm have reached a critical status and we must be a part of the educated community so that we can meet the need that self-harm isn’t filling.
Understanding the Scope
The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) states that each year, 1 in 5 females and 1 in 7 males engage in self-injury. According to the statistics released by the NCHS, approximately two million cases of self-harm are reported annually in the US. This number only reflects cases reported and documented by medical facilities.1 That means we know there’s more. Most websites and medical journals report that the average age of self-harm begins around 12-14 and continues well in to their 20’s.2 I remember reading all of these statistics and being simply staggered. I was tempted to compartmentalize it in to those places of my brain that handle only raw numbers and figures but I realized that these stats represented real lives, real faces. Some of these records represented my students, my friends’ daughters, or one day my nieces. So, I kept reading.
The terms self-harm, self-injury, or self-abuse refers to the act of purposefully harming oneself. Often times called “cutting” or “blading” but there are other forms of self-harm such as skin burning, pinching, puncturing, anorexia, bulimia, and even hair pulling. It is important to understand that most people who engage in self-harm are not suicidal but rather their attempt is to self-soothe, express emotion, or release pain or stress.3
Understanding the Pain
For those who don’t have this impulse to self- harm it seems impossible to understand. How could hurting yourself lead to feeling better? There actually is a physical medical reason that people return to behaviors like cutting. Aside from the destructive emotional coping mechanisms, physical pain actually does something for the body. When the body is in pain, it releases endorphins to counteract the physical effects of discomfort, giving the brain a naturally induced high. This feeling can become addictive and before they know it, the individual wants and needs this rush of opiates to feel normal.4 But that doesn’t always explain the ‘why’ behind engaging in self-harm and their heart is the place we are so desperate to reach in the first place.
The comments I heard most often were “I just wanted to be able to feel something. Even pain is better than being numb,” “it makes me feel better,” “it’s a way to relieve stress,” “no one understands” or even “I deserve it.” I remember meeting one day with a gal about cutting and when she left I went to my car and ugly cried until I thought my heart would burst. Listening to these beautiful precious souls talk about the emotional pain that they were experiencing, and the lies that the Enemy had told them about who they are made me want to crawl into the Throne Room and just grieve.
Understanding the Cycle
Each girl that I spoke with had a reason, in her mind, a legitimate reason for self-harm. The triggers usually began with stress and isolation. They may not see another way out or an alternative for coping with whatever looms ahead. Most people engaged in self-harm also express feeling very alone. They are reluctant to talk to people about the real reasons for their pain and often times they will isolate to avoid doing so. These precious ones have also become masters of disguise and hiding in plain sight. But deep inside there is pain or hurt or lies that are waiting to surface when stress is triggered.
Dr. Edward Welch, who serves as the Director of the School of Biblical Counseling and professor of practical theology, says “Anything that arouses unwanted emotions can trigger the cycle of self-abuse.”5 And so the cycle begins. It begins with an emotional trigger, a stress that causes the impulse to seek distance and relief from these feelings. If the person has previously engaged in self-harm there will most likely be a built in desire to return to that behavior. Without appropriate coping mechanisms the desire for self-harm grows and self-injury becomes the response simply because it works. There is temporary relief from the unwanted emotions followed quickly by shame and guilt over the behavior of hurting oneself. The greatest challenge is that the circumstances which drove the individual to self injure have not changed and the feelings have only been abated for the short term. There has not been any real healing. This, my friends, is where you as a believer come in. If the Lord has placed you in a unique opportunity to minister to girls or women who engage in self-harm, you know the secret of freedom, found in Jesus Christ alone. Share this with them immediately!
But Now What …
So now that you are informed, the most natural next question is “Now what do I do? Where do I go from here?” I’d like to encourage you with a few things.
- The girl or woman you are ministering to who may be dealing with self-harm needs help, but please remind her (or yourself if you are engaged in self harm) that she is NOT beyond the power and scope of God’s great grace and healing. The Word of God is the first place to start. We all need to be reminded of the promises of God. Psalm 4:1; Psalm 107: 1-9; Psalm 94:14, 17-19; Romans 5:20 and 1 John 1:9 are some of favorite places to start. Ladies, let’s go to our Source for the ultimate encouragement!
- It’s okay to admit that you as the friend, parent, or mentor don’t have all of the help that they need. Guiding them to understand their need for a supportive community is key in beginning the process of healing.
- If you have personal experience with self-harm, don’t hide it in shame. Tell your story and use it to express the glory of redemption and healing that can be found in Jesus Christ alone. Often times one will feel more comfortable sharing with someone who they can make a personal connection with.
- If you work with students or have teenagers in your home, they have been exposed to the idea of self-harm. Be aware of how prevalent it is and how the next generation is already engaging this topic.
- Telling them to “just stop” doesn’t even make sense to them and often comes across as belittling and cold. In their mind, it doesn’t work like that. There is a reason for their behavior. Offer to walk with them in the journey and desperately pray for them as they fight the lies of the world.
- If the person is a minor you must involve their parents. Unless the parents pose an imminent danger to the student, it is their right and God given responsibility to know and love their child through these moments.
- If you are the parent, please I beg you, be as understanding as you possibly can, even if you don’t understand. This is not your fault. You are not to blame. You haven’t failed. There may be areas of growth in your relationship with your son or daughter that the Lord will have an opportunity to improve through this journey. Love them. Pray with or for them, and bring both of your hearts to Jesus so that the Great Physician can do His work.
Self-harm is a problem, but it is not the problem. There are root issues associated with all of our behaviors. This is true for all of humanity. We are each in desperate need of our Savior, who graciously wrapped Himself in flesh and died to set us free. We must be brave women who dare to look these things in the eye and reach for our sisters in Christ who may be in crisis. We need not be afraid, not of this issue or any others that face our culture today. Scripture reminds us that we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37). We must be willing to reach across the divide, stick our hands in the broken places, and speak hope into the life of another. Tell them. Tell them that Jesus sees. Jesus knows. And He holds all of our secrets.
- Claassen, Cindy and Kashner, Michael. Self Harm in the United States: What we can learn from National and State-level Medical Datasets. National Center for Health Statistics 2012 Data Conference. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/ppt/nchs2012/ss-32_claassen.pdf
- Kerr, P. L., Muehlenkamp, J. J., & Turner, J. M. (2010). Nonsuicidal self-injury: A review of current research for family medicine and primary care physicians. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine 23(2), 240-259. http://www.jabfm.org/content/23/2/240.full
- Welch, Edward. “Self-Injury: When Pain Feels Good.” The Journal of Biblical Counseling. Winter 2004. 34-41
- Stanley, Barbara. Sher, Leo. Wilson, Scott, Ekman, Rolf, Huang, Yung-yu, Mann, John. “Nonsuicidal Self-Injurous Behavior, Endogenous Opioids and Monoamine Neutransmitters.” J of Affect Disord. 2010 Jul; 124(1-2): 134-140.
- “Self-Injury: When Pain Feels Good,” 32