Jessica Grogan, Ph.D.

Jessica Grogan Ph.D.

Encountering America

Why People Cut

Self-harm is often intended to bring healing rather than cause further damage.

Posted Nov 04, 2014

Like most psychological phenomena, self-harm isn’t as reducible as we try to make it. Trite explanations like “a cry for help” or “a plea for attention” are generally not only off-base, they miss something critical about the the complexity of the action of cutting and the psychological space it occupies.

The rates of self-harm in the United States have increased steadily since the 1980s (Arnold, 2014). The statistics can feel alarming: A 2005 study found the percentage of college students who had self-harmed to be 17 percent, and 75 percent of those individuals had engaged in self-injurious behavior more than once (Whitlock, Eckenrode & Silverman, 2005). Other studies place these rates between 15 and 20 percent (Ross & Heath, 2002; Nixon, Cloutier & Janssen, 2009). The frequency with which therapists and teachers now encounter self-harming behavior in teenagers may prompt a sense that it’s becoming an epidemic. And on top of all this data on frequency, researchers have found that self-harm is one of the best predictors of future suicide (Arnold, 2014).

But for each person who cuts, the story of cutting is really quite complex. At every turn the act defies simple explanations like anger, attention, self-destructiveness, or suicidality.  The most common explanation for cutting, in fact, is that it’s an attempt at self-soothing, an effort to feel better (not worse).

Rather than representing a failure to cope, for most people cutting seems to be a means of coping. Author Marilee Strong explains: “You don't feel like you're hurting yourself when you're cutting. You feel like this is the only way to take care of yourself (Strong, 2009).”

Others describe it as an attempt to deal with the abstraction of unbearable psychological pain, to pull it into the body, into a more concrete reality. Author Leslie Jamison describes her experience with cutting: “I cut because my unhappiness felt nebulous and elusive and I thought it could perhaps hold the shape of a line across my ankle. I cut because I was curious what it would feel like to cut. I cut because I needed very badly to ratify a shaking sense of self, and embodied unhappiness felt like an architectural plan (Jamison, 2014, 191-192).”

The concreteness of cutting can be a way to restore order to an otherwise engulfing chaos. In Skin Game Caroline Kettlewellwrites,“I cut to quiet the cacophony. I cut to end this abstracted agony, to reel my selves back to one present and physical whole, whose blood was the proof of her tangibility (Kettlewell, 1999, 111).”

In The Cliff, Amanda Steele describes cutting as soothing, in the way that a friend or a nurturing mother can be.“The blade sings to me,” she writes, “Faintly, so soft against my ears, its voice calms my worries and tells me that one touch will take it all away. It tells me that I just need to slide a long horizontal cut, and make a clean slice. It tells me the words that I have been begging to hear: this will make it ok (Steele, 2014).”

When people try to simplify cutting, they miss the complex range of emotions behind it. They miss the ways in which it may be an attempt to cope with, to communicate, and to make sense of complex pain.

But more than anything, their simplification does something worse than just misunderstand. It distorts. The worst reductions of cutting are those loaded with judgment. Even pathologizing the act of cutting is an act of judgment. It prioritizes categorization over nuanced understanding. It introduces ideas of normative and non-normative behavior that aren’t helpful for individual lives. We’d be far better served to map the full territory that cutting occupies for each person: what it feels like, what it connects to, how it functions and how it fails. Starting there, we might begin to have some idea about what kind of thing could possibly replace it.


Arnold, C. (2014). Why self-harm? Aeon,

Jamison, L. (2014). The empathy exams. The Empathy Exams: Essays. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press.

Kettlewell, C. (1999). Skin Game: A Memoir. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Nixon, M.K., Cloutier, P., & Janssen, M. (2008). Nonsuicidal self-harm in youth: a population-based survey. CMAJ, 178(3), 306-312.

Ross, S. & Heath, N. (2002). A study of the frequency of self-mutilation in a community sample of adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 31(1), February, 67-77.

Steele, A. (2014). The Cliff. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Strong, M. (2009). A Bright Red Scream: Self-Mutilation and the Language of Pain. New York: Penguin Books. 

Whitlock, J., Eckenrode, J., & Silverman, D. (2009). Self-injurious behaviors in the college population. Pediatrics, 117 (6), June, 1939-1948.


More Posts