Why Saying “Just Stop Cutting” Doesn’t Work for Self-Harmers
One of the least helpful things you can say to someone who self-harms is, “well, just stop cutting.” Believe me, for most people who cut, if it were that easy, they would have done it already. People struggle with ending self-harm not because they don’t want to but because they use self-harm as a coping skill and you can’t just take away someone’s only or best coping skill. They won’t know what else to do without it. So saying, “just stop cutting” to a self-harmer is like saying, “just stop crying” or “just stop talking to your friends” or “just stop drinking” – if that’s the coping skill the person uses to deal with pain, telling them to “just stop it” doesn’t work.
(And by the way, I’m talking about cutting here but it could be any form of self-harm from starving oneself (outside of anorexia), to hitting oneself to skin-picking, to anything else one does that falls into the category of nonsuicidal self-injury.)
Cutting is a Negative, Harmful, Unhealthy Coping Skill
I talk to students (teens) all the time and the subject of self-harm comes up because I used to be a cutter. I tell them that I was in so much pain that I couldn’t handle it and didn’t know what to do so one of the things I did was self-harm.
And then what I say is that self-harm, cutting, is a negative coping skill. Negative coping skills may work, in the moment, but they also cause suffering and are unhealthy. (Although, I admit, I prefer to use the term negative and positive coping skill as I feel like healthy vs. unhealthy is a little judgey.)
The point there is that the reason people use these negative coping skills like cutting is because they work. People don’t cut themselves for fun, they do it because they’re dealing with some sort of pain and the best plan they have come up with to deal with it is by cutting their skin.
I Can’t “Just Stop Cutting” – Replacing Negative Coping Skills
So a person can’t “just stop cutting” because if they do, then they’ll have no way of handling the pain they’re experiencing. And believe me, even teens can experience more pain than you can fathom.
So what we need to do, then, is to replace the negative coping skill of self-harm with a set of positive coping skills. That is what will help a person stop self-harming. Not preaching about how wrong self-harm is but, rather, by acknowledging its real function and then finding ways to achieve its goal that are not harmful.
Positive Coping Skills for Self-Harmers
So, positive coping skills could include:
- Talking to friends
- Talking to a professional like a therapist
- Listening to loud music
- Screaming into a pillow
- Hitting a punching bag
- Doing something nice for yourself (like taking a bath or getting a massage)
- Seeing a psychiatrist and getting on a treatment plan
And there are many, many more. A person can’t “just stop cutting” until these other things are in place and are working. And this takes time. It takes time to find positive coping skills that will work for an individual and it takes time to put them into practice. If the first thing you’ve done when you’re in pain for the last year is grab something sharp, it may take serious effort to change that behavior (which has worked for you) and go for a run or call up a therapist instead.
Saying, “Just stop cutting” is dismissive and a clear sign that the person saying it doesn’t understand the issue in the slightest. In order to help someone we need to have compassion for that person and understand that what they’re doing makes sense to them. So, the real question is, how can we find other solutions that make more sense to the person who self-harms?