Why Would Anyone Cut Themselves?

June 18, 2013 Natasha Tracy

In the presentation I give to schoolchildren, I mention that, at various points in my history, I self-harmed. I cut myself. It’s a dirty truth, but there it is.

And not surprisingly, one teen asked me today, “Why would anyone cut themselves?”

Good question. Whole books have been written exploring this question and there is no single answer to why people self-harm. However, as to why most self-harm: it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Self-Harm is a Coping Mechanism

People who self-harm are, typically, under a high degree of stress. This stress might come from inside, like living with a mental illness, or outside, like external stressors and oftentimes, it’s both. Generally self-harm isn’t seen until a very high level of stress is reached.

And then, like all people, when a person who self-harms is under a high degree of stress, he or she looks for ways to cope. Sometimes people cope by enjoying a hobby, going on vacation, talking to a therapist, reaching out to family and so on. But sometimes, every single thing that a person does to cope, doesn’t work. Sometimes, no matter whom person reaches out to or what a person does, nothing helps.

It’s at this point that self-harm can occur. It’s when a person has exhausted every coping mechanism they can think of that self-harm seems like a good idea.

Why Cutting? Why Self-Harm?

And, of course, people want to know, even if you get to that point, why the heck would you choose to cut yourself? Well, the physical pain that is felt from self-harm can be highly preferable to the other kinds of pain the person is going through at the time. The physical pain can actually take away from the emotional pain.

The specific feeling that self-harm elicits is different for different people. Some people say it helps them dissociate from life and their pain. Some people say there is a euphoria associated with the harm. Some people say they feel better when they do it because they thought they deserved it. In all cases, it’s at least partially the result of the physical endorphin rush that happens when the body experiences pain. In other words, people have found a drug (endorphins) that they are trying to use to treat their pain. And using a drug to treat pain that you think you can’t escape is incredibly normal and incredibly human.

Self-Harm is about Coping

So self-harm is an understandable coping mechanism that is used when a person just can’t think of any better ideas. There are, undoubtedly, better ways to handle pain but sometimes, for some people, in some moments, it seems like all there is, is self-harm.

But there is good news and the good news is we can all learn new skills that allow us to think of better ways of dealing with pain. No one has to be stuck with self-harm. Everyone can be taught better ways of handling our lives.

This learning is not necessarily an easy or immediate thing, especially if someone’s go-to coping strategy has been self-harm for a long time. Nevertheless, alternative coping mechanisms can be learned and can absolutely help. Because while I believe self-harm is an understandable behavior, I also believe that we can all understand healthier alternatives too. Because self-harm might have been the best idea I had at the time, but now I know how to formulate better ideas.

Here at HealthyPlace we have the blog: "Speaking Out about Self-Injury." Check it out for more on this topic.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2013, June 18). Why Would Anyone Cut Themselves?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 18 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

April, 3 2015 at 2:44 pm

I've only self harmed a couple of times, pre-biolar diagnosis & medication. I also came close to engaging in that behaviour again initially after being diagnosed but managed to overcome it with great effort on my part
I remember doing it before because of an unusual event where my self esteem was completely in the gutter. I felt utterly worthless and full of self hatred.
Another time it was because I felt so overwhelmed, hopeless and completely powerless to change a paricular situation that I just couldn't stand it any longer, it was release for me.
Of course, self harm is not a healthy coping mechanism. Today I focus on loving myself and practicing ways to reduce stress in my life. I'm not completely there yet but thank God I'm not where I used to be. That was a very dark place indeed

August, 10 2013 at 4:09 am

What I commented on one of your other articles about self-harm seems relevant here as well:…
Why would anyone cut themselves? Because it's a natural reaction in both humans and animals to deal with long periods of high amounts of stress. It's a mechanism present in us all, no matter how much of a taboo you might think it is. Most people just won't ever in their lifetime get into a situation that makes them want to use it.
But if people are pushed far enough, for long enough, I believe eventually they will all resort to self-harm, with perhaps few exceptions. This can com in many forms: punching walls, biting nails (a common stress reaction, but when it starts to bleed it's certainly self-harm), pulling hair, scratching skin...
If we imagine someone locked up in some room while being placed under high amounts of stress, with no means of escaping.. I can almost see it happen. But perhaps I just have a rich imagination (in fact, I know I do).
Still, stress is not always relevant for self-harm. My cutting is stress-unrelated. Or even endorphin-related. I do it for specific reasons (that I'm not currently willing to share, it's hard to explain and you likely won't understand anyway).
While I don't want people knowing about it, I am not ashamed of it or feel guilty in anyway (no dirty truth for me). I don't see it as wrong and have no intention of stopping.
Then again, I am causing no danger to myself and don't even do it very frequently. If it gets you into hospitals or is otherwise dangerous, or has become or could become an unhealthy obsession in your life, it's certainly a problem that needs addressing.
I just don't like the taboo-status it has. I've never promoted anything, I'm just saying it doesn't always need to be a problem. Yet I once got yelled at for saying this in a self-harm forum, and got told it's ALWAYS a problem, even if you don't see it (yet). Why? You would think of all people, people who do it and know what it is would be able to understand. But no, it seems even among self-harmers themselves it's a taboo. Which I see back in the way you talk about it as well. It's seen as a bad habit and needs to get rid of it ASAP. I respectfully disagree.

June, 21 2013 at 7:57 am

I just read your piece on self harm its all true and I've had to explain it to 4 now grown up children why I still do it,i take all types of pills for bi polar but still will spend my life punishing myself for not being normal.I'm 45 have 3 grandchildren but hurting myself feels like what I deserved and still do its not a reason or an answer its just my explanation..

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