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Helping a Family Member or Friend Who Cuts

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A former cutter shares how friends and family can help a friend or loved one who cuts.

Since age ten Lori has cried for hours while resisting the urge to cut herself. Some days, long sleeves and pants covered the shame of her bleeding scars. Other days, when the temptation didn’t attack her, hope swelled.

Now that the up-and-down emotional rollercoaster has reached a plateau, she can proudly say she’s made great strides in her fight against self-mutilation.

How? Through lots of love and Christian counseling.

When Lori talked about cutting, she shared how friends and family can help a friend or loved one.

  1. Don’t demand that the cutter stop, but express love and concern.

    If you know someone who cuts, walk a mile in her shoes. She may feel like the world is unsafe, maybe since childhood. Maybe she has suffered neglect or physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Maybe she’s been robbed of her self-esteem. Because she can’t trust herself or others, she copes by cutting herself.

    And like any compulsion, the problem can’t go away at a whim.

    Lori says don’t demand that he or she instantly quit. It doesn’t help. It’s like telling an alcoholic to never drink again or a sex addict to simply stop looking at pornography. It can also make the cutter feel condemned and even more compelled to cut.

    “When someone told me to stop,” she said, “it just made me want to do it more because I felt like they were trying to take away my only ability to cope with life.”

  2. Don’t overreact or appear shocked.

    While concern is normal, don’t act frightened when you discover someone you know or love is practicing self-injury. Steven Levenkron says that to effectively help a self-injurer, above all, you must exhibit confidence.

    “If the self-mutilator sees signs of anxiety or nervousness on the part of the helper,” he says, “that will make her disinterested and unreceptive to the offer of help from this person.” Levenkron, Steven. (1998) Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutiliation. New York, NY: reprinted by Lion’s Crown Publishing.

    When you understand that cutting is not usually an attempt at suicide or a way to get attention, but an outward sign of emotional distress, it can help you remain calm.

  3. Seek professional help.

    It’s important not to overreact, but you shouldn’t ignore the problem, either. Find a professional counselor, therapist or physician who is familiar with self-mutilation. By her own admission, Lori did not welcome the intrusion; she didn’t want help. Now she’s grateful to those who intervened on her behalf.

    Be aware that the cutter in your life may be completely opposed to help.

    “I hated [my counselor] at first, and I didn’t trust her,” Lori says. “I thought she was just another person who would abandon me.”

  4. Practice patience.

    “You can’t force anyone to get help,” Lori says. “But you can love them into a place to get help.”

    Be careful what you say.

    Lori says there are several things not to say to a cutter:

  • “You are really messed up.”

    This statement is condemning, and for someone who already feels out of control, it reinforces feelings of powerlessness.

  • “I could never do that to myself. It would hurt too much.”

    Lori says that this makes the cutter feel more shame. Family and friends need to realize that self-mutilation is not about them, and they should refrain from injecting their personal feelings into it.

  • “You don’t need to do this.”

    This doesn’t help because the cutter does feel that they have to do it to help them cope with life.

  • “I’ll never leave you.”

    It’s okay to say this if you mean it, but don’t say it to make the self-injurer feel better. Faithfulness practiced over a period of time speaks louder than words.

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