What is “self-harm”? What is “cutting”? What is “self-mutilation”? What is “self-injury”?

The terms self-harm, cutting, and self-mutilation are all terms used to describe behavior wherein a person copes with extreme feelings of distress through intentional infliction of a physical injury upon their own body.  Self-harm behavior was once considered an unfulfilled suicide attempt.  A more recent attempt at understanding self-harm placed these behaviors in the same group as addictive behaviors.  Both of these perspectives may describe the observable acts of self-harm, but fail to explain the actual phenomenon.  Self-harm behavior is not attention seeking, is not a result of suicidal ideation, and is not the same as a drug or alcohol addiction. 

            Armando Favazza (2011) has spent more than 20 years working to make sense of this group of puzzling behaviors over time and across specific cultural groups, including teens.  Non-suicidal self injury most commonly involves minor cutting and burning behaviors.  Favazza is successful in thinking “outside the box” and presenting self-harm behaviors as more than symptoms of a specific mental illness.  These behaviors can occur within any population including teens.  This group of deliberate acts may indicate the need for positive or negative reinforcement, a low ability to tolerate distress, ineffective coping skills, and personal expectations (Favazza, 2011).

            In short, self-harm, cutting, self-mutilation, and self-injury are “morbid” forms of self-help (Favazza, 2011).  These behaviors provide temporary relief from painful feelings of distress like anxiety, feelings of being detached from one’s own body or emotions, and desperation (Nock & Prinstein, 2004).  Although alarming for those who do not engage in self-harm, Favazza (2011) describes persons who are able to control self-harm behaviors as courageous and disciplined.  The majority; however, are the others who are unable to control self-harm behaviors.  These people often experience unwanted, serious consequences like unsightly scarring and permanent physical loss.  Favazza (2011) believes that self-harm behaviors, rather than attention seeking, indicators of suicidal ideation, or addictive, demonstrate a strong will to live.  Effective treatment approaches offer more effective coping strategies for depression, anxiety, and mood disorders without the potentially high price tags.  The possibility of assisting these loved ones instills hope.


Favazza, A. (2011). Bodies under seige. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Nock, M. K. & Prinstein, M. J. (2004). A functional approach to the assessment of self-mutilative behavior. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(5), 885-890.

Check back for parts 2 through 5 on this blog series

II. Symptoms of Self-Harm

            What does it look like when my loved one is engaging in self-harm behaviors?

III. Why Do Some Adults and Teens Choose to Self-Harm?

            How can I understand self-harm behavior?

IV. What Can I Do when My Loved One Engages in Self-Harm Behavior?

            What professional help is available for those who self-harm and those who love them?

            How can I find an intensive outpatient treatment program for self-harm?

V. Coping with Self-Harm Behavior and Moving On

            How can I find hope and healing?