Monday, April 30, 2012

Why Do People Talk about Cutting Themselves?

I just received the following inquiry: I know some one thats very public about cutting themselves. Is this normal? And why do you think this is?

Here's my answer:

Good question. Although I cannot assume I understand this specific person, I can speak generally about the topic of openly discussing one's own self-injurious behavior.

My first inclination is that the person may be seeking what we call "social reinforcement." There are two types of social reinforcement - positive and negative.

What we call "positive social reinforcement" is what people not in the biz call "getting attention." This would come in the form of sympathy, interest, concern, or even people expressing shock. Particularly if a person feels disconnected / a lack of social support (and want these things), they may be prone to be seeking interaction with other people in this way.

So what we call "negative social reinforcement" does actually not mean punishment. In my experience, people in the public misuse the term "negative reinforcement" quite frequently. Negative reinforcement simply means to remove something aversive or to get out of a responsibility. For instance, an adolescent working on a boring group project might tell her peers that she's a "cutter" so they put less of a workload on her. In this example, if the teen gets out of doing something boring, she is negatively reinforced for telling people she cuts.

This brings us to an interesting point. It is my opinion - which is not shared among people with whom I've worked - that when people are socially reinforced (either negatively or positively) for telling people they self-injure, it isn't necessarily the cutting itself that is affected. What I think is more influenced is the actual disclosure of the behavior. This would mean that if someone is socially reinforced for telling people they cut, the actual act of cutting wouldn't necessarily increase, but the number of times self-injury is discussed would increase. To be crystal clear, I think that social reinforcement may shape the largely impulsive behavior of cutting itself, but not as strongly as the seemingly more deliberate act of discussing the behavior.

It is my opinion that people primarily engage in self-injury for emotion regulation purposes. In other words, to decrease their anxiety or to pull them out of a disoriented state (to learn more, I posted a link about this at the bottom of the page). It doesn't make sense to me that people engage in self-injury just so that they can receive attention for it later. My intuition tells me that the reinforcer of social approval is too far removed from that actual act of cutting to be incredibly potent. To my knowledge though, no research has been conducted to support this. In fact, self-report studies show that people report thinking they engage in self-injury to gain approval, therefore, it is advisable to take this into consideration when considering the thoughts previously expressed.

Perhaps self-injury can start out so that one may gain approval (positive social reinforcement) or even get out of something (negative social reinforcement). It could also be the case that someone starts cutting just for the emotional effects, but then starts telling people about it. I just can't buy into the idea that the only reason someone would cut is for social reinforcement.

Anyhow! I digress. Back to your question. It could be the case that this person is trying to connect with people, shock them, or remove his/herself from responsibility. On the other hand, perhaps he/she is just trying to work through previous shame about the behavior and finds it liberating to talk about it. I really don't know. But these are my best guesses!

Speaking to your question regarding whether or not it is normal: based on no data but my experience, about half of people who cut themselves report telling other people, while the other half don't tell anyone but maybe a mental health professional. While I'm not sure how normative it is for people to talk at length about their self-injury, I have some thoughts about this.

We can't make assumptions that talking about engaging in self-injury is necessarily a maladaptive / bad thing. For instance, perhaps the person will end up getting into the right treatment and get support for stopping the behavior. And as previously mentioned, perhaps the person used to feel much shame about the behavior and is working through it by speaking about cutting. Who knows?

On the other hand, one could make the case that if the person is socially reinforced for disclosing that he/she self-injures, the behavior could be maintained. I'm just not sure exactly why this person may be openly discussing engaging in self-injury.

As you can imagine, it is quite complicated!

Great question though. I've never been asked this.

To read more check this out:

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