Cutting to the Heart of Self-Injury

March 31, 2014

Cutting to the Heart of Self Injury
Julie Ganschow

More From

Julie Ganschow

Cutting to the Heart of Self-Injury (revised)

Rebekka, 15, wore a hat, long sleeves, and jeans to our first counseling session. Not so unusual for a teen, except it was a hot August afternoon and the temperature outside was 101 degrees.

As I got to know Rebekka, I learned she was sent to see me because she was self-harming. She had no eyelashes or eyebrows and her hat concealed large bald spots where she had pulled out her hair. I eventually saw the dozens of scars on her arms and up and down the length of her legs, where she had repeatedly cut herself and picked off the scabs. She also bore numerous burn marks from cigarettes and lighters. Cutting and burning are the most common forms of self-injury we see among teenagers in our counseling center.

Why Do People Self-Injure?

The teenage years (when self-injurious behaviors commonly begin) can be traumatic times. This can be especially in our culture, where children are presented with decisions and choices they are not mature enough to handle.

Our teens have greater pressures than at any time in history. College preparation now begins in the 8th grade for many students, as they have to make choices about Advanced Placement classes. Many high school students work 20 or more hours per week to save for college, in addition to at­tending classes and doing AP homework.

At school, teens receive mixed messages about relationships and sexual orientation. Sexual behaviors are taught in graphic detail and promoted in the popular media. Our children are pressured to be sexually active long before they are emotionally and physically ready. They are thrust into many situa­tions they are not ready to deal with! Some deal with the heartache of a broken home, spend­ing alternate weekends with each parent, and the pressure that comes from being in the middle of divorce.

These are only the “normal” stresses and do not cover the extreme cases, such as sexual abuse by a parent or step parent; drug or alcohol use in the home by par­ents; out of control siblings that raise tension in the home; same-sex unions, sexually transmitted diseases or abortion.

Many children and teens come to believe there is little they can count on and nothing that is stable. Who can they talk to besides each other? Who can they really trust? All these factors feed into the world of self-injury, and it becomes their method of dealing with indescribable pain and loneliness.

Like other self-injurers, Rebekka reported that she felt empty inside, stressed, and unable to express her feelings. She struggled to tell me she was lonely, not understood by others and fearful of intimate relationships and adult responsibilities. Self-injury was her way to cope with or relieve painful or hard-to-express feelings.

What Can I Do to Help?

There is no quick fix, no systematic formula to follow in helping a teen counselee who self-injures. I encourage parents to follow biblical principles rather than going the route of psychotherapy and secular coun­seling. Secular reasoning is contrary to biblical methodology. The self-injurer doesn’t have an illness that can be medically diagnosed; what she has is a faulty coping mechanism that has become a sinful habit.

Whenever possible, I involve the parents in the counseling process. We teach the parents how to disciple their child through this turbulent time in life. God entrusted Mom and Dad to care for their child and I am there to support them in teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training their child in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).

The biblical perspective on self-injury is that it is primarily a heart issue (Matthew 15:11; Matthew 15:17-20; Luke 6:43). Like other self-injurers, Rebekka had an overall focus on herself: her pain, loss, feelings, her wants, and her de­sires.

She learned to examine her heart in light of Scripture (Jeremiah 17:9). The Bible reminds us that per­manent change requires a change of heart brought about by a renewal of the mind (Romans 12:2). We had to identify the root cause of her behavior so true healing could take place.

Run to God with the Pain

I encouraged Rebekka to go to God in prayer and lay down the burdens of her heart.

The LORD hears the needy and does not despise his captive peo­ple” (Psalm 69:33).

Directing Rebekka to the Psalms brought comfort and insight about crying out to God in distress. She was reminded that God cares about her, and the weight of guilt, shame, failure, anger, and rejection she carries. She was greatly comforted in realizing the Lord Jesus Christ was intimately acquainted with every sorrow and pain she had.

Turn Yourself to me, and have mercy on me, For I am desolate and afflicted. The troubles of my heart have enlarged; Bring me out of my distresses! Look on my affliction and my pain, And forgive all my sins” (Psalm 25:16-18, NKJV).

In biblical counseling, Rebekka learned the necessity of repentance. She learned about the sovereignty of God, people pleasing, and how to deal biblically with anger, hurt, and bitterness. As her mind was renewed, she began to under­stand the role idolatry played in her behaviors. She realized how worshiping her idols only led to guilt, shame, and deception and that, in reality, self-injury didn’t help with her pain after all.

Initially she experienced many failures and would still revert to cutting or burning herself, but Rebekka persevered in righteousness. She was determined to glorify God and worked very hard to stay in the Word, put the behavior off, renew her mind, and put on the new self (Ephesians 4:22-24). She made life application of what she was learning and denied her fleshly desires. Six months later, she had eyebrows, eyelashes, and the bald spots on her head were covered with hair. The real triumph came when she gave her parents her “treasure box” of razor blades and burning materials.

Today, Rebekka is free.

So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free (John 8:36, NLT).

Join the Conversation!

Do you believe the Word of God is enough to address even the “hard cases” in counseling?


15 thoughts on “Cutting to the Heart of Self-Injury

  1. My daughter is a self-harmer. I would give my life to have this be her success story. We are in counseling and will also start a teen support group next week at a local church. It isn’t as easy as this article makes freedom for her seem. She is the chief of stuffing her emotions still and will lie to cover her cutting, which I think is her attempt at covering her shame. she recently told me to quit telling her Jesus is the answer for everything. I don’t really know how or when she will taste freedom from this addiction. But God knows fully and so I am forced to look to him with a trust that I didn’t know I could have. I cast her daily in to his arms.

  2. The Word of God along with knowing the Authour, I believe, is always enough. So the fix may not be instant, but drawing closer to God and entering that personal relationship will bring the healing.

  3. A self-injurer often believes (feels) they have no control over anything in their lives, and this gives them the feeling of being in control of something. Many who self-harm are anxious and struggle with how to handle common problems in life. This is why we must approach this problem on the spiritual level. Self-injury is a heart problem long before it is ever acted upon, it is a “fruit” issue. The biblical counselor has to get to the root of the problem – at the heart level- to help the counselee understand and address the thoughts, beliefs, and desires that feed the self-harming behaviors.

  4. Brandy, I am so sorry. It is very hard to watch our children suffer! I wanted to respond and let you know that in no way do I think freedom from self-injury is easy. As I said in the post, there are no quick fixes and it takes perseverance to overcome. She has to want to change, she has to want to repent, and she has to be willing to look at the idols of her heart that she worships (addiction) through self-harm.
    There is certainly nothing easy about that!
    Many times people get sick of hearing “Jesus is the answer” because they don’t understand how that works, and why it doesn’t work for them. Don’t stop reminding her that help, hope, and healing comes through Jesus Christ.
    I hope you have found a great biblical counselor in your area who can help your daughter deal with the root issues of her heart, for it is there she will begin to find freedom.

    Blessings~

  5. Thanks, Julie, for such a quick response. I keep a file on this
    presenting issue and have had opportunity to counsel several teens. I’ve noticed some indications of over-parenting (control), no blame intended to others in this discussion. Also, watch for food disorders, since this is an alternative method to control their lives, either as a form
    of rebellion or coping with the shame of abuse. Great summary with great hope in our God. Prayers going out for Brandy’s daughter.

  6. This is a lovely article! I am so glad to hear that Rebekka recovered!

    For the sake of the mothers who still have children that are suffering, I would like to add that hair-pulling can be a sign of trichotillomania, and self-harm can be a part of many other neurological disorders. And a dear child might be right with God, but still suffer from distress and strange compulsions if they are not healthy. For that I would strongly recommend trying Natasha Campbell-McBride’s GAPS diet for such disorders (http://www.doctor-natasha.com).

    I hope and pray for all of you who are suffering!

  7. Why was Ms. “Doe”‘s response removed? I was hoping to dialogue with her and try to help her see counseling from a more Biblical perspective.

  8. It’s not that God is not enough! It’s just that He can use different avenues to bring about healing. Scripture, counseling, medication, friends and family, these are all tools that God uses. Each persons journey will be different.

  9. Thank you for adding this comment. Many of our children are not physically nourished as God intended our bodies to be through the food that He created. Christian parents of struggling children should be reminded how far away we are from God’s intended health for our bodies. Some children’s bodies are simply not able to take in the number of food additives, various antibiotics, and toxins and the resulting autoimmune disorders can have psychological symptoms. There are numerous research studies available supporting the gut brain connection such as the link below. The specifics of the type of symptoms (or various diagnoses) may simply vary based on genetics whether it’s trichotillomania, autism, bipolar or schizophrenia. These diseases are not due to one person falling into sin, but are due to the damage done to our bodies from original sin. Many can improve through Biblical counseling, but we must look also look at the physical fall and damage done, not just the spiritual fall. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16423158

  10. Self-injury is a serious addidcton but, the good news is that God can help you recover and has provided a way of escape for you. Contact us at Door of Hope 4 Teens to learn more about recovery. Text our crisis care advocates and discover freedom. http://www.doorofhope4teens.org

  11. I cut. The reason I do it is because I feel as if I have no power over myself. I talk to someone at church about it and they said I should tell my parents who are already thinking that I might be doing it but I still dont want them to know. I have a good life and good caring friends who are helping me quit and im helping them. I hope that all the parents out there know that most of us Christens do pray about it and self control isnt the only reason we do it, just remember it can be a sensitive subject and as me and my friends always say… STAY STRONG AND PRAY TO GOD.

  12. Also we can get tired of being told to talk to God about it sometimes and when i do I become frustrated and I want something to make it stop right away. STAY STRONG.

  13. I have a suggestion for people who have trouble dealing with feelings and confusion: Write a poem or paragraph on how you/they feel. I will post one of mine if any of you comment back that you would like to see one.(please dont make me feel left out…) STAY STRONG AND LIVE ON.

Comments are closed.