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Q&A for Teens: Cutting
Q&A for Teens

Q&A for Teens: Cutting

When I’m stressed, I peel off skin. Is it bad that I do this to myself?


Dear Lauren,

When I get stressed or angry or any strong emotion, I tear off skin from my fingers. And when it's not my fingers it’s my feet or legs or some other part of my body. Lately, I noticed that I don't only do it when I’m in a state of emotional turmoil. I do it always, whenever I feel like it. Is it bad that I do that to myself?

I tremendously respect your decision to ask me about this.

What you’re engaging in is called “self-injurious behavior,” and it seems to be on the rise in America and England. We’re not sure why more people seem to be engaging in self-mutilating practices, but we think it could be because cutting and other forms of self-harm have recently been glorified in the media (in movies, books, music…) and also because self-injurious behavior has a “contagious” quality to it—if one person in a group does it, others begin to utilize that mechanism of dealing with stress, too.

By the way, that’s what “cutting,” self-bone-breaking, or any form of self-mutilation is: a way of dealing with emotional stress. As my (married male) client just texted me last week: “Okay, Lauren, your choice: do I cut, or do I get angry at my wife?” Of course I texted him back: “Bob (not his real name), the choice is not MINE. You know the choice is YOURS. Which one do you think would be best—or can you think of another, better option instead of either of those? Call me.” We spoke on the phone after that, and he decided that instead of cutting or yelling at his wife, he’d talk lovingly to her about his hurt and angry feelings.

And that’s my advice to you. Cutting or other forms of self-injurious behavior are used by people to express, on their bodies, what they’re not expressing with words. So talk. Talk to someone who is trained to listen and trained to help you deal with your emotions positively. Find a good therapist in your area.

Until you resolve your underlying “stuff,” you’ll keep on hurting your skin.

You say you are peeling your skin even when you’re not emotionally stressed. There are four reasons for that. One reason is that you haven’t yet dealt with whatever the underlying issue was which pushed you to start the peeling. Until you resolve your underlying “stuff,” you’ll keep on hurting your skin. I can’t stress enough the importance of what I just wrote. In fact, it’s so important, I’m going to write it again: until you resolve your underlying “stuff,” you’ll keep on hurting your skin. Because self-injuring doesn’t resolve the root of your issues, it can never help you feel better long-term. It’s like eating chocolate cake because you’re lonely. You can eat ten chocolate cakes, but: “There is never enough food to fill a hungry soul.”

The other reason why you find yourself peeling even when you’re not stressed is because you may not be aware of your feelings. It could be that you do have emotional stress each time you peel, but you’re not allowing yourself to be aware of your feelings. Therapy will help you realize not only WHAT you are feeling, but WHEN you are feeling.

The third reason: many people who cut/peel/hurt themselves are engaging in the painful behavior to help them FEEL. They are using cutting to overcome emotional numbness. But using self-injurious behavior to deal with emotional numbness is a maladaptive, never-ending cycle: you need more and more and deeper and deeper wounds to get the same “high.”

Which brings me to point #4: cutting or other self-mutilating behavior is addictive. It creates an endorphin release in the brain which creates a good feeling.

What is the solution to all of this? Talk. Talk. Talk. Get thee to a therapist.

What is the solution to all of this? Talk. Talk. Talk. Talk with someone who is trained to help you figure out what is underneath it all. Talk with someone who can care about you and your feelings and your experiences and who is smart enough to figure out what made you feel the need to begin peeling in the first place. Talk with someone who can help you plan alternate ways to deal with the stresses of life. Talk with someone who can help you build up your sense of self, your sense of your importance in this world as a healthy, functioning human being, so you can be more useful in your actions.

A word of caution: definitely do not ignore the underlying causes of your peeling and just focus on stopping the behavior: you’ll end up doing something else, instead, to manage your emotional pain or numbness, like drinking, drugs, promiscuity….

I will also mention to you that childhood abuse is strongly linked to self-injurious behavior. If you were emotionally, sexually, or physically abused as a child, or think you might have been, that would be an area to explore at great length with the proper therapist.

I don’t mean to get gross here, but I want you to hear the truth. Anyone who’s squeamish can elect to skip the next few sentences. As I mentioned before, the media might, unfortunately, make cutting or self-mutilation seem glamorous. But I have to tell you, seeing a girl with infected, pus-covered, sliced-up legs is anything but glamorous. And having to wear long sleeves FOREVER, and leggings FOREVER and NEVER being able to wear a bathing suit because you have to cover myriads of scars is not glamorous.

Do you know what glamorous is? Living a happy, healthy, fulfilled, meaningful life.

Get thee to a therapist. And, once you’re there, tell the therapist what you’ve been doing. While you’re at it, tell your parents, too. I’m certain that if your parents knew about your self-injurious behavior they would take great pains to get you the proper guidance to help you stop before you do irreparable damage to your body and your life.

April 28, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 30

(23) Anonymous, May 19, 2013 2:48 AM

I've been picking and infecting myself for years now. I always thought it was just a bad habit... what a wake up call to get help! I've been in therapy and never brought it up cuz I didn't consider it "real cutting''. I have scars all over my body... You're right on the mark Dr. Lauren that it comes from abuse. Whenever I see the blood it sadly feels good cuz now my body reflects the way I feel inside.

(22) Anonymous, April 17, 2013 4:37 AM


Skin picking is an OCD. The hormones released in the mind and body are probably similar to those of cutting. It must be treated by someone who understands the condition.

(21) Anonymous, September 24, 2012 4:33 PM

Been there, done that

As a former cutter, i can really relate to everything that was written here. I found the information so true and relevant and there's one littel thing that i have to add. I was cutting, or thinking i had to do so, because my emotional pain was so raw, so strong and powerful that i felt i need to make something out of this pain! I felt that i need to do something with the pain i had, and the only thing i was able to do was cut! the bloody stains gave me a certain sense of affirmation that ya, this is what i feel, this is how my heart llooks like , and i felt that i needed to make some sort of connection between my emotional pain and physical pain! And then another thing, that iis also very very true and frightening, is that it's a crazy addiction! it really is. it's not just a 'bad habit' you gota get riid of, it's a serious problem, that needs to be taken care of and cutting is just a symptom, and outcome, of the underlying pain. I dono how it works with others, but i had a real problem. i was emotionally and physically abused by my parents ever since, and thats what caused me to turn to these behaviiors. and when i wasn't able to cut anymore, cuz i was taken care of, i developed a different addiction, a much greater one! it doesn't pay to ignore! Bh that i'm seeing a therapist now that's helping me cope with my issues and is showing me a way out of this darkenss! anyhow, thanks a lot for this article! i felt really validated and understood!

(20) Anonymous, September 20, 2012 10:20 PM

As a former cutter I just wanna tell any of you "new" guys out there scars ARE NOT ATTRACTIVE!!!!! An they get in the way of your life so much only you don't realize every little thing till its too late and you gotte spend who knows how much time trying to hide the permanent scars of your pain

(19) Anonymous, August 11, 2012 6:45 PM

been there too

I started this habit as a teenager- I was sent by my allergist for weekly allergy shots on my upper arm and as you have already guessed I picked them and they did not heal. For YEARS my upper arms had lots of scabs and red marks and today fifteen- twenty years later thankfully I do not do this any more (and I put a stop the the shots years ago because they did not help!) but if you look closely I have alot of scar tissue and I do pick my lips often. Skin picking was and still is a COMPULSION which I sometimes feel powerless over. i am in a healthier emotional place now which is why I dont do it as much, though I still struggle to be in touch with my feelings and with myself as I go through my day and my personal challenges. I wish the writer of the question success and help from Above in overcoming her challenges and learning to love and accept herself. It is because of NEGATIVE feelings that we feel compulsion to damage ourselves- if we can get in touch those feelings at the time when we are experiencing them- by talking, singing, writing poetry- or whatever works for us in a healthy way- then we have won the battle!

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