A Look at Today’s Self-Cutting Phenomenon

A few years ago I asked a group of Form 5 kids what the Malay term was for “self-cutting”. Immediately a few of them told me it was “toreh diri”. Macam menorah getah, abang!

That was both cute yet tragic at the same time.

I then asked them if they had ever done it, if they had ever slashed themselves. Thankfully, nobody nodded or pointed to anyone else. I asked them if they know any friends from another school who had done some ‘toreh diri’. Some heads nodded.

Finally, I asked them if they knew why these kids cut themselves. They all said No.

Self-cutting has been around a long time. More common among young teenage girls than boys (and, nowadays, even pre-teens), it’s one of those sad trends which easily evoke disgust among peers if one doesn’t understand why. If you’re someone who struggles to grasp why someone would take a blade and create creepy stream-like scars on their arms, I hope the following helps.

How (Literally) Mind-numbing Pain is Created

Humans are strange. Zebras don’t even flinch when the tiger is barely fifty feet away; they only run when pursued. But us? We get stressed out when SPM is a hundred days away. Or feel anxious over what our bosses may not say about our report. Or worry about our car being broken into smack in the middle of watching Spider-Man. Or fret over potential replies to our latest tweets.

The ancient Stoics were spot on when they declared that people suffer more in imagination than reality. And modern biology has more or less erased the divide between physical pain and psychological pain; indeed now some experts are saying that mental and emotional pain can be felt as more intense than bodily wounds.

The bottom line is that humans have this uncanny ability to produce very real suffering solely in our own minds, a situation aggravated by social media and that 24/7 needle stuck in our veins called the smart-phone.

And who would suffer more if not teenagers whose matured/logical frontal lobes have yet to be fully developed? Our teenagers face judgment from peers and authority figures; they face expectations (which, to them, can appear sky high and impossible) and reminders of the need to achieve; they face smirks and comments about their physicality, their “cultured-ness” (or lack of), their looks, what they own, how they eat, etc.

The hyper-sensitivity of today’s political correct ideology doesn’t help; if everyone is on ‘guns-arm’ to point out what everyone else is saying or doing wrong — if being offended becomes a matter of identity and pride — this has the effect of keeping everybody walking on egg-shells all the time. Again, all such weight of the world above is jacked up with steroids the moment the kids open their phones, such that it becomes a real miracle why breakdowns and depressive episodes aren’t as frequent as they already are.

So why cut myself?

Because when the pain in my mind is so intense, slitting open my arms serves to immediately relief it. It’s almost like the principle behind those pills which ‘create’ a small problem in one part of your body (e.g. the stomach) in order to remove the greater existing pain from another (e.g. your head).

That’s one possible biological explanation.

Another deeper explanation is that self-cutting is about making one’s pain real i.e. letting the pain emerge, calling it forth, bring it out.

Because so much of mental pain cannot be articulated, organized, categorised — controlled — the act of self-cutting is akin to naming the demon which afflicts us (see note 1). To cut myself is, at the very least, to isolate and localize the agony in my soul, to place it ‘somewhere’ where I can then (hopefully) dispel it. As per William Davies:

“By channeling psychological harm into physical harm, a cutter gives their pain a tangible existence, which they themselves can see. It proves that they and their feelings are actually real, and can often become the basis of a routine that makes everyday life manageable again.” (Nervous States, p. 115)

If nothing else, we can predict that more and more self-cutting cases will occur. And they will not stop if parents continue to treat their kids as walking trophy-grabbers or exam-takers whose only role in life is to satisfy our need to feel good about ourselves. It’s funny how society always condemns school bullies, but we fail to see how when we foster excessive expectations on our children (based on, strangely enough, what another high-performing child managed to attain), we in fact behave as bullies.

In today’s pressure-cooker environment, I’d risk the claim that the balance between Discipline/Achievement and Play/Freedom needs to be tilted towards the direction of the latter. If in doubt, and obviously without condoning recklessness and outright indiscipline, let our children play more. Let them fail freely, experiment fearlessly, learn independently; heck, let those who’ve had nothing but structure all their lives ‘waste time’ guiltlessly.

Perhaps when love and friendship and joy are more real and most real, our kids will have fewer reasons to treat their hands like rubber trees at harvest time.

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.