• Melissa K. Nicholson, LMSW

Self-Injury: What the Adoption Community Needs to Know

"The physical pain of cutting numbed my emotional pain, and it helped me close the gap between my two falsely dichotomous selves: the 'happy' adoptee who had everything given to her and the angry adoptee who had everything taken away..."

-Shareen Pine, Adult Adoptee

This post was a difficult one to write. I have thought about it... journaled about it... and thought about it some more... stopped and came back to it. That's how I knew I needed to write it and get it out to the world. It started off as a post about self-injury awareness month (self-injury awareness month is in March). I've seen posts about self-injury. It affects my practice with adopted teens and adoptive parents who feel lost, frustrated and sad. They don't know how to help their adopted teen despite numerous attempts to reach out.

So I felt compelled to talk about how self-injury effects the adoption community given the lack of info out there. I am going to get to the heart of the matter and what you need to know about self-injury.

What is Self-Injury?

  • Self-injury is any deliberate, nonsuicidal behavior that causes physical harm (injury) to a person's body

  • We can't put someone who self-injures into a "box" - People who self-injure are not limited to any certain age, gender, background, race, religion, ect.

  • Rather than spending too much time concentrating on who may self-harm, it's more important to pay attention who suffers from emotional distress that can lead to self-injury (more on this below)

Myth Busting Self-Injury

  • Self-injury is NOT the same as attempting suicide - for some people, self-harm is the only way they know how to get through the unspeakable pain they experience. The intention is to end their life, but to manage their emotions they can't communicate (or are just too painful to express).

  • Self-injury does NOT discriminate - it does not just happen in teens, or in girls. Research shows that youth (tween-early adulthood) are more of engaging in self-harm than older adults, however, this does not mean that other ages are not affected.

  • Self-harm is NOT manipulative - this one is really difficult because it can seem like some people who self-harm are doing it for "attention." Please try to understand, however, that people who self-injure are in an extreme amount of emotional distress. Calling someone manipulative can be damaging to the person, and to your relationship. Even when someone says they self-harm for attention, there is usually another underlying reason for their behavior.

What Causes Self-Injury?

Like I said before, rather than focusing on who self-injures, it's more important to consider who might turn to self-injury. So, who could suffer from such emotional distress that can lead one to self-injure?

Finding the Meaning of Self-Injury is Individual

When it comes down to it, the reason why one self-injures really depends on each individual. What's important here is to ask "Why" - to find the meaning behind the behavior. Joe says, "I cut myself because I hate myself" and Jess says, "I deserve to be punished."

People who self-harm typically have intense feelings of unworthiness and other negative feelings of themselves.

"I felt worthless. I never had a strong sense of self... I didn't grow up in an environment of positive praise and reward, I grew up in a home filled with criticism and projections of self-hatred and dissatisfaction.. By my teenage years, I had discovered self-harm.."

-Anna, Adult Adoptee, The Adoption Social

As seen in the above quote, many adoptees have described feelings of low self-esteem, emptiness, and blame for experiences outside of their control. For example, Jane explains, "I often blamed myself for being adopted and hated myself." She felt shame and turned to self-harm to manage her feelings of "inner-badness."

I should point out here - and this is important - that I do not want to pathologies adoptees. The intention is to bring awareness to self-injury as a way of coping with extreme emotional distress and negative feelings.

The Role of Trauma

Those most at risk for self-injury are people who have experienced trauma, neglect, or abuse. The emotional distress from trauma can lead to many feelings:

  • Self-hatred

  • Anger

  • Numb or disconnected

  • Guilt

  • Trapped or silenced

"For me, being an adoptee is like getting into a horrible car accident and surviving with devastating injuries. But instead of anybody acknowledging the trauma of the accident, they tell you that you should feel lucky. Even if the injuries never stop hurting, never quite heal...So I learned not to talk about it. Even though my bones ached."

Adoption always begins with separation and loss. All members of the triad - including adoptees, birth mothers, and adoptive mothers - can experience loss and trauma in adoption. I will leave the specifics for another post.

It is important to address the trauma in adoption here because as Shareen Pine, an adult adoptee, notes above, instead of acknowledging the trauma people tell adoptees they 'should feel lucky.'

Rather than feeling open to talking about their feelings, adoptees feel shut down and invalidated. Some feeling emotionally distressed, unable to cope any other way... turn to self-injury as a way to manage their pain.

Again, it is not the intention to pathologies adoptees or adoption. Only to bring awareness to a key issue that I see and that is not being talked about.

Do you know someone, or are you personally suffering from emotional distress or engaging in self-injury? Please know that self-injury is treatable and there is help. Feel free to contact me with any questions you may have, or to schedule an appointment today.




#selfharm #selfinjury #adoptiontrauma #trauma

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5300 Northland Dr NE, Ste F

Grand Rapids, MI 49525

Licensed Psychotherapist

Trauma-Informed Yoga Educator

Tel: 616-795-0181

Fax: 888-972-8639


© 2017 by Melissa K. Nicholson, LMSW. | Licensed Psychotherapist in Grand Rapids, MI | Kent County, Michigan