After completing my study exploring the motivations for self injury, I wanted to find the characteristics of who may be a self injurer. Most people conclude that a self injure could be anyone- do not think that just because someone is highly successful and enjoying life that they do not have demons in their closet. Anyone can self injure- regardless of wealth, of race, or sexual orientation, of nationality.
There is no "stereotypical" self injurer. Though often, we see a profile of someone who may self injure: Teenager or someone in early adulthood...most likely from an abusive background (any combination of emotional, physical or sexual abuse). Self injurers do tend to be female rather than male. However, don't let this all fool you. I have spoken to many people who are self injuring later in life, or even people in their early teens rather than later.
They do not have to have a psychiatric disorder or have even gone to a mental health professional. A lot of research is focused on those who are diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, but recent information seems to point out that this is by far not the only group of psychiatric patients that engage in this.
Characteristics of a self injurer
After these general statements, I want to get into specifics. When I ran my study, I wanted to find out the relationship between dissociation, alexithymia (the inability to link words to emotion; difficulty identifying/describing feelings, focus on external details rather than emotional state when describing an event), childhood trauma, trauma symptoms and finally temperamental style of an individual.
So to answer the question, what are the factors that separate a person who self injurers from someone who doesn’t? We found that alexithymia (and more specifically wishing to avoid feelings), childhood emotional neglect and then trauma symptoms of depression and anxiety are predictors of self injury. Therefore a person who self injurers is more likely to want to avoid emotion (versus having trouble knowing what you are feeling), more likely to have been emotionally neglected as a child, and will have symptoms of both depression and anxiety.
Also, the people who self injure versus those that do not have higher rates of dissociation, alexithymia, childhood trauma, trauma symptoms and are more highly sensitive.
Childhood trauma creates intense negative emotion and then the needs and feelings following the emotions are ignored, invalidated or violated. Abusive families likely do little to help teach self-soothing strategies, thus, self injurious behavior may be used to express emotional pain or distress. In families who neglect their children, proper emotional behavior is not modeled and the child may not learn how to express emotion. Additionally, parents may not care what the child thinks or feels, thus the child learns to neglect or avoid their own feelings. Later in life, self injury may be a means to avoid feeling.
Dissociation may be used as a coping mechanism to numb the pain or block out those traumatizing events in childhood. When intense emotions or situations arise later, the individual may use self injury as a maladaptive coping mechanism.
Alexithymia is only just beginning to be studied in self injurious populations, and was initially being studied because it was thought that self injurers have much trouble with talking about their feelings and used their skin to convey their feelings. Self-injury is often described as a coping mechanism used to express feelings or emotions, and thus, those with alexithymia may carry a high risk of self-injury. Generally people think that self injurers have trouble identifying feelings. However, this study found that self injury was linked to externally oriented thinking, which means the individual wishes to avoid feelings, rather than having trouble identifying or describing what they feel inside. Self injurers may very well be able to explain what they are feeling, however the feelings may be overwhelming and they wish to avoid them. Self injuring may be a way of avoiding that internal unrest. Furthermore, Self-injury is often described as a coping mechanism used to express feelings or emotions, and thus, those with alexithymia may carry a high risk of self-injury.
The fact that both depression and anxiety symptoms were unique predictors, indicate that self injurers endorse high levels of negative affect. This is consistent with the notion that the self injurers may be able to identify those feelings inside, but have a difficult time being able to appropriately express or manage those feelings. This is also consistent with the results of our previous investigation which found emotional release to be the most frequently endorsed reason for self injury.
And that concludes this section of "who" may be a self injurer. If you would like to see my paper written for this study, or if you want more details of the results of this study please email me.