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Cutting and Self-Harm
The following content is upsetting and may be triggering. If you have felt the need to self-harm in the past, make sure you are in a safe place and have some stimming strategy in place before reading on. If you feel distressed right now, come back to read the article later when you feel a bit better.
If you are feeling depressed or suicidal, please seek help immediately. There are many free resources that you can call confidentially for assistance.
- Australia 13 11 14
- Canada: 1833.456.4566
- UK: 116 123
- USA: 1800-273-8255
International Crisis Lines and suicidestop.com contain up-to-date lists of free support lines for almost 100 countries. There is also a large community of current and former Jehovah's Witnesses at reddit.com/r/exjw that can answer questions and provide support.
Watchtower has published articles that address cutting and self-injury. It is important to examine whether the advice provided adequately addresses the topic and help available.
I slit my skin to let myself in;
I slit the shroud to let myself out
If you struggle with self-harm, it is nothing to be ashamed of and there is help available. Being raised as one of Jehovah’s Witness, you have unique reasons that may be the underlying cause of self-harm. This article discusses what Watchtower says regarding cutting, and provides examples of how to find help.
Watchtower discusses self-harm in the following articles:
- Why do I Cut Myself? – Young People Ask Mar 2023
- When Your Teenager Self-Injures Awake! Aug 2013
- Why Do I Hurt Myself? - Awake! Jan 2006
- How Can I Stop Hurting Myself? - Awake! Feb 2006
These articles show empathy and accurately define self-injury and some of the underlying causes. However, they gloss over causes specifically related to Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as how best to find help for self-harm.
Lifeline articulately provides a definition of self-harm and reasons behind it.
Self-harm is any behaviour that involves the deliberate causing of pain or injury to oneself. Self-harm can include behaviours such as cutting, burning, biting or scratching the skin, pulling out hair, hitting oneself, or repeatedly putting oneself in dangerous situations. It can also involve abuse of drugs or alcohol, including overdosing on prescription medications. Self-harm is often used as a way to respond to and manage emotional pain, overwhelming feelings or distress. For the most part, people self-harm without wanting to die but sometimes they may have suicidal intentions. Some people find that the physical pain of self-harm helps provide temporary relief from the emotional pain. In this way, self-harm can be a coping strategy used by individuals to help them continue to live.” (Lifeline.org.au as of Mar 2023)
Watchtower defines cutting as:
“the practice of compulsively harming oneself with a sharp object. It’s just one form of self-injury. Others include burning, bruising, or hitting oneself. … Most people who cut themselves don’t want to die. They just want to end their emotional despair.” Why do I Cut Myself? – Young People Ask Mar 2023
Self-harm is often related to bad experiences that happened in the past or are currently being experienced. Watchtower explains self-injury as a way of coping with stress, and commonly a result of trauma.
“Usually, it is a way of coping with some form of stress. The cutter uses physical pain to alleviate emotional pain.” How Can I Stop Hurting Myself? Awake! Feb 2006
“It has been found that many self-injurers have suffered some type of trauma, such as childhood abuse or neglect.” Why Do I Hurt Myself? Awake! Jan 2006
Watchtower tries to align self-injury with their dogma that we are facing critical times during the Last Days.
“Some might wonder why such a disturbing practice has only come to light in recent decades. However, students of the Bible know that these are “critical times hard to deal with.” (2 Timothy 3:1) Thus, they are not surprised to learn that people—including youths—turn to behavior that is hard to explain.” Why Do I Hurt Myself? Awake! Jan 2006
Watchtower experiences provide a unique perspective into why some Jehovah’s Witnesses self-injure. These relate to guilt that results from feeling unable to live up to Jehovah’s (or Watchtower’s) standards.
“Hannah, aged 18, suffered from a severe lack of confidence. She was raised by parents who serve Jehovah. Even so, she doubted that she could live by Jehovah’s standards. Why? Hannah had developed a very low opinion of herself. At times, she felt so bad that she would deliberately injure herself, which only made things worse. “I never told anyone about what I did, not even my parents,” she says, “and I imagined that Jehovah would never want me because of what I was doing to myself.” What Prevents Me From Getting Baptized? Watchtower Study 2019 Mar p.3
“Sara, for example, was in the throes of what she calls self-abusive perfectionism. While she had made serious mistakes and had received help from Christian elders, she felt exceedingly guilty over her daily imperfections. “I figured that I had to ‘get tough’ on myself,” Sara says. “To me, self-injury was merely self-discipline. My ‘self-discipline’ included pulling out my hair, cutting my wrists and arms, hitting myself and causing deep bruises, and sentencing myself to such punishments as keeping my hand under scalding water, sitting outside in the freezing cold without a coat, or going an entire day without eating.”
For Sara, self-injury was a reflection of a deep self-loathing. “There were times when I knew that Jehovah had forgiven me for my mistakes,” she says, “but I did not want him to. I wanted to suffer because I hated myself so much.”” Why Do I Hurt Myself? Awake! Jan 2006
Hannah and Sara both self-harmed due to trauma induced by Jehovah's Witness teachings and doctrine! It is shocking and tragic that Watchtower traumatises Jehovah’s Witness children to the point of self-harm. It does so by describing humans as imperfect, normal teenage behaviour as sin, and Jehovah as a vengeful God that will slaughter billions at Armageddon.
Hannah and Sara are not isolated experiences. A post was created on Reddit on 1 Mar 2023 regarding 2023 Young People Ask article on cutting. Numerous people shared their experiences of self-harming as Jehovah’s Witnesses and related it to the feelings of worthlessness the religion instilled in them.
Yep, that‘s what it feels like when you are a teenager and become aware that you have no clue who you are, alive and completely dead inside at the same time, because you need to put on the uniform new personality. It does cause extreme distress.
I cut myself for 10 years. I tried to not do it, it was impossible. I injured myself with my fingernails until I bled at the kingdom hall. I used razors or shards at home. It is not an addiction (as they told me). It is a coping mechanism, and I no longer needed it once I woke up and stayed away from the kingdom hall. The pressure simply went away. lacretba
“I knew I shouldn’t exist. I knew that I deserved to die for having been born, and my only hope was Jehovah forgiving me for being part of my family. And Jehovah had given me a job I could do to prove I was someone he would want to forgive. He’d given me a job that could make me and everyone around me happy. So I tried my best doing the job he gave me.
I tried even though I couldn’t expect any support, because I knew Jehovah would support me. I tried even though every aspect of my life was tiring, because this was the thing that would give me energy. Until I couldn’t allow myself to find joy in anything but what was supposed to my greatest joy, but gave me nothing at all.
I couldn’t allow myself joy. I couldn’t even allow myself pain, because nothing was wrong except for the fact that I wasn’t feeling what I was supposed to be feeling. So I gave myself a reason to feel pain. A reason to be allowed to feel pain. To be justified in feeling pain. I cut myself. I knew I wasn’t allowed to. I wasn’t mine. But I was worthless to begin with, and I’d become worthless again.
The people around me said the truth had nothing to do with it. I was just that sort of person.” A_Necessary
"These articles were so confusing to me as a kid. As someone who dealt with it for my entire teen/young adult life in the org, I remember feeling excited to read these, hoping they would give me something new or at the very least, help me feel understood. Back then, even if I just did it for my parents, I truly felt like the org was good. Now, at 28 and deep in my deconstruction, it was really eye opening to accept how growing up this way led to things like my depression and self harm. It wasn’t until I started waking up and left did the self harm completely stop. It wasn’t even a conscious decision, I knew I wanted to, but I stopped because I stopped listening to how inherently bad I was, and how I was nothing without the org." celestialreasonings
Advice on How to Stop
Watchtower emphasises two strategies to overcome self-harm. Confiding in others, and prayer.
“The Value of Confiding If you have succumbed to self-injury, you will benefit by sharing your troubled feelings with a trusted and mature friend.” Awake! Feb 2006
“The Importance of Prayer … Jehovah knew that in my heart I really wanted to stop cutting,” says Donna. “Once I started praying to him for help, it was amazing. Little by little, I kept getting stronger.” Awake! Feb 2006
When Your Teenager Self-Injures - Awake! Aug 2013 provides 4 tips to parents on how to help their teenage children stop self-injuring:
- Console them.
- Ask nonthreatening questions.
- Help your teenager to see herself in a balanced light.
- Encourage your teenager to pray to Jehovah God.
Online experiences show that prayer does not always work, in fact it can have the opposite effect. Those that continue to self-harm despite praying for help can feel completely rejected by Jehovah and even more worthless.
“It is NOT enough to pray. How might someone feel if they pour out their feelings to god and absolutely nothing happens? They end up feeling EVEN MORE ALIENATED.” fader_underground
"I started cutting when I was a teenager struggling with homosexual feelings and thinking that I was going to die in Armageddon because I couldn’t make them go away. I remember praying and feeling nothing in return, wondering if something was wrong with me because I didn’t feel the peace others said they felt. I have scars, emotional and physical, from years of self abuse. The “help” from JW publications and prayers only made me feel worse about myself. I know people in my congregation saw the cuts and scars and did nothing about it. They would just say something like “your cats like to play too rough huh? How silly”. Even my parents pretended not to notice. It wasn’t until I was about 20 when a “worldly” person at work noticed the scars and fresh cuts and started asking questions. She took the time to listen to me and begged me to get professional help. She would sit with me and let me talk, always being encouraging. Imagine that lol These people I had been told would use me, abuse me, and did not have my best interest at heart were the ones who made an effort to help someone who clearly needed help." Legitimate-Cat-9106
It is important for someone that self-harms to seek professional assistance. Whilst Watchtower does not forbid it, it only recommends professional assistance as an afterthought.
In 2023, professional help isn’t directly recommended, but alluded to by including the mention of seeing a doctor in the experiences.
“Lorena: I told my mom what I had been doing. I also got help from a doctor, who helped me control my negative emotions. ...
Kathy: ... I also got help from a doctor, who helped me and my parents to understand what I was going through.” Young People Ask Mar 2023
In 2013, medical help is mentioned as a footnote, though with provisos.
"Often, self-injury is a symptom of depression or another disorder. In such cases, medical help may be needed. Awake! does not endorse any particular approach. However, Christians should be sure that any treatment they pursue does not conflict with Bible principles." When Your Teenager Self-Injures Awake! Aug 2013
It is only in the 2006 article that professional help is directly recommended, but still with the proviso that it “does not conflict with Bible principles.”
"When Additional Assistance Is Needed
In many cases it is necessary to consult a qualified professional to determine if there is a disorder underlying the habit of self-injury and then to propose treatment. …
Footnote: Sometimes self-injury is a side effect of another condition, such as depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or an eating disorder. Awake! does not endorse any particular approach to treatment. Christians should make sure that any treatment they pursue does not conflict with Bible principles.” How Can I Stop Hurting Myself? Awake! Feb 2006
Compare Watchtower advice to that of organizations such as Lifeline, which provides comprehensive information about self-harm, excellent strategies on ways to cope, and links to free support.
"It can be hard for people who self-harm to stop it by themselves. That’s why it’s important to get further help if needed; however, the ideas below may be helpful:
You may find that some of these strategies work in some situations but not others, or you may find that you need to use a combination of these. It is important to find what works for you. Also, remember that these are not long-term solutions to self-harm but rather, useful short-term alternatives for relieving distress.” Lifeline (as of Mar 2023)
- Delay — try waiting 10 minutes before self-harming. If this works, try waiting 20 minutes, 30 minutes, one hour, one day etc. This may allow you to find other ways to cope and manage in the meanwhile.
- Distract — you can use distraction when you feel the urge to self-harm or when you are self-harming. You may want to try some exercise, call a friend, play with a pet, take a shower, go for walk, play a game, call a helpline, play loud music, clench then relax all your muscles.
- Divert — find an activity or perform an action which is similar to self-harm but does not cause injury, such as holding an ice-cube, having a cold or hot shower, punching a pillow, eating something with a strong taste like chilli.
- Deep breathing — count to five as you breathe in slowly – then count to five as you breathe out slowly. You may also try any other relaxation method that works for you.
Lacretba, quoted earlier, no longer feels the desire to self-harm. Along with professional help, she recommends the following strategies.
Preparation is key. If you don't have a plan, the go-to solution during periods of emotional distress is usually the one that works from experience - self-harm.
Create a toolbox for "when it gets bad." Build a step-by-step list of what to do in case of emergency, providing things to try first, one by one. If one "distraction" on the list doesn’t help, try the next - "delay." What works varies for every person, but strong sensations that help someone feel connected to one’s body again usually work best. For example: pull ups or push ups until the muscles give out (in emotional distress sometimes you have so much energy), ice-cold showers, eating chilli peppers raw, smelling very strong smells such as from a small bottle of ammonium, loud singing or going for a run in the rain.
Watchtower teachings on sin, Armageddon, disfellowshipping and shunning traumatise Jehovah’s Witness children, and can be the direct cause of self-harm.
Watchtower information on cutting and other forms of self-harm is sorely lacking on practical advice. Advice to pray can exacerbate the situation when it does not lead to any improvement. Other advice offered does not match that which is provided by other organizations.
Finally, Watchtower is reluctant to recommend professional help, despite how important it is in helping people understand and overcome this behaviour.
Experiences continue to show that often Watchtower teachings commonly underlie the trauma and stress than lead to self-harm, and the best solution is to remove oneself from this cause.
"I haven't self-harmed since I left the Borg... I can't think of a single occasion since where I've felt compelled. I thought it was something I'd be dealing with my entire life." QueerPuff
"I self-harmed into my early 20s, having started in my mid-teens. When I went from PIMI (physically in mentally in) to PIMO (physically in mentally out) I stopped hurting myself. Maybe I just happened to grow out of it, but I truly believe I quit hurting myself because I wasn't experiencing cognitive dissonance and carrying the constant guilt the witnesses would put on us, and no longer wondering why Armageddon was taking so long to get here. The religion caused my depression and I'm lucky I escaped." JWXJW
It is vital that anyone dealing with self-harm be reminded of how valuable they are as a person. They are not broken, not sinful, not worthless. Professional, kind, supportive help is available to help overcome the desire to self-harm, and to live a happy, pain free life.
Written Mar 2023.
Paul Grundy 2005 - 2023