Catholic view of self harm

I am not sure if this is the right place for this question but I am wondering about self harm as a sin. I am not catholic but have talked to priests off and on for a couple years and am serious about learning the faith and potentially becoming catholic. I really struggle mentally in a very stressful profession and often find that the only relief I have is to intentionally injure myself. Self injury has been an issue for me for probably 25 years or so. I know that tattoos and other self mutilations of the body are sinful so I assume that cutting myself in the bathroom at work to try to cope with my mental issues is also a sin but I have not heard anything definitive on this point.

Thank you for any thoughts or direction on this matter.

First of all, tattoos are not patently sinful.

Second of all, you have serious, grave mental health problems. I think you should be less concerned about whether or not this coping mechanism is a sin (which it definitely can be, depending on how much control you have over your choices at this point), and more concerned with finding intense psychiatric care to help you learn healthy ways of dealing with life’s ups and downs. After 25-years, you probably need a good couple months of inpatient care. I hope and pray you are strong enough to break this dangerous cycle and get the help you so desperately need. You really cannot make a sound decision about becoming a Catholic while you are so critically sick.

Culpability–how much you are responsible for a choice–is affected by whether or not an outside force pressures you or forces you to act as you did. To the extent that your physical state is out of your control, you are not responsible for what your physical state forces you to do, even when the physical state shows itself in your emotions or in compulsive thoughts. Your responsibility is to “head it off at the pass” to the degree that you can, as you would if it were an actor outside yourself trying to compel you to do the wrong thing. You ought to be taking the care to keep yourself safe that you’d expect yourself to take if you knew someone else was bent on hurting themselves or hurting a third party.

You know that cutting yourself is not something that your doctor would consider a constructive way to deal with your stress, either, right? The relief is real and yet it is also illusory. Cutting yourself does not accomplish a positive good, but damages your body and leaves you open to infection. Work diligently with your doctors to find a way to cope with your stress that is not self-damaging.

As for tatoos, the Church does not hold that putting permanent color onto your skin is mutilation, per se, or that it is a sin. Likewise, piercing your body to allow for hanging jewelry on yourself is not automatically considered self-mutilation. Certainly any rule for decorating generally applies twice over when you are decorating a human body, though, because our bodies deserve to be treated with the utmost respect. Think twice and then think again about what sort of tatoo you choose.

Thank you for your concern. I may have sidetracked the discussion with my reference to tattoos. I heard a priest say it was sinful but he may have said that was just his personal view and not official church teaching. In any event I do not have any tattoos or plan to get any. I was just trying to analogize to harming the body.

I would say that at this point I am likely culpable. There was a time in high school looking at it objectively where I could probably say that my self injury at that time was not a culpable act. Now however I have to admit that I have control and just do it from time to time to get through the day so I can try to function. My wife has told me she would leave me if I change careers to a less stressful but less financially lucrative profession so I am really trying to balance a lot of issues to try to allow myself to keep functioning as long as possible. In any event I don’t know what I would do if I had the option to retool to a different career anyway so it is kind of moot. I guess I am trapped in this situation and have a very long time to go so I am trying to use the cutting as a way to keep functioning as best I can. To me that seems like a conscious decision however and one I am likely culpable for.

I would not underestimate the force of a habit that brings even transitory relief. That is very hard to resist. The pressure of feeling that you cannot relieve your stress by changing jobs because your wife has threatened to abandon you if you do is also considerable, to say the very least.

Assigning blame is the least of your concerns, and certainly the least of our concerns. The last thing we want is to have you beating yourself up–that is the kind of thing that leaves you even more vulnerable to the cutting! The primary concern is that you are vulnerable to self-harm and need to find a means to lower that vulnerability and relieve the suffering that leaves you vulnerable.

Please seek whatever help you can, not just in order to stop the cutting but also to truly relieve the suffering that drives you to it. If anyone else you knew had a disease that put bleeding cuts down their arms, you’d do what you could to get them to a doctor and heal them of the primary disease, not blame them for whatever part they might have in either catching the disease or failing to have it treated properly or suffering from the effects of it. Getting yourself treatment to find you relief from your suffering without the harmful side effects of your current method of coping ought to be your primary goal. That is the main thing!

You are not trapped. Your wife said she would leave you if you took a different job. That is her prerogative. You need to make the decision to get yourself healthy. Whatever she decides to do when that happens is on her. You most likely have a codependent relationship, and your wife obviously gets something out of you being so desperately sick. She needs to deal with her issues, too.

Having said that, a particular job cannot “make” you cut yourself. Your job may be very intense, but there are healthy, appropriate ways to deal with stress, too. Fitness, a hobby, prayer, massage, positive self-talk, chatting with a friend, playing with a pet - these are all really good ways to relieve the pressure you feel. You need to learn to utilize one or more of those ways. After 25 years of cutting, you need inpatient care. I sincerely hope you do not delay and make the decision today to get that help.

You should seek treatment if you are self harming.

Listen to Easter Joy. She is a wise woman.

I will just add that one of the main reasons that things such as cutting are wrong is that our bodies are good things. God created us with both a body and a soul and said it was very good. So it is good not to harm that which is good.

But, as Easter Joy said, beating yourself up over it is going to compound things. You need to address some of the underlying issues and find more productive methods of dealing with stress.

I will say a prayer for you.

Cutting can be a symptom of many different mental disorders, and the degree to which it has a voluntary component varies from one patient to another. It can take a course similar to drug or alcohol addiction, and the sufferer can have a very poor prognosis for resistance without outside help.

As for whether or not the OP has the option of changing jobs, we can’t know that. Many people are stuck for the time being in stressful jobs that they cannot leave without also choosing divorce, homelessness, or both. Weighing how to decide what to do is better done with someone who can actually know the OPs entire situation.

We agree on this: the OP ought not try to negotiate this issue alone. I would consider it a moral imperative that he seek help, because it is not realistic that navigating such serious problems himself will lead to a good outcome. It is possible, but it would be negligent to assume that. He’d never leave a friend in his situation without encouraging him to get help. He should love himself as he’d love his neighbor, and force himself to seek outside help with his problems, lest he expose himself to serious and perhaps even irreversible harm.

Deliberate self harm is objectively sinful, but culpability is limited by the fact that it is a manifestation of grave mental illness. The deliberate refusal to seek treatment for such grave mental illness could itself be gravely sinful. Rationalizations such as “my wife might leave me” are only a part of such illness.

Please seek professional help for this problem. God does not want you to live like this.

This is very true. When I go through certain episodes with my mental illnesses, I have irrational thoughts like this.
My therapist and husband have reassured me plenty of times that it isn’t going to happen.

OP, PLEASE seek treatment.

hi i self injure and have since the age of 13 am now in my 30’s
i know how hard it is to stop i still self injure
God understands that you are going through a hard time
God loves you no matter what
please seek help
i will pray for you

Yes. Never doubt that God is the ultimate in On Your Side.

Thanks for all of the replies. I have dealt with various psychologists and other professionals over the years and have been hospitalized a handful of times. I have also tried medicines over the years going way back and at various points as new families of medicines are developed. Nothing has really made much difference.

As Easter joy observed I would say the big problem is not exactly the cutting but is more the extreme mental discomfort I am generally under for which cutting is unfortunately at the moment the only thing that will provide some temporary relief and allow me to try to function.

Also unfortunately my wife has said she would leave me if I tried to do something else so it is not exactly a symptom of a disease on my case. She just can’t deal with that type of risk and change.

I also agree that changing jobs is not a magical cure. I have thought about this for years and certainly I have an underlying problem unrelated to my profession. On the other hand I have talked to a number of orofessionals who agree with me that my current profession is a significant exacerbating factor in making my condition worse. I think it is some of both.

Is she aware of what you are doing to handle the stress?

Has any of the counseling you’ve received been marital counseling or has your wife been part of it in some way?

Sometimes spouses are clueless, but it’s not always out of outright malevolence. My husband tends toward the clueless side, but I had to come to realize that I worked really hard all of the time to avoid him knowing that I was hurtling toward a breakdown. When I did have my occasional freakout, it completely blindsided him (not to mention, I came off as a bit crazy because the freakout would occur, to his eyes, as the result of some insanely small thing, when I had been dealing with the pressure turning up for ages.) It can also be really easy to be thoughtless when people allow us to be.

I can certainly relate to bottling up and melting down. We have not really had marital counseling. She recently started doing some counseling herself and I attended to discuss some issues that she has gone through but not really what I would call marital counseling. I don’t think my wife is necessarily saying that she would leave me to be mean, it is really part of her expectations. She is really conservative and extremely risk averse so she gets violently angry if she has any sense that i am having issues that put my career in jeopardy. I generally hide my injury from her but at various times she becomes aware I am doing it and I know she knows that I am in a period now of injuring myself pretty frequently but we really don’t talk about it at all in any detail because she will get angry and that doesn’t do either of us any good.

I’m going to break with a lot of people and say self-harm is not always wrong. There are situations where you have to make one of several bad choices.

I’ve been in places where self-harm got me through the day. I did not have the resources to seek out a lot of treatment. I also didn’t have the resources to just collapse and not be working. What was the right choice there? Or when I didn’t have the strength otherwise to feed myself and had no one to help?

I certainly think we have an obligation to take the options we have as best we can. But sometimes self-harm can be the least bad of a set of bad options. Keep yourself as safe as you can and work towards making life so you don’t have that much stress going on.

I’m going to suggest you need to spend a lot more time working with your wife. Living with someone who does not understand will increase your stress levels. And frankly it sounds like you’re cruising for a breakdown that will mean you can’t work anyways.

You might also want to talk to a psychologist about an as-needed medication for stress, something you can take when you feel things building.

DL, I’m not sure I follow. If the choice is “I don’t eat or my kids don’t eat,” I understand what you’re saying about “self-harm.” Obviously it’s not good to not eat, but making that sacrifice for your children may be necessary. Same with occasionally going without sleep, etc.

But I can’t see how deliberate self-injury, for the express purpose of stress management, would be preferable to something else. You wouldn’t tell a heroin addict to go ahead and shoot up just to make it through a particularly stressful day. It’s true that there is a withdrawal period from any kind of addictive or compulsive behavior and that withdrawal time absolutely stinks, but any indulgence just cements the behavior. The OP needs to figure out a way to manage his stress without resorting to destructive behavior. That might mean making some really big changes in his life, but a very good counselor could help him navigate some of those things in a healthy way.

OP, I think you really need to attend counseling WITH your wife so you can learn how to speak to each other. It sounds like a really bad dynamic for the both of you.

It’s not that. It’s that I’ve been in cases where, say, the options were I use self-harm to get through the day, or I don’t eat that day (and quite likely another day or two after). Or don’t make it through enough work to pay rent that month. All those options are harmful. Sometimes if you’re dealing with mental illness and you don’t have a lot to fall back on, you make choices that aren’t the most healthy because you don’t have a healthy option on the table at that time.

I’m not saying it’s a good option. But I’m saying that worrying about self-harm is often the wrong way to go about it, and I don’t think that considering it a sin is a good way to go. I don’t consider it any more of a sin than the fact that I’m now taking medications with a good chance of wrecking my body because they stabilize my mental health.

My point is, from what I’m reading, it doesn’t sound like the OP has a way to safely manage stress right now. And trying to address self-harm without having some other way to handle things is almost guaranteed to either fail outright or to lead to the adoption of some other unhealthy behavior. So the first goal is to try to get the stress under control. And feeling bad because the one way you do know how to cope is a sin is not conducive to that.

DL. Thank you for your perspective. It sounds like you unfortunately have a lot of personal experience as well. To me it sounds like you are being way too hard on yourself by equating self injury to medication. I am no fan of medication and it has not worked for me after many many tries but I would think that morally it is much worse to cave in to self injury than it is to follow medical advice and take medication even if there are harmful side effects potentially. I do understand your overall point though which is what I am going through in that at the moment self injury appears to be the lesser of evils but of course that may not be the case. It is a difficult situation in any event.

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