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Being Suicidal: What It Feels Like to Want to Kill Yourself

June 20th, 2016

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In considering people’s motivations for killing themselves, it is essential to recognize that most suicides are driven by a flash flood of strong emotions, not rational, philosophical thoughts in which the pros and cons are evaluated critically. I don’t think any scholar ever captured the suicidal mind better than psychologist Roy Baumeister in his 1990 article, “Suicide as Escape from the Self.” According to Baumeister, there are six primary steps in the escape theory, culminating in a probable suicide when all criteria are met

Step 1: Falling Short of Standards

Most people who kill themselves actually lived better-than-average lives. Suicide rates are higher in nations with higher standards of living than in less prosperous nations; higher in societies that endorse individual freedoms; higher in areas with better weather; in areas with seasonal change, they are higher during the warmer seasons; and they’re higher among college students that have better grades and parents with higher expectations.
Baumeister argues that such idealistic conditions actually heighten suicide risk because they often create unreasonable standards for personal happiness, thereby rendering people more emotionally fragile in response to unexpected setbacks.

Step 2: Attributions to Self

Suicidal individuals who engage in negative appraisals of the self seem to suffer the erroneous impression that other people are mostly good, while they themselves are bad. Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt, inadequacy, or feeling exposed, humiliated and rejected lead suicidal people to dislike themselves in a manner that, essentially, cleaves them off from an idealized humanity. The self is seen as being enduringly undesirable; there is no hope for change and the core self is perceived as being rotten.

Step 3: High Self-Awareness

“The essence of self-awareness is comparison of self with standards,” writes Baumeister. And, according to his escape theory, it is this ceaseless and unforgiving comparison with a preferred self—perhaps an irrecoverable self from a happier past or a goal self that is now seen as impossible to achieve in light of recent events—fuelling suicidal ideation.

Step 4: Negative Affect

It may seem to go without saying that suicides tend to be preceded by a period of negative emotions, but, again, in Baumeister’s escape model, negative suicidal emotions are experienced as an acute state rather than a prolonged one. “Concluding simply that depression causes suicide and leaving it at that may be inadequate for several reasons,” he writes. “It is abundantly clear that most depressed people do not attempt suicide and that not all suicide attempters are clinically depressed.”

Psychodynamic theorists often postulate that suicidal guilt seeks punishment, and thus suicide is a sort of self-execution. But Baumeister’s theory largely rejects this interpretation; rather, in his model, the appeal of suicide is loss of consciousness, and thus the end of psychological pain being experienced. And since cognitive therapy isn’t easily available—or seen as achievable—by most suicidal people, that leaves only three ways to escape this painful self-awareness: drugs, sleep and death. And of these, only death, nature’s great anesthesia, offers a permanent fix.

Step 5: Cognitive Deconstruction

The fifth step in the escape theory is perhaps the most intriguing, from a psychological perspective, because it illustrates just how distinct and scarily inaccessible the suicidal mind is from that of our everyday cognition. Cognitive deconstruction is pretty much just what it sounds like. Things are cognitively broken down into increasingly low-level and basic elements. For example, the time perspective of suicidal people changes in a way that makes the present moment seem interminably long; this is because “suicidal people have an aversive or anxious awareness of the recent past (and possibly the future too), from which they seek to escape into a narrow, unemotional focus on the present moment. Thus suicidal people resemble acutely bored people: The present seems endless and vaguely unpleasant, and whenever one checks the clock, one is surprised at how little time has actually elapsed.”

Evidence also suggests that suicidal individuals have a difficult time thinking about the future—which for those who’d use the threat of hell as a deterrent, shows just why this strategy isn’t likely to be very effective. This temporal narrowing, Baumeister believes, is actually a defensive mechanism helping the person to cognitively withdraw from thinking about past failures and the anxiety of an intolerable, hopeless future.

Even the grim, tedious details of organizing one’s own suicide can offer a welcome reprieve: When preparing for suicide, one can finally cease to worry about the future, for one has effectively decided that there will be no future. The past, too, has ceased to matter, for it is nearly ended and will no longer cause grief, worry, or anxiety. And the imminence of death may help focus the mind on the immediate present

Step 6: Disinhibition

We’ve now set the mental stage, but it is of course the final act that separates suicidal ideation from an actual suicide. Baumeister speculates that behavioral disinhibition, which is required to overcome the intrinsic fear of causing oneself pain through death, not to mention the anticipated suffering of loved ones left behind to grieve, is another consequence of cognitive deconstruction. This is because it disallows the high-level abstractions (reflecting on the inherent “wrongness” of suicide, how others will feel, even concerns about self-preservation) that, under normal conditions, keep us alive.

While there is a considerable number of people who want to kill themselves, suicide itself remains relatively rare. This is largely because, in addition to suicidal desire, the individual needs the “acquired capability for suicide,” which involves both a lowered fear of death and increased physical pain tolerance. Suicide hurts, literally. One acquires this capability, according to these authors’ model, by being exposed to related conditions that systematically habituate the individual to physical pain. For example, one of the best predictors of suicide is a nonlethal prior suicide attempt.

Epilogue

So there you have it. It’s really not a pretty picture. But, again, I do hope that if you ever are unfortunate enough to experience these cognitive dynamics in your own mind—and I, for one, very much have—or if you suspect you’re seeing behaviors in others that indicate these thought patterns may be occurring, that this information helps you to meta-cognitively puncture suicidal ideation. If there is one thing that I’ve learned since those very dark days of my suicidal years, it’s that scientific knowledge changes perspective. And perspective changes everything. Everything.

Always remember: You’re going to die soon enough anyway; even if it’s a hundred years from now, that’s still the blink of a cosmic eye. In the meantime, live like a scientist—even a controversial one with only an ally or two in all the world—and treat life as a grand experiment, blood, sweat, tears and all. Bear in mind that there’s no such thing as a failed experiment—only data.

 

This is an abridged version of an article by Jesse Bering.

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