Many people feel ashamed of their suicidal thoughts. This shame can be about any number of things, often contradictory: thinking of suicide, being unable to stop thinking of suicide, not acting on suicidal thoughts, acting on suicidal thoughts, and so on.
Shame especially can follow a suicide attempt. One small study found that most of the people interviewed felt shame related to their attempt, whether for not living up to others’ expectations or, painfully, for having survived.
Shame and Suicidality: Cause or Effect?
Just as suicidal thoughts can lead to shame, shame can lead to suicidal thoughts. It is a merciless cycle of pain: one begets the other.
“Thinking of suicide means I’m weak,” clients have told me.
“I’m a loser, a failure.”
“I should be able to cope.”
“I’m a bad person.”
Lost in all the self-condemnation is the understanding and acceptance of suicidal thoughts as a symptom. Suicidal thoughts can be a symptom of a mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder. Or you may not have a mental illness. Suicidal thoughts also can serve instead as a symptom of extreme stress, overwhelming painful emotions, a sense of despair and hopelessness, or some other situation that the person experiences as unbearable.
Suicidal thoughts are not who you are. They do not define you. Instead, they happen to you. The same is true of conditions and situations that can lead to suicidality: depression, anxiety, trauma, schizophrenia, addiction, and other mental health issues. These conditions do not touch your truest, deepest self, what some may refer to as your soul or your essence.
Close Cousins: Shame and Stigma
It’s hard to talk about shame about suicidality without also talking about stigma. Shame comes from inside the person. It is an emotion, an internal feeling of disgrace. Stigma, on the other hand, comes from outside the person. It is a mark or message of disgrace. Stigma comes from the messages that society sends out, messages that there is something fundamentally bad about people if they have certain conditions or qualities.
There is a tremendous amount of stigma toward people who think about, attempt or die by suicide. Many movies, press accounts, even random comments on the Internet portray suicidal individuals as cowardly, weak, selfish, defective – and so on. This harmful stigma ignores facts about biology, in particular neurobiology, illness, and the functioning of the brain.
Most importantly, stigma feeds into shame. Stigma reinforces for the suicidal person the idea that something is bad about him or her. And stigma causes many people not to seek help. They simply are too embarrassed, too frightened, too ashamed.
What to Do?
Rather than viewing suicidal thoughts as a character flaw, it is more helpful to look at their underlying meaning. What are your suicidal thoughts telling you that you need?
If you are thinking of dying, it could mean that you need to leave a toxic relationship, or quit a job, or learn new ways to cope, or do any number of things that might allow you to experience less pain without killing yourself. Your suicidal thoughts likewise could be a signal that you need a change in medication, or therapy, or more connection with others.
The shame itself is telling you something, too. It is telling you that you may have a wound, an injury deep inside of you that needs healing. You may even identify this wound as your self, you true self, not as a piece of your past.
Psychotherapy can help. So can other things. The practice of mindfulness meditation helps people to observe that their thoughts and feelings do not constitute their essence. Practicing compassion toward oneself can also help a person separate their selfhood from their problems or symptoms.
Finally, reading about shame and its antidotes is a powerful tonic. In particular, I recommend the works of Brené Brown. A good place to start is her Ted Talks: Listening to Shame, and The Power of Vulnerability.
© 2013 Stacey Freedenthal, All Rights Reserved, Written for www.speakingofsuicide.com
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