If You Are Suicidal, Envision Your Future Selves

Suicide lies. It tells you that the way you feel now is the way you will feel forever. Hope itself can seem like a toxic lie, a set-up for disappointment. The present feels permanent, and the future feels foretold.

Don’t fall for the lies. “The future,” as they say, “is unwritten.” Things can change. Things do change. Sure, there is no guarantee that things will get better. There also is no guarantee that things will get worse.

To resist the lies, visualize different selves that may emerge in the years to come. The psychologists Amy Wenzel and Shari Jager-Hyman call this exercise “future time imaging.” Imagine yourself in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, and more. Imagine not only different times, but also different roles and situations that can happen in the years to come.

What work might you do?

Where might you live?

Will you have new work … goals … friends … talents … tattoos … travels?

The possibilities are limitless. Here are a few questions to get you started:

Imagine that you are able to get out of this suicidal crisis alive, even to feel a little better. What could your life look like a year from now?

In five years, what might your life be like? Where will you be living? What new things might you be doing?

In 10 years, who might you be? What new roles might you have taken on?

You may feel unable to look beyond the present. Or you may feel certain that what lies ahead is more of the same. If you have chronic illness or pain, for example, you might envision suffering in your future. In such cases, it can help to recall other times you have suffered, what you expected to happen then, and how you coped as time passed.

Even if the pain remains, your experience of suffering can change. This can happen many different ways. To name a few examples, you can practice mindfulness, engage in a spiritual practice, mobilize for larger causes, find (or make) meaning in your experiences, connect with others in similar situations, or do the things you yearn to do even while in pain.

The goal of this exercise is not to persuade you that everything will get better. Instead, the goal is to help you step outside the rigid tunnel vision that comes with suicidality.

You cannot know what the future holds.

Life can and will surprise you.

You do not have to fall for suicide’s lies.

Maybe, even, your future selves will be glad to be alive.

 

© Copyright 2017 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All Rights Reserved. Written for www.speakingofsuicide.com.

All photos purchased from Fotolia.com

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  1. Norb says:

    This article may well be good advice for a young and otherwise healthy person, but I wouldn’t dare ask these questions of my wife, who has Huntington’s Disease, is understandably depressed, and has ideated suicide several times and tried once. For her, the answers are as follows:
    1 year: Continuing cognitive and physical decline taking away more activities that were once enjoyed. Ongoing changes in personality along with worsening mental health issues.
    5 Year: Probably will need a full-time caregiver to assist with daily living tasks.
    10 Year: Complete inability to communicate and total disability necessitating 24 hour nursing care.
    She already knows these answers. That’s why she’s in the mental state she’s in. Thus, I’d be a fool to ask the questions. Every depressed/suicidal person is different. Be careful about what advice you take.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, it actually helped.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Good to know! Thanks for sharing. Please also check out the Resources page for places you can get help by phone, text, email, or online chat, if needed.

  3. Anonymous says:

    In the shadow I ask why? In my dreams, “freeze frame” that moment at the beach, when the wind catches your copper sunset hair as you turn, smile and laugh. My breath caught still by you .My time, It’s mine. I tell you I love you and you hear me. Everything ordinary and extraordinary every moment we had togetherness you and me. I know you chose this, What did I miss? What did I fail to see. My breath is caught. 

  4. cinnamon says:

    Stacey,
    I’m so blessed that my Nephew came to me, Me and asked if I knew the answer to troubling question.
    He asked me if he would go to a doctor and tell that doctor he has suicidal thoughts, would they
    help him in prescribing a medicine or would they put him in a hospital against his will? He is a young adult, fresh to the world of college. He has been depressed since he was 15. I have seen how sick he looks,
    i see the sadness in his face and it kills me! We talked for a while! I’m so Happy he opened that door
    to me! I’ve been depressed before, I know what it feels like, but I havent been as deep. My sister, his mother,
    doesn’t understand, not near enough and our other immediate family members never understood antidepressant medications and how they work. They have nagged me in the past about taking Lexapro
    to better my depression. They don’t understand and made negative comments for years.
    I know he wants to be better and not feel all the horrible symptoms, he wants
    to get better. My main concern is finding the right physician who knows everything, including the some horrible
    side effects they cause, about these medications. Too many prescribe what they dont truly know, then people
    get discouraged and even anti – antidepressant. Lexapro helped me, but it made me feel sick to my stomach
    and dizzy. He also was only ever put on Prozac and it did the same to him. It doesn’t fade with food or time.
    That was the only attempt to helping him. He stopped the medicine and as time passed he got much worse!
    He lost so much weight, he looks sick. But he wants to be better and I want to stop the world to make him healthy again! I’ve never had such a long and heartfelt conversation with him like this, I can relate and I am
    aware of everything he tells me. I feel like I have one chance to suggest to a doctor the right medicine, that
    won’t make him feel sick, but will really help him. Can you suggest good antidepressants without all those nasty
    side effects? Any other information to steer me in the right direction to help him would be a blessing. I love this
    kid! He has so much to live for!

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      What a gift that your nephew came to you! I’m grateful that he will be receiving help. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to recommend a medication, but a physician will have that expertise. I recommend seeing a psychiatrist over a general physician, if that’s possible, because psychiatrists tend to be more versed in the psychiatric medications and their side effects. Primary care physicians have A LOT more medications to hold in their mind.

      My best wishes to your nephew, to you, and your family!

  5. Stevenson says:

    Nietzsche once said: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

    I think Nietzsche was incorrect. What doesn’t kill you has a possibility of severely damaging you and making you wish it had finished you off.

    My conclusion from all this is that life continuation is one hell of a risk. Not only do we have statistics for horrible tragedies, but what is arguably worse is that we don’t have statistics for many other things. Every time you walk out of your door, you are exposing yourself to danger. Cognitive inadequacy limits our appreciation of this fact. Why is it that danger has to be practically right in front of us in order for us to register it? Because long-term risk management is not conducive to reproduction.

    How ironic it is that the greatest pleasures in life come at such a steep risk.

    If we were truly rational creatures, we would realize that our unconscious will-to-live is analogous to being dragged across a cheese grater. It is manipulative in that it exposes us to dangers and harms that we otherwise would not choose to expose ourselves to. Epicureans are kidding themselves; we don’t continue life for its pleasures, we continue life because we have no other realistic alternative. We are not in control.

    Tolstoy hit the nail on the head when he articulated four categories of human existence:

    1) Those who are blind to the human predicament (the ignorant fools)

    2) Those who understand the human predicament but see pleasure as a reason to continue (the Epicureans)

    3) Those who understand that human predicament but also understand that pleasure cannot be a true reason to live but continue to live anyway (the weak)

    4) Those who understand everything the weak do, but have the guts to kill themselves (the strong)

    Why is it that people will voluntarily insure themselves against catastrophes that may not ever happen, but don’t insure themselves against the catastrophes that cannot be covered by money? The cognitive bias of “that will never happen to me” effectively keeps people from questioning their own behavior. If it can’t be fixed or prevented, just don’t think about it…. It is short-sighted and biased reasoning, meant not to service our welfare but to make sure we don’t question our own fate.

    This is tough to swallow. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the moment and forget about the contingent nature of well-being. All of these possibilities are legitimate threats – but why worry about them? There’s nothing you can do – except there actually is, it’s just that practically nobody wants to consider it. Suicide as a preventative measure is a perfectly rational and reasonable response to the threats exposure to the world brings. In fact it seems like it’s the only option with a 100% guarantee of effectiveness.

    But nobody, including myself, can actually consider suicide as a rational decision if we’re not currently suffering tremendously. In existentialist terms, humans are capable of transcendence – we are able to look beyond the immanent and see things how they could be. But we are nevertheless still immanent, and so the dynamic between transcendence and immanence emerges, with transcendence pushing forward and immanence pulling back. In the case of the rationality of suicide, we can transcend beyond our immediate experience and see how many risks and threats there are in the future, but are pulled back to immanence by the instinctual, irrational urge to persist.

    There’s more. I will not deny that pleasure is intrinsically good for people. But neither will I deny that pain is intrinsically bad for people. So when the cost of pleasure gets too high, or when the stakes accompanying existence are unreasonable, pleasure becomes a good-turned-bad. Just as we may feel pain while climbing a mountain (a bad-turned-good), the pleasure we feel as we systematically expose ourselves to a greater amount of harm cannot actually be truly good for us. That is when pleasure becomes manipulative and addictive. The fact that it is difficult to see the sorts of things we typically enjoy doing as goods-turned-bad is a consequence of them being addictions. Recall the analogy of the cheese grater. Pleasure are goods-turned-bad because the strength of the desire for pleasure is not matched by the actual content. On the other hand, we have a disturbingly small fear of pains are are unimaginably bad.

    The environment we live in that seduces us into continued existence can only be see as a web of toxicity. We live in a society that essentially indoctrinates us into continued existence. We do not act in our best interests by continuing existing.

    Some people might find my words dangerous. Am I actually recommending people kill themselves? Perhaps. What I am not advocating is the blind and instinctual journey through a strange world filled with risks, threats, and uncompensated pain.

    What should we do, then? If we live in a world of threats of significant harm that cannot be compensated by any pleasure (terminal pain), is it possible to have a reason to live?

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Stevenson,

      Thanks for sharing your very well thought out, provocative ideas. They certainly get at the heart of the matter, an amplified version of Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be, that is the question.”

      Your argument presumes that pain, or threat of pain, always outweighs pleasure. I think many people, based on empirical observations of their own lives, would disagree. I also question whether life is merely about pleasure vs. pain. You mention transcendence. In another context, that of spirituality, transcendence itself can be a compelling reason to live, even amid great pain. So can other acts that bring meaning, love, wonder, and more to a person’s life.

      Those are my thoughts. Your comment was so well written and thought provoking that I wanted to share.

  6. Jacqueline says:

    Stacey,

    I think about suicide a lot and may do it some day, but not because I am overwhelmed or because I can’t handle my responsibilities. It is responsibilities that keep me hanging around, for now. And I rock those out, thanks very much, and no one has any idea how for real I might be about killing myself when the time is right.

    But I don’t like living. Reality is a terrible, terrible thing. It has no real evils to defeat or love that conquers all. Just compromised people living complicated lives. It’s boring and disgusting, and it offends me very much. I offend me. The point is that it (reality) shouldn’t be slanted against us so that we have to train ourselves to repetitively focus on the good little things. I don’t think the stress of life is doled out evenly. Some folks get a steep share, even though they put up a good fight. That’s fine, until your strength gives out and you can’t keep climbing up and up. I only say this to show people that maybe the reason someone commits suicide isn’t whimsical or based in weakness. Each suicide is a unique act. Judgement against it necessarily comes from a place of privilege and fear.

    If my life had ended when I was in my early twenties, I would have felt that it stood for something because I didn’t really know about reality. Now, I really yearn for the symbols of that time and the people I knew, not as they are, but as I remember them.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Jacqueline,

      Thanks for sharing. I’m sorry that you’re suffering. I hope you’ll reach out to others. I know you’ve commented here before so maybe you know this already, but there are different places where you can talk with somebody by phone, text, or email; I list them on the site’s Resources page at speakingofsuicide.com/resources/.

      I hope you’ll stick around!

  7. Stacey, I love this idea! Thank you so much for taking the time to share this! I do hope your publisher is fast-forwarding your new book! I can’t wait to get it!

  8. Paul Dodemaide says:

    Thank you

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      You’re welcome, Paul! I hope it’s helpful.

    • RAJESH RAJAGOPALAPILLAI says:

      Good work Stacey. ( I under stand that its your name). people have misconception, that they are facing a permanent crisis. suicide is in fact a permanent solution to a temporary crisis

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Thank you, Rajesh. I agree that many times, people believe that things will never change when, in fact, change will probably happen. But sometimes the crisis really isn’t temporary. Terminal illness, for example, or severe mental illness. I’ve seen people whose situation is unchangeable find meaning and enjoyment in their lives through spirituality, religion, acts of charity, creative acts like writing or painting, and other activities. Psychotherapy, medication, or both often help people to cope better, too.

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