Talking Back to Suicidal Thoughts

Suicidal thoughts take different forms. Some politely knock on the door. You let them in, entertain them a bit, and then they leave.

But suicidal thoughts can also be most unwelcome. In such cases, you do not want to think of suicide. The thoughts still come. They invade. They refuse to leave.

So What Can You Do about Suicidal Thoughts?

There are several paths you can follow if you want to stop thinking of suicide. Here are some of them:

You can learn to talk back to the suicidal thoughts.

You can learn to observe the thoughts, without feeling the need to act on them.

You can distract yourself from the suicidal thoughts.

You can seek help, whether from friends, family, professionals, or others.

You can explore the possibility of medication.

None of these options is mutually exclusive. Each complements the other. Over time, I will write a separate post about each approach. For now, I will concentrate on talking back to suicidal thoughts.

 Talking Back to Suicidal Thoughts

A central premise of cognitive behavioral therapy is that people tend to equate their feelings and thoughts with facts. We rarely question what we think. So, if you think, “My situation is hopeless,” you probably believe 100% that your situation is hopeless.

What if it is not actually true?

There is an adage in therapy, one so popular that books have used it as their title:

“Don’t believe everything you think.”

If you think your life is hopeless, if you think things will never get better, if you think you deserve to die – whatever it is you think, if it causes you pain or imperils your safety, ask yourself:

“Is what I’m thinking or feeling a fact?”

Be honest with yourself. While it might feel true, is there any possibility that the condemning thought you are having is in fact false?

Often, you simply cannot know for sure that your thought is true. In these cases, it is helpful to remind yourself that your thinking might be wrong.

For example, sometimes a client will say to me, “I’m going to be alone and miserable the rest of my life.” Notice how different it feels to say, instead, “I fear I’m going to be alone and miserable the rest of my life.” One is presented as a fact, the other a feeling.

Another major premise of cognitive behavioral therapy is that what we tell ourselves directly influences how we feel and act. So, if we change what we tell ourselves, we can also change our feelings and behaviors.

(A Few) Helpful CBT Questions 

Cognitive behavioral therapists have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of questions to draw from to help you tease out thoughts and feelings from facts. Here are a few important ones:

“What is the evidence that this thought is true?”

“What is the evidence that it is not true?”

“What is a different way of looking at this?”

 Looking for the Other Side of the Story

Your mind might assail you with thoughts of all the things that are bad about you or your life – all the things you have done wrong, all the ways your life is wrong, all the reasons that nothing will get better.

Does your mind give equal time and attention to the qualities in you or your life that are reasons for hope? Focusing on your reasons for living or creating a hope box are ways to give equal time to the aspects of your life that can weaken suicide’s pull.

You may protest that there actually is nothing good or hopeful in your life. If you think of suicide, you are in incredible pain. That pain may be exacerbated by stigma, isolation, and self blame. Amid such suffering, it can be hard to find redeeming qualities about yourself or your life.

Remember, if you seriously consider suicide, it is as if you are locked in a totally dark closet. The closet contains tools and gifts and other resources. But you cannot see them. They are hidden by the darkness of depression or despair or whatever other state of mind has settled in.

Questions to ask yourself here can include:

“What strengths have I had in the past that I can call on now?”

“What has helped me get through hard times before?”

“What (or who) could help me now?”

“What are my reasons for living?”

“What can I do about the situation that does not involve hurting or killing myself?”

Self-Compassion amid Suicidal Thoughts

Talking back to your suicidal thoughts and your more general negative thoughts can help you build compassion toward yourself. In his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, the author, psychiatrist David Burns, writes that we all have a prosecutor living inside our head, and few of us have a defense attorney.

It can be hard at first to defend yourself. It might feel unnatural. The best way to develop a counterattack against the negative and suicidal thoughts is to ask yourself this question:

“What would I tell a friend or someone else I love if they were in this exact situation and were thinking of suicide?”

 Tying It All Together

Chances are you would be much more compassionate toward a loved one than you are toward yourself. Ask yourself, what would it be like if you treated yourself the way you treat a person you love or care deeply about?

Even if you don’t stop thinking of suicide altogether, you can at least work to protect, soothe, and help yourself in the same way that you would for another person you love.*


© Copyright 2013 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All Rights Reserved. Written for

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  1. Janet Gerl says:

    There is so much to learn and I’m learning there is much we can do to help someone who is suicidal. My son didn’t share. Only a week prior to his suicide did he mention the word. Only a week to let that sink in to my mind and experience and make a plan to help. I wish I’d have had some time to education my self and help him form a plan. I do wonder however, after he quit his medication (by choice in an effort to see if he could go it without) and then realized he needed medication and was put back on …. I do think that was the circumstance that caused his abrupt decision. Going off and getting back onto medication is a crucial time. During that time his decision was made and we lost him. I just didn’t have enough time.

  2. Nancy Stewart says:

    What if you know you are the blame for not being able to keep friends and family? Can’t find a Dr. that will work on your meds. Instead they put you on meds that give you awful side effects and make you gain so much weight that your blood pressure gets too high and other things! I feel like there is no hope!

    • Janet Gerl says:

      I think the key is to “find” the right Dr. Only work with Psychiatrist do not waste your time with general practitioners or any professional other than a specialist in the field. And then be prepared to go to work at doing every possible step to contribute to helping your situation. Diet, exercise, meditation, etc. along with the right medication(s). Your situation will be one of a lot of effort just to keep an acceptable status quo. It’s not an easy path. But isn’t life worth it?

  3. Mark Y says:

    Unfortunately it seems that at the start of reading this out of semi-passive curiosity turned into severe depression when I was done.
    I think a lot about the truthfulness to my thoughts, weighing in on possibility vs probability, percent of outcome, and exploring evidence. I actively talk aloud to myself to straighten my thinking. I very rarely state or consider things as absolutes.
    The suggested strategies in the article are good for someone thinking with their emotions. But most of my depression is either unexplained and randomly based on nothing at all; or more commonly it stems from conclusions by logical deduction. The worst part is, nobody is able to come up with logical rebuttals. Talking to others doesn’t help.
    It’s not that I feel things are hopeless. It’s that there is a very high mathematical probability that failure will occur for all of my life changing opportunities. They fail from circumstances outside of my control. Once many years ago I was an optimist. But repeated failures made me a realist.
    Now, I am a pessimist. I CAN hope, but there is no reason to. I have no personal evidence that things will get better. Failure and dependency are the only constants and based on experiences, very high in probability. Reading this article just affirmed that there is no other help.

    I am not allowed to hope. Because every time I do, something from the sky falls down and kicks me in the face for it. You can make all the changes and hope all you want, have all the skills and resources in the game of life; but they’re meaningless when you are given loaded dice to roll for your results.

    • Anonymous says:

      Analysts think like you. Do you have anything to lose if you begin to say to yourself “I have high probability to win” if you know you will lose, you have nothing to lose. Try it.

  4. Elena says:

    In a group therapy course for managing depression we talked about this a little and there was a specific formula for challenging thoughts and beliefs. I wish to God I could remember it or had that sheet of paper now… I have been struggling more and more the past few months and I KNOW my mind is lying to me but I can’t keep fighting it anymore. It’s all things I grew up hearing (I was emotionally and sometimes physically abused as a child) and for some reason whenever things get too stressful or go wrong I go back to those thoughts and feelings, every time. And I know they’re false but I get so tired of trying to change the channel. So I keep going for the distractions but those can only keep me going for so long. I told a few people I was thinking of suicide but I think it just upset them and I’m scared I’ll lose them as friends so I’m trying to deal on my own instead for now.

  5. Anonymous says:

    The truth is the trees are green and the sky is blue, if not above me, somewhere. Just have to be patient.

    There is no truth admist the terrorists of the mind.

    Everyday the thought of ending MY life and MY pain, yet causing others great pain happens. Guess what, I’m winning!

    This isn’t over yet.

    We are stronger than the lies created by the chemicals.

    Do anything but be destructive. Let the urges become a prayer.

    You’re here for a reason. You are the reason. You are enough. You are loved. YOU are amazing.

  6. Sue says:

    Go outside and walk, run, bicycle, march in place, just move your body. Focus your eyes on any natural shape – clouds, leaves, anything not manmade. The endorphins start to flow within minutes. I find myself saying “What the hell was I thinking?”! Train yourself to fight suicidal thoughts…it works!

  7. Dave27 says:

    2 years now of trying with lots of therapy and drugs, but I see myself getting weaker and worse, unable to escape the guilt and self loathing. If only I’d realised how bad it could get at the start then I would have done more. When the whole situation is overwhelming the techniques are difficult to employ.

    • Janet says:

      Hopeless and invisible. Are you currently on meds? Are you seeing a psychiatrist ? My so commited suicide 5 weeks ago please answer me. I’m trying to understand.

    • carrie says:

      Forgive yourself as you would have compassion for a stranger with similar struggles and feelings of regrets and self negative talk.
      if you cry like i do when i am in that dark place its because your heart knows there is light but the dark clouds in the mind are just lies , toxic pollution

    • Janet G says:

      Dave I don’t battle depression but I lost my son to suicide 6 months ago. What you say about techniques being difficult to employ…..this is how I envisioned it was for my son. He was smart, aware, and he was working on trying to control his thoughts. He was on medication but told me the medication caused him to “not feel”. He said it was a miserable existence on medications. So he tried going off after hearing a podcast about a women who had like a primal scream and broke out of her negative thoughts and self loathing. This podcast also portrayed the drug companies as evil. He quit his medication in an effort to see if he could go it alone. When he realized he couldn’t, he tried to get back on medication and that’s when he took his life. I think about his struggle all the time and I try to imagine what it was like for him. Having to struggle with your mind and constantly pull yourself up out of self loathing and hateful thoughts……is there any worse situation when your own mind is your worst enemy? I cry for him and the struggle he endured. I know relatives who right now are fighting that battle with their mind. My heart goes out to you.

  8. Hopeless and invisible says:

    I know that my days are numbered. Nothing can save me. I just hope that by speaking out against stigma maybe I can save someone else. If your loved one is talking about suicide or exhibiting the signs take it seriously. Don’t reject them. It will be the difference between life and death.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      What a poignant message, “Hopeless and invisible.” Thank you for reaching out to help others. I do hope that folks will fully absorb the meaning of your words.

      As for your personal statement, I don’t know you, but I don’t believe that there is anybody who cannot turn away from the thrall of suicide. (See my post, “Is Suicide Inevitable for Some People?”)

      I wonder what all you’ve tried. There are so many things that can change your life, or, perhaps even more importantly, your perspective and perceptions. Perhaps this post of mine will be helpful to you: “Are You Thinking of Killing Yourself?

      Finally, please check out the resources I’ve compiled (a partial list, to be sure) for people who are considering suicide. There are all sorts of ways you can get help, from calling a hotline to participating anonymously in an online suicide chat room. Please click here for those resources.

      I am so sorry you feel hopeless and invisible. I hope you will consider the possibility that your thoughts may be wrong – that you are neither hopeless nor invisible, and that the number of days can be far longer, and peacefully so, than you expect at this time.

    • Nothing is ever hopeless and no person is invisible …. your light shines in way you cannot know as a human being. We are all here for a reason ….. maybe not to do great things but maybe as Mother Teresa said – to do small things with GREAT LOVE …. show yourself this great love and your true purpose will emerge. Yes we all should listen to one another ……. agreed ….I hope you are still there. God Bless you.

  9. Kathie Yount says:

    “Do police deserve a Teflon coating?” about the suicide baiting death of Dylan Yount in Hallidie Plaza, San Francisco, 2-16-10, is posted at

  10. Andrew says:

    Excellent article! You included both the Western approach of talking back and the Eastern approach of being mindful but unresponsive. I personally prefer the first method but it’s good to have options. By the way, have you read the book Transforming Negative Self-Talk?

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Thank you for the positive feedback, Andrew. I intend to write more on mindful observation, as well – stay tuned. I agree with you that talking back is very powerful, especially for people who have never had a voice to argue against suicidal thoughts. I have not read the book Transforming Negative Self-Talk, but based on your recommendation, it is now on my Kindle. It looks very good, with helpful, concrete tips. Thanks!

  11. Another highly helpful post Stacey. I love your ability to put into words what far too many are experiencing and battling, along with ways to combat these life threatening thoughts.

    My heart goes out to Kathie Yount, as well as to her son Dylan. I had shared quite a while ago the deeply disturbing story of her son being baited while so many stood around doing nothing and in fact, incited and encouraged baiting. Truly heart breaking that society has this much disregard for human life, and it’s pretty obvious the judge in this instance is clueless as to what is happening when someone is suicidal. She should be permanently relieved of her ability to pass judgement when she is so poorly informed. Verdicts like hers show exactly how much work is still to be done when it comes to educating the masses about mental illness and suicide. Stigma is always about ignorance (lack of knowledge) combined with fear, learned beliefs and perspective. Unfortunately with 1 million a year worldwide taking their lives, none of us can afford to be ignorant or ambivalent.

    Unfortunately it appears most who have not had suicide impact their lives directly know very little about it. I wish it wasn’t that way and work diligently to help educate and dispel the very stigma that’s claiming so many lives, but am absolutely disgusted this judge shows such little regard for human life and think she would have very different perspective if she lost someone near and dear to her this way. There appears absolutely no compassion or understanding and much effort to support the officers/officials present that day meant to save lives who failed as well. She failed miserably at carrying out her duties here and I hope and pray this does NOT set a precedent. Disgusting and dehumanizing sums it up.

    My condolences to Kathie and all those who have lost someone to suicide. May the world become better educated, be willing to open their hearts and minds and actually get informed to help save lives BEFORE they lose someone to suicide. RIP Dylan, society let you down.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Barb, you described very well the anguish in the case of Dylan and his mother. It is tragic, not only Dylan’s suicide but also the police officers’ failure to intervene with the taunting crowd, and the judge’s refusal to hold the officers responsible. I will need to write an article about suicide baiting.

      Thank you for your feedback about my article. You are very kind. Of course, your Facebook site Suicide Shatters is highly helpful, too. I encourage anyone reading this to check it out.

    • Kathie Yount says:

      “A comic strip testimony of suicide baiting” is published at iPinion Syndicate at

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Kathie, your column and the comic to which you link are wrenching. Suicide, whatever the context, brings so much pain. Thank you for sharing your pain and, in turn, touching others who may be helped by your words.

  12. Al Jones says:

    Excellent article! As one who spent way too much time in suicidal ideation I heartily concur with the concept of “talking back” to the suicidal thoughts. “That’s foolish!”, “Oh, that’s gonna hurt!”, “It isn’t gonna last!” and a slew of other ways to let my, and I love the idea, Defense Attorney have his say.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Thank you for your feedback, Al. Those are great comments for rebutting the suicidal thoughts.

      I am intrigued by your website It is great that your site offers support to people with recurrent or longstanding suicidal thoughts. this group faces a great deal of stigma and resistance in the mental health field. Your website reminds me that I will need to write a post about this sometime soon. Thank you.

  13. Kathie Yount says:

    Great post, Stacey, like always. What one judge would tell to the suicidal is to jump. Please read and share “Judge’s stand on suicide baiting: Let them jump” at

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Thanks, Kathie. I’m very sorry to read of the judge’s opinion in your case. It’s hard for me to fathom that police do not have a responsibility to ensure, above all, the safety of a suicidal person. Terribly tragic. Here this post was about talking back to suicidal thoughts, and suicide baiting is an externalization of those thoughts – the crowd colludes blithely with the murderous brain. I wish you much healing and peace.