Suicide for Some Is an Escape from 'The Self'

By McNamara, Damian | Clinical Psychiatry News, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Suicide for Some Is an Escape from 'The Self'

McNamara, Damian, Clinical Psychiatry News

MIAMI -- Suicide for some people is a means to escape "the self," a process with six steps that ultimately leads someone to attempt to kill himself or herself.

The theory of self is very prominent in social psychology. The self tries to maximize its own esteem, seeks pleasure, and avoids pain. "Social psychologists have a theory that everything people do is to avoid death. Suicide is obviously counter-intuitive to this theory," said Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D.

Although there are many aspects of suicidal behavior that fit the escape from self model, there are other pathways to suicide, said Dr. Baumeister, the Francis Eppes Eminent Professor of Psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee. His presentation at the annual conference of the American Association of Suicidology focused on suicide attempters, not completers. "Even an unsuccessful attempt can be a successful escape from self--people are treated differently afterwards."

Dr. Baumeister said that if any of the following six steps are avoided, the person does not attempt to commit suicide:

* 1. Falling short, disappointment. There is a particular event in someone's social environment that sets the suicidal process in motion. There is higher risk if a person's standards are exceptionally high or their life circumstances are especially bad.

* 2. Internal attributions. If someone blames external events, they do not commit suicide. If they blame themselves, they keep the process in motion. At this stage, they think that when something bad happens, it is because something is wrong or bad about them.

* 3. Aversive, high self-awareness. At this stage people focus on themselves in a bad way, and are almost always comparing themselves to how they should be. They perceive themselves as deficient, compared with a standard, such as other people's expectations.

* 4. Emotional distress. People who perceive there is something wrong with themselves experience anxiety, depression, guilt, and shame.

* 5. Cognitive deconstruction. People want to escape from unpleasant emotions, and they avoid meaningful thoughts about themselves. This tactic does not completely get rid of the self, but without meaningful thought the person goes numb. While numb, they avoid the unpleasant consequences of steps 2, 3, and 4. People at this stage only have short-range goals. The more that they confine their self-awareness to the here and now, the more the self shrinks down to a bare minimum. A person is left with just the sensation of themselves as a human body, they do not think about themselves in the context of society.

* 6. Disinhibition and other consequences. Most people have inhibitions about killing themselves. Once people clear themselves of meaningful thinking, which would convince them a suicidal act is wrong, they are disinhibited. In this final stage, people have no optimism or sense of how to return to life.

It is difficult for the brain to remain at this low level of thinking, but a person will struggle to maintain it. The optimal situation is one where someone thinks meaningfully again and makes sense of life in a new way. But if for some reason he cannot put himself in a new construct, the aversive self-awareness and emotional distress return. The person then alternates between numbness and aversive self-awareness. "Alternating between being numb and feeling very bad is not a good thing," Dr. Baumeister said.

"In this theory, the appeal of suicide is oblivion, to make it stop. The mental tricks do not make the meaningful thoughts stop, so suicide would stop them," he said.

People in the deconstructive state often have cognitive distortions and irrational beliefs. The most extreme fantasy situation is to escape the self by becoming someone else, Dr. Baumeister said. When asked whether they ever wished they were someone else, 20% of suicidal people studied will say yes, compared with 0% of controls. …

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