Crucial Conversations

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Confronting Destructive and Manipulative Behavior

What to do when a loved one threatens suicide

The biggest obstacle we face in life is making wise decisions in the face of overwhelming emotion. It’s impossible for most of us to imagine how hard it would be to think clearly when a loved one is threatening suicide. Here are some important principles Jodi Hildbrandt, a licensed clinical social worker I deeply respect, and I recommend for holding crucial conversations about a loved one’s destructive and manipulative behavior.

1. Get professional advice before proceeding. You need to describe your loved one’s specific symptoms and behavioral patterns to a professional to determine whether he or she is at immediate risk of harming himself or herself or others. If so, your response should not be to cave into his or her demands, but to get compulsory help. If, after consultation, you are confident a significant portion of the issue is behavioral and not purely neurological or chemical, the following advice may be helpful.

2. Your loved one’s problems are more about bad skills than bad motives. Your loved one has developed some maladaptive habits in order to manage legitimately painful emotions. Withdrawal, self-loathing, threats of suicide, and passive/aggressive behavior are ways of escaping emotions he or she has no other skills to deal with.

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Help your loved one—perhaps for the first time in his or her life—develop clear, concrete boundaries that keep him or her from using others as a scapegoat for the emotional pain he or she is dealing with. Please be clear that these boundaries are not just for him or her, they are also for you. Sometimes, the best way for your loved one to learn to better care for himself or herself is to experience others who are willing to courageously take care of themselves. Establish and hold boundaries for your own emotional health and to give your loved one the option of improving his or her own.

3. Your belief that you can control your loved one’s behavior is what is keeping you stuck. Your loved one’s threats of suicide have persuaded you that your actions will determine his or her choices. This is not true. What is true is that your loved one may use your actions as justification for decisions in his or her life, but that is his or her choice, not yours. The instant you choose to believe it is true rather than his or her choice, you become an enabler. You empower your loved one to manipulate you and reinforce his or her own belief that others are responsible for his or her emotions.

Your loved one is unlikely to become mentally healthy so long as you reinforce this belief. You are not responsible for your loved one’s choices. You cannot control what he or she will do or will not do. Continuing to believe you can does not decrease the chance of your loved one making a terrible decision. If anything, it increases it by distracting him or her from the work he or she will need to do to become more healthy.

After using these ideas to view the situation, here’s how to proceed:

1. Firmly and lovingly request time to talk about your relationship. I say “firmly” because your loved one may want to avoid this kind of honest exchange. If he or she does, then be firm—create safety for him or her by clarifying your positive intentions: “I want to talk because I want a healthy, wonderful relationship with you. That is not what I believe we have right now. I am happy to wait until you feel okay having this conversation, but in the meantime, I will need to keep some distance from you to maintain my own health and peace. I hope you understand that.”

You are not responsible for whether he or she takes you up on this now or decides to wait a while. Do not water-down or apologize for the request. In fact, this firm and loving request is your opportunity to model the way he or she needs to care for his or her own emotional well-being.

2. Communicate clear, written boundaries. Carefully consider each behavior your loved one enacts that is unacceptable to you. Let him or her know the boundary you will maintain if it happens again. Explain why you need this boundary—not as a punishment for him or her, but as a way of caring for your own needs. Help him or her understand how you feel when he or she does these things.

For example, you might say, “When you said you were planning to kill yourself, I felt hurt, terrified, and angry. I felt resentful that you would put that responsibility on me when it is not mine. If this happens in the future, I will need to distance myself from you. It is not that I don’t care, it is that I will not allow you to manipulate me in that way. Instead, I will notify mental health professionals that you are at risk for harming yourself, and then will not have contact with you until you have gotten help.”

Helping your loved one understand the natural consequences to you of his or her actions—if done in love and patience—can help your loved one feel much differently about his or her choices. In fact, it is the only thing that can motivate him or her to change. Your loved one is likely so caught up in his or her own emotional world that he or she has no idea how his or her actions are affecting you and others.

1. Acknowledge your loved one’s emotions, but don’t own them. While discussing these boundaries, be careful to listen to and validate any emotions your loved one shares. Just don’t accept responsibility for them. For example, if he or she says, “You call yourself a sibling and you will cut me off when I need you the most!” you could respond, “To you, my decision to not stay close when you threaten suicide seems hurtful and disloyal. Is that right?” Simply affirm that you understand the feelings he or she is having and what he or she believes is causing them. Don’t argue with his or her logic or tell your loved one he or she’s wrong. Just ensure he or she feels heard.

2. Focus and surrender. The hardest and most important thing to do is to be willing to accept whatever will happen in the future without feeling responsible for it. Do this by focusing on what you really want. You don’t just want your loved to be alive. You want him or her to be happy and healthy. You can’t get there from here. You will have to take uncomfortable steps into new habits and responses to do the only thing you can do to increase his or her odds of getting there. From there, you must surrender the illusion that there is more you can do. You cannot guarantee your loved one will not take his or her own life any more than you can guarantee that he or she will become mentally healthy. All you can do is maintain the unhealthy status quo by continuing to do what you’ve been doing.

Joseph Grenny is a behavior change expert, four-time New York Times best-selling author, and co-founder of VitalSmarts.

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