Suicide as an Escape from the Self
People who commit suicide don't want to end their life–just stop the pain.
Posted Jun 11, 2018
The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have cast the topic of suicide into public attention once again. Although approximately 45,000 Americans commit suicide each year (more than 120 per day, on average), most of us generally don’t pay much attention unless it’s someone we know personally. Celebrity suicides jumpstart the conversation both because such individuals are familiar to millions of people and because we are often puzzled by why someone with so much fame, status, and wealth would take his or her life.
Suicide is a complex phenomenon, and I am not going to deal with the complexities here. Rather, I want to focus on one element that virtually all suicides seem to have in common because that feature is directly relevant to the theme of this blog.
Given the exceptionally strong motive to survive that we observe in all animals, why would a person want to take his or her own life? And, why are human beings the only animals that appear to do so? (The notion that lemmings commit mass suicide is a myth that was fueled by a cinematographic fraud in the 1950s.) Only human beings purposefully kill themselves.
Dr. Roy Baumeister, a noted social psychologist and international authority on self and identity, has offered a perspective that may identify the core element underlying suicide. Baumeister suggested that people who attempt suicide are not trying to kill themselves per se. That is, their primary goal is not to end their life.
Rather, they are trying to escape exceptionally painful thoughts and feelings about themselves and their lives. A person in the throes of despair who is contemplating suicide would presumably settle happily for a pill that eliminated negative, painful self-thoughts and feelings over the final act of killing him or herself. Other animals do not kill themselves because they do not have the desperate thoughts and feelings often plague human beings.
A great deal of all of the distress that we all experience in life is fed by the ways we talk to ourselves in our own minds. I’m not saying that people’s problems aren’t real. They certainly are: life is filled with unhappy, distressing, and traumatic events that happen to us, as well as many failures to get good things that we desire. That’s life. But our problems are magnified many times over because most of us have trouble not thinking about all of the bad things that happen. So, even when we are not directly facing a problem at the moment, we are nonetheless tormented by thoughts about it in our mind. Our self-thoughts can keep our distress alive almost every waking moment.
We not only replay negative events that have happened to us, but we also worry about what’s coming down the road. Even when daily life is okay at the moment, it’s sometimes ruined by memories of the past and fears of the future. And we also ponder the existential implications of the things that happen. What do they say about me as a person? Am I incompetent, a failure? Am I a good person or am I evil? Do other people dislike and reject me? Does my life have any purpose or meaning? Are my problems solvable, or is my future hopeless? Can I handle the ongoing unhappiness and pain?
Most of us fall into these patterns of thought at times. We can’t stop the flood of distressing self-talk and sometimes look for ways to escape our own thoughts. Some of those ways of escaping our distressing thoughts are mostly beneficial–such as meditating, exercising, listening to music, or getting lost in a good book or movie. Others are less good for us–excessive alcohol and drug use, overeating, risky behavior, and other escapist activities can sometimes quiet down our existential angst for awhile.
But, these incessant negative thoughts can spin people into chronic depression that then fuels even more negative thoughts, making people more miserable and the future look increasingly bleak, and increasing emotional pain and despair. And at some point, when they’ve reached the limit of torment they can endure, some people (particularly those with a biological predisposition for major depression) may consider suicide to stop the pain. From the outside, we think their lives are going fine. Inside, their negative ruminations have created an intolerable hell.
According to Baumeister, attempting suicide can provide a means of escaping painful thoughts, self-recrimination, and painful feelings in two ways. Most obviously, a person who kills him or herself has effectively solved the problem of intolerable misery. The pain ends, at least for himself or herself (though it's just starting for those left behind).
However, even when a suicide attempt is unsuccessful, as most are, the simple act of trying to kill oneself may help the person escape negative self-thoughts for a while. Simply thinking about how to kill oneself can produce a state of concrete thinking that minimizes the sort of abstract self-thoughts that create despair.
When people are contemplating suicide, they think in rigid, narrow, and concrete ways as they focus intently on mundane details of the act. Because concentrating on plans for the suicide mutes higher-level thoughts about the past, future, and existential concerns, people sometimes achieve a feeling of emptiness or numbness. People who have attempted suicide often report experiencing a sense of detachment or release as they made their plans, which was an improvement over the despair that prompted them to consider suicide in the first place. As Baumeister observed, “An unsuccessful attempt at suicide may be a successful attempt at escape.”
Although we normally view people who commit suicide as wanting to end their life, Baumeister’s “escaping the self” theory suggests that the proximal goal is actually to stop the painful thoughts and feelings. That doesn’t mean that the person does not have problems that need to be addressed. But it does highlight the fact that managing thoughts and feelings–through psychotherapy, social support, medication, or a suicide hotline–might be the first needed step.
Baumeister, R. F. (1990). Suicide as escape from self. Psychological Review, 97(1), 90-113.
Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Escaping the Self: Alcoholism, Spirituality, Masochism, Other Flights from Burden of Selfhood. New York: Basic Books.