A Psychoanalytic Approach to understand the ‘why’ of Suicide

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  • No one commits suicide because they want to die but because they want to stop the pain.

  • Suicide may stem not only from the attack of superego on the ego but as an attempt by the ego to end the pain associated with living. It’s important to highlight that such pain may not always be associated with external factors.

By Dr. Farah Naqvi

The human mind, at times, behaves strangely. The more one decides not to think about something, the more it thinks. Hearing of suicide – be it of someone known to us personally or someone completely unknown, creates a deep void, feeling of helplessness and questions with difficult or no answer. The person who commits suicide is gone, but the ones left behind are left examining the same question repeatedly ‘why suicide?’ People commit suicide for different reasons. When someone commits suicide driven by extreme poverty, illness or grief, people find solace in the known cause. However, when we hear of a suicide of a person with a positive, inspiring and happy disposition leading a socially enviable life, the question ‘why’ keeps floating for a longer time. Tiffanie DeBartolo, in her book ‘How to Kill a Rock Star’, writes that no one commits suicide because they want to die but because they want to stop the pain.

While researching on certain psychological commonalities found in people committing suicide, Edwin Shneidman found that they were all trying to seek a solution to a problem causing intense suffering. The common stimulus is ‘intolerable emotion and unacceptable anguish’ termed as ‘psychache’ by Shneidman. Suicide is seen as a goal to end the consciousness to ease the pain. A commonly noted cognitive state is that of ambivalence where the suicidal person wishes to die and simultaneously wishes to be rescued. The feeling of helplessness and hopelessness is often a driving emotion behind suicide. The act of ending life is opted by a suicidal person when stressors push the person to self-destruction, and suicide appears to be the only escape route for freedom from misery. Some individuals with suicidal intention sometimes emit clues giving signals of distress, helplessness, seeking intervention through direct or indirect expression; while others may appear totally joyful from the outside and their suicide comes like a blow.

This article will attempt to explore suicide from a psychoanalytic approach, that is built on the foundational idea that ones’ behavior is often determined by experiences from past lodged in the unconscious mind, exploring it from the perspective of ‘self’. Freud (1917) in his published work titled ‘Mourning and melancholia’ acknowledged a notable paradox in suicide. He wrote that the ego’s self-love is so immense that the ego consenting to its own self-destruction is inconceivable. So often it is the sadistic attacks of the superego that drives the ego to suicide. Ego is the realistic part in us that mediates between the desires of the id (primitive part of the mind that contains sexual and aggressive drives and hidden memories) and the super-ego (that operates as a moral conscience).

To further understand the psychology behind suicide from the perspective of ‘self’, its critical to talk of the idea of ‘self-concept’. Self-concept, an important term in humanistic psychology, is how an individual thinks about, evaluates or perceives themselves. A person’s self-concept begins to develop in early childhood, depending on how adults respond to him/her. Self-concept has three components, as defined by Carl Rogers. The first component is ‘self-image’ that comprises how one sees oneself based on maybe physical description, social roles and personality traits. E.g., I am a good looking, tall, hardworking student. The second component is of ‘self-esteem’ or self-worth, the extent to which we like, accept and value ourselves. Self-esteem has an element of self-evaluation. People with positive self-esteem are optimistic, self-accepting with confidence in their abilities. People with low self-esteem are always worrying what others might be thinking of them, and lacking confidence they want to be or look like someone else. In constant comparison with others, if they find others to be more successful happier, richer or better, it affects their self-image negatively. The third component is what we wish we were like, ideal-self. If there is a mismatch between how we see ourselves and what we would like to be (ideal-self) it can cause incongruence. A negative self-image, poor self-esteem and incongruence between real and ideal self, can create emotional disturbance, dissatisfaction and unrest. Based on self-psychological theory, Reiser in the year 1992 wrote of several new explanations of suicide addressing self-states, such as endangerment, narcissistic depletion, and vulnerability, as possible contributors to suicidal thoughts and acts.

The points below attempt to understand how suicidal dynamics may be caused or triggered by following experiences of the ‘self’.

The endangered self: Here, the self may be torn among the longing for closeness and threat of engulfment. Talking of self-concept, it’s important to mention of ‘remembered self’. As long-term memory develops, children also gain the remembered self that includes memories and information recounted by adults. They become a part of an individual’s life story or autobiographical memory. Owing to negative memories in the remembered self, poor self-esteem or adverse experiences, a person may fear entering close relationships and resort to isolation, restriction, and compulsive lifestyle. E.g., ‘I love him, but I will never say; for I don’t know what will happen if he accepts or rejects my love’. Suicide may present itself as a coping mechanism with the fear of breakdown of the defence leading to obliteration.

The grandiose self:  Grandiosity refers to an individual sense of superiority, a defining characteristic of narcissism. Thanks to parents or family members who strongly believe in giving their child positive feedback always rather than a realistic preview. The child grows up with a thought process, ‘I am the best. He/she doesn’t stand anywhere in comparison to me.’ Such individuals fantasizing perfection, superiority need people recognition to bolster their self -worth and to sustain their grandiose image. They find themselves doomed seeing the relevant other doing better than them or when encountered with a failure. Empathic failure with their ‘image’ from those around them leads to frustration and rage. Suicide may appear like an escape to save the ‘self’ from disintegration.

The enraged self: The person who has a negative self-image due to unconscious adoption of negative ideas and attitudes projected by his family or parents may perceive himself as a victim or attacked. Such people sometimes are unable to forego or remain attached to childhood abusive experiences. Suicide may stem as a means of expression of rage against these introjects. As per Freud, a class of drives, the life and death instincts are responsible for much of our behavior. Life instincts are focused on the preservation of life manifesting in behaviors like love, social cooperation supporting individual well-being. On the contrary, the death instinct present in all living organisms stands in stark contrast to the instinct to survive, procreate, and satisfy desires and may manifest in the form of outward aggression or self-harm. Freud noticed that many of his patients who had traumatic experiences and who recalled the repressed negative experiences as a contemporary experience rather than a thing of the past ended up nurturing their death instinct. This took them far from seeking healthy relationships and making positive choices in life. Life tests all of us in unique ways calling on us to strive for a balanced state by neutralizing the effects of death instinct by life instinct. However, in some unfortunate cases where an individual’s life instinct seems totally thwarted by traumatic experiences, present situational circumstances or other factors, suicide can be the most extreme manifestation of the death instinct.

The vulnerable self:  Several studies of suicide suggest that certain personality and psychological traits may predispose a person to suicide. Smith (1985) in his work ‘suicide assessment’ proposed that certain characteristics like high self-expectations, a tendency to inhibit negative emotions, lack of ability to deal with grief and losses, overly dependent relationships are some of the characteristics defining a vulnerable personality. Negative self-judgment, a deep sense of worthlessness, is also associated with suicide vulnerability. It may arise when a person may envision a dream, invests hard in it but fails to realize it and experience disappointments leading to pervasive dissatisfaction. Lack of positive resources in environment like understanding family, friends, work or pets may further enhance feelings of despair. Human beings have this need for positive ‘self-regard’, the need for love, affection and respect, and they strive to achieve the same in life. While Freud talked of the central role of depression in suicide, Heinz suggests that when this ‘self-regard’ is in threat, driven by self-contempt and feelings of hopelessness a person may engage in suicide ideation.

The mirroring self: An experience felt by those who are highly sensitive to the feelings of others. ‘Wherever I am needed, be it at work, family or in social circle I am present and fully willing to extend myself to help others even if it be at the cost of myself.’ Such an individual may engage in self-sacrifice directing his empathy to others and depriving self from it. In the long run, it may lead to emotional exhaustion, loneliness, depression and emptiness, more so if the reward of this service is contradictory to ones’ expectations or surprisingly grim. The individual may be forced to search for avenues to vent his feelings while trying to deal with the anger and regrets of life. To end the pain associated with failure despite giving ones’ best, the ego may make the person contemplate suicide.

So we see that suicide may stem not only from the attack of superego on the ego but as an attempt by the ego to end the pain associated with living. It’s important to highlight that such pain may not always be associated with external factors like; he/she committed suicide because of Xyz person or mental health factors like depression and others. Stress caused by experiences related to ‘self’ as discussed above causing threat to self-regard, negative self-judgment, inability to embrace failure owing to a grandiose self-image coupled with worthlessness and hopelessness can also throw some light in answering the question ‘why suicide’- More so, in cases where it’s difficult to attribute a known cause to suicide. The need of the hour is to focus on developing coping mechanisms at the individual level and nurturing social structures that can support a person undergoing a tough or conflicting situation. The idea is to enable people to see the light instead of contemplating escape through suicide, leaving behind the haunting question’ why’.

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Dr. Farah Naqvi is a writer, academician and behavioral scientist. She started her career with Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and worked with institutions like ICFAI Hyderabad, IBA Bangalore and Center for Organization Development, Hyderabad as Assistant Professor. Currently, she is associated with Indian Institute of Business Psychology (IIBP) as Senior Researcher.

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