Friday, December 6, 2013


This post is inspired by David Brooks’ op-ed on suicide in Friday’s on-line New York Times (  I am always impressed by Brooks’ mastering all manner of psychological issues with the confidence of his conservative ideology of moralism, the effeteness of self-indulgence (“By deciding to live, a person in a suicidal situation can prove that life isn’t just about racking up pleasure points”), responsibility to self and sacrifice to the social compact.  Let us salute the ideologue and get to work, hard work!

Like the majority (I assume) of therapists, I have never had a client who committed suicide on my watch or, as far as I know, at any time after our therapy experience together.  But unlike others, I have the temerity to suggest a practicable theory that may save those who are ambivalent about killing themselves to the extent of coming to therapy.

One part of the theory is that people, for the most part, feel strongly suicidal because of the toxic downward spiral caused by the mixing of bio-psycho-emotional pain with thought.  Thought may be a discrete idea occurrence, an attitude, or a philosophy.  Yes, I am sure that physical pain in the extreme can be so colossal that it brings a felt need for ending oneself.  And, overwhelming emotional pain – overwhelming as sheer quantity that overtakes the body – might do the same, even in a life that had been healthy and positive.  In many or most cases, though, people who contemplate suicide are not experiencing only a mute emotion of terribleness, but have found it birthing thoughts that entrap and empower the emotion.  I must make it clear how this idea is not pointing to cognitive therapy’s “catastrophizing” concept.  I do not believe that the suicidal emotion is misconstrued by the individual to be worse than it is.  The feeling, which as one knows from Gendlin’s Focusing process may be extraordinarily complex and historically very deep, is the metamorphic substance composed of countless “sedimentary layers” of abandonment, identity and love loss, and more.  It is real and may indeed be the emotional equivalent of “death.”  But it is when the pain touches the thought or attitude that it becomes actionably deadly.  Feelings, which are in the body, themselves are changeable by known and unpredictable processes.  A feeling that is proved, however, by a mental conclusion – that is too likely to be a frozen, elemental and unarguable truth, one that may not be denied.

From my history, I am capable of unpredictably experiencing some sickly moribund feelings, even on a lazy Sunday, or during a walk with the dog.  Like a magnet, the painful feelings may draw to them – like spirits from all corners of my history – memories of failures and disappointments.  If I allow it, the next step is that all these feeling and memory wraiths will coalesce to meaning, a kind of proclamation, though it may not be spoken.  Had I experienced “soul murder” (Shengold; Schatzman) in childhood, evil or pain that ripped my continuity, the proclamation that formed might be that death is the one way.  Fortunately, I did not have these experiences.  For me, the meaning that takes shape like a kaleidoscope in its turning is more likely to be of futility, of a life partly unlived.  However, I generally do not allow this coalescing, but instead let the feeling come, stay, pulse, and speak to me caringly like a confidante.  And this brings us to what may help our clients.

People, in general, are not suicidal because they are in pain.  They are suicidal because their pain has not been helped out of them, they become alone with it, and in this terrible aloneness can only keep it company with their thoughts.  It is probably safe to say these thoughts are always meant to be an explanation or a comfort – even a child’s owning guilt about “not being sexy enough” is better than the feeling-truth that her parent is a monster.  But whatever their nature – self-consoling, self-blaming to exonerate a “bad object” parent – the thoughts now have congealed feeling to an intractable state, a delusional state where it can’t pour out of the system, pour into the arms of a loving mother, or into the strong container of a therapist’s wise and caring attention.

People become suicidal when their pain cannot be expressed and heard.  Tell your client about the abyssal depth of hurt locked in her body from the earliest, most critical years.  Tell her that this truth is not polite, multi-syllabic, conversational or quiet but childlike, raw, long, rending and screaming and that this is what she needs to express, and you will give her all the time she needs to express it.  Something in her – though it’s deeply buried in cellular memory and by our silicon valley selfie culture – knows this is true, but you must encourage this deepest inarticulate hurt to finally come out.  There is no identity of death there, no inevitability of suicide.  It’s mostly loneliness, hurting alone for so long.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.