One of Albert Einstein’s lesser known quotes — but for me one of his most profound — was, “The most important question you can ever ask is if the world is a friendly place.”
Add to that Erik Erikson’s first step of psychosocial development, Basic Trust vs. Mistrust, and you have a mandate for parents on what they need to do to give their child the best chance for the best life and to help prevent depression and possibly suicide later in life.
When infants and very young children, who are all still highly dependent on their parents for everything including their psychological well-being are treated with unconditional love, accurate (vs. over indulgent) empathy, compassion when they are hurt or afraid, encouragement and guidance when they most doubt themselves, those infants and children think to themselves and internalize into their personalities ”Yes, the world is friendly vs. dangerous and yes, I can trust the world vs. distrust it.”
However, when instead of that they must conform their thoughts, feelings and behavior to rigid, critical, punitive and then coldly abandoning parents if they don’t comply, they think to themselves and internalize into their personalities, “I am bad, I must be punished and if I don’t become who my parents expect to me, they will shame me, shut me out or leave me.”
The double standard for the child is feeling on the one hand a psychological ultimatum and veritable “gun to their developing personality” that they must abandon whoever they truly are becoming to conform to their parents’ emotional and psychological needs.
On the other hand, if that child needs their parents to come to where that child is emotionally and psychologically, not because that child is rebellious or resistant, but because they are just not able to adapt to the emotional/psychological needs and expectations of their parent, and are met by criticism, punishment and threat of abandonment, that is planting the seeds for a child feeling suicidal or violently retaliatory later in life.
In an earlier blog in this series: Why people kill themselves-Part 2: It’s not depression, we discussed that although depression contributes to suicidal thinking, it is feeling des-pair, i.e. unpaired with reasons to live and pairing with death to relieve it, that may push them over the brink.
If a person internalized into the core of their personalities that the world is dangerous and that they need to mistrust everyone (because how could strangers who their parents warned them about be let in), it’s easy to see how they could fall into a state of des-pair.
What to do
If you’re someone in the life of a person who is severely depressed and/or having suicidal thoughts, there is a way to break through their des-pair and even possibly into their core of feeling the world is dangerous and they can’t trust anyone.
Ask them, “At the very worst and most unbearable that life can be for you, how alone did you feel?”
In all likelihood, they will respond with, “Very alone” or “Totally alone” or “Completely alone.”
At that point say to them, “Tell me about such a time or moment and I promise not to get freaked out or jump in to tell you everything is going to be fine or give you advice or solutions that you don’t want.”
When they tell you about such a time, let them finish speaking, pause and then ask them, “What did you think when that happened (or was going on)?” Let them talk and finish without interrupting them. Then ask, “What did you feel when that happened?” Again, let them talk and finish without interrupting them. Then ask, “What did you do?” and once more let them talk and finish without interrupting them.
Then say, “Look at me. I’m sorry I didn’t know it was so bad and I’m even more sorry if I came off as not wanting to know. As your (friend, parent, brother, sister, etc.), going forward I don’t want you to feel that alone again. Going forward, if you get to feeling that way, what should I always do and what should I never do. And talk to me like I’m five with simple observable actions because I want to get this right.”
Hopefully, they will open up and share their answers to all of these questions and quite possibly cry with relief, because you have helped them feel less alone.
When they finish, look them in the eyes and say to them, “One last thing. I’m so sorry you’ve felt so alone for so long and I love you.”
- Why people kill themselves (and others) — Part 1 (of 8) “I’m going to kill myself”
- Why people kill themselves — Part 2: It’s not depression
- Why people kill themselves- Part 3: Journey into and out of the Dark Night of the Soul
- Why people kill themselves — Part 4: The “save a life” conversation
- Why people kill themselves- Part 5: Interventional empathy for Suicide Hotlines — Seven Words
- Why people kill themselves — Part 6: Design Thinking Suicide Prevention
- Why people kill themselves- Part 8: Beyond Columbine — A conversation with Sue Klebold