Month: February 2016

Shame after a Suicide Attempt

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Reader’s Question

I often sit in the middle of the night stuck with my obsessive thinking about a topic. I try to name and understand my feelings related to my suicide attempt three years ago or two; I’m not so sure about the date. Sometimes when I think about my suicide attempt I feel weak and feel humiliated by own self. I am being consumed by the idea that the people who know about my attempt are thinking that I am weak, miserable and self-conscious about the fact that I attempted to end my life. In short I really want to know more about why I get this sinking feeling. I am proud to say that I am pretty curious about psychology and aware that what I am feeling is not normal. I have tried several times to find out about it but with no results. I hope you can help me by at least naming the feeling.

Psychologist’s Reply

I think what you feel may be what many who have been in your shoes have felt before: shame. It is that feeling of guilt, regret and sadness that we all feel at times in our life. Unfortunately, shame can be a very devastating emotion that can make our situation and struggles worse, not better. Shame is an emotion of disgrace and unworthiness that comes from inside of us. However, that is only part of what someone who is in recovery from a suicide attempt must face. There is another part that is just as crippling: stigma. Stigma comes from the world around us. Society sends that message that we are flawed in some way, weak and undeserving, and that what we have done is unforgivable or taboo.

There is significant stigma around people who have thought about suicide, who have tried to kill themselves or who have even completed suicide. The messages we receive about suicide from the media, our peers, and even our families portray those who are struggling with suicide as weak, crazy or defective, and selfish. This stigma is often quite harmful and does not account for facts about depression or about the chemicals in our brain. The stigma only serves to make those who struggle with depression and suicide feel more shameful. This can even lead to more suicidal thoughts. For some of my clients, it is a cycle that can go on and on.

Although attitudes toward suicide are slowly changing for the better — we’ve seen many people speak out on the stigma of suicide when Robin Williams died, for example — unfortunately, the stigma is still strong enough in our culture that it prevents most people, especially the elderly, from talking about it. Many people are afraid to talk about suicide, which only makes it more difficult to understand and help. If we are reluctant to say anything because of how others might react, we are less likely to seek help and support from those who can provide it. A good suicide prevention program seeks to remove the stigma associated with feeling this way.

There are many aspects to our society that are shaming towards those with depression and suicidal thoughts. We often say people “commit” suicide like they would “commit” a crime or a sin. This type of language has been used to try and shame people away from killing themselves. I understand that we as a society may have good intentions with this, but it only pushes those with depression to hide and not seek help they need. It only makes it worse.

Some of the most common thoughts expressed by my clients who have tried to suicide or were thinking about it are things like “I’m weak”, “I’m a burden to everyone” and “I must be crazy.” I’ve talked about these ideas before in my article “4 Myths About Suicide.” One of the worst things this stigma does is convince us that we need to hide our feelings and struggle on our own, alone. Feeling alone with our depression only serves to make it feel more intense. Often I hear my clients say that they won’t talk about it because family, friends, and doctors won’t understand. I can’t promise you that everyone you want to understand will (maybe because they have bought into the negative messages and stigma), but you are not alone. There are many out there who have had to deal with this just like you, and finding people who understand is helpful in recovering from a suicide attempt. Whether you find them in your family, friends, social network, or in a depression support group, it can be life changing. There are plenty of online resources as well to help you begin to understand what it means to recover from this, including at Waking Up Alive, What Happens Now?, and beyondblue. For many of us who know someone who is dealing with depression, we are often afraid to ask if they are thinking about suicide. Just asking, however, can go a long way toward helping reduce the stigma around it by saying it’s alright to talk about it.

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Wanting Friendships with Teachers

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Reader’s Question

Ever since I was a child I haven’t had many friends, and when I was getting bullied that number went to zero. I had to make friends with my teachers and after a while that’s what I was used to — sitting with them at lunch, talking to them at recess — and when I moved to a new school and made friends I kept that habit just in case my friends decided to bail on me. Now, whenever a teacher doesn’t like me it keeps me up at night, obsessing over every little thing that I might’ve done wrong. When I have a favorite teacher I always want to be there to help and relieve any stress they might have. But whenever I do something wrong or feel like I’m annoying them it’s devastating; I feel like I’m letting down a god. So my question is:

Is it unhealthy to put my teacher on this high of a pedestal and to want to be friends with them — not just to be friendly? Should I distance myself?

Psychologist’s Reply

It is very natural to admire teachers, to want to please them, and even to wish for friendships with them. Teachers often have qualities we wish for in ourselves — kindness, friendliness, wisdom, compassion, warmth -– and it is easy to become enamored of them. Teachers also pay attention to us, especially when we answer a question correctly or show effort in our work. Sometimes we make more meaning out of the attention, however, mistakenly thinking that we have a special relationship with a teacher that no one else has. All these thoughts and feelings are natural; it’s how we manage them and what we do with them that makes the difference.

I can understand how teachers have been especially kind to you, and how you feel their support and friendship when peers have not been as accepting (and have, instead, bullied). Sometimes when we have difficulty relating to others our own age (or, they have difficulty relating to us), we find much more in common with our teachers. However, while it is important to have our teachers and other trusted adults as our safety nets (much like you described when moving to a new school), it’s also important to continue to learn new ways to approach and make friendships with others our own age. Some teachers can help with these skills, but often a trusted counselor at the school or perhaps a licensed therapist or psychologist outside of school can offer specific tools for helping friendships and peer relationships go more smoothly.

Sometimes when individuals are concerned about what authority figures (like teachers) think of them, they can become anxious or flustered around them, and may also place them on a pedestal as you described. This can sometimes be a symptom of Social Anxiety Disorder, or Social Phobia. A qualified mental health practitioner can help determine if this might be going on for you, and if so, can offer structured ways to help you see teachers and other authority figures in a more realistic way. Teachers’ roles are to help their students learn, and students’ roles are to listen to their teachers and try their best with the lessons provided. When we come to misconstrue the relationship as closer, we begin to cross boundaries that have an important purpose — to ensure that students learn.

You also mentioned always wanting to be there for your teachers to help them with their stress. This is an important boundary that would be helpful for you to work on. It is not any child’s job to help alleviate stress in adults — it is the job of other adults with whom they have age-appropriate friendships and relationships. If a teacher becomes annoyed, it may be because they notice this boundary being crossed. Listening to the teacher, asking for help on school related concerns (both the learning material as well as peer conflicts), and following their directions is the appropriate way to have a good relationship with a teacher.

To answer your question, yes, it can be unhealthy for you to want an adult like friendship with your teachers. Rather than thinking of it as distancing, think about the healthy boundaries described above. Perhaps ask yourself how to channel your need to support and be friendly into your own peer relationships instead of those with your teachers. Once you start experimenting with putting more energy (with counselor support if needed) into your same age friendships, my guess is that you will get along better with your teachers, will have less worry about them, and will feel better about yourself, too.

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Setting Boundaries with Abusive Father

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Reader’s Question

I don’t know what to do anymore with my dad. When my parents divorced, I was 15 and I left with my dad. My whole life he always put me down, abused me in every way, manipulated me to believe anything, and even turned me against my mom. Everything he told me during the divorce turned out to be what he did, not her. So for 6 years I believed him, until I got with my husband and moved out at age 22. It turned out everything he said was a lie. He has changed me so badly that I can’t help but say sorry to anything, I blame myself for everything, I can’t take jokes no matter how small, I always put myself down, I always believe I have to do everything, and also I have to always please my father. It is now destroying my relationship with my husband. I have to call my father every day, see him once a week, and do anything he asks. I have tried so many times to end it but when he fights back, I’m not allowed to speak, he yells, fights, and even threatens to slap me. And every time I break down and back down to him. If I don’t do something soon I will lose my husband, son, everything I have. I don’t want to lose the first and only happiness in my life. He has destroyed me. I don’t know what to do and I need help.

Psychologist’s Reply

It sounds like you’ve been through some difficult years with your dad, but have also been able to gain perspective and notice the things that you don’t want to tolerate any longer. Moving out of his house seems like it was the first step to understanding his tactics as well as your own responses to them.

From your description, I get the sense that two things are happening:

  1. Your father is who he is, and it is doubtful that much of that will change.
  2. How you choose to respond to your father may give you more control in the relationship.

Sometimes, people feel powerless and trapped in the pattern of how they respond to others — especially parents. In these instances, it can be helpful to think about the amount of emotional and physical distance from your father that you might be able to tolerate. I noticed a lot of “have to’s” in your description, but I’m unsure what the consequences are if you don’t acquiesce. It sounds as if there are threats of abuse when and if you engage with him — and if someone is emotionally and physically abusive, there isn’t a healthy way to keep in contact with that individual until the abuse stops.

I’m wondering what keeps you connected to your father — is it out of obligation, the false hope of getting recognition from him, or something else? If he is willing to acknowledge and cease the abuse, I’m wondering if there is a way to set firmer boundaries without “ending it” with him — the fear of you cutting him off may be driving some of this behavior as well.

The first step I would recommend for anyone in a situation like this is to sit down and write out a schedule that would work and feel safe for you in terms of communicating with your father. Putting aside his demands and needs, if it were up to you, how often would you want to check in with him on the phone? How often would you want to see him? Would you want any contact at all with him after the way he’s treated you?

Once you have a better idea of what your needs are in the relationship (and have decided whether you want to have a relationship with him at all), it may be helpful for the two of you to sit down with a neutral third party (such as a licensed psychologist or licensed therapist) to find ways to communicate these boundaries with him in a way he can hear. It can be helpful to start with something like “Dad, I love you and want you to be part of our lives, but I have my own family that I have to put first sometimes. Can we find a way to meet someplace in the middle?” Another approach might be just to begin ignoring his calls and bids, and answering or agreeing to them only when you have the time and energy for them (and for him). You have every right to set limits on your own time and energy: they belong to you. If he yells and screams, you have the right to calmly leave or hang up the phone. In this approach, it is important for you to make a conscious effort to reach out to him — especially when you are both in a calm, neutral state. Trying to make changes when flooded with anger or frustration will only escalate the problems that already exist between you.

It can be very difficult to set boundaries with parents, or with others in our lives who pull for us to pay attention to them. Your anger toward your father is valid; it’s finding a way to effectively communicate that anger and set your own boundaries that is difficult. Talking to a licensed mental health provider may be most helpful for you given the pain you’ve experienced. I would also suggest reading Harriet Lerner’s Dance of Anger [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] as another resource in figuring out how to express your feelings clearly while navigating this difficult relationship.

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