Congressional Baseball . . . and the Psychology of Doing Good, Part II

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The evening after the shooting at the republican congressional baseball team’s practice, Mike Doyle, D-PA was standing beside Joe Barton, R-TX. In a PBS News Hour interview, Barton was describing the support he and his fellow republicans had received from Doyle and the democrats.

Barton said, “We have an R or a D by our name, but our title—our title is United States representative.”

Silence.

Barton had choked up with emotion.

Doyle’s response was, in a word, Gemeinschaftsgefühl. Another word to describe Doyle’s response might be, “Fantastic.”

Doyle noticed the silence. He looked over and up to Barton. He saw Barton’s tears. Then he reached out in compassion, squeezing and patting his friend’s arm.

I know there are cynics who’ll frame this as a corny or staged bipartisan exhibition. I don’t blame you. We’ve been fed so much polarizing rhetoric from the media and the internet that it’s hard to believe genuine human connection is possible.

So I’ll speak for myself. I’ve been hating the news media. But not this. The Doyle-Barton interaction is my favorite media moment of the year. It was a demonstration of how politicians can put aside differences and engage each other as compassionate humans.

We need to see more of this Gemeinschaftsgefühl.

You may not recognize (or be able to pronounce) the word Gemeinschaftsgefühl. But in your gut, you know what it means. You’ve experienced it many times.

Gemeinschaftsgefühl is a multidimensional German word. It includes social interest, community feeling, caring for others as equals, empathy, and the pull toward kindness, compassion, and companionship.

You also may not know about Alfred Adler. Adler was a popular psychiatrist in the early 1900s. He was Freud’s contemporary. He wrote about Gemeinschaftsgefühl. But like lots of Adlerian things, Gemeinschaftsgefühl has been overlooked. Adler believed humans were naturally predisposed to work together, cooperatively, in community, with empathy, and positive social feelings. Lydia Sicher, an Adlerian follower, captured his ideas with one of the best professional journal article titles of all time: A Declaration of Interdependence.

Interdependence and Gemeinschaftsgefühl are so natural that, unless we’re broken in some way, we cannot stop ourselves from experiencing empathy; we cannot stop ourselves from helping others in need.

We see this every day in our personal lives, but not so much in politics. If your neighbor (or a stranger) has fallen on the sidewalk, do you refuse to stop and help, based on political affiliation? Not likely. You help . . . because you’re wired to help.

You may have noticed that, now more than ever in the history of the planet, it’s easy to rise to the bait and insult other people. Aggression is natural too, but the media inflates it; the internet contributes to it; we’re fed a visual and auditory diet of political extremism. To be blunt: We need to turn that shit off.

What are other solutions? Gemeinschaftsgefühl is like a muscle. Without regular exercise, it can weaken. Without getting connected to real people in real time, we can become judgmental, insensitive, and mean.

About 10 years ago I had the good luck to watch a congressional baseball game on the West Point campus. The democrats were playing the West Point faculty. I longed to join in. This is another Adlerian principle. I longed to belong.

Almost always, the Adlerian solution is to increase belongingness and usefulness. The more you feel “in” the group and the more you feel useful to that group, the more you naturally experience Gemeinschaftsgefühl.

The opposite is also true. The less you feel part of a group and the less useful you feel, the more likely you are to seek power, control, attention, revenge, and despair. Who hasn’t felt that? No doubt, most shooters feel desperate, disconnected, and useless. That’s no excuse. It’s just one way to understand senseless, violent, and tragic actions.

Adler would say that we have a national problem of disconnection and uselessness. To address this, we need policies to promote inclusion and connection. A good place to start: integrated congressional baseball teams. We need Rs and Ds playing baseball with each other, not against each other. Cooperation, like most things, is contagious.

To further address national disconnection, members of both political parties should become Adlerians and help their constituents to feel included and useful. How to do that? Instead of meeting (or avoiding) town halls where disenfranchised constituents yell at their political representatives, we need new and improved town halls that focus less on venting and more on problem-solving. Problem-solving can help constituents feel useful and connected. But here’s an even more radical idea. The town halls shouldn’t be segregated. They should be held jointly, republicans and democrats, together.

Alfred Adler lived through World War I. The Nazis forced him to leave Austria and then quickly closed down his child guidance clinics. Despite all that, Adler still believed in Gemeinschaftsgefühl. If he could, we can too.

Various writers, and Adler himself, have noted that Gemeinschaftsgefühl essentially boils down to the edict “love thy neighbor.” Jon Carlson and Matt Englar-Carlson described Gemeinschaftsgefühl as being the “same as the goal of all true religions.” It’s not a bad goal for atheists and agnostics either.

Eighty years after his death, we still have much to learn from Alfred Adler. We need to do what he did every day. Get up. Put on our Gemeinschaftsgefühl pants, our love thy neighbor t-shirts, engage in community problem-solving, and, in honor of Joe Barton and Mike Doyle, reach across the aisle and start caring for each other.

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If you need a dose of Gemeinschaftsgefühl, check out Judy Woodruff’s interview of Barton and Doyle on the PBS News Hour (June 14, 2017): http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/rivals-baseball-field-congressmen-share-solidarity-shooting/

 

 

The Psychology of Doing Good

R and J in Field

At this point in history, it seems especially important to contemplate the psychology of doing good things in the world. I could have said this last month; and next month will doubtless be the same. The point is that even in these ostensibly difficult times, people aren’t built to exclusively do harm and be destructive . . . we’re also built to do good and be constructive. If I was into using bad metaphors, I might even say we’re hard-wired to do good.

You might wonder if I’m serious. Absolutely yes.

You might wonder why and how I would decide to write about doing good, when it seems so common right now for everyone to be doing the Dale Carnegie opposite: losing friends and insulting people.

The short answer to this is: Alfred Adler.

Alfred Adler is the short answer to many questions. He was a contemporary of Freud who perpetually saw the glass as half full. When Freud was writing about women having penis envy, Adler was writing about how women just wanted social equality and equal power. When Freud was writing about the death instinct, Adler was writing about the best and most important psychological concept of all time. What was it? Here it is. Get ready.

Gemeinschaftsgefühl

Gemeinschaftsgefühl roughly means social interest or community feeling. Carlson and Englar-Carlson (2017) provided the meaning of this uniquely Adlerian concept.

Gemein is “a community of equals,” shafts means “to create or maintain,” and Gefühl is “social feeling.” Taken together, Gemeinschaftsgefühl means a community of equals creating and maintaining social feelings and interests; that is, people working together as equals to better themselves as individuals and as a community.” (p. 43)

The coolest thing about Gemeinschaftsgefühl is that it’s all natural. We are pulled toward social interest and community feeling. In fact, there’s no other good explanation for why so many people around the world reach out to help their neighbors, friends, family, and strangers—without expecting anything in return.

As my friend and colleague Richard Watts has emphasized, Gemeinschaftsgefühl also makes for a fabulous therapy goal.

Tomorrow (or Thursday), I’ll be posting about Gemeinschaftsgefühl. For today, I just want you all to get to know Alfred Adler a bit better. So here’s a short excerpt about him from our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories text.

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Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was the second of six children born to a Jewish family outside Vienna. His older brother was brilliant, outgoing, handsome, and also happened to be named Sigmund. In contrast, Alfred was a sickly child. He suffered from rickets, was twice run over in the street, and experienced a spasm of the glottis. When he was 3 years old, his younger brother died in bed next to him (Mosak, 1972). At age 4, he came down with pneumonia. Later Adler recalled the physician telling his father, “Your boy is lost” (Orgler, 1963, p. 16). Another of Adler’s earliest memories has a sickly, dependent theme:

One of my earliest recollections is of sitting on a bench bandaged up on account of rickets, with my healthy, elder brother sitting opposite me. He could run, jump, and move about quite effortlessly, while for me movement of any sort was a strain and an effort. Everyone went to great pains to help me, and my mother and father did all that was in their power to do. At the time of this recollection, I must have been about two years old. (Bottome, 1939, p. 30)

In contrast to Freud’s childhood experience of being his mother’s favorite, Adler was more encouraged by his father. Despite his son’s clumsy, uncoordinated, and sickly condition, Adler’s father Leopold, a Hungarian Jew, firmly believed in his son’s innate worth. When young Alfred was required to repeat a grade at the same middle school Freud had attended 14 years earlier, Leopold was his strongest supporter. Mosak and Maniacci (1999) wrote about Adler’s response to his father’s encouragement:

His mathematics teacher recommended to his father that Adler leave school and apprentice himself as a shoe-maker. Adler’s father objected, and Adler embarked upon bettering his academic skills. Within a relatively short time, he became the best math student in the class. (p. 2)

Adler’s love and aptitude for learning continued to grow; he studied medicine at the University of Vienna. After obtaining his medical degree in ophthalmology in 1895, he met and fell in love with Raissa Timofeyewna Epstein, and married her in 1897. She had the unusual distinction of being an early socialist and feminist.

Historical Context

Freud and Adler met in 1902. According to Mosak and Maniacci (1999), Adler published a strong defense of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and consequently Freud invited Adler over “on a Wednesday evening” for a discussion of psychological issues. “The Wednesday Night Meetings, as they became known, led to the development of the Psychoanalytic Society” (p. 3).

Adler was his own man with his own ideas before he met Freud. Prior to their meeting he’d published his first book, Healthbook for the Tailor’s Trade (Adler, 1898). In contrast to Freud, much of Adler’s medical practice was with the working poor. Early in his career, he worked extensively with tailors and circus performers.

In February 1911, Adler did the unthinkable (Bankart, 1997). As president of Vienna’s Psychoanalytic Society, he read a highly controversial paper, “The Masculine Protest,” at the group’s monthly meeting. It was at odds with Freudian theory. Adler claimed that women occupied a less privileged social and political position because of social coercion, not physical inferiority.

The Vienna Psychoanalytic Society members’ response to Adler was dramatic. Bankart (1997) described the scene:

After Adler’s address, the members of the society were in an uproar. There were pointed heckling and shouted abuse. Some were even threatening to come to blows. And then, almost majestically, Freud rose from his seat. He surveyed the room with his penetrating eyes. He told them there was no reason to brawl in the streets like uncivilized hooligans. The choice was simple. Either he or Dr. Adler would remain to guide the future of psychoanalysis. The choice was the members’ to make. He trusted them to do the right thing. (p. 130)

The group voted for Freud to lead them. Adler left the building quietly, joined by the Society’s vice president, William Stekel, and five other members. They moved their meeting to a local café and established the Society for Free Psychoanalytic Research. The Society soon changed its name to the Society for Individual Psychology. This group believed that social, familial, and cultural forces are dominant in shaping human behavior. Bankart (1997) summarized their perspective: “Their response to human problems was characteristically ethical and practical—an orientation that stood in dramatic contrast to the biological and theoretical focus of psychoanalysis” (p. 130).

Adler’s break from Freud gives an initial glimpse into his theoretical approach. Adler identified with common people. He was a feminist. These leanings reflect the influences of his upbringing and marriage. They reveal his compassion for the sick, oppressed, and downtrodden. Adler embraced egalitarianism long before it became anything close to popular.

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Stay tuned. Tomorrow I’ll be posting some content on Gemeinschaftsgefühl. I can hardly wait.

Today, I’ll leave you with some of my favorite Adlerian quotations.

“An incalculable amount of tension and useless effort would be spared in this world if we realized that cooperation and love can never be won by force.” (Adler, 1931, p. 132).

When a doctor once said to Adler: “I do not believe you can make this backward child normal,” Dr. Adler replied: “Why do you say that? One could make any normal child backward; one should only have to discourage it enough!” (Bottome, 1936, p. 37)

“All our institutions, our traditional attitudes, our laws, our morals, our customs, give evidence of the fact that they are determined and maintained by privileged males for the glory of male domination.” (Adler, 1927, p. 123)

“[E]ach partner must be more interested in the other than in himself. This is the only basis on which love and marriage can be successful.” (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, p. 432)

This is a photo of Jon Carlson. He was a devoted Adlerian and a great man. He passed away earlier this year. I, and many others, am indebted to him for the amazing work he did to not let Adler’s ideas fade into the past. Thank you Jon.

John and Jon on M

 

 

Why Children Misbehave — The Adlerian Perspective

Mud

Alfred Adler believed that all human behavior is purposeful. People don’t act randomly, they engage in behaviors designed to help them accomplish specific goals. Adler believed that although individuals may not be perfectly aware of the link between their behaviors and their goals, the link is there nonetheless.

In this excerpt from our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories text, we describe the four goals of children’s misbehavior. Rudolph Dreikurs, one of Adler’s protégés, developed this theory of children’s misbehavior. Over the years, Dreikurs’s ideas have been extremely useful to many parents and parenting educators. It’s also useful to consider these ideas when trying to understand adult behaviors.

Here’s the excerpt:

Why Children Misbehave

Adler’s followers applied his principles to everyday situations. Rudolph Dreikurs posited that children are motivated to grow and develop. They’re naturally oriented toward feeling useful and a sense of belonging. However, when children don’t feel useful and don’t feel they belong—less positive goals take over. In his book The Challenge of Parenthood, Dreikurs (1948) identified the four main psychological goals of children’s misbehavior:

  1. To get attention.
  2. To get power or control.
  3. To get revenge.
  4. To display inadequacy.

Children’s behavior isn’t random. Children want what they want. When we discuss this concept in parenting classes, parents respond with nods of insight. Suddenly they understand that their children have goals toward which they’re striving. When children misbehave in pursuit of psychological goals, parents and caregivers often have emotional reactions.

The boy who’s “bouncing off the walls” is truly experiencing, from his perspective, an attention deficit. Perhaps by running around the house at full speed he’ll get the attention he craves. At least, doing so has worked in the past. His caregiver feels annoyed and gives him attention for misbehavior.

The girl who refuses to get out of bed for school in the morning may be striving for power. She feels bossed around or like she doesn’t belong; her best alternative is to grab power whenever she can. In response, her parents might feel angry and activated—as if they’re in a power struggle with someone who’s not pulling punches.

The boy who slaps his little sister may be seeking revenge. Everybody talks about how cute his sister is, and he’s sick of being ignored, so he takes matters into his own hands. His parents feel scared and threatened; they don’t know if their baby girl is safe.

There’s also the child who has given up. Maybe she wanted attention before, or revenge, or power, but no longer. Now she’s displaying her inadequacy. This isn’t because she IS inadequate, but because she doesn’t feel able to face the Adlerian tasks of life (discussed later). This child is acting out learned helplessness (Seligman, 1975). Her parent or caregiver probably feels anxiety and despair as well. Or, as is often the case, they may pamper her, reinforcing her behavior patterns and self-image of inadequacy and dependence.

Dreikurs’s goals of misbehavior are psychological. Children who misbehave may also be acting on biological needs. Therefore, the first thing for parents to check is whether their child is hungry, tired, sick, or in physical discomfort. After checking these essentials, parents should move on to evaluating the psychological purpose of their child’s behavior.

For more information on this, see Tip Sheet #4 on johnsommersflanagan.com: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/tip-sheets/

 

Psychoanalytic and Spiritual Compatibility: A Friday Evening Spiritual Reading

Rainbow 2017As we roll through the revisions in our Theories text, we’re adding a short section in each chapter on spirituality. This seems important partly because spirituality is so meaningful to so many people and partly because counseling and psychotherapy is often viewed as at odds with or contrary to religious beliefs. Of course, this new integration might also be related to Rita’s ongoing blog titled, Short Visits with an Honest God. Check it out at: https://godcomesby.com/

In this sneak peek of the 3rd edition, we briefly (very briefly) discuss Freud, psychoanalytic approaches, and religion/spirituality. Our purpose isn’t to go into greata detail, but to offer students a taste of spiritual integration in counseling and psychotherapy.

As always, if you have any reactions, please feel free to share them using your preferred communication modality.

Spirituality and the Psychoanalytic Approach

Freud was no fan of religion. He often referred to himself as a “Godless Jew.” Gay (1978) wrote that Freud “advertised his unbelief every time he could find, or make, an opportunity” (p. 3). Freud (1918) viewed religious beliefs as irrational, projective, and regressive. In return, most religious people are no fans of Freud. Casey (1938) captured some of the disdain early psychoanalysts held toward religion, “Even in the higher religions with their impressive theological facades there is always . . . a myth, a rule of piety, a cult, which is rationalized but which neither begins nor ends with reason” (p. 445).

Despite this rather poor start, contemporary psychoanalytic theorists and practitioners have made strides in accepting religion and integrating spirituality into psychotherapy. A common psychoanalytic position is that religious and spiritual experiences are meaningful and therefore deserve the same level of analysis and respect as sexuality, family relationships, work, and other life domains (Rizzuto & Shafranske, 2013). This respectful stance toward religious experiences is relatively new and exciting territory for practitioners who want to integrate religion and spirituality into psychoanalytic approaches.

As one example, Rizzuto and Shafranske (2013) wrote that, “God representations always involve a representation of the self in relationship with the sacred” (p. 135). They view client disclosures about religion as opportunities to attain a deeper and more useful understanding of clients. God representations are not only respected, but also explored as multidimensional components of human experience that can exert both positive and negative influence on individual’s lives. They believe, “Religion and spirituality can serve as a foundation for the healthy appreciation of the self and for the resolution of psychic pain and trauma” (p. 142). Clearly, this perspective plays better with religious clients than beginning with an assumption, like Freud, that all religious views and experiences are immature and irrational.

Psychoanalytic Endings

JSF Travel

Psychoanalytic therapists have a penchant for drama. They speak of psychotherapy termination as metaphorical death; they see sexual objects everywhere. The rest of us are, rather disappointingly, seeing trees and rocks and designer boots, while the psychoanalysts get to see, well, you know what they get to see.

You say you dreamt of rocks? What sort of rocks? Might they have been egg-shaped? Or perhaps you saw the sandy bottom of a river covered with little fishes? Could it have been a salmon hatch? Perhaps all this represents your unconscious longing for fertility. But what if you don’t really wish for more children; instead you’re pining for the unmitigated proliferation of all your excellent ideas? Like maybe you’re fantasizing an NPR interview where you get to talk on and on about obstruction of justice. Or just a cameo where you get to comment on who’s really the grand-stander.

Or maybe, yesterday, you just gazed a little too much at the Stillwater River, and so you dreamt of rocks and little fish?

Better yet, maybe both are true.

But I digress.

Like all chapters in our theories textbook, the psychoanalytic chapter has to end. But it doesn’t want to. It wants to drone on and on because it has so many important points to make. One of those points involves closing the chapter with a few fascinating historical comments about Freud. But some people contend that having “Concluding Comments” and a “Chapter Summary” is redundant. But other people don’t think so. If you’ve gotten this far and are still with me, you be the judge. Are the following “Concluding Comments” worthwhile?

Concluding Comments

Anyone whose collected works fill 24 volumes is likely to have—as we psychoanalytically informed mental health professionals like to say—“achievement issues.” Dr. Freud might even accept this interpretation. He sort of said it himself, “A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success” (E. E. Jones, 1953, p. 5).

Judging him based on his own theoretical perspective, Freud suffered from some Oedipus conflicts, and these were, in part, manifest in his intense striving for recognition. It may have been his penchant for stature that caused him to invent and then recant his seduction theory.

In 1937, 2 years before Janet’s death, Edouard Pichon, Pierre Janet’s son-in-law, wrote to Freud, asking him to visit with Janet. Freud responded:

No, I will not see Janet. I could not refrain from reproaching him with having behaved unfairly to psychoanalysis and also to me personally and never having corrected it. He was stupid enough to say that the idea of sexual aetiology for the neuroses could only arise in the atmosphere of a town like Vienna. Then when the libel was spread by French writers that I had listened to his lectures and stolen his ideas he could with a word have put an end to such talk, since actually I never saw him or heard his name in the Charcot time: he has never spoken this word. You can get an idea of his scientific level from his utterance that the unconscious is une facon de parler. No I will not see him. I thought at first of sparing him the impoliteness by the excuse that I am not well or that I can no longer talk French and he certainly can’t understand a word of German. But I have decided against that. There is no reason for making any sacrifice for him. Honesty the only possible thing; rudeness quite in order. (Jones, 1961, pp. 633–634)

There was no special reconciliation for Freud. Toward the end of his life he suffered from many medical and psychological problems. His addiction to tobacco led to cancer and jaw surgery and considerable physical pain. In September 1939, he asked a fellow physician and friend, Max Schur, to assist in his suicide. Freud asked, “Schur, you remember our ‘contract’ not to leave me in the lurch when the time had come. Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense” (Gay, 2006, p. 651). After Schur responded, Freud replied, “I thank you” and followed this with, “Talk it over with Anna, and if she thinks it’s right, then make an end of it” (p. 651). Although Anna was initially against the plan, Schur argued otherwise and on 2 consecutive September days, he administered enough morphine to finally result in Freud’s death on September 23, 1939.

Freud’s legacy is often linked to negativity or pessimism. There are good reasons for this; Freud focused on issues like the death instinct and primitive instinctual impulses, impulses that we have little awareness of or control over. But he was sometimes hopeful. One of his more optimistic statements is carved in a memorial to him in Vienna which reads,

The voice of reason is small, but very persistent.

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Let me know your vote. I’m sure, just like the vote for who’s the real grand-stander, it won’t be particularly close.

The PPPP Season 1 Finale: Why Youth Sports Can Make Parents Feel Crazy

This is it! Season 1 of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast is in the books (or in the cloud or wherever you put those things). This last episode (Number 16) ends with a cliffhanger. Happy Memorial Day to everyone, but especially to the memories of the many known and unknown fantastic heroes to whom we are in perpetual debt.

You can listen to ALL of the podcasts on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

Here’s the description of Episode 16

In this—the final episode of Season One—Dr. Sara and Dr. John talk about how youth sports can be the royal road to emotional problems for parents. Highlights include: (a) a discussion of how easy and natural it is for parents to get overemotional about their child’s athletic performance; (b) ideas for emotional preparation; (c) the sorts of bad advice parents can yell from the sideline (but shouldn’t!); and (d) insights from Coach Collin Fehr, who, with his newly minted doctorate, shares the “best thing” for parents to remember. Other highlights (in this episode the highlights just keep on coming): Dr. Sara asks: “Are we a couple of liberal pansies?” and John shares his all-time favorite sports dream. Being the good sport that she is, the show ends with Dr. Sara claiming victory and referring to herself as the “winner” and to John as “the loser.” To learn more about John’s response to this trash talk, you’ll have to tune back in for Season Two, which starts in September, 2017.

Aggressive Golfer

Straight Talk About Suicide Prevention

Gorge Chairs

From 13 Reasons Why, to Chris Cornell’s recent death, issues pertaining to suicide have been in our face this month. This is no surprise. May (late spring in the Northern hemisphere) is nearly always the month with the highest suicide rates.

That’s why right now is an excellent time for some straight talk about suicide.

Suicide is an emotionally triggering topic that’s notoriously difficult to talk or write about. Most of us know people who have been suicidal. Some of us know people who have died by suicide. Still others who read this may be having suicidal thoughts in this moment, or may have made suicide attempts in the past. Talking and writing about suicide is unpleasant, but necessary.

Because suicide is difficult to talk about, myths and misconceptions flourish. Not talking (or writing) about suicide also makes it harder to keep tabs on the latest research. Sometimes, leading professional journals neglect publishing new articles on suicide for a decade or more. This brings me to my purpose. To bust a few stubborn suicide-related myths and provide a glimpse at recent research on suicide prevention.

Let’s begin with now.

It’s a beautiful green spring in Montana with brilliant white snow in the mountains. Despite this beauty and brilliance, suicide rates rise in the spring and early summer and drop in fall and winter. Most people think the opposite is true, but every year, late spring and early summer bring the highest rates. Why? There are theories, but unfortunately, “we don’t know” is the answer to this and many questions related to suicide. I’m starting with this misconception to illustrate how easy it is to get the even the simplest facts related to suicide completely wrong.

One of the most insidious and unhealthy myths about suicide is the promotion of the idea that suicidal thoughts and impulses represent deviance or indicate the presence of a mental disorder. Once again, although many think it so, this idea is also untrue. Suicidal thoughts are a normal and natural response to psychological distress and misery. Social disconnection (relationship break-ups, death of a loved one, or other relationship problems) also can trigger suicidal thoughts in so-called “normal” people.

Our entire culture needs to stop classifying suicidal thoughts as automatic deviance. At one point or another, most people contemplate suicide, at least briefly. That fact pretty much blows the whole idea of suicidal thoughts as deviance right out of the metaphorical water.

Suicidal thoughts can be associated with specific mental disorders, but they are not, in and of themselves, signs of a mental disorder. In a recent large scale study, it was reported that mental disorders and suicidal thoughts weren’t useful in determining which individuals would eventually make suicide attempts.

Believing that suicidal thoughts represent a mental disorder isn’t just untrue, it’s also unhelpful. People who are suicidal, don’t need the public or professionals to make them feel worse by implying that their suicidal thoughts represent some form of illness.

Another surprising research finding is that, in general, suicide warning signs and suicide risk factors are  unhelpful. This is true despite the fact that following a death by suicide, one of the first messages you’ll hear in the media is how important it is to watch for specific suicide warning signs. Unfortunately, like many things related to suicide, this is both good and bad advice. It’s good advice in that it’s always important to notice when friends, family, coworkers, and strangers are in distress and to do what we can to be comforting. But it’s also bad advice. Pointing the public or professionals toward warning signs implies that scientifically-based warning signs exist. They don’t.

There’s no science that supports the usefulness of warning signs or risk factors. This may seem discouraging, but it shouldn’t, because it leads to ONE BIG EXCELLENT CONCLUSION. That is, we should all try to offer support, empathy, and compassion to everyone. The take-home message is, don’t wait to encounter a suicidal person to unleash your kind and compassionate side. You should be leading with that. All. The. Time.

Chew on this idea for a moment. We’re stuck. If we’re interested in suicide prevention (or in having healthy relationships), our best default response is to treat everyone with kindness, respect, and empathy. I understand that’s impossible and I understand that you may think there are some exceptions to universal compassion. But we should try to lead with kindness, respect, and empathy anyway.

A good thing about having a general philosophy of kindness and compassion is that it helps suicidal people trust you. It will be harder for them to conclude, “This person is just being nice because I’m suicidal.” Instead, you’ll be treating everyone with kindness and empathy simply because that’s the sort of world you’re creating around you.

Another common suicide myth is that asking about suicide might somehow put the idea of suicide into someone’s head. Not true. Most people who are suicidal feel relieved and appreciative if you ask them about it in a nonjudgmental way. And, if you ask someone and they aren’t suicidal, well, the point is that people are highly resilient. They’re not so fragile that posing a short inquiry about suicide suddenly becomes life threatening. The other point is that you should ask with kindness and compassion. Even better, you should normalize the question by saying something like, “It’s not unusual for someone in your situation to have thoughts about suicide. I’m wondering if you’ve been having suicidal thoughts?” Making a statement that normalizes (rather than pathologizes) suicidal thoughts can make it easier to for people to talk more openly . . . and when people who are suicidal are talking openly, it will be easier for you to be helpful.

As if it weren’t already hard enough, another thing that’s especially complex is that when people are contemplating suicide, they often have strong negative reactions to infringements on their personal freedoms. This is partly why telling someone, you shouldn’t or can’t choose suicide, is a bad idea. Well-meaning helpers who push people too hard away from suicidal thoughts and toward embracing life can come across as “not understanding.” This could trigger an oppositional response. The person you want to help might either stop talking about it (but keep thinking about it) or feel an urge to oppose all suicide prevention or intervention efforts.

It’s not unusual for suicidal people to feel interpersonally isolated, disconnected, or as if they’re a burden to family, friends, and society. This makes connecting with them all the more important. It’s unfortunate, but people experiencing depression can be rather irritable or unappreciative of your efforts to listen and help. When you express concern, they might say something nasty in response. If so, let go of your needs for feeling appreciated; listen and be supportive anyway.

People who are suicidal can have difficulty problem-solving in a way that reflects hopefulness. Who wouldn’t have trouble being optimistic after experiencing repeated misery? This is why it’s important to problem-solve WITH people who are suicidal. Don’t usurp their control; lend another perspective. Part of this perspective might be the simple message that suicide is always an alternative, but that it’s important to wait and try as many other alternatives as possible.

Often, the response to your problem-solving efforts will be something like, “I’ve tried everything and nothing helps.” Again, we need to understand that when someone is suicidal, this is how it feels! At this point, acknowledge that right now it feels like nothing could possibly help. But at the same time, it’s okay to say things like, “I want you to live.”

If you’re problem-solving with someone who is suicidal, it’s also important to be persistent. Try saying something like, “Let’s make a list of everything you’ve tried, starting with whatever was the worst and most unhelpful idea ever.” Starting with what was unhelpful can resonate with the person’s pessimistic mood and help you identify something that’s at least not the worst option on the planet.

Chris Cornell’s recent death by suicide is a reminder of how specific medications can sometimes increase an individual’s agitation and/or suicidal thoughts. He was taking Ativan (Lorazepam). Ativan is a benzodiazepine (like Xanax and Valium). IMHO (and the science supports this), benzos are very bad medications to use for anything other than very short-term treatment. The bottom line is that sometimes (not always) psychiatric medications are not a part of the suicide solution and can become part of the suicide problem.

Among other things, Thirteen Reasons Why is a reminder of how easy it is for people to feel tremendously guilty when someone dies by suicide. Twenty-six years later, I still feel guilt over the death of a boy with whom I was working. Was it my fault? Absolutely not. Do I still feel bad? Absolutely yes.

Death by suicide is a tragedy. I’m tempted to say that it’s always a tragedy, but I recognize that when it comes to humans and humanity, using the terms always and never is dicey.

Some individuals are living with what they experience as intolerable physical, psychological, or emotional suffering. For their loved ones it’s likely still a tragedy when they die by suicide, but is it a tragedy for them? It’s hard to rule out the possibility that death by suicide may represent solace for them.

Suicide is a very personal option on the palette of human choice. For example, I want people to live. I want to help them reduce their psychological pain, make positive relationship connections, and re-engage in activities they find meaningful. But even so, sometimes suicide happens anyway. This is deeply painful and the guilt can be enormous. If someone close to you dies by suicide or you’re feeling affected by any suicide-related event, please find someone to talk with. One of my former clients once said, “The mind is a terrible place . . . to go alone.” Find someone you can trust and share any dark thoughts you might be having. Deal with it. Don’t let your guilt and angst simmer.

To summarize, suicide rates are highest right now. Does that mean we can relax later? Of course not. Suicide risk factors and warning signs are mostly useless and so we should treat people with respect and compassion all the time. When needed, we should ask the suicide question directly and with a spirit of non-judgmental normality. When possible, we should help people with suicidal thoughts identify options that might move them toward feeling better, while acknowledging that suicide is an option. We need to remember that sometimes medications can make suicidality worse. Perfect prevention is impossible. Suicide may happen despite our best efforts. Dealing with guilt over a suicide takes time and requires support.

No one will be completely happy with the ideas I’ve written here. That’s good. Individual reactions to suicide issues are unique. If you want to argue with or improve on these ideas, feel free to engage in the conversation. Using an attitude of kindness and respect, let’s keep talking about suicide. Right now, that’s the best solution we have to our suicide problem. In fact, it may be the best solution we’ll ever have.

To check out my recent professional journal article in Professional Psychology, click here: SF and Shaw Suicide 2017

Author, Speaker, University of Montana Professor