Maybe you grew up in a household where no one discussed their feelings. At some point, you might have been taught (directly or indirectly) that emotions aren’t welcome in conversation, and you should never complain or show weakness. You might have learned that sadness is a burden to other people.
You may never have had the opportunity to experience or practice responding to, someone letting down their guard to ask for help when they were struggling, and revealing the messy, unrefined truth of their inner life.
Whether it was learned from your family or a survival strategy you developed somewhere along the way to cope with a painful situation, this all amounts to a deep-seated avoidance of the wild tides of emotional life. There are highs, and there are lows. A lot of people are working very hard to hide or deaden themselves against feeling those lows, but they’re inevitable, and sharing them with other people is how most effectively move through them.
“Place your hand over your heart, can you feel it? That is called purpose. You’re alive for a reason so don’t ever give up.”
If you’re avoiding your own shit, the natural reaction when someone admits to feeling suicidal or puts any other heavy emotional subject matter on the table will be to eject out of your body and launch into your head. Within your own nervous system, you’re running away from the situation, which is the opposite of what you need to do.
In fact, this very avoidance pattern is what lies at the heart of the issues that drive a lot of people to feel suicidal in the first place.
They don’t know how to ask for help or have the tools and space to talk about their struggles openly, so they stuff it down and try to carry on. But this is how most people are moving through life every day. It’s just that they’re lucky enough to not have big enough sources of emotional pain to build up until the dam breaks, and they can’t take it anymore.
It’s this collective avoidance and repression that has kept this entire conversation in the dark for so many years, and it will continue to do so.
If you’re noticing this is your natural inclination, take this opportunity as an invitation to practice looking into what you’re avoiding within yourself, and find where you can make peace with the less-than-pretty things you might be keeping locked up.
I’m writing this not only to help you support someone else, but for you to support yourself, and make sure you’re building the internal awareness necessary to live an even fuller life and avoid any of your own potential emotional struggles down the line.
This lack of comfort and familiarity with emotional pain, as well as the preparedness to respond, is what causes people to take the worst approach, and say all the wrong things to someone contemplating suicide.
Here’s What NOT to Say
When someone shares, your first instinct might be to try and make it go away or stamp it out like a fire in your living room. But the best approach is to stand back, watch, and listen. ACCEPT this person’s reality and meet them where they’re at.
Don’t shut down, don’t run from it, don’t resist it, don’t minimize it, don’t invalidate it, don’t rationalize it, and don’t try to shuffle them past it.
The worst thing you could do is invalidate their experience. Whether they’re simply unequipped, or can’t handle sitting in uncomfortable situations, most people will respond by saying something like:
“But your life is great. What do you have to be sad about? You’re so fortunate. Look around at everything you have. There are children starving in Africa…”
In other words, “Your problem isn’t real. Get over it.”
Even with the best of underlying intentions, this approach is a slap in the face to someone who bared their soul in a very real, very raw human moment. It’s like someone running up to you on the battlefield with a gaping wound, and you tell them it shouldn’t be there, so suck it up and shake it off.
“When you feel like giving up, just remember the reason why you held on for so long.”
It might suddenly feel like this person is standing on a ledge and you need to talk them down. But that’s not what’s happening. You don’t need to know how to solve the problem or rush to figuring out how. That’s not what the person is asking you to do.