Family Support | Health and Wellbeing | Mindfulness |
Walking the Tightrope – Tips for Managing Self When a Loved One is Suicidal
Much of what is actually helpful when someone is in the black night of suicidality is wildly counter-intuitive and requires thoughtful, considered responses rather than automatic instinctual reactions. As human beings, our power is limited when it comes to suicidality and if we can accept that, we can inhabit fully the power we actually have…to manage our own reactions so that we can become an emotional resource for the person standing on the precipice. There is wisdom in directing one’s change effort away from changing the suicidal person and towards walking the tightrope of managing our own emotional reactivity. Some tips for doing so are….
Take your distress about your loved one to someone who actually has the capacity to support you, not to them.
It may seem like having people weep about their terror of losing them might convince a suicidal person to choose life, but it mostly doesn’t. Suicidal people are extremely sensitive to the distress, pressure, anxiety and panic of others, easily feeling responsible and hellishly guilty for that person’s upset. They are hopelessly under-resourced at that point to deal with the distress of others, feel like a terrible burden for their families in their struggle, and are themselves further burdened by their family’s distress. When family members stabilise themselves through adequate support elsewhere they can connect with their loved one without adding to their suffering.
Let them know that your life would not be better without them in it
I have yet to meet a suicidal person who didn’t believe that they were a burden to the people around them. Even though it is unfathomable to their loved ones to imagine how someone so loved could think that everyone would be better off without them, they often do think exactly this. This belief is inextricably tied up with the hunger for the suffering to end, both their own and their family’s, which they can feel responsible for. Calmly taking a clear position, when one is not flooded with emotion, to let them know that your life wouldn’t be better without them in any way, is helpful.
Do more listening than talking
When we are anxious or panicked about the wellbeing of a loved one many of us tend to talk rather than listen, so it can be extremely challenging to zip one’s lip. But if we are talking, we are not listening, and deep listening is a profound gift to a person who is in despair. To feel deeply heard is one of the ultimate disarmaments of violence towards the self. As well, suicidal people are very sensitive and are easily overwhelmed by life and relationships and conversations, so when it comes to talking, less is definitely more.
Ask the person how they would like you to support them rather than imposing your version of support on them
Suicidal people are subjected to all sorts of intrusions and boundary violations in the name of ‘support’. What might feel supportive to one person is the opposite to another, so an honest attempt to really understand what would feel supportive for them, rather than being subjected to ‘support’ that is more about settling the helper’s anxiety, is often very appreciated. Families very often administer support that makes sense to them but feels abhorrent to their struggling loved one, and then take it personally and feel wounded when their loved one responds negatively. This becomes something else for the suicidal family member to feel guilty about. Everyone wins when there is dialogue about what would actually be supportive.
Give presence, not advice
Suicidal people are often drowning in unsolicited advice and pressure from others to do certain things that the people around them think will help. This can leave them feeling squashed and even more collapsed. Advice often has the unintended consequence of subtly communicating that someone should be different to how they are, a message that suicidal people are extremely sensitive to and one that can tip them into further despair and hopelessness. Being fully present to who they are is far better medicine than advice.
Allow them space and privacy
It is totally instinctual to not want to leave a suicidal person alone, but suicidal people are in the fight of their life and they are often utterly exhausted. They get over-stimulated easily and require silence, space and down time. Quiet, space and privacy are legitimate needs and when these are disallowed by well-meaning family members it can intensify the struggle. Let them know that you hear their need for space and will respect it, and that you hope that they come back to reconnect and check back in with you again soon. This way of approaching space honours their need, conveys huge respect for them and also offers them a lifeline of connection to return to.
Refrain from downplaying their suffering
Most of us have learnt that the way to help someone who is suffering is to try and make them see that things really aren’t so bad and list all the things that are wonderful about their life. Doing this inadvertently minimises and dismisses the suffering of the struggling person and denies the scale of it. We actually cannot convince another person that life is worth living by telling them so and trying to coerce their perspective to match ours. Paradoxically, working on refraining from downplaying their suffering and instead honouring it, offers far greater hope for their suffering to become less, and for a shift to occur in whether life is worth living.
There are no guarantees when it comes to suicide and supporting a suicidal person requires walking the emotional tightrope of managing our own reactivity so that we might become a greater resource to our loved one. The vast majority of suicidality does not end in completion and this fact can be enormously settling to keep in mind. Anything that can help us manage our reactivity a little better and dwell in hope is part of the solution.
About Anna Lloyd
Anna Lloyd is a Family Therapist at Byron Private and a Clinical Psychotherapist in Private Practice in Sydney’s Inner West, working with individuals, couples, families and groups. Trained in Gestalt Psychotherapy, Bowen Family Systems Theory and Systemic Family Constellation work, Anna is passionate about family systems and the power of systemic approaches to recovery and wellness. Specialising in Addiction Recovery/Addictive Family Systems, Anna brings 15 years of experience living and practicing the work. She is strongly committed to trauma-informed therapeutic approaches, and values warm, holistic, body-inclusive, life-affirming therapy grounded in mindfulness, practical wisdom, and the science of relationship systems and the brain.
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