When the thought of yourself nags you: How failure to attain cultural standards brings suicide on the fringe of consciousness

On September 9, 2009, Dr. Sapandeep Sahni hanged herself after her pregnancy test came out negative for the fourth time. She had a daughter, but she and her family desired for her to have a son. It was culturally important. Otherwise, Dr. Sahni’s life could be seen as a success: she held a relatively prestigious job (a general practitioner), was planning to become an eye specialist, was popular with colleagues and patients alike, and was well off, living in a comfortable house (Schlesinger, 2010). However, this one particular failure seems to have led her to end her days. In what follows, we will try to make Dr. Sahni’s and other apparently unlikely suicides less obscure.

When we are confronted with a failure, we don’t want to face a mirror. We would rather be someone else, forget ourselves, and escape. The self becomes a burden, and our strongest motivation is to avoid self-awareness. One radical solution, that liberates us from our aversive selves forever, is suicide. The idea of suicide as escape has been proposed by a sociologist, Jean Baechler (1975), and further developed by Roy Baumeister (1990), who advanced a social-psychological theory of suicide as resulting from a motivation to escape self-awareness. Obviously, there are less radical ways of avoiding self-awareness, and we do not attempt suicide each time we fail. We usually turn on the TV or drink alcohol. Nevertheless, could failure and suicide form a mental association, such that when we fail, suicide comes to mind more easily?

Failure, escaping self-awareness, and suicide

Self-awareness is the state in which an individual becomes the object of his/her own attention (Duval & Wicklund, 1972; Morin, 2004). In this state, you compare yourself to your standards: you assess the gap between who you are and who you ultimately want to become. This often yields unfavorable results, making self-awareness aversive. Consequently, people sometimes avoid focusing on the self when confronted with failure.

As an illustration, men who are negatively evaluated by an attractive woman tend to avoid listening to their own (recorded) voice (Gibbons & Wicklund, 1976). Naturally, other solutions are possible: reducing the discrepancy between the self and the standard by changing the self or by changing the standard. For example, if you fail to achieve your aim of being the single best professional in your line of work, you can try to improve by acquiring new skills (i.e., change the self), or become satisfied with being a very good professional, although not the best (i.e., change the standard). The focus of attention determines which one of these two solutions will be chosen. If performance is in focus, an attempt to change the self will be made. If it is the standard, it is more likely that the standard will be changed (Dana, Lalwani, & Duval, 1997; Duval & Lalwani, 1999). Nevertheless, when the failure is perceived as large and permanent and the standard as unattainable, escape will be preferred (Carver & Scheier, 1981; Duval, Duval, & Mulilis, 1992; Morin, 2011).

Building on these insights, Baumeister (1990) advanced a theory of suicide as an escape from oneself. In this framework, a suicide attempt is a result of an elaborate process initiated by an important failure or disappointment. When you blame yourself for a failure, you may end up in a state of emotional numbness and disinhibition (labeled cognitive deconstruction), in which suicide appears not only as acceptable, but as the only possible solution. This is when explicit suicidal ideation and planning of a suicide attempt occur. In his review, Baumeister (1990) provides numerous illustrations consistent with the idea that a failure to attain a given standard underlies many suicide attempts. For example, suicide rates are higher in countries with high rather than low standards of living (Argyle, 1987; Lester, 1984), and college students commit suicide more often than individuals of comparable age who are not in college (Hendin, 1982).

These findings seem counterintuitive – why would privileged environments produce high suicide rates? The apparent paradox is resolved if we acknowledge that high standards are likely to yield failure. If everyone around you is happy and successful and you feel miserable, you are likely to conclude that something is wrong with you. This is a first step in a suicidal process.

Recent evidence is consistent with this idea. For example, suicide is the most frequent in countries in which people are rich and happy (Chatard, Selimbegović, & Konan, 2009; Daly, Oswald, Wilson, & Wu, 2011). Surprising at the first glance, these results make sense if it is the poor and unhappy who commit suicide in “rich and happy countries”. These and other similar findings point to the fact that high standards of happiness, beauty, wealth, intelligence, or performance have a dark side – by fostering failure, they might drive some people to self-destruction.

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