By Dr. Alan Winder
Life and happiness are all about perception. Not reality, but perception of reality.
This month, Robin Williams committed suicide. When something like this happens—someone famous and rich, someone who “should” be happy, kills himself—it makes us all have thoughts about our version of reality. Uncomfortable thoughts.
The definition of comfort is anything that requires no change in behavior, thought, or feeling. Comfort means staying exactly how things are. No change. Change is hard. Change causes discomfort. “No pain, no gain” is true—if there’s no discomfort, there will be no improvement. This applies to all areas of life. Character development, relationship-building, athletics, skills.
So when something happens that forces us to acknowledge, even unconsciously, that our perceptions may not be correct and that we must look at change, this is uncomfortable.
We are forced to think: how could this event fit in to my belief system? All day our actions show what we’re trying to accomplish: get money; look good; be successful socially, sexually, financially; have more things; have more fun; have more power.
So how is it possible that there are people who have gotten these things—who have fulfilled these goals far beyond the level most of us can reasonably ever hope to—and then kill themselves? The answer is that having these things doesn’t make someone happy. But realizing that what we strive for all day isn’t what makes us happy, that life is about balance, that we should be focusing far more energy on things that produce genuine satisfaction and happiness, is uncomfortable and unpleasant.
So we try to rationalize: He was mentally ill. He was different. He didn’t have my religion, belief system, social support, etc. We try to mentally separate him, so that his behaviors have no relevance to us. But the fact is that we’re all human; we’re all wired the same. So it’s time to recognize this fact and to acknowledge that our perceptions need to be adjusted.
Our perceptions of everything are often misinformed and wrong. Our understanding of the world around us is so colored by our own biases and preconceived beliefs that a truly objective and accurate understanding of anything is almost impossible. We should look at a suicide as an opportunity to reevaluate our perception that life makes sense. It’s an opportunity to make sure that our behavior on a day-to-day basis is truly geared towards making us feel happy, accomplished, and satisfied. Because if someone who had everything we are currently working so hard for found it meaningless, that’s significant.
One of the basic concepts of human existence is that we constantly strive for mental comfort. Our lives always must make sense to us, otherwise we feel uncomfortable, directionless, and our minds will naturally work on a nonstop basis until some stasis and comfort is achieved. Even if the conclusions we come to have absolutely no connection to reality.
One of the basic concepts of cognition is that of cognitive dissonance—that we are constantly automatically looking inward at our own behaviors to reconcile them with our beliefs. And if our behaviors do not match our beliefs (meaning we are acting hypocritically), what we usually do on an automatic basis is . . . you guessed it . . . change our beliefs.
We tend to change our beliefs, not our behaviors. We do this in three ways:
• Change the conflicting belief (e.g.: “I’m allowed to have a piece of cake now and then!”).
• Add new beliefs (e.g.: “I’ll run a mile tomorrow to work it off”).
• Ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs.
The good news is that with conscious effort it is possible to avoid this type of backwards thinking and to look at our perceptions more objectively and rationally. A suicide is an opportunity to examine some of these perceptions, because there are so many angles to look at it from.
The perceptions of the person at the time he committed suicide. The person must perceive that:
• Life is not worth continuing.
• The pain he is experiencing is intolerable.
• Things will not get better to the point that it is worth waiting for.
• Death is a better solution.
• Of the person before the suicide.
• Wondering where the perception of the person failed.
• That the person must have been suffering.
• That things could have been different “if only . . .”
Especially among loved ones, there is also frequently a perception of selfishness—the thought that how could this person have been so selfish as to only think of themselves and their own pain, when killing themselves hurts so many people who cared about, love, and miss the person? This in turn leads to perceptions of abandonment and feelings of anger.
One more point: For anyone who experiences deep depression and has had thought of suicide, take this opportunity to look at how people are reacting to Robin Williams’s suicide. For the most part, the reactions you’re seeing are from people who did not have that close a relationship with him; it was with his public persona. Think about the sad, caring reaction, the feeling of loss, the feeling of helplessness and wishing he could have been helped, the feeling of actually missing him.
Think about this before making a decision to end your own life. Recognize that while at this moment you may not feel love, meaning, the drive to continue, you still do not want to hurt people. Killing yourself will hurt people. People you know, people who care about you, people you may not even realize care about you. Suicide is at its core a self-focused act. When feeling like there’s no hope, try to pull back for a brief moment and look at yourself from the eyes of the world. The world sees you differently than you see yourself, and killing yourself is a solution that will only cause the world to be worse, not better. As the saying goes, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Problems may not seem temporary while they are going on; they may seem all-consuming, but the fact is that things will get better. They always do.
I’ll conclude with a quote that has been attributed to many people: “Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” v
Dr. Winder is a clinical psychologist in practice in Cedarhurst. He can be reached at 516-345-0456 or DrWinder@ITSPsych.com. He accepts some insurance plans. This article as well as other articles appears on his blog, www.ITSPsych.com/blog. Join the conversation there!