Why Suicide?

by Nathan Chua

Not sure about the statistics, but it seems quite often that we hear about suicides (sadly of the successful variety) lately.  Numbers aside though, it’s probably not as surprising to most of us how often it happens as, why it happens at all.  Frankly, most, if not all of us have had times when it felt better if we could just end it all.  All this, while we see all over us the constant search for the fountain of youth, the profuse number of ways that life can be prolonged with breakthroughs in medicine, and our inherent desire for immortality, as seen in statues and places that bear our names.

We often ascribe suicidal behavior to a need for escaping from the suffering that life inevitably presents to us.  It could be an escape from reality, or a messy and difficult situation.  Taking it a step further, it could be a reaction to indescribable shame or guilt, because of tragic life events like the loss of a loved one, or a much-publicized failure.  In fact, such shame and guilt would normally come together with a need for the comfort zone that isolation provides.  Guilt and shame drives us to isolation that results in loneliness, the type which can curtail any attempts at connecting with others, who can help prevent self-harming behavior.

If this last one is what you guessed, then you are starting to get why people make the ultimate decision of ending their lives prematurely.  As counseling is a means to alleviate emotional suffering, people in the practice know how our emotions play such a crucial role in the decisions that we make.  In fact, we often hear people say that we should not make emotional decisions, as these can ultimately result in unwise choices.

Why do we kill ourselves?  Because the mind plays tricks on us.  According to a source, the part of the brain that tells us about our emotional pain, is the same part that tells us that we are in actual physical pain.  We all know that any amount of emotions cannot, and will not, do us actual and immediate physical harm.  However, because the parts of the brain that are activated by emotional stress are the same parts that react to physical pain, emotional pain can feel just like a ghastly broken bone, or a knife stabbed into our body.

Hence, we say the pain is too much to bear.  The only escape will be to not feel anything at all.  We do this through many ways, one of which is suicide.  Death is the ultimate pain-ender and stopper.  The other ways are through drugs, alcohol, and even sex.

Maybe we can also learn something about us through this understanding of where the urge to quit life comes from.  As we all carry in us the same anatomy, we must understand that no one is immune from wanting to end it all.  You and I have gone through moments in life wanting the ultimate back door, and it is in these times, that we need each other more than ever.

The Courage to be Vulnerable

by Nathan Chua

Life is full of paradoxes. It takes a lot to believe that the more vulnerable we can be, the more courageous we become. If you are wondering how this applies to our lives, here’s my best attempt to explain it.

In the words of a 20th century philosopher, “Man is a creature whose project is to be god.” The first thing we shed after exposure to emotional pains, is our vulnerability. No caretaker is perfect. We are all bound to experience different degrees of abuse, neglect, or invalidation from them. We learn early on, that the only way to get the results we want, is to turn ourselves into super heroes or demigods. We can either become subhuman or superhuman creatures and hide our helplessness behind a veneer of defenses, that protect us from emotional pain.

To illustrate this, here are some ways we try to be our own gods. We believe that we should be exempt from traffic issues. We believe our prayers save us from the catastrophe or won us the game, because we somehow have a better relationship with a supreme being than others. Our lack of vulnerability keeps us from taking risks in relationships. We mask our desire to meet someone or show a romantic interest, in our fear of being rejected. Hence having never really taken greater risks, we live with a number of unfulfilled aspirations. We look invulnerable in our predictable and yet ultimately, uneventful existence.

Living courageously is quite the contrary to what we think it means. In our culture, there is still pressure to conform to expectations in society. Our decisions are more often swayed by public opinion, face-saving options, and stereotypes that keep us safe and part of the crowd. We live in fear of being outcasts if we show our true selves and our authentic desires in life.

Living courageously is living vulnerably. Whatever we do in our pursuit of self-actualization, we have to accept that there is a commensurate level of courage required to face the challenges. For many of the good things or aspirations that we harbor, are gained only through our efforts to achieve them. Avoiding challenges to our fears can result in comfortable, but also stagnant lives.

Let me end this post with a couple of quotes from some of the thinkers that I admire. Friedrich Nietzsche tells us to, “Live dangerously,” and Rollo May says, “The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.”

Not No but Not Yet: The Key to Thriving

by Nathan Chua

One of the wonders of research is finding out how we can be as similar to each other, as we are different. Our ability to know how others are doing as compared to ourselves, has brought researchers to countless studies that attempt to proffer explanations to such a phenomenon. We have all wondered how it is that individuals with the same faculties, are able to achieve different levels of thriving or surviving. Why is it that some of us end up as highly resilient individuals with a capacity to adjust to varied life stressors, while some seem to get stuck in limbo, with very few options in life?

The works of some who have pondered over this question, have shown different results that range from the controversial, to the inspiring. Some believe that we are set for life, by the genes that we inherit, which is rather bleak and discouraging. There’s one study though that caught my eye as inspiring. The study attempted to find out in what ways the thinking process of the thriving, differ from those who are merely surviving. The answer they came up with was simple and yet profound.

In therapy, one of the things we want to develop is a resiliency that can overcome much of life’s difficult tests. However, that can be a long shot for those who have no place to draw their resiliency from. What is it that can motivate someone to bounce back from their setbacks? In the aforementioned study, they have found out that people who flourish did not see permanence in their state. This segment of the population does not see failures as an end to their hopes and aspirations. In other words, these people just cannot take no for an answer. They believe that no’s are temporary, and may not be the eventual result of their striving. They have their eyes set on the prize, the light at the end of the tunnel.

This is the key to resiliency. A failed exam? It’s just a setback towards another crack. A botched job interview or a rejection from a major company? It’s simply their loss. A lousy job that is not within your interest or does not pay you as well as you think you deserve? It’s just a step towards your goal. Let me wait this out for a few years and I will eventually get to what I truly want to do with my life!

In short, people who have exhibited resiliency have been found in the study to say, a no is not their final destiny, but it is rather, a not yet. Hence, they accept the stages that they go through, and are willing to wait it out until they finally meet their goals.

So next time we fail, which I know we all will, let’s learn to forgive ourselves and keep working towards our goals, which may not yet be here, but may someday be ours. Whether we achieve it or not, we hold on to our hopes, which is what keeps us alive, and resilient.

Is there such a thing as valueless therapy?

by Nathan Chua

As I work with different people who have varied backgrounds and views about the world, I am compelled to show respect to each one’s “values” and culture.  By respect I mean, an approach that neither judges my client’s values nor imposes my own on them.  This reminds me of the age-old debate about the possibility, or impossibility of a valueless approach to therapy.  The familiar argument against those who believe that it is possible, is that the mere use of a valueless approach is itself, a value.

Of course, I am not here to speak as one who has done in-depth research on this difficult question.  I am simply now presenting what my years of work and my continuing studies have taught me.  I think part of the answer lies in our ability to distinguish between what is a value, and what is a social convention.

As people, we necessarily hold certain “values” about the sanctity of human life, and the importance of human dignity (Unless of course, one is stricken with a sociopathic disorder), as inviolable and inherent.  We have the gift of empathy towards others and a desire to alleviate suffering among our fellow creatures.  I say creatures because our empathy is not just directed to our own species.

In this post, I would like to offer a place where we can partly rest our spirits, in our quest for the best approaches available to the helping therapist who, faces a variegated set of cultures and backgrounds in every meeting with a client, or clients.  A good approach to this problem would be to consider the difference between what are human values, as against what are human social conventions.

I for one, am a strong advocate of the need for us in the helping profession, to make the alleviation of suffering as our paramount concern.  For it is due to their emotional suffering, that our clients seek our help.  Allow me to use an example to elucidate this point.  Although having a gay relationship may, by the current conventions in our country, be accepted by a smaller proportion of the population, the value I have for minimizing human suffering, will make it necessary for me to assist such members of society, without hesitation, and with as much fervor as I would show with any heterosexual couple.  To illustrate with an analogy, if I were a surgeon, it will be the least of my concerns if my patient were gay or straight, trans or not trans.

I hope this short post on this complicated issue, makes us more aware of the decisions we make every day in our relationships.  As many of our misgivings and tribulations in our relationships, can be traced to a lack of awareness, of what truly can be considered values that we share.  For in the end counseling is really about a human-to-human encounter, at its core and deepest levels.