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How Suicidal Thoughts Can Become a Coping Mechanism

There is a word that few people can read, think or say without feeling something. It’s a sharp and painful word that most would prefer to avoid whenever possible.

It’s suicide.

Yet the world is full, and getting even fuller, of people who are struggling with this very thing. The struggle happens in a myriad of different ways and at different levels for different people.

From the hurting people who commit this shocking, unexpected, and seemingly senseless act to the grieving, confused and stricken loved ones left behind, everyone loses where suicide is concerned.

According to the NCHS or National Center for Health Statistics, suicide rates are up 33% since 1990.

Studies reported by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) show a sharp rise in suicide rates among young people, especially girls age 10-14, in recent years.

These numbers tell us that, as a society, we really need to pay more attention to understanding what drives people to kill themselves and to focus much more than we ever have on preventing it.

There are a plethora of articles expressing concerns about the suicide rate, but few that talk about the causes or address prevention in a practical and detailed way.

Suicidal Thoughts

But there is another group of folks, much larger than you would probably ever think, that struggles with suicide on a daily basis in a distinctly deep and personal way.

I am talking about the scores of people who think about suicide often. Some have a plan in mind and some do not. Some believe they may someday act on their thoughts, but many do not.

Therapists call it “suicidal ideation,” and many therapists ask their clients about it as a routine part of their first session with clients. This is because, as most therapists will tell you, some of the most unlikely people struggle with suicidal thoughts. People who seem to have everything going for them and much to live for.

It can be baffling for therapists, but far more so for the sufferers. I have heard many people express confusion about why they have these thoughts so often, and many would desperately like it to stop. It is possible to feel like a helpless victim of your own thoughts.

Surprisingly enough, unbeknownst to them, many of these folks are actually using suicidal thoughts as a coping mechanism.

The Role of Childhood Emotional Neglect

Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN is a way of growing up. All it requires is to have parents who do not pay attention to or know how to respond to, the feelings of their children.

When you grow up in a family that “doesn’t do feelings,” you grow up essentially in an emotional void. You miss out on learning some vital life skills, the emotion skills.

How are you supposed to learn what to do when you feel sad, angry, hurt, or alone, for example? How are you supposed to even know when you have a feeling, much less identify that feeling, tolerate it, understand its message, or express it?

Growing up in an emotional void sets you up to go through your adult life in that same void. Lacking the set of skills that would enable you to use your emotions as the informers, drivers, energizers, protectors, and connectors they are meant to be, you may have few skills to use at times of pressure, panic, or pain.

It is very hard to go through life without the skills you need to manage your feelings. When you are in this situation, what can you do? You must find a way to cope, and you will find one. Perhaps you will find yours as a child, or perhaps as an adolescent or adult. In fact, your brain may choose it for you.

Suicidal Thoughts as a Coping Mechanism

When colleagues ganged up on Betty Ann at work, she started imagining her own funeral, with all of the people at work gathered together and discussing, in hushed whispers, how guilty they felt.

When Wilson is overtaken by sadness and hurt about his divorce, he imagines walking miles into the forest until he wastes away, never to return.

When John finds himself in a situation that feels overwhelming or impossible, he thinks about how easy it would be to simply bow out of life so he wouldn’t have to deal with it.

In my work with many hundreds of people with Childhood Emotional Neglect, I have noticed that it is not uncommon for CEN people to unconsciously fall into a pattern of relying on suicidal thoughts to cope.

Some, like Betty Ann, think of suicide as a way to finally communicate their pain to others, perhaps leaving them feeling guilty. Others, like Wilson, think of it as the ultimate escape (perhaps with the added “bonus” of leaving others wondering what happened). Still more, like John, imagine it a way to avoid dealing with difficult things.

There are endless variations in how individual people use suicidal fantasies to cope. But they do all share a few common, inescapable factors.

4 Shared Factors of All Who Use Suicidal Thoughts to Cope

  • They are all romanticizing the idea of suicide, which is, in reality, painful and messy. And final.
  • They are all minimizing the damage that this act leaves in its wake, without exception.
  • They are all unaware that they are using suicidal fantasy as a coping mechanism.
  • They are all doing untold depths of damage to themselves by continually thinking about suicide and using it in this way.

If, over time, your brain has settled on using suicidal thoughts as one of your go-to ways to cope, I want to share with you a very, very important truth. Each and every time you use this as a coping skill you not only do yourself deep harm, you also miss a very important opportunity. You bypass a chance to learn and practice healthy ways to cope that you can build on.

If you see yourself in this article, I hope that you are beginning to question yourself. I also want to tell you that although suicidal thoughts are a one-way street, you can decide to take a different path.

Once you realize you are coping this way, a whole new world opens up for you.

What To Do: 3 Steps

  1. Start learning everything you can about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how it might have happened in your family. Understanding what went wrong will help you see what you missed and stop blaming yourself for what you don’t know.
  2. Set a goal to learn the emotion skills. Learning what you are feeling and why, plus what to do with your feelings will set the stage for new ways of coping that will make you stronger instead of weakening you.
  3. Seek help. You do not need to struggle with this alone anymore. Opening yourself up to support and guidance from someone who understands is an important, meaningful and substantial step toward change.

Above all else, and no matter what, I want you to know that you are not alone. You deserve better. And you can heal.

Please see my Bio below this article for links to many free resources to learn about Childhood Emotional Neglect and to take the Emotional Neglect Test.

Please share this article with anyone you are concerned about. New studies are finding that talking and sharing more openly about suicide is one of the best ways to prevent it.

How Suicidal Thoughts Can Become a Coping Mechanism

Jonice Webb PhD

Jonice Webb, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who is recognized worldwide for her groundbreaking work in defining, describing, and calling attention to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). She writes, speaks, and trains therapists on the topic, and is the bestselling author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. She also created and runs the Fuel Up For Life Online CEN Recovery Program. Since CEN can be difficult to see and remember, Dr. Webb created the CEN Questionnaire and other free resources to help you figure out if you have it. Take the CEN Questionnaire and learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how to heal it at her website

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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2019). How Suicidal Thoughts Can Become a Coping Mechanism. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 28 Jun 2019
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