Psychology Sociology

Why Suicide Is Not Selfish

"You’ll start to feel like a burden, like you’re pulling everyone down with you and they’ll be better without you.”

Suicide causes pain to everyone surviving the loss of a loved one. You may feel despair, confusion, and even anger.

How could they cause so much pain to their loved ones? How could they be so selfish?

These questions are common and understandable. When you are not in a state of suicidal thinking, your mind perceives the world very different from someone in this state.

Although it may look selfish, someone in a state of suicidal thinking actually perceives themselves to be a burden on everyone. This distorted perception leads to the belief that others would be better off without them.

Rather than a selfish act intended on causing pain, those who die by suicide are intending the opposite. To illustrate this point, I’ve collected some excerpts on this theme from a great article from Sarah Schuster. One of her anonymous contributors states:

“It feels like nothing matters anymore, not even you. You’ll start to feel like a burden, like you’re pulling everyone down with you and they’ll be better without you.”

This often turns into self-blame causing low self-esteem and self-worth:

“You scroll through your phone contacts in your moment of deepest need and believe that there isn’t a single person who would help you without resenting you. At that moment you feel as if you’ve been lying to yourself all along about how much you matter.”

This sense of worthlessness isolates the individual from others, making it feel like no one can relate to their feelings:

“You feel like you already no longer exist, like you are in the way, useless, worthless, unworthy and a burden. It’s like an elephant sitting on you, holding you down, keeping you from living but somehow keeping you alive, making you watch lifeless and numb as everyone carries on around you unaware you even exist, unaware you are fighting inside.”

This perceptual perversion extends further, making the person feel like no one would even notice they were gone:

“Empty, useless, unwanted, not good enough. Those feelings are what make you start to think about those dark thoughts which turn into those questions that you ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it?’ ‘Does it matter anymore?’ ‘Will anyone miss me?’”

Far from believing they will inflict pain on their loved ones, this line of distorted thinking can even extend into believing one would be leaving one’s children better off:

“Why must I continue breathing? Why must I keep getting out of bed everyday when I am so incredibly tired? Feeling utterly worthless, to the point that you wonder if your own children would be better off without you around.”

These cognitive distortions are a form of emotional reasoning. In a state of suicidal thinking, painful emotions flood the person’s consciousness, drowning reason, convincing them that their feelings are reality.

If someone you know has died by suicide, they are not selfishly neglecting the feelings of others. At the time of a serious attempt, they may believe they are leaving others better off. Deep down, they feel like a burden.

In my previous post, I talked about the opposite of feeling like a burden. I talked about feeling useful. As I said in that post, If you are lacking a sense of purpose, consider how you can make yourself useful to yourself, your family, and the broader society. Usefulness creates purpose, connecting us with something beyond ourselves, preventing us from feeling like a burden.

If you are already making yourself useful, but find yourself using it as a form of external validation to cope with a sense of lacking self-worth, you’ll need to go back to self-care. As I said before, the most useful thing you can do is to first be useful to yourself.

If you are trying to be a hero to everyone else while neglecting your own needs, it might be helpful to work through your cognitive distortions around self-worth. If this is the case, you may be suffering from codependency and I would recommend finding a therapist who specializes in cognitive-behavioral techniques.

Suicide risk is heavily influenced by one’s sense of oneself within one’s interpersonal relations. Suicide may look selfish, but it is highly social. We are social beings who want to feel like we are contributing to a broader purpose. When this sense of contribution is not present, we may experience depression. When we perceive ourselves to be a burden, this depression deepens, further distorting our sense of selves.

Suicide is often the opposite of a selfish act. This distorted sense of oneself as a burden makes suicide seem like an altruistic act.

If you’ve lost someone to suicide, this does not mean you should blame yourself. This distorted view of oneself as a burden is not necessarily based in reality. No amount of reassurance can help someone in this state.

If you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts, it is important to talk to your doctor and seek psychotherapy from a qualified therapist. If it is a crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available (in the US). Seek out your local Crisis Centre and speak to a professional.

If you want to read more about this topic, I highly recommend the book, Why People Die By Suicide, by Thomas Joiner.

If you want to read some great books on social and psychological health, I recently created a list of my recommended books.


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21 comments

  1. Thank you so much for this! When my son took his physical life (I never say committed suicide because my son is not a criminal), someone mentioned that he was a coward. This angered me to no end. I always feel saying, “oh, yeah? Let’s see if you have the balls to give it a go”. My son felt as if not only he were in danger but I was too. He told his father he would be selfish if he did not take his life. I think he did it not only for his own peace of mind but to protect me also. His main reason for taking his life was money, debt and the U.S. Department of Education.

  2. I am having a hard time with this post. You state that suicide is not selfish, yet contradict that by stating that the altruistic view of suicide by a person suffering such severe depression is distorted. I am not saying this inconsiderately, as I myself was in a place for years that I believed everyone would be better off without me and have additionally witnessed my closest friends suffering from that same belief. This being said, I see suicide as a selfish act with “good” intentions behind it. Good intentions (even when not a distorted perspective) are not enough to justify something that hurts anyone else. It is apparent that when in the distorted perceptions of acute depression suicide does not appear selfish, but perceptions are not always aligned with reality.

    1. Thank you for sharing this personal experience. It looks like we are saying the same thing. It’s not perceived by the person as selfish because of feeling like a burden, yet this burdensome feeling is not aligned with reality.

  3. I shudder inside when I hear people proclaim that a victim of suicide was selfish – nobody wants to inflict that kind of pain on their loved ones. I really appreciate this post. I lost an Uncle to suicide several years ago as well as a friend. People who are suicidal are very sick. Period. Thanks for this.

  4. Thanks, Steve, for a different look at a painful experience. My friend’s son recently chose to take his own life and left a grieving family behind. I posted this in hopes they see this excellent article.

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