In Jesse Bering’s book Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves, he explores the mental processes going on in the minds of people who are suicidal. One of these processes is cognitive deconstruction, which I hadn’t heard of before. It sounded very familiar, however, in the sense that it’s something that I have experienced when I’ve attempted suicide, so I thought I’d explore it further in this post.
What is cognitive deconstruction?
Baumeister (1990) proposed an escape model of suicide that involved a chain of events leading up to suicide as a way to escape from the self and the world. The penultimate step before behavioural disinhibition is cognitive deconstruction. This involves concrete thinking and cognitive rigidity. Time narrows to the present and pushes the future out of mind, and there’s a focus on immediate or proximal goals. There is a lack of emotion, and abstract thought goes out the window right along with any sense of the future. This cognitive state produces irrationality and disinhibition.
Schneidman (1990) included a description of a similar process, although with different wording, in his model of suicide. It included a “constriction of thought, tunnel vision, and a narrowing of focus to one or two options, including cessation, death, and egression and, ultimately, as the only solution to the problem of pain and frustrated needs.”
Voh and Baumeister later described a depletion of self-regulatory resources that underlies the escape model of suicide. Internal, global, and stable attributions for negative events mix with self-blame to create a messy emotional soup. When people are unable to regulate their negative emotions, they try to regulate their attention with cognitive deconstruction. This is “marked by an orientation to the present, an awareness of physical sensations and concrete stimuli (to the neglect of higher-order, complex, and meaningful thoughts), and an emphasis on proximal goals.” This can be self-protective in the sense that it shifts attention away from perceived weaknesses and negative thoughts about the past and the future, but the problem is that it’s also disinhibiting. As self-regulatory resources become further depleted, it becomes more and more difficult to pull out of the spiral toward suicide.
Behavioural disinhibition is where suicidal ideation shifts into suicidal behaviour. When we’re thinking rationally, there are things that inhibit us from ending our lives, such as fear of pain or a desire not to cause grief for loved ones. We can also think in abstract terms about suicide being wrong or a negative outcome. With cognitive deconstruction, those inhibitions may not be accessible.
However, while suicidal ideation is not a very rational thought process, it’s still a conscious thought process. Like other living beings, we have a powerful survival instinct. Our amygdalae are on the lookout for danger, and they’re hell-bent on self-preservation, even when our conscious thoughts make death look desirable. Cognitive deconstruction can tone down the volume on that alarm, but I suspect that in many cases it doesn’t turn it off entirely.
In my early 20s, I was more adventurous than I am now, and I tried bungee jumping and skydiving. Even though I wanted to do both of those activities, my brain was screaming at me that these were not safe things to be doing. I knew those things weren’t going to kill me, and it was still hard to push through that survival instinct. Knowing has actually influenced the methods I’ve contemplated, because I haven’t wanted to put myself in a situation where a delay related to fighting with my survival instinct could open the door for unwanted intervention.
The role of self-awareness and self-regulation
Cognitive deconstruction is not a healthy place to be, but by the time we’re there, self-awareness really isn’t happening. I think it’s good to be aware of, though, so we can take steps if we recognize that we’re starting to head down that path. For me, I know that passive suicidal ideation (i.e. wishing to die but not thinking about ways to make it happen) doesn’t directly lead to cognitive deconstruction, and I still have at least some access to rational thinking at that point. When I start pondering methods, that’s when I know I’m getting into the danger zone where cognitive deconstruction becomes much more likely. That’s when I know some kind of intervention is needed.
Suicide is like the ultimate maladaptive coping strategy, and it helps to have as many adaptive coping strategies in our toolbox as we can so we can keep ourselves from getting to that place. Voh and Baumeister’s work on self-regulation suggests that this is a useful area to work on, and mindfulness practices and dialectical behaviour therapy emotion regulation skills may be helpful with this. This work needs to happen when we’re managing not too badly; crisis and a deconstructed state is not the time to try out new and untested skills.
Does cognitive deconstruction sound like something that you’ve experienced?
- APA Dictionary of Psychology: Cognitive deconstruction
- Baumeister, R. F. (1990). Suicide as escape from self. Psychological Review, 97(1), 90.
- Bering, J. (2010). Being suicidal: What it feels like to want to kill yourself. Scientific American.
- Shneidman, E. S. (1990). The commonalities of suicide across the life span. In A. A. Leenaars (Ed.), Life Span Perspectives of Suicide (pp. 39-52). Springer, Boston, MA.
- Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (2002). Escaping the self consumes regulatory resources: A self-regulatory model of suicide. In T. Joiner & M. D. Rudd (Eds.), Suicide Science, pp. 33-41. Springer, Boston, MA, 2002.
The Straight Talk on Suicide page has crisis and safety planning resources, along with info on suicide-related topics from the perspective of someone who’s been there.