Don’t Believe What Your Brain is Telling You

Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

When your mind is telling you that you should end your life, chemical imbalances inside your brain have created a distorted view of your present and future circumstances. This distorted view of life means that you are likely to see yourself, your experiences, and your future in a negative way. Comedian Lily Tomlin echoed this mindset when she said, “Things will get worse before they get worse.”  

Just as an underweight person with an eating disorder may look in the mirror and see themselves as obese, those who are in the grips of suicidal despair cannot see themselves or their circumstances clearly.

When I was suicidal, my therapist told me, “Douglas, don’t believe what your brain is telling you. Your brain is under the influence of a ‘drug’ called despair, which is distorting its view of reality. As a result, your feelings of hopelessness do not accurately reflect your true potential for recovery.” 

Psychologists call these distorted perceptions “cognitive distortions.” I’ve listed some common ones below to help you see how they can take hold in your thinking. If you identify with any of these beliefs, it is important that you challenge them and replace them with realistic beliefs. To help you see how your distorted perceptions can be changed, I have placed an empowering belief after each distorted perception.

Distorted perception #1:

“I am trapped and there is no way out. Ending my life is the only way to end my suffering.”

When I was suicidal, I felt as if I was in a tunnel with both exits sealed off. If you feel trapped and see no way of getting out of your pain, you may conclude that suicide is the only way out. In this case, it may seem that taking your life would be not an act of self-destruction, but an act of self-love. 

New Belief:

“Whatever I am feeling right now won't last forever. I have other options besides dying by suicide.”

Even though you may feel trapped, everything in life is subject to change, including suicidal states. Thus, what you are going through is not going to last forever. Circumstances can shift more quickly than you might imagine. If you can keep yourself alive, unexpected good will come into your life.

Distorted perception #2:

“I am a burden to others.”

It is true that having a mental illness can affect friends and family. As a result, you may feel like you are a burden to others. For example, your distress may prevent you from earning money, and you may be financially dependent on others. 

New Belief:

“I deserve to be cared for.”

When people struggling with suicide have told me that they were a burden to others, they have not realized that people who were supporting them were doing so because they cared. Another way to release your sense of burden may be to imagine you had a physical illness such as diabetes or cancer. Caring for someone with mental illness is no different than caring for someone with a physical illness. 

Distorted perception #3:

“The world would be better off without me.”

To better understand this perception, I spoke with a friend who came very close to jumping from a bridge in 2014. I asked her why she thought the world would be better without her, and this is what she shared: 

“I feel useless to others.”

“I am taking up space and air that someone else could use.” 

“Other people would be better off because they wouldn’t worry about me.”

“Hearing about my pain is bringing them down.“

“When I die, my friends and family would move on.”

New Belief:

“I have value.”

You may conclude that the world would be better off without you. But is this true? The fact is that there is nobody quite like you, and therefore no one can take your place. You are special and unique as an individual.

You may think that you are just taking up space. However, you may be having a positive impact on others that you are not even aware of. When I attended the funeral of my friend, Scott, who died by suicide, over a hundred people attended. These were all people whose lives Scott had touched. Clearly, he was making a difference.

You may feel useless right now, but that is because your suicidal pain is distorting your sense of worth. Don’t underestimate your value to the world. 

Photo credit: Aimee Samara

Distorted perception #4:

“I have no future. I see nothing to look forward to.”

When people are suicidal, they see no prospects for their future. This is why my therapist once told me that suicidal thinking is “a failure of the imagination.”

New Belief:

“There is a better future for me; I just can’t see it yet.”

In 1997, I wanted to die because I thought I was washed up as a writer. To my surprise, after I came out of my suicidal episode, my inspiration returned and I wrote a memoir about my experience: “When Going Through Hell… Don’t Stop.” In addition to writing my memoir, I was inspired to create a website on depression recovery; something I had never considered before.

The fact is that when people emerge from their suicidal episodes, all kinds of opportunities open up that they would not have imagined.

As survivor researcher Julius Siegal wrote:

“In a remarkable number of cases, those who have suffered and prevail find that after their ordeal they begin to operate at a higher level than ever before…. The terrible experiences of our lives, despite the pain they bring, may become our redemption.”

Distorted perception #5:

“Nobody cares about me. Since I have become suicidal, people have begun to leave my life.”

It is possible you may find that fewer people are reaching out to you during your ordeal. It is true that suicidal people often see their support network shrinking, at least temporarily. This can bring up feelings of isolation that increase your suicidal pain. 

New Belief:

“Other people may feel discomfort around my pain; this is not a reflection of me.”

There are a few ways to rethink this belief. First, different people vary in their ability to be around other people’s pain. If friends withdraw temporarily, it is often because they don’t know how to support you and feel powerless. It is probable that people still care about you–they just have a hard time expressing it.

Second, if you have not heard from a friend or relative for a while, it doesn’t mean that they have stopped caring about you. They just might be very busy with their families or responsibilities. 

Finally, people who are depressed and suicidal often isolate and separate themselves from others, without being aware that they are doing so. If you realize that you have self-isolated, you may want to try reaching out to those whom you feel have drifted away. You might also look for other sources of support such as seeing a counselor or joining a support group. Facebook has support groups for people going through anxiety or depression.

Photo credit: Aimee Samara

Distorted perception #6:

“It is my fault I am feeling this way.”

It is possible that you believe that your current situation is due to something you have done or have not done. Perhaps you feel that if you could only work harder on yourself, be more resilient, or apply better discipline to your life, that you would be able to turn your situation around.

New Belief:

“While there are things I can do to help myself, circumstances outside my control have contributed to my despair.”

It is important to remember that you are dealing with a complex situation, with some factors outside of your control. This includes your biology, your family history, the society you are living in, external stressors, and, most importantly, your dysregulated brain if you are suffering from a mental illness.

Distorted perception #7:

In their book Choosing to Live, authors Tom Ellis and Cory Newman identify another erroneous belief: “Suicide is a way that I can feel in control. If I cause my own death, then I can complete something successfully.”

One of the reasons you may be suicidal is because you feel powerless to improve your life. You may feel like you have no control. One thing you can control is whether you live or die. Therefore, you might think that you can assert control by taking your own life. 

New Belief:

“I can be in control by choosing to stay alive. Overcoming suicidal pain is a way to succeed.”

One way to turn this distorted perception around is to realize that right now resisting suicidal urges takes a tremendous amount of control. As your symptoms decrease, staying in control will be easier. Another perspective you can take is to see that death is the ultimate loss of control. You will also be losing control if you take your life because your death will cause others pain in ways that you never intended. 

Distorted perception #8:

“I’m so worthless. I don’t deserve to live.”

People who are severely depressed often feel worthless and as if they were damaged goods. They think very poorly of themselves and ‘beat themselves up’ with negative self-talk, e.g.: “I am a failure,” “I am a loser,” or “I am a bad person.”

New Belief:

“My negative self-talk is my depression talking; it does not reflect who I am.”

Your goal here is to refute your negative self-talk and replace it with loving and affirmative self-talk. Admittedly, it can be hard for you to accomplish this by yourself. You might want to seek out a therapist or some other loving presence to reflect back to you the good you cannot see in yourself. You can also read How to Find Mental Health Counseling for ways to find a mental health practitioner who can help you change your core beliefs.

Journal Reflection:
Reframing My Distorted Beliefs

Using your own journal or the Reframing My Distorted Beliefs form, write down any beliefs about yourself or your situation that may be untrue. Then opposite each distorted belief, write down a more accurate and empowering belief. Take slow deep breaths while writing and reading the new beliefs. Say them out loud and pay attention to how you feel.