Suicidology Online 2013; 4:16-20.
ISSN 2078-5488
An Essay on Loss of Self versus Escape from Self in Suicide:
Illustrative Cases from Diaries left by those who died by Suicide
David Lester
The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, USA
Submitted to SOL: 16th August 2012; accepted: 24th December 2013; published: 11th April 2013
Abstract: Michael Chandler (1994) has described how suicide can result from a loss of a sense of self, while Roy
Baumeister (1990) has described how suicide can be an attempt to escape from the self. Their published
theories are presented in a very abstract manner, and the present essay presents examples from two
individuals who died by suicide who expressed these themes in their diaries. Loss of a sense of self is illustrated
by the diary of an 18-year-old, and escape from self is illustrated by the diary of a professor, both of whom died
by suicide.
Keywords: Loss of Self, Suicide, Case Study
Copyrights belong to the Author(s). Suicidology Online (SOL) is a peer-reviewed open-access journal publishing under the Creative Commons Licence 3.0.
* IIIt is difficult to understand why individuals
take their own life. There are risk factors and warning
signs, but none of these appear to be necessary or
sufficient conditions for suicide to occur. In an effort
to understand suicide rather than explain it, I have
been fortunate to obtain the diaries of individuals
who have died by suicide. For example, in one case, I
recruited colleagues to read the diary of a young
woman who died by suicide and to present their
insights gained from the diary (Lester, 2004). I have
found that diaries provide a rich source of
* David Lester, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of Psychology
The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey
Galloway, NJ 08205-9441
Tel: +1 609-652-4254
Email: [email protected]
information about the person that goes far beyond
the brief suicide notes that some leave.
The present essay was stimulated by two
competing ideas, namely that suicide can result from
a loss of self or as an escape from the self, and I
realized that two of the diaries in my possession
illustrated these two themes. The articles (by Michael
Chandler [1994] and by Roy Baumeister [1990])
describing these two themes present the ideas in a
very abstract manner, and the reader is left
wondering how the themes manifest themselves in
suicidal people. The following cases provide concrete
examples of these abstract ideas.
Loss of Self
In a series of essays, Chandler has proposed
that suicide, especially in adolescents, can occur as a
result of the loss of self (Chandler, 1994; Ball &
Suicidology Online 2013; 4:16-20.
ISSN 2078-5488
Chandler, 1989; Chandler & Proulx, 2006). At the
most abstract level, Chandler noted that, when selforganizing
systems try to restructure themselves,
typically as an upgrade to a higher and more
differentiated level or organization, there can be a
system failure. The individuals find themselves bereft
of their previous construction of their self as
persistent and continuous through time. They lose
ownership of their past and any commitment to their
own future. At that point, self-destructive behavior
loses personal significance and becomes more
available as a solution to current problems. If one is
stripped of a persistent sense of identity, then one
has no investment in one’s future well-being.
Chandler noted two tasks involved in
achieving a stable sense to selfhood. First, from a
cross-sectional perspective, one task is to
understanding how the different competing facets of
oneself that are often in conflict, are part of a
“unified self.” Second, the sequential dimension
requires that one view the current self as a
development of previous selves so that one has a
sense of continuity over time.
Chandler described five possibilities:
1. For the pre-adolescent, the self is viewed as a
figural collection of mosaic of parts, and change
is discounted. The events in one life are seen as
isolated, and the person turns a blind eye to
2. For the 12-16 year-old, the self is viewed a
multifaceted topologic structure, and change is
denied. There may be a good side and a bad side
to the individual, or a shy side and a more
forward side, but any conflict here is denied.
3. Later, the person adopts the view that there is
an essential unchanging core to the self, and
change is trivialized or finessed. However, this
core self may be viewed as unknowable and
comes to be treated as a “kind of indwelling
spirit or ghost in the machine” (p. 382).
4. Then, functional and narrative strategies stitch
together the multiple episodes of one’s life (p.
382). In this functional strategy, the individual
realizes that earlier events caused the present
state. In the narrative strategy, the person rereads
and re-edits the past in the light of
present circumstances. Both of these provide a
sense of continuity for the self