Psychotherapy Articles

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Social Cognitive Affect: Self-Discrepancy in Suicide

Suicide is a public health crisis (Cornette et al., 2009). An estimated 703,000 people a year in the world end their life (World Health Organization, 2022). Additionally, for every completed suicide, there are 20 people attempting suicide, and many more experiencing suicidal thoughts or ideation. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15 to 24-year-olds (Anderson & Smith, 2003). “Suicide is an intended self-destructive behavior with significant etiological risk factors related to biological, psychological, and social components” (Yoo, 2011). The view of suicide has differed across societies (Yoo, 2011). However, Èmilie Durkheim remains the most significant contributor to suicidology across the globe (Joiner, 2005). Durkheim’s theory posits that the rates of suicide occur despite having the positive interactions of a group or class of social relationships. Individuals’ social relationships differ depending on their level of consolidation (structural elements) and moral regulation (Mueller et al., 2021). Durkheim claimed that a person’s bond with a group unites them and prevents them from being greatly impacted. Collectiveness and a sense of belonging protect people from “egoistic” suicides resulting from isolation (Mueller et al., 2021). Cognitive appraisals of emotions and how they are formed to maintain attachments to others, our identity, and our beliefs about suicidology.

Several risk factors such as hopelessness, dysfunctional attitudes, coping deficiencies (Pettit & Joiner, 2006; Weishaar & Beck, 1992), and negative self-concept (Beck et al., 1987l; Beck et al., 1989) have been found to play a role of self-concept and the vulnerability to suicidal ideation. Baumeister (1990) conceptualizes suicide as an “escape from self” and notes that self-discrepancies are an example of self-perceptions that fall short or below standards (Fulginiti & Brekke, 2015). The need to escape can fester as suicidal ideation, drug use, excessive sleep, or other risky behaviors. Chatard and Selimbegovic (2011) found that once individuals realize they cannot meet these standards, a specific expectation leads to suicidal behaviors.

Self-Discrepancy Theory

In conjunction to view of self and negative mood, previous work (Fairbrother & Moretti, 1998; Waters et al., 2004)  has used the self-discrepancy theory (Higgins, 1987) to describe self-evaluation and other mental health disorders such as depression. For example, people who have depression tend to believe that they are falling short of their own or others’ goals or expectations (Crane et al., 2008). Self-discrepancy theory provides three domains of the self: the actual self (attributes that someone believes a person possesses), the ideal self (attributes that someone would ideally like a person to possess), and the ought self (details that someone believes a person should or ought to possess) (Higgins, 1987). The theory then includes two standpoints, an individual’s perspective on oneself and the view of a significant other. It is a model of self and affect that accounts for the link between self-evaluation and positive emotional states (e.g., joy, interest, love) as opposed to negative emotional states (e.g., fear, sadness, guilt) (Higgins, 1987). The theory states that individuals are inclined to align their self-concept with emotionally significant self-guides. However, discrepancies between the actual self and the different self-guides indicate negative psychological scenarios about motivational and emotional states (Lewin, 1951).

Specifically, discrepancies between the actual and ideal self-have been associated with depression and dejection-related feelings (Higgins et al., 1985; Higgins et al., 1986; and Strauman & Higgins, 1987). Furthermore, these discrepancies result in dissatisfaction and low self-esteem due to the absence of positive outcomes. Therefore, this motivational force results in a perceived lack of effectiveness, impacting one’s mood. Whereas the actual and ought self-have been associated with anxious agitation due to the expectation of experiencing punishment for this discrepancy and are prone to fear. Often, this is seen with social anxiety (Boldero & Frances, 2000; Vergara-Lopez & Roberts, 2012).

Negative emotional states resulting from self-discrepancy or facilitated by shame or defeat (Lester, 1988; Mueller et al., 2021) may function as a cognitive vulnerability mechanism contributing to the onset and maintenance of emotional disorders (Mason et al., 2019). Markus and Nurius (1986) proposed the possibility of another domain of self, the feared self, which serves as a cognitive reference point for characteristics an individual desires to avoid. Such congruences between feared self-guides and the perceived actual self could develop into emotional distress and potentially other mental health diagnoses. Several critical risk factors for depression, such as anhedonia, loss of productivity, functional impairment, and even the feared self-guide, can increase the risk for depression (Vergara-Lopez & Roberts, 2012). Other works have expanded on studying the role of self-discrepancy in anxiety, borderline personality disorder, paranoia, eating disorders, schizophrenia, suicidal ideation, and other mood disorders. It is even proposed that self-discrepancy and psychopathology may be reduced among those more adaptive in their emotion regulation skills (Mason et al., 2019).

Self-Discrepancy Theory and Suicide

Cornette et al., (2009) propose two possible couplings between self-discrepancy and suicidal ideation. One possibility is the direct correspondence between self-discrepancy and suicidal ideation since both involve negative self-impression. Psychoanalysis would deem suicide as the murder of the ego by the superego. Although little empirical work has examined this interrelation and these concepts are not synonymous, studies have found a relationship between negative self-concept and suicidality. A second possibility could be self-discrepancy tends to lead to the experience of negative affective states, these ideas could lead to suicidal thoughts and impulses. Wonderlich et al., (2015) suggest that maladaptive emotion regulation strategies can help mediate between self-discrepancy and negative emotions. A decrease in self-discrepancy suggests that one is closely aligned with their idea and/or ought self; therefore, positive outcomes and self-assurance are promoted.

Other views of self-discrepancy theory have argued that the scope of self-discrepancies anticipate emotional states may be conditional, and predictions may be two-fold (Cornette et al., 2014). The difficulties with goal-related processing, such as higher-order self-related goals, contribute to developing depression and dysphoria, is eminent in suicidal patients (Crane et al., 2008; Vincent et al., 2004). Several findings in adult studies have looked at these discrepancies and symptoms in a general sense of agitation and nerves developing over time (Higgins, 1987; Kupersmidt et al., 1996). However, limited studies have focused on this comparison since it is critical to the self-discrepancy theory to have the assumption that the actual self, ideal, and ought must be measured ideographically because, as mental depictions, they are portrayed by high levels of transient yet persistent construct accessibility (Mason et al., 2019; Vergara-Lopez & Roberts, 2012).

By understanding the nature of the construct, other studies have attempted to gain information from various samples. For example, Kupersmidt et al. (1996) conducted a study to determine how discrepancies among children’s social self can elicit the adverse effect of potentially motivating behavior when focusing on peer or school problems. The results found that children who experience dejection-related affect associated may be motivated to decrease discrepancy by altering their cognition. However, if a self-aware person cannot reduce the self-discrepancy, they are likely to withdraw effort and disengage from their efforts. Therefore, practicing strength-based approaches can help foster protective factors such as enforcing positive self-image can help the individual “rewire” cognitions and eventually improve overall affect by feeling the connection between the body and seeing the beauty. Ultimately reducing the discrepancy by processing the social information after using the activated positive construct. It is important to note that social, familial, and cultural influences impact our self-perceptions (e.g., praise, self-enhancement bias, media, western vs eastern cultures) and differ depending on personal experiences. Moreover, a better understanding of self-discrepancy interventions and programs can reduce behaviors such as suicidal ideation. It would also be intriguing to examine how self-discrepancy can support women, who attempt suicide, and what aspects would provide support post-attempt.

Practical Implications

Research comparing suicide and the self-discrepancy theory is still being implemented to treat suicide and is primarily based on self-report. However, the current social, cognitive, and affective aspects can work together to address the implications and applications of treatment. For example, the discrepancy factors incorporated into assessment practice could complement a more streamlined approach to suicide assessment and potentially detect “under the radar” risk (Fulginiti & Brekke, 2015). Additionally, knowing that the suicidal mind is ambivalent, any form of distress in life (e.g., improved self-esteem or quality of life) can serve a life-promoting function (Fulginiti & Brekke, 2015). Intertwining self-discrepancy theory into graduate clinical training can also be a valuable tool for the clinician to become aware of self, ideal, and ought in the room as a therapist. In tandem, asking our clients how they view themselves can facilitate questioning that permits deeper thinking beyond the presentation visible to the clinician.

Finally, when considering the results from Gürcan-Yıldırım and Gençöz (2020), the ideal and undesired selves tailored in well-being programs may decrease their psychological distress. At the same time, the ought self may work best with targeting goals when individuals have higher development in coping abilities—suggesting that individuals who are low mood, depressed, or suicidal could benefit from initiatives focusing on de-escalation or tools relevant to emotional regulation. A gate-keeper training model could also serve as a way for the “gate-keepers” to encounter individuals in distress regularly and provide multiple levels of intervention by increasing knowledge of suicide, teaching skills to address risk, and role-playing. This implementation of psychoeducation could expose an individual to the idea and how one would respond in a setting requiring crisis support.

Additionally, incorporating recognition of self-discrepancy (depressed mood, self-criticism, anxiety, feelings of guilts, avoidance) can curate a tailored approach when safety planning to reduce the risk of suicide. As our views of self-continue to shape and shift with life, negative voices will always be a pervasive force that can influence our perceptions. Ultimately, establishing modalities, such as Cognitive Therapy for Suicide Prevention (CT-SP), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS) of these kinds can enhance the opportunity to align all of us to be valuable guides in life.

Born and raised in South Florida, Stevie is a third year clinical psychology PhD candidate at Nova Southeastern University. After studying psychology, public health, as well as human services and social justice at the George Washington University she decided to apply her passions by better understanding people and supporting them throughout difficult times as a clinician. For fun she loves to spend time outside, listen to music, and spend time with her family, especially her pets.

Cite This Article

Schapiro, S (2023, May). Social Cognitive Affect: Self-Discrepancy in Suicide. [Web Article]. Retrieved from


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