- A deeper discussion of why someone my choose suicide.
- Suicide is an action, a behavior, rooted in Emotional Health and not Mental Health.
- How good are we at giving and receiving love, connection, and belonging?
- Extreme behavior is often rooted in emotional (not mental) pain and there’s a difference.
The Pain tWitch Endured Until His Suicide
By Kevin R. Strauss, M.E.
I’m still beside myself when I think about Stephen “tWitch” Boss’ death. I’ve been a fan of his and So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) since nearly the beginning. Of course, I don’t know him. I have no connection to him. But I do know how he made me feel whenever I saw him, especially as the years went by. tWitch made me happy and that is a feeling I cherish.
Truth be told, as I watched SYTYCD (I didn’t start until Season 6, two years after tWitch was the runner-up), and tWitch returned as an All-Star, something about him, his interviews, the way he “celebrated” his partner after a routine, something about him felt “off”. In some ways, I felt like, while he celebrated their achievement in an almost over-the-top way, it was as if he was overcompensating for not receiving the attention, or some level of love, that he needed. He put on a great forward-facing demeanor but for me, something felt out of sorts.
As the years went by and tWitch’s star rose higher and higher, my love for him grew more and more. This guy was just awesome and the “off” feeling I had felt initially faded away. Perhaps his skill at hiding his feelings improved. Perhaps the public’s love for him easily swept me along with them. Whatever it was, I just loved anything and everything this man did. It actually wasn’t until I wrote the first sentence of this article that I even tapped into and recalled my initial feeling and impression of him.
When he married his fellow SYTYCD dancer Allison Holker, I couldn’t think of a happier couple. When he began dancing, DJ’ing, and dancing more on Ellen, he moved her show to an even higher level. When he became a primary judge on SYTYCD, he led with kindness, love, dignity, and support for all the contestants. Without a doubt, I was all-in with tWitch. Every time I saw his huge smile and suave dance moves, it brought me joy. Thank you tWitch, for being a shining light for me and millions of others.
“Why do people do what they do?”
For 20+ years I’ve been a student of human behavior. For even longer I’ve wondered “Why do people do what they do?” I feel like I’ve come a long way in my understanding but tWitch’s death by suicide has really thrown me for a loop. Since I heard the news, I’ve been racking my brain trying to reconcile his suicide. Perhaps I’ve even been thinking harder about it than feeling the pain of his absence. But believe me, it hurts, and I didn’t even know him personally. I can only imagine how those people in his life feel. My heart truly goes out to them.
For a very long time, I’ve felt that a person chooses suicide because they believe there are no other options in life. While we may see options, they do not. They are not crazy. They are not sick. They do not have a mental illness. They choose suicide because they are in pain. This is what I believe. Their pain has likely lasted for a long time and is measured in years or decades. They simply are done living with the pain and ending their life is the only option they can conceive that will work for certain.
The thing is, their pain is not physical and it’s not mental. I don’t even know what “mental pain” is. The pain they (and so many others) are experiencing is emotional. Granted, the definitions I subscribe to for mental health and emotional health are different than most so I’ll share my perspective. I hope you’ll keep an open mind and consider a possible paradigm shift.
I believe Emotional Health is our ability to give and receive love, connection, and belonging. When we do not or cannot receive the love, connection, and belonging we need, it causes real emotional pain. To be clear on definitions, I’ll define Mental Health as our ability to focus, concentrate, think clearly, and perform cognitive tasks. (This could help explain the “high functioning” label for people currently diagnosed with a mental illness and still able to work or attend school.) When it comes to pain, our brain cannot distinguish between physical pain and emotional pain (I’ve never seen “mental pain” described). All we know is that we are in pain so we are compelled to do something about it right now!
In tWitch’s case, and like most successful suicides, he made a plan, he likely thought about it for a long time, he put the pieces in place in order to be successful, he implemented and executed his plan to a tee, and he succeeded in accomplishing his goal. Mentally, he was quite sound. A plan created and executed with precision thinking. It is only our own discomfort and grief and aversion to destructive behavior (which is great for self-preservation) that we believe his brain “must be broken” that he could do such a thing; to actively harm oneself. We “think” that if anyone would hurt themselves or others then they must be crazy and “out-of-their-mind”. We “think” the same thing of cocaine and heroin users. Of course, why wouldn’t we? Those substances are incredibly harmful. Yet, somehow, we don’t “think” cigarette smoking or alcohol drinking is so bad. Granted, their harm may take longer to be effective but have no doubt, they are both incredibly destructive behaviors that are commonplace around the world. We, as a society, just currently continue to accept and even revere them.
“The more extreme the behavior, the deeper the [emotional] pain.”
What I’ve also noticed over the past 20+ years of studying human behavior is that “The more extreme the behavior, the deeper the [emotional] pain.” Let that sink in because “extreme” does not have to equal “destructive”. An “extreme” behavior can also be incredibly “constructive”. I believe the latter was the case for tWitch. tWitch was at the top, the best of the best, as a dancer. He was charming, kind, joyful, and incredibly generous. He gave and gave and gave to others and almost always seemed to put others’ needs before his. He appeared to be the “perfect” husband and father. He most likely was! He did everything he was “supposed” to do (according to current societal standards) including adopting his wife’s daughter from another relationship. tWitch had so many wonderful traits but perhaps there truly was a cost. He gave love to so many. Was tWitch able to receive love? (Recall the definition I shared for Emotional Health.) Like so many people, we often struggle to receive love.
“Raise your hand if you struggle to receive a compliment.”
Years ago, I read research stating 66% of people struggle to receive a compliment. Given a compliment is just a gesture of love, it seems the struggle to receive love is real; as hard as that is to believe intellectually (i.e., mentally). While presenting at a pre-Covid conference, I decided to run an experiment of my own. I asked the audience to, “Raise your hand if you struggle to receive a compliment.” Every hand except for one was raised, including my own.
I believe the key ingredient we’re missing in tWitch’s and so many other people’s stories is that he struggled to receive love. I know, it boggles the mind because he was loved by so many around the world and close to home. But it doesn’t matter how much love is coming your way if you cannot receive it, let it in, and truly feel it. If you don’t feel like you’re worthy of that love, it can bounce right off you. It doesn’t matter how many times people tell you they love you; it could just be bouncing off you just like a compliment. It’s as if the love was never shared. And that is a really difficult and painful way to experience life for the people on both sides. Especially when love, connection, and belonging are as basic a human need as air, water, food, sleep, and [physical] safety/security. Love satisfies our one emotional need just as the other five satisfy our physical needs for life.
I do not know tWitch’s childhood but I suspect he didn’t really learn what real, unconditional love feels like. Somewhere, somehow, he didn’t feel worthy of love. I am not saying this to blame anyone but rather to help us understand where so much of our pain (and trauma) is actually coming from. Perhaps what I was sensing when I first saw tWitch was his pain of not feeling loved. Perhaps he gave extra congratulations to his fellow contestants as a way of hiding his own pain for not receiving or feeling the love from the judges and audience. Perhaps he worked, even harder, as a dancer to “prove his value” and worthiness of love even though when it was given, he still struggled to receive it. How many overachievers do this while compensating with other destructive behaviors. People like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk come to mind.
tWitch was one of the greatest dancers ever. When it comes to his dancing ability, he was “extreme” in his success. Being the “best” and overachieving is a very common way in which we try to compensate for our emotional pain of not feeling “good enough” and not feeling loved. While those people may achieve great accomplishments in the world, it can also be deeply painful for them inside and achievement is simply their “drug of choice”. This kind of compensatory and extremely constructive behavior is too often a cover up for how a person truly feels. And when the cover up and compensatory behavior can no longer be maintained or is no longer easing their pain, it can end in a tragic death and suicide. We’ve seen it too many times before and maybe now it will help us understand people such as Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Avicii, Kate Spade, and Cheslie Kryst. Sure, it’s easy to label them “mentally ill” or “crazy” because trying to understand their emotional pain may begin to uncover our own that we work so hard to manage through our behaviors.
I am passionate about human behavior because I don’t want anyone, ever, to experience pain of any kind, physical or emotional. It hurts me to see other people hurting. Little did I even realize, after 15 years of exploration, that my journey to understanding people was also a journey of self-exploration to understand my own emotional pain. If you want to talk about extremely constructive behavior as a cover-up, I’ll point to my 80 issued patents, the dozens of triathlons and Ironman I’ve completed, and extreme, multi-week backpacking adventures that have taken me to places like the northern slopes of Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.
“If you or someone you know is hurting there are resources. Please call 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7.”
My goal in writing this article is to help society finally move past the anecdotal and cliche responses to such events. Yes, our hearts, thoughts, and prayers go out to their loved ones. Yes, these kinds of events (including gun violence, racism, social injustice, etc.) need to stop. But simply saying, “It ends now.”, #neveragain, “If you or someone you know is hurting there are resources. Please call 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7.” does little for someone who has experienced years of pain and has made up their mind to take definitive action. Please understand I am not saying these efforts are pointless. In fact, they probably save countless lives each year. But given there are about 132 suicides per day in the US and countless others living in sheer agony daily, I believe we’re completely missing the true root cause of destructive and extremely constructive behaviors. And to be clear, there will never be enough healthcare professionals to meet the needs of our population now or in the future.
I feel confident in saying tWitch was fully aware of the resources available for those struggling with their “mental health” (more accurately described now as Emotional Health). Ellen DeGeneres regularly discussed mental health on her show. Yes, it’s important to have this awareness and resources for help. The reality is, for too many people, they’re not interested in the help or they don’t believe the resources can help. Even with these resources, too often, it’s too little, too late. The emotional pain is so strongly rooted that little else can break through. It doesn’t mean we don’t try to continue to connect and create emotionally safe, non-shaming, non-judging, non-degrading, and non-emotionally-neglecting environments for each other especially in our families, schools, and workplaces.
The root problem to these behaviors begins and takes hold long before a person probably even realizes they’re struggling. Before they know it, it’s just “who they are”. They’ve learned ways to manage and survive their environment and little-by-little, drip-by-drip, this is who they become. My point is, we simply must nurture each other, especially our kids and students, emotionally before the compensatory world views and behaviors take root in their subconscious. When you review the research shared by Oprah and Dr. Bruce Perry in their book What Happened To You?, the first two-months of a baby’s life are absolutely critical to their future world view, health, and resilience.
We need a new model and understanding of behaviors which are just symptoms.
We need to distinguish between mental health and emotional health.
We need to understand that our emotional health and subconscious drive our actions and behaviors far more than our mental health and conscious mind. The neuroscience alone informs us that 95% of our actions and behaviors are subconsciously driven, which is where our emotional health is rooted. Therefore, attempting to drive our behaviors with our 5% conscious, mental abilities, and cognitive processes is a Fool’s errand. The likelihood of our 5% thinking brain overpowering our 95% feeling brain is unlikely, at best, yet that is where we continue to focus our attention. A big reason why is because going near our feeling brain can hurt. Once again, we’re attempting to avoid our own emotional pain at any and all cost. Over-intellectualizing is what we humans do so well, it feels good, it makes us feel even more valuable, and it helps us avoid painful, buried feelings. And if my point hasn’t already been clear, Value = Love, and love is a basic human need. A need unmet causes pain and we’ll do anything to stop it.
Most of us are experiencing some kind of emotional pain and if you’re in any doubt try taking stock of your own behaviors. How many of us argue, eat, or drink our feelings? And in the absence of receiving the love, connection, and belonging we need, we attempt to compensate through our behaviors. Unfortunately, far too often, our behaviors are destructive to ourselves or others.
I am so sorry tWitch’s pain led to his suicide. My hope is we, as a species, can finally learn something from a tragedy rather than be doomed to repeat it 132 more times tomorrow, and 132 times the day after that, and so on. Because frankly, what we’re doing now simply is not working. The only way I see humanity moving forward is if we don’t just say, “I love you.” but if we each live and breathe love, connection, and belonging, every day through our concerted actions, with the people closest to us.
Rest in peace tWitch. We’ll try to do better so others won’t have to experience the kind of pain you endured for 40 years.