One of the things that most puzzle me in life is the capacity we all have to sabotage ourselves. In one way or another, all of us have done things we knew would be bad for us, from small transgressions like eating that forbidden piece of chocolate that would ruin our diet, to more destructive and complex things, like getting involved in a relationship we know is going to end up badly. Not to mention the more extreme self-destructive actions, things like self-harm, risky behaviour and addictions.
I think that the dynamics of self-sabotage is perhaps one of the main things that lead me to want to study the mind, as I wished to understand the ability we have to undermine our pursuit of a good enough life. And as a psychotherapist, I see how hard it is when patients realise such aggressive aspect of our human nature, when they come in contact with their own destructiveness expressed in patterns of self-sabotage, which can take different shapes and forms. This painful realisation is often accompanied by confusion, hopelessness, and sometimes even more destructive resentment.
But why do we do it? Why is it that from time to time we choose what’s bad for us, things we know will mess up aspects of our lives that we so much want to grow and develop? Why do we find ourselves locked into unhealthy and destructive cycles, be them in relationships, behaviours or feelings? It just doesn’t make sense to pursue something that will lead up to more suffering. But we still do it. So why?
First thing to consider is that there seems to be a conflict in the mind, a battle between the natural endeavours to develop and grow, countered by attacks that serve to undermine these efforts. It feels like an internal version of Newton’s law, that for every action there’s an opposite reaction of equal measurement. Except each opposite side has their own instinctual force.
Freud can help us understand this conflict a bit more. He proposed that we are all governed by two sets of opposing instincts: life instincts, which contain the drives that lead to development and growth (i.e. sexual, creative and survival instincts); and death instincts, the opposing force that seeks destruction (of oneself or others), breakdown and a return to death, to an inorganic state. Freud developed the concept of the Death Instincts from observing and analysing things like masochism, and also what he called ‘repetition compulsion’, an unconscious compulsion that leads the person to put himself repetitively in painful situations, like replicas of early experiences. Not so different from self-sabotage.
If we believe that the duality between life and death instincts permeates the way we feel, behave and relate to one another in every level, then it can help us understand how self-sabotage works.
In my psychotherapy work I come across different expressions and meanings to the undermining dynamics of self-sabotage. These are often unconscious, and it is part of the therapy for the patient to realise and then work through how anxious they feel about them.
I will give some examples of such unconscious meanings for self-sabotage, and their respective functions:
– Neurotic loyalty: some people, for whatever reason, regard their mother or father (or other ‘loved’ one) a failure in life, an impotent and weak person. They may then unconsciously pledge a sort of neurotic allegiance to the failed parent, and thus sabotage themselves to make sure they will never rise above them. To grow, develop and become better may then be constituted as a betrayal, with unbearable guilt and punishment awaiting as a consequence. Being well is faced with an internal prohibition, enforced by a destructive and cruel part of the mind. Not only that, but some people believe that if they were to let go of the defeated object they are identified with, if they try to develop a separate better life, they would be killing them off or contributing to their destruction (i.e. the loved one would kill themselves, drink themselves to death, etc). And so a life of self-sabotage takes place, to prevent the greater destruction that the person fears would take place should they break this neurotic loyalty.
– Punishment: self-sabotage can also be a form of punishment. But punishment for what? For the crime of having forbidden (and often destructive) desires, feelings, thoughts and fantasies, which need to be pushed away from conscience and so relieve the person from having to bear particular destructive aspects of themselves, which are often directed towards loved ones. We all carry in our minds a part of ourselves that acts as an internal judge and jury, which makes us feel guilty if we do (or think, or feel) something that is against a sort of internal law. Freud calls this a superego, an internalised version of our parents that supervises and can punish us if we are ‘out of order’. Self-sabotage then is the act of a crushing superego, punishing the person for being guilty of something internally wrong (which not always corresponds to external morals, laws, etc).
– Omnipotence: some people will sabotage themselves as a way of defending against an unconscious fear of rising too high and becoming all-powerful, which in phantasy [the ‘ph’ stands for unconscious fantasy] could unleash very destructive aspects of themselves (such as feelings of tremendous envy and greed). So some will remain collapsed and impotent for fear of hurting or damaging their loved ones. Self-sabotage then is like an internal safety system that functions as a protective measure.
– Retreat: sometimes patterns of self-sabotage work as a retreat against some troublesome feelings that can result from real relationships. The pattern then serves as a way of never having to leave a zone of familiar defeat, a protection against exposing oneself to the perils of real relationships, where loss, frustration and hurt are always a possibility. So undermining oneself becomes the lesser of many evils.
– Mastering: Freud links the repetition compulsion to an attempt to master painful past situations, an effort to take charge of circumstances that were hurtful and traumatic. So self-sabotage sometimes takes the form of an endeavour to take control of the suffering and pain, much like self-harm. It’s a manageable defeat, like when someone breaks up in anticipation, or cheats before he/she is cheated on. No less destructive though.
– Protection: as destructive as self-sabotage can be, sometimes undermining oneself can act as a defence against destructive impulses towards loved ones. The extroverted kind of impulse. So the destructiveness is turned inwards, protecting the other from potentially dangerous unconscious impulses. This is often the case with depression, as hatred and anger is felt towards oneself and not others. In case of extreme self-destructive dynamics, things like self-harm or even suicide, a pertinent question would be: by attacking themselves, who is the person wanting to hurt in their mind? And in this sense, who is being spared in the external world?
– Fear of disintegration: for some people, a weak mental structure is all they have. Even if they are struggling in life, they will resist change and so attack anything that may disturb the organisation that helped them survive until then, no matter how flimsy it is. So self-sabotage in this sense acts again as a defensive measure, stopping anything that may unhinge and threaten the system. It can also be an attempt to return to a previous ‘balance’, for fear of disintegration or major collapse.
– Masochism: masochism points to the satisfaction in suffering. So self-sabotage in this sense draws a perverse pleasure that can be achieved by attacking oneself, or putting oneself through situations that will cause hurt and pain.
Despite its nuances, all of the meanings and functions that I mentioned above, observed in the context of my psychotherapy work and gathered through my readings, point towards two simple facts: self-sabotage is destructive, but it’s also defensive. However, until the person realises the cost of patterns and cycles of undermining oneself and seeks help for it, the likelihood is that self-sabotage will continue to take place over and over again.
In this way, psychotherapy can help the person come in contact with the more destructive parts of themselves, which can be then understood and worked through. Psychotherapy provides a centre-stage for destructiveness to be lived through, contained and transformed within the therapeutic relationship. Patterns of self-sabotage are brought forward in the context of therapy, so they can be untangled, unpacked and reorganised within the patient’s way of relating, behaving and feeling. Psychotherapy can help balance out the duality between instincts of life and death, attenuating the destructive impetus as it is expressed in the therapy work.