Did you ever wonder why people can become so attached to self-defeating behaviors? It defies logic. Why would someone continue to emit behaviors that are harmful to themselves and others? Why not just let them go?
Examples of these behaviors may include being argumentative or obstructive with spouses, coworkers or bosses, engaging in abuse of food, alcohol or drugs or having a violent temper or behavioral outbursts. While the origins of these problematic behaviors emanate from early psychological issues, there are measures we can take today to rid ourselves, or, at least alleviate the impact of, these troublesome matters.
As we do need to have a slight grasp of the origins of these issues in order to understand and address them, bear with me for a moment while I formulate a summary.
In a very real way, the emotional development of the human infant can be viewed as a power struggle. A newborn is completely uninhibited, meaning, for our purposes, that it has no restraints upon its behavior; it does whatever it wants whenever it wants. Admittedly, a newborn’s range of behaviors of pretty small. But as any parent can tell you, as it’s range grows and broadens, limits need to be applied. Perhaps the best well-known example of these imposed limits is toilet training, where the infant must transit the gap between doing whenever it wants to restraining itself until the proper time and place.
This process, a good example for our present purposes, has to be introduced with a combination of bribery and force, the carrot and the stick. When performed by parents with a healthy sense of empathy, insight and patience, the task can be accomplished with a minimum amount of harm or friction. It is when the parenting individuals are either too lenient or too strict that difficulties will emerge.
An infant that is not “gentled” properly in the process of socialization will tend to become willful and difficult. This happens in general during the phase know as the “terrible twos”. By this time, the infant’s need for assertiveness and autonomy is either being healthily integrated or suppressed, forced underground; it is when the latter occurs that problems with self-defeating behaviors arise further down the road.
You have to appreciate that while cuddly and adorable, an infant remains a powerful force. To an infant, socialization attempts may seem like a threat to its very existence, particularly when there has been too much stick and not enough carrot being applied. Parents are rarely malicious or criminal in their behavior toward the infant; there are many outer and inner circumstances that influence their attitudes and behavior, too many to delve into here.
While the vast majority of us learn to successfully navigate the socialization process relatively unscathed, we may still carry within us the seeds of discontent. While these seeds may remain dormant for long periods of time, there are usually certain issues, many having to do with authority, that will bring them once again to life.
The authorities may be bosses and coworkers, husbands and wives, rule-makers at school or work, the police or my personal favorite, the cable television provider. When we come into conflict with authorities from being reprimanded at work, being issued a traffic ticket or squeezing the toothpaste from the middle of the tube, a fierce and often violent reaction may ensue.
Even as we’re engaged in this reaction we may have the realization that reacting in this manner is not helpful, yet we seem powerless to stop ourselves. It’s as if reacting were a matter of life and death, which, on a primitive emotional level, it is; we are fighting not so much for our physical lives as we are for our sense of wholeness and integration as an autonomous human being. It’s as if giving-in, the perceived alternative to not reacting, is synonymous with psychological death; therefore, we feel compelled to react, even while a more emotionally well-developed part of ourselves looks on in horror.
The major problem this presents in our adult lives stems from the primitive nature of our reaction. I don’t use the word primitive in a pejorative sense, but only to indicate from how far back in the course of our psychological development the issue emanates. Feeling one’s entire sense of being threatened dates from a very early stage in our development. That accounts for the intensity of the reaction, a form of an almost blind, all-encompassing rage; as very young infants we have yet to develop a more sophisticated, less destructive coping mechanism.
For this young of an infant to express such rage to the individuals it is totally dependent upon for getting its life’s sustenance is a testimony not only to the importance of the issue to the infant, but the lengths it is willing to go to assert itself. In expressing its rage, the infant is committing what amounts to a murder/suicide pact: by “killing” those it is dependent upon, it kills itself, yet, in the moment, it doesn’t care.
As adults, it doesn’t matter so much that we are having a reaction as it does that we are having such an enormous, all-encompassing one: I’m in a rage and the devil take the hindmost. Once we learn to recognize what is happening and to appreciate that our very existence is no longer being threatened in the way we once felt, we can begin to moderate our reaction into a more reasoned and constructive form.
At some point, all self-defeating behaviors, irrational by nature, are a function of an unresolved life and death (in the psychological sense) struggle. As I mentioned earlier, they may manifest as outbursts of anger, feelings of depression or the abuse of food, drugs or alcohol. The key to success is in trying to upgrade the level of sophistication of your response: instead of instantly blowing up, go quiet until you’ve regained your composure and then address the situation rationally and appropriately. Rather than giving-in wholeheartedly to your impulses to overindulge in food or drink (or aspire to its mirror opposite, give up eating or drinking forever) try committing yourself to a rational, flexible, moderate middle course.
And remember this: generally speaking, the cause of the original harm was a lack of compassion, understanding and empathy; not by intent but because of other complex psychological factors. Try to avoid falling into that mistake yourself. While you need to establish goals and boundaries and commit yourself to sticking with them, always remember to treat yourself and those around you with lots of compassion, understanding and empathy; learning this lesson is one thing you’ll never regret.