Sunday, May 22, 2011

Intro to Self-Destructive Behavior

Here's a section from the introduction to the book I'm working on, about self-destructive behavior. As I said, I truly would appreciate any and all comments, especially constructive criticism. Things I'm leaving out, false or unsupported assumptions I'm making, or things that just turn you off. Positive feedback is welcome too, of course.


Everyone has some self-destructive habits, and no one understands why. Procrastination, lack of assertion, disorganization, smoking, overeating, overworking, lack of exercise, poor sleep habits, lack of consideration, depressed shopping, internet addiction—all the way up through addictions and intentional mutilation. We know what we’re doing to ourselves, and we keep promising to reform. Indeed we do try, often enough, but these habits are hard to break. Every time we try but fail, we get more hopeless and more critical of ourselves. Self-destructive habits are probably the greatest source of unnecessary suffering in our lives.

Self-destruction covers the territory from not flossing to suicide, from binge eating to lack of assertion, from conscious to unconscious. We all have bad habits we'd like to stop, habits that get in the way of our success or happiness. Yours may be simply procrastinating, eating too much ice cream, or not exercising enough. It may be more handicapping than that—holding yourself back, staying stuck in a bad job or relationship. It may be what most people would consider a serious problem: abusing drugs or alcohol, cutting or otherwise harming yourself, taking foolish chances with your life, picking fights with authority figures. Whatever your particular situation is, simple will power isn’t strong enough to make you stop, and you probably don't understand why. You know very well what you should do. If it’s a real nuisance, you probably lecture yourself about it incessantly. The problem, whatever it is, is taking up a lot of space in your brain. It seems so clear: you can choose A, the "good" choice, or B, the "bad" choice. You want to choose A, but it seems like you always choose B. Why in the world can't you stop?

If that obvious inability to do the right thing wasn’t bad enough, there are also many self-destructive habits that we’re not aware of. Driving carelessly, being thoughtless, not listening, neglecting our health. A lot of this unconscious self-destructive behavior gets played out in relationships. When I see couples, I sometimes sit with a mounting sense of dread because I can see how one spouse is working himself up to say the exact words that are guaranteed to set off an explosion in the partner. It’s as if some unconscious script has been triggered, and there’s no way to interrupt it. I try to intervene, to reframe or distract, but often the spouse will go ahead and say exactly the phrase I had in mind—believing that this is going to help the situation somehow—and the other partner will blow up, or run from the room, or collapse into defeat and tears, and we’re back where we’d started from. It’s enough to get me to consider the idea that at least one spouse, who seems normal enough, harbors some very real evil intent toward the other that he’s completely unconscious of. We can follow unconscious scripts that lead us to say or do exactly the wrong thing, and we can’t understand why it’s wrong. Other people who may be self-destructive without realizing it include procrastinators and prescription drug abusers, people who are inconsiderate of others, and people who are too self-sacrificing. People who are stuck in bad relationships and people who just can’t learn to manage money. Sometimes we can see a problem, but not see at all how we contribute to it. If you have any suspicion that you might be one of these people, read on.

You may have noticed that I’ve used the word “unconscious” several times already. You won’t find this word in many self-help books these days. The concept is distinctly out of favor in professional circles; ironically, because the general public now accepts the idea that our choices in life can be motivated by forces we’re not aware of. If you have picked up this book you are probably aware that while you want to change, there’s another part that doesn’t want to—and it’s not just fear of change; our motives are more complex than that. But the idea of internal conflict doesn’t have much impact in psychology or psychiatry today. The unconscious is not a popular concept in the professional world because it’s really hard to study and get reproducible results from—the heart of the scientific method. It’s also not a popular concept in self-help literature because by definition we’re not aware of it, and it’s hard to control what we don’t see. We’ll discuss later what other approaches have to say; oddly enough, the unconscious is more accepted in cognitive psychology now--but for the time being let me observe that it’s just about impossible to explain self-destructive behavior without some concept of the divided self, of motives and feelings that we hide from ourselves, of a part of the mind that sometimes works against our own best interests. It’s like trying to explain the movements of the planets in our solar system while ignoring the gravitational force of the sun.(MORE TK IN CHAPTER 1)

Put very simply, it seems as if we have a thoughtful, conscious, deliberative self, and an automatic self. The automatic self is guided by unconscious motives, frames of reference, patterns of relating—and directs much of our behavior, especially spontaneous actions. The conscious self can be in charge when we take the time to think about our choices. The automatic self has us eat the potato chip, while the conscious self regrets it. In view of the concept of the divided self, it might be more accurate to say that much of what appears to be self-destructive behavior is motivated by a desire to protect an aspect of the self that remains unconscious, perhaps detrimental or irrelevant to current reality but very much in line with another reality, one that we do not like to acknowledge to ourselves.

But, as we will see, it’s not impossible to see our unconscious motives and assumptions at work. It requires a discipline in self-awareness, the practice of certain skills that don’t occur to us naturally. This may seem a lot to ask in an age of quick fixes, when pills are supposed to cure us instantly and insurance companies pay for eight weeks of psychotherapy. But if you’ve struggled with self-destructive behavior for any amount of time, you know there are no quick fixes. We seem to be perpetually drawn back to our old, bad habits as if we’re caught in an Undertow too powerful for us to overcome. So bear with me as we talk about how to get to the heart of your self-destructive behavior and learn to control the hidden motives behind the Undertow.

Most approaches to understanding and stopping self-destructive behavior have been ineffective because they provide a "one size fits all" solution—change your thinking, get yourself organized, or delve into your unconscious. In actuality, there are several different motivations/scenarios that drive us to handicap or hurt ourselves: a self-destructive rebellion against some authority; an unconscious self-hate; fears of success, independence, love; a desire for someone else to make us stop; a belief that the usual rules don’t apply to ourselves; and a few others.

[INSERT AND SET OFF AS ART ON A NEW PAGE] Some self-destructive behavior patterns Suicide Suicidal gestures Smoking Anorexia/bulimia Overeating Neglecting health Substance abuse Gambling Self-mutilation Social isolation Sex addiction Procrastination Always late Obvious lying Inconsiderate Not exercising Poor sleep habits Self-sacrificing gift giving Not paying attention Overwork Unable to relax Won't ask for help Unable to express yourself Suffering in silence Inability to prioritize—too many balls in the air Picking hopeless fights with authority Attracted to the wrong people Too much television Avoiding the chance to express your talents Unassertive behavior Staying in bad situations—jobs, relationships Excessive risk-taking Antisocial behavior Internet addiction Passive-aggressive behavior Depressed shopping Not managing money; accruing debt and not saving Computer games Self-dosing your medications …and many more [END INSERT]

These are not things that people are usually aware of (except in the most soul-searching moments), but only emerge after some therapeutic investigation into the nature of the self-destructive behavior. My experience with reaching people through books tells me that by careful explanation, sympathetic case examples, questionnaires, and exercises, I can help the reader see these patterns within himself—and then begin to overcome them.

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