Get Out of Your Own Way

Procrastinating, drinking, or overeating? Self-sabotaging behavior results from a misguided attempt to rescue ourselves from our own negative feelings.

Self-Sabotage and Your "Outer Child" (Pt 4 of 5)

As illogical as it might seem, your child self may be your saboteur.

Image preview Your inner child, or child within, is a popular term in the so-called "recovery field" (recovery, that is, from having grown up in a dysfunctional family). This catch-all phrase typically refers to that wounded part of you that got left behind--the neglected or abused fragment of self that, though you may not hear its muffled voice, still calls out for recognition, understanding, and support. In a word, for the nurturing it never received. It's scared and lonely, and it feels weak, vulnerable, and abandoned.

But how about what, unconventionally, might be referred to as your outer child, or child without? These are designations meant to describe the segment of self that in the here-and-now can "act out"--rashly and illogically--past needs and desires. Or powerful feelings that earlier never could be expressed (not to mention, resolved). In fact, all "acting out" behaviors are contrived to reduce current-day tensions or anxieties through giving unmonitored vent to thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs.

Unfortunately, however, such a potentially healthy release is at the questionable discretion of your outer child. And this is the impulsive, careless, uncensored part of you that's apt to express itself with little or no regard for possible consequences. So when your outer child heedlessly manifests itself, it can do so in ways that get you into all sorts of trouble, and engender a variety of thorny problems. Problems that serve only to make matters worse and increase your frustrations. After all, it's the most undiscriminating, undisciplined part of you: unruly, demanding, self-indulgent, and unrestrained.

Under its rebellious influence, you're at serious risk of giving in to immediately gratifying addictions; going into mindless rages (possibly directed toward those you care about most); delaying--and even abandoning--projects that require your self-discipline and perseverance; and so on, and so on. At such times, your impetuous child part literally takes over your adult self and acts on its own volition, pre-empting or overriding how you, the adult, would prefer to behave. Even when you know very well what's in your best interests, if you remain oblivious to this outer child it can emerge out of nowhere and become your saboteur, willfully submerging your interests to its own.

Earlier, I published a two-part post entitled, "Feeling Good--Vs. Feeling Good About Ourselves," which suggested that when we act, self-indulgently, to feel better in the moment, ultimately we feel not better but worse about ourselves. And the problem with unwittingly allowing your outer child to triumph over your better judgment is that for the sake of immediate gratification you'll end up sacrificing what's actually much more satisfying and meaningful to you.

Needless to say, it's crucial that your child--or emotional--self be governed (though not squelched) by your more rational adult self. For when feelings and impulses are permitted to play the lead role in your life drama, you risk making decisions that are poorly considered--or hardly considered at all. And such imprudence is likely to compromise your welfare, undermine your key relationships, and eventually compromise your self-regard. Your "inner child" needs to be heard and attended to--and this is actually what self-nurturing is all about (see, incidentally, an older post of mine on this topic). On the contrary, however, your "outer child" needs to be regulated, controlled, and subdued. For as already suggested, permitting your impulses free reign is apt to lead to repercussions you're likely to regret later. Repercussions that in your acting (or reacting) too hastily, you simply couldn't recognize--much less evaluate.

This is why when you feel really strongly about something, it's wise to step back and ask yourself whether you can afford to act on this feeling. It's likely that you've just gotten a button pushed, or let your imagination run away with you. Or that you're feeling distraught--inordinately angry, frightened, or depressed. These are all emotional states in which your better, more logical judgment may no longer be available, so that you need to do everything in your power to restore equilibrium. Whether you arrange a spontaneous session of yoga or Qigong, jog around the block, or undertake a session of self-hypnosis, meditation, visualization or guided imagery, it's essential that you succeed in quieting down your emotions. Remember, the emotional reasoning of the child may masquerade as rational, but from an adult perspective it's anything but.

Different (Though Complementary) Vantage Points on Self-Sabotage

Various authors have written on the controversial subject of self-defeating behaviors. And many of them specifically allude to their emanating from the childish, impulsive part of ourselves--that part unable, or unwilling, to see beyond the present moment. As I've repeatedly stressed, the logic of the child (i.e., the "logic" of immediate gratification--or, "If it feels good, do it!") becomes the illogic of the adult. Here, I've room to discuss only three of these writings. However, my highly selective coverage should be suggestive.

Your Own Worst Enemy: Understanding the Paradox of Self-Defeating Behavior (1993) by Steven Berglas and Roy F. Baumeister argues that there are multiple explanations for why individuals sabotage themselves. These accounts range from miscalculating future risks, to irrational feelings of invincibility, to choking under pressure, to self-handicapping, to overly costly (or Pyrrhic) revenge. Typically, such individuals are not out to destroy themselves but rather trying to:

• save themselves from successes they fear they can't sustain (cf. the negative belief from childhood, "I will fail," mentioned in Part 3);
• prevent public humiliation (cf. from that same list, "I'm contemptible");
• rectify childhood wrongs; or simply
• maximize pleasure--though in unheeding, or otherwise misguided, ways.

Examples that Berglas and Baumeister provide include: battered women who regularly return to their abusive partners; athletes, whose bodies are absolutely essential to their success, abusing them with drugs and alcohol; entrepreneurs who take illogical--and ruinous--risks when they've already secured their fortune; and politicians and evangelists who engage in scandalous behaviors virtually guaranteeing their downfall. Not to mention, of course, we more common folk who (quite aware of the dangers) drive without seat belts, indulge in extramarital affairs, and--counter to doctor's orders--eat sugary sweets that exacerbate our issues with cholesterol.

After beginning work on this post, I discovered the work of psychotherapist, Susan Anderson--more specifically, her book, Taming Your Outer Child: A Revolutionary Program to Overcome Self-Defeating Patterns (2011). Much earlier, I'd typed into Google the phrase "child without" (vs. "child within") and received no citations, tentatively leading me to conclude that my designation was as novel as I'd hoped. But when, much more recently, I re-googled the topic--this time employing the alternate title, "outer child"--I was immediately directed to Anderson's groundbreaking work, which had in fact been evolving for over a decade. (So much, then, for my originality!)

Though developed at far greater length, Anderson's views are extremely similar to my own. The quoted material below should suggest some of her key ideas:

• "Outer child is an overarching concept [of self-sabotage] that encompasses defense mechanisms, character traits, knee-jerk reactions, habits and compulsions--all of your maladaptive behavior patterns."
• "Whereas Inner child is all about feelings, Outer child is all about behavior."
• "Outer child is the selfish, obstinate, impulsive, self-centered part of all of us."
• "Outer wants what Outer wants NOW and overrules you, the adult, in getting it."

• "Outer Child is the hidden "Chuckie" of the personality. Even the nicest people we know can act like an eight-year old with a full blown conduct disorder (perhaps not in public) when they feel rejected, dismissed, abandoned."
• "Outer child is born of unresolved abandonment. It wreaks havoc in your relationships when it acts out your inner child's primal fear of abandonment."
• "When your adult self and your inner child are out of alignment, Outer child gains power and acts out your neglected needs and feelings however it wants--to hell with your goals. Bottom line: If your head and heart remain disconnected, you can expect Outer Child to become more and more emboldened to butt into your life."
• "The antidote is to create a deeper [and more loving] internal bond [i.e., between your inner child and adult]."

On her Outer Child website, Anderson presents an Outer Child Checklist with no fewer than 60 items to help you determine how many such traits you (and/or those close to you) may embody. And the author emphasizes that all of them reflect the "illogical thinking" of the outer child (though I'd call it "logically illogical" in that so many of these behaviors are contrived--rationally enough--by the child to protect its fragile ego). I've chosen just a few of these negative characteristics to demonstrate how blatantly irrational--at least from a longer-term, adult perspective--these tendencies can be:

• "Outer Child doesn't like to do things that are good for you. Outer would rather do something that will make you fat, broke, or pregnant."
• "Outer Child loves to feed its emotional hunger [emphasis added] with things like shopping, sex, sugar that only makes you hungrier in the end."
• "Outer projects its faults on your mate. Likewise onto your children."
• "Outer Child enjoys playing the victim, that is, when not playing the martyr."
• "Outer Child has a chip on its shoulder, which it disguises as assertiveness. . . . [It] develops a ‘tude' to keep people at bay. It's trying to protect your inner child's feelings of loneliness and vulnerability [and, yet again, here is the self-defensive logic of the child]."
• "Outer Child is highly principled: it scrupulously obeys the pleasure principle [!]."

Overall, the unflattering portrait that emerges from Anderson's varied descriptions are of that part of you who thinks and speaks in absolutes; won't take responsibility for its behaviors; reacts defensively; is impatient, impulsive, self-indulgent, and self-righteous; is oblivious to (or even reckless about) the consequences of its actions; and is unwilling to respect the rights--or accommodate the viewpoints--of others. Ultimately, it can be seen as the arch enemy of you--your essential, more grown-up self, which includes your goals, ideals, and aspirations. Indeed, the very heart and soul of you (vs., that is, your unruly, egocentric, even "brattish," self).

And speaking of "brattish," the final book on one's outer child that I'll mention is by Pauline Wallin and actually goes by the title, Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior (2004). Similar to Anderson, Wallin explores the early childhood roots of this so-called brattish self. But she also looks at the social and cultural conditions in the U.S. that provide the breeding grounds for such reprehensible self-centeredness, willfulness, and feelings of entitlement. Having its own emphasis, yet overlapping with Anderson's thesis and characterizations, this work unfavorably views your "inner brat" as pouting, sulking, antagonistic, ill-tempered, and blaming others whenever it's not getting its way.

Finally, it's really the childishly self-absorbed, narcissistic proclivities in all of us that compel this selfish behavior--which in turn leads to our self-defeat. Rather less sympathetic to these unfortunate childhood remnants than is Anderson, Wallin focuses on such dishonorable internal forces as basically constituting a "spoiled child," demanding that its needs and desires be immediately attended to--with no consideration of whether the person attending to them might be inconvenienced, hurt, or damaged in the process.

Whether you prefer to see this aspect of yourself as your "outer child" or "inner brat," Wallin and Anderson both go to substantial lengths in describing how best to "tame" it. I'd therefore recommend that anyone who relates only too easily to their many characterizations take the opportunity to investigate their work further.

To provide a broader context for understanding this 5-part post on the "logical illogic" of the psycho-logical, I should note that Part 1 concentrated on the logical illogic of dreams, whereas Part 2  focused on the curiously intriguing logic behind self-sabotage. Part 3 then delved into the actual "programming" of such self-defeating behavior; and the present part has explained self-sabotage as an expression of your "outer child." Finally, the concluding section--Part 5--will address self-sabotage as it reflects ("logically" enough) acts of passive-aggression toward the self.

© 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Get Out of Your Own Way