Though it might be difficult to admit, there are times when we’ve all acted in ways hurtful to ourselves. And for multiple reasons, and in situations where we really knew better. This post—taking, I think, a more compassionate than critical stance toward this regrettably widespread tendency—will examine why it’s only human for us to act in self-defeating, “perverse” ways.
Consider the expression: “You’re cutting off your nose to spite your face.” What this proverb suggests is that we can harbor a (supposedly) abnormal tendency to engage in acts of self-sabotage blatantly contrary to our best interest. Yet that’s actually no more than half true. For in every instance, if we more closely examine different circumstances in which we display such “orneriness,” we’ll discover that there’s more than a single interest at play.
So, for instance, say we’re enraged by another’s behavior, consumed with uncontrollable fury toward them. In the moment, mindless of the consequences, we may “strategically” act out against them, and to the point that we’re actually putting our welfare at risk. Our anger, so strong that it topples any rational fears we’d otherwise experience about acting ill-advisedly, can lead us—almost coerce us—to take a vengeful action. One which, if we could think more clearly, would seem almost crazy. We might write a “poison pen” letter easily enough traced back to us that could get us sued, fired, or lead to the other’s upping the ante in their avenging themselves (as in, “revenge begets more revenge”). In our passion, we might speak out too aggressively, or perform some destructive act—both of which could put us directly in harm’s way.
Governed more by fierce emotion than rational thought, we’re hazarding our longer-term interest, advantage, or prosperity for the sake of the immediate gratification (and possible adrenaline rush!) that comes from a “perversely pleasurable” discharge of our wrath. Our retaliatory action feeds our self-righteousness, enabling us to feel vindicated. For we’ve felt wronged, put down, exploited, betrayed, deceived, or grossly misunderstood. And underneath these reactions—likely not consciously recognized by us—we’d been made to feel weak, stupid, defeated, inferior or humiliated. So, however out of awareness, our defensive anger came to our "rescue." It helped reassure us and make us feel more in control—or “empowered.”
In sum, in the short (sometimes very short) term our overreaction was in our interest. It did help us feel better—or at least better than before. Our imprudently acting on our animosity ultimately must be seen as childish and, doubtless, self-defeating. But at the time of being provoked, it was in our best (psychological) interest.
So, can such behavior really be viewed, simply, as self-sabotage? Does it warrant being seen as senseless or perverse? Obviously, it’s more complicated than that. Despite our overreacting being counter-productive to the results we'd most desire, when we feel loathsomely offended our reacting vindictively may be irresistible. That is, when emotions rise beyond a certain level, our more measured, adult thinking about the ramifications and repercussions of our behavior is no longer available. Our higher cortical functioning shuts down and we’re overtaken by childhood mental/emotional survival programs ill-suited to the present. (And here note my posts “Child Self? Adult Self?—Who’s Running the Show?”, as well as “Self-Sabotage and Your ‘Outer Child’”.)
So yes, figuratively, we may end up cutting off our nose and spiting ourselves. But in the here-and-now acting out our feelings of indignation or rage feels altogether righteous—perfectly justified. Why shouldn’t we take revenge on the person who just "slammed" us? Confucius may have opined that “before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” But when we’re that inflamed, it’s impossible to perceive more than a single burial plot.
Acting out aggression is ego-driven. And maybe, after all, it’s our all-too-human ego that’s perverse. For whenever we feel compelled to “one up” another, it’s our ego that’s dominating us—certainly not our higher, more idealistic, compassionate and forgiving Self. Still, if such purported perversity is part of how we’re made, we’ll remain vulnerable to our emotions’ preempting our better judgment and prompting us to act (or react) irrationally, incautiously, unwisely. The problem is that in the moment such behavior may not feel irrational. We’re just “getting ours,” adamantly affirming ourselves in the face of what we’ve deemed derogatory, unfair, or menacing.
But let’s look at another example—and I should note that I could offer examples relating to a whole host of negative feeling states. This one focuses not on anger but anxiety. If we’re afraid that succeeding at something could open up a fresh can of worms, or in some way put our inner security at risk, we’re liable (to employ another common expression) to “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.” Perverse, no?
Technically, yes—but still, not really. For it’s quite possible that at one time or another all of us have aborted our efforts at something for fear that a positive outcome could actually set us up for later defeat, or “expose” us as the impostor that, deep down, we’d never ceased believing about ourselves. Or that, not really convinced we deserved to succeed, our success would precipitate uneasy feelings of guilt. Or that succeeding could in some way actually jeopardize our standing, maybe by leading others to expect much more of us than we were confident we could deliver.
In short, the well-publicized “fear of failure” (or subsequent failure) could prevent us from carrying out something well within our ability to achieve—and that we might well be in the process of achieving. But, similar to being hostilely motivated by potent feelings of anger, if old fears and insecurities grab hold of us, we’ll be driven to self-defeatingly terminate an endeavor. In the grip of escalating anxiety, we’re driven to retreat from, or avoid, precisely the action that’s fomenting this fearsome agitation.
Apparently opposed to—but really complementary with—overblown anger, powerful feelings of anxiety compel us not to act. For these two basic emotions, on the surface so different from one another, define the poles of the fight/flight reaction. In sharply contrasting ways, they impel us to do whatever feels imperative to regain control, or restore our psychic balance.
In situations of anxiety, we reclaim control not by doing battle with some perceived opponent but by taking refuge from whatever force (internal or external) that engendered this anxiety in the first place. But, similar to the imprudent acting out induced by runaway anger, unnerving anxiety can lead us to avoid taking action that, ultimately, would be in our best interests. (And here, see my two PT posts, "The Paradoxical Rationale for Self-Sabotage" and “Self-Sabotage as Passive-Aggression Toward the Self.”)
Doubtless, anxiety reactions promote behaviors readily identifiable as self-defeatist—and, as most people would agree, right up to the point of perversity. But again, the immediate solution of avoidance reduces anxiety and re-establishes our lost equilibrium. Of course, seen from a more “reasonable” perspective, such avoidance is hardly in our best interests. But, like anger, seen from an on-the-spot symptom-reducing perspective, it has to be appreciated as, well, rational.
. . . And that’s exactly what makes the whole subject of human perversity so sadly understandable—and, I'd like to think, forgivable.
© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.