Guest post by Stephanie Newman, Ph.D. (with Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.)
With all this talk about self inflicted torture and suffering, one might worry that there could be disastrous results for those in whom the cycle is not broken. And one might ask, Who is prone to this sort of self-sabotage. The answer: any and all of us. Internal dilemmas and intrapsychic conflict are part of being a human being. We all wrestle with conflicting thoughts and feelings--all the time. But a comprehensive body of research suggests that women may be especially prone to such reeanactments. Owing to being more relational (deriving their self-esteem from relationships going smoothly at any cost) (see the work of Nancy Chodorow and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, for example), and having been socialized to be more approval-oriented and compliant (at least outwardly) women, it seems, may be particularly prone to slipping into and remaining mired in self-destructive reenactments. For women who have a hard time thinking of themselves as worthy, let alone asserting or advocating for themselves owing to the intersection of their personal histories and their socialization, the sadomasochistic reenactment can be a difficult trap from which to extricate themselves.
Now that you've had a crash course in sadomasochistic re-enactments (in Pt 1 of the article), how do you identify such behaviors in yourself or someone close to you? First, appraise the situation. Do you repeatedly do self-defeating things? Like date married men? Lose jobs? Bounce checks? Look for unpleasant, patterns that, despite the pain they cause, you might still feel compelled to repeat. For example: every month you miss overdrawing your account by pennies, and wind up sweating it out and counting the seconds until your next paycheck hits.
Second, after appraising the situation, study the patterns more closely so as to get to the root causes, which is the key to ultimately eliminating the self-defeating behaviors all together. Since self-injurious patterns often involve an internal dilemma and an attempt to resolve it, once you spot a pattern--say routinely and secretly dating two guys at once, though wracked with guilt the entire time, and though terrified of being discovered and losing one or both, while swearing the entire time that all you really want is a serious monogamous relationship, meaning all those dates are no fun anymore--try to tease out all the different parts behind the troubling behavior.
Of course it is not easy to tease out all of the moving parts of an internal dilemma; people are complicated. But here goes: in the case of Jen, the young lawyer we met in part 1 of this two-part article, it appears she got pulled into the trap of a frenemy because of her troubled relationship with her mother. While Jen was growing up, Mom routinely smiled, then caused a fight between her and her sister, or her and her dad. So Jen came to know love as something fraught with drama, conflict, and betrayal. After all, having a bad parent was better than no parent at all. Jen loved the ties that bind; they made her feel secure. And being controlled made Jen feel loved. For Jen, then, being close to a frenemy felt like familiar territory; having a controlling, backstabbing friend felt like the norm.
Ambivalent attachments and loving someone who is not always kind and caring often occurs in those who grew up with depressed, indifferent, or very critical parents. So if you feel unlovable, contemptible, repellant, take heed: you might be a magnet for frenemies or cheating men. You might seek out painful, even disastrous attachments.
Why else might love be so ambivalently felt? Sometimes the parent- child pair is doomed--and it is no one's fault. Say a baby is especially sensitive, has a low threshold for pain, and simply cannot be soothed. Maybe the baby even has a chronic illness. Try as they might, the caregivers cannot fix the problem or soothe the pain. This can set the baby-caregiver pair up for misery and ambivalence--the parent cannot comfort and the baby cannot be comforted.
As adults, these individuals who were unsoothable as babies may attempt to control the environment, even if they engage in self-defeating, self-inflicted behaviors. Being in control, even in a self-defeating, self-punishing way, may feel better than not having control at all, or feeling passively controlled by a scary, unpredictable world.
A third way to know if you are prone to self-defeating behaviors: search out the feelings underneath old patterns. For instance, if your pattern is you routinely have unprotected sex with more than one guy and stay up all night in a freak- out, fearing pregnancy or disease, only to wind up each month getting tested for pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, you ought to stop and think. It's time to figure out what's really going on. For an answer, consider Kelly, a Hollywood celebrity whose life in the bright lights of flashing cameras was also lived in the shadow of a recurring sadomasochistic reenactment. She discovered her husband was having an affair with her trusted assistant--and not for the first time. Because of her fame, Kelly's humiliation wasn't just devastating; it became a matter of public record, splashed across magazine covers.
Truth is, humiliation, infidelity, and sneaking around felt all too familiar to Kelly. Her dad was a heavy drinker. After divorcing her mom, life was spent rotating through various girlfriends, jobs, and in and out of his kids' lives. Kelly learned by example. Her dad's lesson: don't expect security, respect, predictability, or unconditional love. So when Kelly discovered her husband was cheating, the pain cut deep, but while harsh, it felt tolerable and familiar at the same time.
Kelly, the adult child of an alcoholic, felt responsible for her dad. When she began to do well in Hollywood, she felt guilty that she was on an upswing, while he had continued on a downward drunken spiral. She found a cheating husband and failed to consciously notice his infidelity for years on end because of her guilt--it was easier to suffer from a broken marriage than to sit with the intolerable guilt of doing better than, and in her imagination hurting, her father. So Kelly sabotaged herself to deal with her pain about her father.
Now that you're familiar with sado-masochistic reenactments, what to do if you see these behaviors in yourself? Seek therapy--especially long term analytically-oriented treatment. This approach is ideal to identify long-standing self-defeating patterns and help break the cycle of self-sabotaging behaviors.
The theory goes, once you understand your feelings about yourself and the patterns you might be repeating, you might be freer to make less self-defeating and more advancing or productive choices.
One goal of a psychoanalytic psychotherapy or an analysis is to become more aware of patterns so you don't have to act on them. Becoming more resilient (able to self soothe, tolerate frustration), and accepting that certain feelings that feel shameful, like aggression, for example, are a normal part of being a human being, are also desirable outcomes, and will go a long way towards helping you feel less guilty, less uncomfortable, and towards your doing less self-defeating things.
What kinds of analytically-oriented treatments are available? Psychotherapy - in which patient and clinician meet face to face one or more times/week to discuss the connection between present self-defeating behaviors and past traumas, can help with self defeating behaviors. Psychoanalysis--where meetings are held more frequently, is another excellent way to address self-inflicted punishment. The increased intensity of analysis and increased contact allows patient and analyst to work to more effectively identify root causes and patterns. Those who have had an analysis can understand the way the mind works, and ultimately become more aware of feelings, patterns and self-defeating behaviors over time.
For anyone wishing to explore analytically oriented treatment, even those for whom cost is an issue, a psychoanalytic training institute such as The Institute Affiliated with NYU Medical Center in New York City (http://www.med.nyu.edu/psa/treatment), will have a roster of highly trained professionals, some of whom will accept varying fees based on a sliding scale. Other cities have similar institutions (Washington, Boston, LA, Cleveland, and Houston, for example, all have institutes). The American Psychoanalytic Association can help you find an institute with a roster of therapists and analysts that provide in your city. Check out www.apsa.org for specifics.
Come on, do it--don't be self-defeating.
Stephanie Newman, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan and Westchester, New York.