Self-Sabotage as Passive Aggression Toward the Self (Pt 5/5)

Could you be—unawares—a mental and emotional masochist?

Posted Feb 02, 2011

Tim Caynes, Flickr, Used with Permission
Source: Tim Caynes, Flickr, Used with Permission

In self-sabotage you "act out" internal conflicts by first moving toward a goal--then retreating from it. "I can do it" is offset by "I can't do it." "I want it" is overridden by "No, I don't want it." "I deserve it" countermanded by "I don't deserve it." The net result of such an ambivalent--or negative--attitude toward yourself is hardly to be envied. For the outcome is either immobilization (at times, an existential paralysis so exquisitely sculpted that push is perfectly balanced with pull, and pull with push). Or you're impelled--or rather, unconsciously compelled--to do everything in your power to defeat yourself.

From deep within, as a kind of hapless puppet, you may be controlled by programs so antagonistic or contradictory that it's simply impossible to achieve what, otherwise, might be well within your grasp. And insufficiently aware of the adverse self-beliefs underlying such programming--beliefs most likely derived from negative messages you regularly received from your parents--you can't confront (let alone resolve) your deepest conflicts. As I like to put it, until you've assimilated your past (i.e., fully "digested" it), it will keep repeating on you.

Needless to say, as long as you remain mostly unconscious about how self-defeatingly you've interpreted what happened to you in the past, you really can't allow yourself to straightforwardly follow your dreams. Unaware of the sabotaging aspects of your personality--those earlier self-denigrating parts afflicted with feelings of futility, incompetence, or unworthiness--you'll habitually trip yourself up.

Your own very worst enemy, you'll castigate yourself for shortcomings, experience guilt and shame for sins never committed, and routinely snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Moreover, you may (self-debasingly) permit others to take what, unconsciously, you feel unworthy to accept yourself--whether that be recognition for some accomplishment you were chiefly responsible for, or a promotion that by rights should have been yours.

Passive aggression toward the self is fundamentally about self-punishment. After all, if you're self-disapproving, don't much like yourself, and have never been able to fully embrace yourself (flaws and all), your ultimately counterproductive behavior will reflect this negative self-regard. It's as though you've given--let's say--your overly judgmental parents permanent residency inside your head (and rent free, at that!), with the inevitable result that these perennial authority figures constantly remind you that you're not good enough, that you can't live up to their expectations. Sadly, in the recesses of your brain, their critical voice has become your own. This unfortunate "importation" phenomenon is what psychoanalysts commonly call "introjects"--wherein you've unconsciously imbibed the detrimental messages about self that your once terribly significant others (however inadvertently) imparted to you

Now, if you actively aggress against yourself, you're probably aware of it. You'd have tremendous difficulty denying it--such as pretending you didn't just punch yourself in the gut. Or cut off your eyebrows. Or in some other way disfigure yourself (and in this respect consider individuals--particularly adolescents--who harm, injure, or mutilate themselves). To give a few additional examples of active self-aggression, might it be that you curse yourself each time you make a mistake? Or secretly root for your opponent to defeat you? Or--to really take it to the extreme--set fire to something you love (and without any motive to collect on your insurance policy either!)?

But, counter to active self-aggression, if you passively aggress against yourself, you could deny it indefinitely. Rationalize or makes excuses for it, blame it on someone else, remain totally oblivious to it, and so on. Which is all too easy to do when you don't have much of an idea about what--unconsciously--motivated you to defeat yourself in the first place. Still, if you're to appreciate why things may frequently turn out badly for you, it could be extremely useful to evaluate your behavior in terms of passive-aggression toward the self (a phrase I've yet to see employed either in the literature on passive-aggression or self-sabotage).

Further, it might be worthwhile to consider some key characteristics of passive-aggressive behavior as they're delineated in the mental health practitioner's diagnostic bible, DSM-IV. In this comprehensive manual of mental disorders, Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder--which is also referred to as Negativistic Personality Disorder--is characterized primarily as "passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations." Although this description clearly implies an interpersonal context for such behavior, in the case of passive-aggression directed toward one's own self, the resistance isn't from without but within.

The battle is far less with others than between the adult part of you (which, being your rational self, would like to be effective and succeed) and the child part of you (which has its own--ahem--"logically illogical" reasons for methodically undermining your efforts). Once again, this is the immature, "acting out" part of you whose motives can be understood either as impulsive (i.e., acting solely for immediate gratification) or reactive (i.e., negatively--and hyper-sensitively--responding to the memory of circumstances that occurred many years, or even decades, ago).

Additional characterizations in DSM-IV for the Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder can similarly be adapted to depict passive-aggression in its inward (as opposed to outward) form. You may want to mull over the various features of this disorder as you also reflect upon how each description might be modified--or re-perceived--to coalesce with this post's portrayal of self-aggression. And actually the wording in some of these depictions can be viewed as already blending in with what's been described here (i.e., may hardly require any semantic adjustments at all). Here are, according to DSM-IV, some other facets of the disorder.

The passive-aggressive individual:

• Complains of being misunderstood and unappreciated by others;
• May be sullen, irritable, impatient, argumentative, cynical, skeptical, and contrary;
• Unreasonably criticizes and scorns authority;
• Expresses envy and resentment toward those apparently more fortunate;
• Voices exaggerated and persistent complaints of personal misfortune;
• Alternates between hostile defiance and contrition [implied here, of course, is rebelliousness toward others--but such individuals, or groups, may actually be "stand-ins" for the introjects so firmly ensconced in your own head];
• Expresses opposition through procrastinating, forgetting, stubbornness, and intentional inefficiency--especially in reaction to tasks assigned by authority figures [again, compare this portrayal to negative reactions to the introject "authorities" occupying space in your brain); and
• Holds a negative view toward the future.

To conclude, if you see yourself--to whatever degree--as having committed self-sabotage in the past, and feel that you're vulnerable to further self-defeating behaviors in the future, it only makes sense to identify just what in your background may still be calling out for resolution. Although, admittedly, this is an oversimplification and won't apply to everything that may now be obstructing your path forward, you might wish to consider that (as Werner Erhard, founder of est, once said) until you've "completed" your relationship with your parents, all your relationships will be about your parents.

So it may well behoove you to do some sort of life retrospective and explore what from your past (whether or not it relates specifically to your caretakers) may still require "processing through" . . . if, that is, you're to live fully in the present, unimpeded by old, still "psycho-active" programs that continue to hinder your rightful pursuit of happiness.

NOTE 1: To provide a broader context for this 5-part post on the "logical illogic" of the psycho-logical, I might note here that Part 1 focused on the, well, rational illogic of dreams, whereas Part 2 dealt with the curiously intriguing logic behind self-sabotage. Part 3 then delved into the actual "programming" of such self-defeating behavior; and Part 4 explained self-sabotage as an expression of your impulsive, unruly "outer child." This final part has centered on the relationship between self-sabotage and passive-aggressive behavior aimed directly toward the self.

NOTE 2: Anyone interested in learning more about the roots of passive-aggression might wish to look at a much earlier post of mine entitled: "Afraid to Rage: The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Behavior."

NOTE 3: To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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