Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Make-Up Sex and Other Forms of Self-Sabotage

How to stop your brain from making bad choices.

Self-sabotage always sounds a little absurd. The idea that our brains could want to act against us is a perversity that is difficult to grasp. After all, if our behaviors were all directed toward survival of the species, why would a brain decide to contradict this principle? Here are some perspectives from brain science that explain the basis of self-sabotage.

(1) The unconscious brain does not hear "do" or "do not" [1]: When we want our brains to do things, they usually obey commands. If you say: "get up and walk to the bathroom" the brain will do this. If you ask you brain to stop and look to the left and right prior to crossing, it will oblige. But under conditions of stress, when you say to your brain: "do not drop the red wine" it drops the red wine. This is because under stress the conscious brain has its lights turned out, and the unconscious brain takes over. However, the unconscious brain responds mostly to the "impact" part of the sentence and hears "drop the wine". Many, many examples of this exist. When people are asked not to think of a word, under stress, they offer precisely that word. Any forbidden idea is more arousing to the brain. Thus, when we think of "not hurting" ourselves, under stress, the brain may do exactly the opposite.

(2) Pleasure and pain are inextricably related [2]: When we experience pain, the body releases mind-altering substances like endorphins which are released to relieve the pain. We are prone to being addicted to this pain since we become addicted to the associated pleasure. When this translates to "make-up sex" the results may not be so detrimental, but when it translates to self-mutilation this can become a problem. Not surprisingly then, there are reports that cocaine abuse (which introduces opiates into the blood and brain) may lead to self-mutilation [3]. The addiction to pleasure may in itelf be a form of pain and stuckness.

(3) We consistently do not choose what makes us happy [4]: Experiments show that we consistently do not choose what makes us happy. Several studies have shown that we are prone to biases in memory and decision-making often because, for example, we want to feel better about our choices, rather than facing our mistakes. In addition, we generally fail to follow our predictions because of the imbalance between impulsivity and self-control. Another reason we may hurt ourselves is because this tension becomes "too much".

(4) Fear of not being able to escape [5]: Studies show that when threat is near, our brains switch their activation from the area that assesses risk and reward (ventromedial prefrontal cortex) and is associated with self to a brain region called the periaqueductal gray--a brain region associated with panic. When this activation switches, this increases our dread and confidence of escape. Without this confidence, self-sabotage may be the only way to escape and "regain" control. The problem is that this control is gained through self-destruction.

If these are some of the brain-related causes of self-sabotage, what can we do about this? Overwhelmingly, the evidence suggests that the brain under stress causes self-sabotage. While longer term interventions are probably necessary, here are a few on-the-spot things that may help:
(1) Take a deep breath to recalibrate.
(2) Build stress prevention into your life (regular massage, sport that you like, exercise)
(3) Prevent thinking in "do nots" and think in "dos"
(4) Instantly convert the negative thought or fear into a hypothetical positive outcome
(5) Distraction can help
(6) Recognize that when pain leads to pleasure that the pain is primary and that its destructive effects may be invisible
(7) Be open to examining biases. In fact, assume that your choices are biased.
(8) When you feel the tension between impulse and self-control, take your mind completely off this battle rather than deciding between the choices.

These and other strategies may help your brain reset its decision-making point so that you are safer in your own hands.

1. Wegner, D.M., How to think, say, or do precisely the worst thing for any occasion. Science, 2009. 325(5936): p. 48-50.
2. LaGraize, S.C., et al., Selective regulation of pain affect following activation of the opioid anterior cingulate cortex system. Exp Neurol, 2006. 197(1): p. 22-30.
3. Karila, L., et al., Self-mutilation induced by cocaine abuse: the pleasure of bleeding. Presse Med, 2007. 36(2 Pt 1): p. 235-7.
4. Hsee, C.K. and R. Hastie, Decision and experience: why don't we choose what makes us happy? Trends Cogn Sci, 2006. 10(1): p. 31-7.
5. Mobbs, D., et al., When fear is near: threat imminence elicits prefrontal-periaqueductal gray shifts in humans. Science, 2007. 317(5841): p. 1079-83.

More from Srini Pillay M.D.
More from Psychology Today