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The Paradoxical Rationale for Self-Sabotage (Pt 2 of 5)

There's a "logical illogic" in the psycho-logical.

tactile hallucination in schizophrenia/Wikipedia
Source: tactile hallucination in schizophrenia/Wikipedia

Do you seem to struggle in life much more than others? Do your efforts to succeed regularly get derailed? Is following through on your plans (well-conceived as they may be) typically problematic? Do you do stupid or impulsive things when you know better? Do your relationships start out promising, but usually go south--as though somehow you just can't help saying or doing something to capsize them? Are you perhaps a lot better at making money than holding onto it?

If any of these descriptions rings true for you, you may be guilty of self-sabotage. If you're disciplined enough to work hard at accomplishing a goal, yet routinely do something rash or imprudent to undermine it, your behavior may actually be more motivated than you imagine. In Part 1 of this post I talked about the psychology--or rather, "logical illogic"--of dreams. In this part (as well as the three to follow) I'll focus on the curiously inverted rationality of self-sabotaging/self-defeatist behaviors. So if you resonate with some of the above characterizations, it's probably not a coincidence. Author of your own life script, you may have--however unconsciously--been "planning" your own failures all along.

Sound illogical? Well, the mind has its own logic. And it's frequently at odds with what, objectively, would appear reasonable. Most defense mechanisms, for example, are counterproductive. Yet they do serve the immediate psychological function of protecting you from possibly overwhelming feelings of anxiety, guilt, or shame. Regardless of the ultimately negative repercussions of, say, regression, repression, or denial, such self-protective mechanisms do alleviate what otherwise might overpower your coping resources.

Take, for instance, your key relationship. It may not make much sense to lose your temper and turn on the person you're most committed to. But it's psychologically understandable (i.e., "logical") that in an emotionally dependent relationship, your anger might help mitigate the feelings of vulnerability such dependency is apt to evoke. If you actually dared admit to the other person how much you needed their caring, closeness, and support--and, alas, they refused you--you'd wind up experiencing the sharp sting of rejection and abandonment: two of the most distressful emotions we humans are susceptible to.

It's only reasonable, therefore, that in your attempts to avoid such hurt or humiliation, when you begin to doubt the other's commitment to you, you might berate them--and thereby "succeed" in nullifying the perceived threat they embody. Practically, you're abandoning them to preclude the possibility of feeling abandoned by them. They can't "fire" you, for in the moment you've--pre-emptively--fired them.

In short, on one level it's illogical that you'd verbally attack the person you're most devoted to. But on another, it's altogether logical that you might get angry to increase your emotional distance when their behavior (however subliminally) suggests their ability to hurt you. Not willing to risk feeling rebuffed by their possible disinterest, unconcern, or disapproval, you're likely to criticize or otherwise "invalidate" them. (And in this regard, see my earlier post, "What Your Anger May Be Hiding.") We humans have the potential to do almost anything--and to employ whatever defenses may be at our disposal--to re-secure at least part of our emotional equilibrium when it's experienced as in jeopardy.

As opposed to logic, "psycho-logic" follows its own set of rules. And these rules can be quite as subjective (and idiosyncratic) as they are paradoxical. To the psyche, winning can feel like losing. And success like failure--and, perhaps even more perversely, failure like success. Although it would hardly make sense to an observer, if failing at something enables you to avoid a situation linked to intolerable fear, panic, or shame, then it does--at least immediately--allow you to emerge triumphant. Even as you experience disappointment, you may breathe a welcome sigh of relief.

By now, just about everyone is familiar with the ironic concept, fear of success. And if failure is able, "successfully," to alleviate that fear, then it's only logical--or psycho-logically reasonable--that we might actually choose to fail.

Moreover, imminent success can tap into abhorrent memories of past punishment. As an example, let's say that as a child your father couldn't handle your doing any better, whether academically or at sports, than he himself did when he was younger. And so he regularly found something (anything!) to attack you for every time you performed exceptionally. Time after time he--well--sabotaged your success by finding a way to make you pay an exceedingly high price for it. Given such a scenario, doesn't it make perfect, "logical" sense that you'd end up with mixed feelings about succeeding? That you might hold yourself back from achieving what's well within your reach? That, unconsciously, you'd be motivated to sabotage yourself?

Sure, your behavior could be considered self-defeating. Yet it's logically connected to the emotional uneasiness that may in the past have become inextricably bound to the very thought of superiority or success. In the present day, the underlying programming that continues to "compel" your behavior may be flagrantly irrational. But that wasn't the case originally, when you couldn't help but link succeeding to all sorts of negative consequences.

Obviously, the logic of the past can become the illogic of the present. The problem is that outdated modes of reasoning can still feel logical to you and thereby dictate your behavior--even when the circumstances of your life have changed dramatically. And if you've gained little to no insight on how, willfully, you may have been "contriving" your own failures, you may go on rationalizing them ad infinitum. Meanwhile, through sheer force of habit, the "practice" of self-sabotage may have become more and more deeply ingrained in you. The end result of such unfortunate self-conditioning is that unless you're able to discover the true source of your dysfunctional behavior--and, additionally, convince that much younger part of self that it's no longer required or makes any sense--you'll never be able to fully outgrow it.

And to the degree you remain oblivious to the dynamics of such behavior, it will continue to control you. . . . As in, meet your own worst enemy.

© 2010 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE: This 2nd part of my 5-pt post on "The ‘Logical Illogic' of the Psych-Logical" has centered on the curiously twisted logic of self-sabotage. While Pt 1 focused on dreams and attempted to account not for their literal but symbolic logic, the three segments to follow will zero in further on the intriguing topic of self-sabotage. But each will have its own distinct emphasis.

Pt 3 will highlight the various negative beliefs about self that drive this behavior. Pt 4 will concentrate on the "outer" (vs. "inner") child ultimately responsible for it. And finally, Pt 5 will address the topic of self-sabotage as it represents acts of passive-aggression toward the self (a concept I've yet to see touched upon in the literature).

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