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When Your Self Sabotages Your Life

We all have a basic need to compose a valuable self

Key points

  • When what we do is disconnected from who we are, a never-ending inner struggle results.
  • Damage to our self-value is a deep mental wound that can be healed in meaningful connections.
  • Self-value comes from co-creating a life that is worth living.

In exploring the psychodynamics of self-sabotage, it is useful to consider the popular quote attributed to the French writer Marcel Proust: "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."

Possessing "Other" Eyes

Armin Lotfi/Unsplash
Source: Armin Lotfi/Unsplash

Let us have a look at the original text.

The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes (in the original text: d’avoir d’autres yeux), to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is.”

Proust intended to create an extraordinary art: to observe and experience ourselves with a new richness and to be aware of the detailed mental movements within ourselves by looking at them from many different perspectives. Living a life true to ourselves is like taking a refreshing bath in this Fountain of Youth, to look at our self with refreshed and new eyes. Let us try this.

What Is Our Self?

Our self is not something fixed; it is a vulnerable process that needs a lot of nurturing connections from the moment it arises. Creating a self that is valuable and building the integrity, the courage, and the perseverance to maintain this self-value throughout our lives is one of our biggest challenges.

Many traumatic events can happen during our lifetime that slowly transform this precious self-value-building process into a self-sabotaging process. What is this priceless self-value we need that matters the most? Our self is a process incessantly built and rebuilt as long as we live. It grows, changes, is continuously modified. It needs a permanent and precise care.

How Does Our Self Comes to Our Life?

During my life I have been inspired by the perspective on consciousness, emotions, and life given by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. In his book Self Comes to Mind (2010), he explains eloquently his well-founded view on the evolution of the self.

He explains the self as a process that unfolded silently during the long evolution of life. It evolved from a single cell to our complex configuration of cellular systems and neuronal networks as the result of an endlessly fine-tuning of life’s homeostatic regulations. And finally, in these billions of years of process, this growing self enters the human mind as "a primordial feeling of knowing," which he calls "the protoself’."

As the result of ongoing interactions with the world around and within, a core-self process expresses itself as the "feeling of what happens’." And when our capacity for memory and language grows and expands an autobiographical self is step-by-step added to our felt self.

Every night after sleep, our self is reactivated and sometimes refreshed; even in our dreams our self is modified. The narrative part of our self leads a dynamic life. It is continuously reassessed, rearranged, and modified—nonconsciously and consciously, depending on our primordial feeling and our feelings of what happened.

Our experiences of the past are reshaped by our current perspective; content is added depending on our current emotional state. Details are dropped, parts are restored and enhanced. Other parts are recombined into completely new content.

Antonio Damasio masterfully explains: “This is how, as years pass, our own history is subtly rewritten. This is how facts can acquire a new significance and why the music of memory plays differently today than it did last year.”

What Is the Unfolding Story of a Self-Sabotaging Self?

What is the story of the self that comes to life and sabotages its life? Is it a self that became deeply damaged in its value? Is it a self that became traumatized by overwhelming events in life? When and why did it become unable to see its own intrinsic value? When and why did it become narrowed and contracted, absorbed in its own tragedy, as if a wall is made within and obscures the possibility to see with clear and open eyes?

When this happens with the unfolding self, a deep human catastrophe is taking place. It calls for the greatest creativity of the self and the caregivers to restore this story of the damaged self, to help the person to rewrite their story without suppressing or blocking but helping to review and see from a clear and balanced perspective.

The art and creativity of this embodied emotional intelligence is needed more than ever. Because soon we will live on this breathtakingly beautiful, but extremely fragile planet with eight billion people. As the UN predicts, two more billion will be added the next decades. Meanwhile the problems of our humanity will continue to grow in complexity, and the complexity of the question of how we must live together will only increase.

Many technological, environmental, and geopolitical challenges will disturb our emotional vulnerability. How will all these new selves come to their lives and experience their lives as true to themselves? The quality of the self-value-building process will determine the direction of the choices we will make. The subtle art of composing a valuable self is the meta-skill we need to live a life true to ourselves in the 21st century. Self-value lies at the heart of what we need to be fully us.


Damasio, A., (2010). Self Comes to Mind, Constructing the Conscious Brain. London: William Heinemann.

Proust, M., (1981). Remembrance of Things Past, New York: Random House.