Self-sabotage is another term that blames the person doing it. The implication can be that people don’t have the ‘good sense’ to allow themselves success. Self-sabotage falls on a spectrum of course.
We can probably all relate to procrastinating before a big exam. Getting a lower grade than might have otherwise been possible can result. Minor bouts of procrastination such as this are common. For some, however, full-blown self-sabotage has had to become a way of life. These individuals may become uncomfortably familiar with the following sequence of ‘self-sabotage’:
Feeling hopeful about oneself –> Poking holes in this hope –> Falling into despair
The holes that get poked in the hope are usually not for good reasons. In my experience, people who are working through this issue are all very capable people. It is not a question of capability, however. Instead, they may feel a deeper pull to deny the possibility that this hope is realistic. This blog post will dig into this ‘deeper pull’, explain why such patterns emerge and how therapy can help.
How Attachment Makes Happiness Possible
The deeper pull has to do with attachment theory and research. This tends to be a theme in these blogs. It allows us to understand why someone might find it more ‘rational’ to deny themselves happiness than to pursue it.
Attachment refers to our innate propensity to forge emotional bonds with our parents. Children need to feel like their parent is ‘near’ – often physically but always emotionally. When a parent is emotionally close to the child and respectful of the child’s autonomy, ‘good-enough’ parenting happens. This means that the necessary conditions are provided for the child to develop a secure attachment to his parent. A secure attachment means that the child feels a deep sense of ‘felt security’ when near the parent.
Felt security can mean the child:
– is not easily frightened
– feels soothed,
– feels slightly stimulated through the playful interaction with the parent
– feels a general sense of well-being
When the child does not have to question his parent’s attachment to him, he is free to explore the world. The securely attached child uses his parent as a ‘home base’ literally as an infant and toddler. We might imagine a toddler running towards a piece of playground equipment only to turn back to make sure his parent is still watching him. When he sees an approving look from the parent, the child feels reassured to continue his exploration of the fantastic new swingset.
As the securely attached child matures into an adolescence he increases his domains of independence. The young person has developed an internal working model of attachment that provides him with an emotional sense of near-ness to his parents. A securely attached adolescent may feel nervous about going to his first day of school. He may they say words of encouragement to himself that were have the tone and tenor of his parents’ many past encouragements. In this system, the parent is supportive of the adolescent’s growing independence and this emboldens him to embrace new opportunities. The adolescent enjoys an unconditional sense of ‘felt security’. He can be trying to his hardest master his favorite hobby, connecting with his parents or finding sources of happiness outside of his family and feel like he is still loved and ‘benignly thought of’ by his parents.
When Feeling Close > Feeling Good
In the absence of such ‘good-enough’ attachment from parents, a child must scramble to find any sense of felt security. The parent is unable to respond to the child’s needs for emotional closeness and supported autonomy. This can look like parental rejection and/or overcontrol of child. To paraphrase some important preeminent psychoanalytic thinkers: when the parent can’t attune to the child’s inner world, the child’s greater need for the parent will compel him to abandon his inner world to match that of his parent. Where attachment is not possible, agreement has to make do. Children in this situation adopt a stance of heightened compliance towards the parent. Instead of being near the parent, their only choice is to become an extension of the parent. They can then stave off the terror of being all alone. To do this, they must find a way to shift their attention away from their inner experience to focus solely on the needs and wants of the parent. They are experiencing tremendous emotional pain but there is no one to help. In such cases, the best strategy is to find a way to numb the pain via dissociation. Turning away from their own experience makes this state survivable.
I have seen 2 ways parents can force a child to sacrifice their inner worlds:
Self-absorbed parents create worlds for children where the only person that matters is the parent. Joan was born to a mother who was constantly on the verge of disappointment. Instead of taking steps to secure her own happiness, her mother expected others to guess what would make her happy and provide it. All the while, Joan’s mother’s seeming fragility pulled for reactions of protectiveness from Joan and her brother. Implicit in this arrangement is that there was no room for Joan’s inner world – it was all about her mother’s moment-to-moment emotional states. Joan had to substitute her mother’s happiness for her own. As Joan grew into adolescence, her mother ignored or undermined Joan’s search for happiness outside the home. Joan was gregarious and robust by temperament. She had to find ways to short-circuit these qualities. She retreated from socializing with friends because her mother would grow anxious if she were not home on weekend nights. Upon returning home, Joan’s presence would rarely be acknowledged. Joan took great pains to monitor her mother’s mood states and preemptively provide what would make her happy. Joan did not have the right to ask herself what she wanted independent of what her mother needed.
In therapy, Joan is working through the sequence of self-sabotage described above. When she experiences a spark of inspiration for herself, she often finds reasons why that inspiration is unfounded. She ends up feeling despairing and hopeless. Knowing her history, it makes more sense why hope for herself would feel problematic. When Joan considers doing something that might make her happy, she is entertaining something that would have broken the arrangement she had with her mother. Ignoring the needs of her mother, turning her attention towards herself, and pursuing the her own happiness would have resulted in complete emotional abandonment by her mother. That kind of outcome does not feel survivable as a child. It’s traumatic and must be avoided at all costs.
We are working together to challenge Joan’s sense that these episodes of ‘self-sabotage’ reflect her own personal failing. Instead, she is understanding how feeling happy for herself used to interfere with the task of meeting her mother’s needs. Joan is able to be more empathic with herself. In many cases, she is able to reframe her doubt of her inspirations as hoaxes meant to keep her from straying from the familiar – though grim – task of keeping Mom happy. In so doing, she feels confirmed that her current relationships work differently. She is discovering a new kind of hope that others will feel happy for her – not threatened – when she pursues her own happiness.
II. Mistreatment – Getting abused by a parent
Some parents are outright mean to their children. When this happens – and there are no other viable caregivers to attach to – the child can be forced to abandon themselves. Children are wired to want their existence to make their parents happy. When a parent does not have this reaction – or worse, is abusive to the child – the child is left with a deep conviction that it’s because they are worthless.
This basic sense of worthlessness gets compounded by the parent attacking the child physically and/or emotionally. It is the quintessence of kicking someone when they’re down. The child feels defective to begin with. Next, the parent further punishes the child for not showing enough respect to or consideration for the parent and his/her rules.
A child faced with this kind of scenario – tragically – has nobody to experience that felt security with. The very people he might get close to are the same ones that remind him how ‘worthless’ he feels and worse. There is no real benefit for the child to know and stay in contact with his own experience. The child may adopt his parents’ attitude of derision and contempt towards himself. By doing so, the child complies with his parents’ view of him and may therefore feel a modicum of felt security with them. This strategy goes something like:
“it is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God than to live in a world ruled by the Devil”.
As a child in this situation develops, they must carry this sense of badness – no matter how false – forward. They may feel more coherent when they are providing evidence to themselves of their core deficiencies. It may be possible to marshal resources towards ambitions when as long as it’s in the service of correcting their fundamental flaws. If they achieve a measure of momentum where their supposed ‘flaws’ are not apparent, then the sequence of self-sabotage will often kick in. Just as in the case of Joan above, the person who’s been abused by a parent who begins to consider feelings of self-worth will be flouting the one principle that allowed him to avoid feeling all alone. As counter-intuitive as it may seem – feeling bad is the only way to protect oneself from feeling annihilated. A sense of psychic annihilation is what happens when a child feels threatened by complete loss of attachment to a parent.
The case of ‘Jerry’ described in last month’s blog shows how this sequence of hopefulness, doubt, then despair can emerge from a childhood in which one was abused.
Self-sabotage reflects having to attach to a neglectful or abusive parent
Whether children had neglectful or abusive parents, they both had to erect a makeshift way of attaching to parents who did not want to attach to them. This makeshift way of surviving finds a way to persist into adulthood even though it feels so bad. So, the person who endured such treatment from their parents faces two tasks: 1) understanding how the old way of surviving rears its head in their current experience and 2) risk trying new ways to attach to people that permit feelings of self-worth.
Therapy is particularly helpful in both of these tasks. As one builds a sense of trust and confidence in their therapist, they feel safe in exploring how their past history of neglect or abuse informs their current assumptions about themselves and others (task #1). If the therapist holds an attitude of respect, acceptance, and positive regard towards the client then good feelings will feel safer. The client gets to experience a relationship that prizes his experience. He discovers the therapist does not require the client to diminish himself. Once a solid therapeutic alliance is established between therapist and client, they can begin the work of empowering the client in his efforts to find new self-rewarding ways of knowing himself in life and relationships (i.e. task #2).
Childhood abuse and/or neglect can have pervasive and longstanding effects but they do not have to last. With determination, therapy, and supportive friends, people can re-wire what they believe they must do to secure attachment. In so doing, the prospect of pursuing and finding happiness and success becomes possible.
*All references to clients are amalgamations of people, papers, books, life that do not directly refer to any specific person.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC). If you are interested in working through features of self-sabotage please contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.