Most of us demonstrate some level of self-destructive or self-sabotaging behavior at some time in our lives. Many actions are relatively harmless, such as nail biting, procrastinating, not flossing or brushing teeth regularly, or sitting instead of walking. Others, however, can be more dangerous: Smoking, using alcohol/drugs, gambling, refusing a vaccination or medical treatment, and excessive eating. If you engage in these latter types frequently to the point they become a lifestyle, you’re in trouble because the actions may be driven by unresolved emotional conflicts involving anger, shame, or anxiety. This process is how some people sabotage their relationships; how some suffer low self-esteem, convinced they are unlovable; how some avoid social interactions lest others manipulate them. These self-destructive beliefs lead to self-criticism, helplessness, and depression.
Brent’s life was self-destructive. He was an oppositional, impulsive child and adolescent, and never responded well to rules or authority. He underachieved in school and later in work, and was generally irresponsible and lacked motivation. He lived with a girlfriend long-term with whom he had two children. They had a chaotic, disorganized life, and used drugs. Their kids escaped to their grandparents’ house often. Eventually the girlfriend left him, and Brent fell apart. He harassed her and she got a PFA, which he promptly violated and eventually ended up in jail. He lost his job and lost the right to be with his children unsupervised. His second violation of the PFA put him in prison. After Brent was released from prison, he tried counseling. However, he lacked purpose, empathy, and commitment; he was unable to have healthy social and family relationships, and live a constructive life.
Brent’s case is extreme, but the underlying dynamics are the same we see in those who try to cope with stress every day in self-destructive ways: low self-esteem, uncontrolled emotional expression, and instability in relationships, coupled with lack of commitment and confidence, undeveloped values and goals, and fear of failure. This pattern is self-defeating and can evolve into increasing self-destructiveness as anxiety, guilt, frustration, and eventually depression, strengthen.
It is much less stressful to “approach and chase” the challenges and responsibilities of life, rather than run from them. It is more productive to identify your values and commit yourself to work toward goals based on those values. Doing so will give you purpose and help you feel alive. There is no substitute for committed effort based on values, humility, and empathy. After all, what in life that is worthwhile and treasured comes easily? Psychological research confirms that those who are committed to a life of principled and purposeful action are healthier, have better relationships, achieve more, enjoy more positive and stable self-concepts, and have lower stress levels. Their life foundations are secure and satisfying.
Kevin is 56, widowed and on disability because of a work accident. He spends most of his days at home drinking beer and feeling sorry for himself. His self-esteem and initiative are in the toilet. He was once a burly, outgoing guy loaded with motivation, a can-do attitude, and a willingness to take on any job at his work site. One of his co-workers described him as someone who always “had a fire in his belly. When work needs to get done, Kevin’s the one to do it.” After his accident and his wife’s death from cancer, however, he switched from “out of my way, I can handle this,” to, “I’m not much good anymore.”
One day a friend, Jim, called: “Kevin! I need help. I have to deliver for Meals on Wheels, but I pulled my back. I can drive, but getting in and out of the car is agony. Would you come with me and deliver the meals?” Kevin was glad to get out of the house and said he would help. Turns out he had some unexpected experiences when he delivered the meals. One woman yelled out when he knocked, “It’s open! Just bring it in. I can’t get to the door very good!” She was in the kitchen in a wheelchair and Kevin put the meal in the fridge for her. He started for the front door but she grabbed his arm and said, “Pray with me, please.”
Kevin returned to the car and told Jim: “I stood there holding her hand while she thanked God for me being there to help her. Prayed for me! I mean, no one ever thanked God for me! She prayed for me, Jim.” And on it went. No one else prayed for him, but at nearly every delivery one of them said, “God bless you,” or, “You’re a saint, sir. Thank you,” as he left. One old guy was on his computer, which surprised Kevin – “I didn’t know old people knew how to use a computer.” He printed out a page with inspirational sayings on it about the importance of taking care of your neighbor. He handed it to Kevin. “This is for you. Bless you for living these words. Thank you so much.” Kevin was speechless. He got in the car and said, “I swear to God, Jim, I thought I was going to cry.” Jim just smiled and nodded.
Kevin got home that day, looked around the house, and realized that he was destroying himself. He suddenly felt more energized than he had since his accident and his wife’s death. He picked up the phone and called the Office of Aging. “I want to volunteer to deliver meals.” The lady said great and added that they also needed drivers to taxi old folks around to their doctor appointments, take them shopping…wherever they needed to go. Kevin said, “I’m your guy, ma’am. Just tell me what needs doing and I’ll get it done.” The confident, can-do Kevin of old was back.
When his world crashed, Kevin’s values of commitment to self-sufficiency and getting things done well were no longer fulfilled. He was adrift, with no direction, no sense of purpose – all of which led him down a road of self-sabotage, a road that was heading toward depression. But Kevin discovered that the key to renewing his values lay in empathy, humility, and service to others in need, and that discovery allowed him to “approach and chase” life with a renewed sense of purpose. Are you ready for the chase?