When you get into a pattern of avoiding stress, you risk becoming weak, passive, and dependent on others; your self-esteem decreases as you become increasingly self-critical, and vulnerable to dysfunctions like depression. At this point, it may seem appropriate to resort to coping measures that you don’t realize are self-defeating and destructive. That is, your thoughts and actions damage your mental and physical well-being, and significantly reduce your quality of life. Therapist Michael Church has identified four self-destructive types, Direct-Active (See blog entry for November 5, 2021), Indirect-Active, Direct Passive, and Indirect-Passive. Let’s take a look at the Indirect-Active type. This type actively seeks and responds to situations by taking indirect action. Examples include excessive use and preoccupation with medical or psychiatric drugs to cope with problems, and a gallery of personality dysfunctions including paranoid, obsessive compulsive, borderline, and narcissistic tendencies.
Don was raised in a family tradition of successful men. His father was a difficult and stern man, although highly respected in his community. He was well known and had status and influence. Don, a small and sensitive boy, was pretty much in awe of his father. His mom was a homemaker who stayed mostly in the background, but tried to be nurturant and supportive of her son. His dad could be tough on him, and they did not have a close relationship. Dad’s non-negotiable message was clear: “You will excel and stand out.” Don did so and matriculated at a prestigious college and then professional school where he completed an advanced degree. In college Don was not a partier. Quite the opposite, he was very obsessive, anxious, and a loner. He could be social when it came to advancing his status or opportunities, but having fun with the guys was not his cup of tea. His focus was always on meeting dad’s expectations to keep his own anxiety and self-doubts low.
After college Don married and they began a family. His wife was a stay-at-home mom who kept busy with domestic duties. Don worked hard and spent long hours at the office. What looked like ambition, however, was really an effort to avoid stressors. His anxiety, self-criticism, and avoidance tendencies increased significantly when unexpected expenses arose at home, and when he had to adjust to a new boss at work. His smoking increased, and he became progressively more distant from his family. He seldom attended any of his kids’ special events, such as sports competitions, even though he could have rearranged his work hours. He worked most weekends, and when he was home, he was usually unavailable for his kids. Self-defeating actions were slowly kicking in, and they were damaging the stability of his family.
His physician prescribed anti-anxiety medications that he took for years, even though his diagnosis was never precisely clear. From a distance, it appeared he suffered from some type of anxiety disorder, with avoidant, dependent, and narcissistic personality features. However, he never confronted his core anxieties with a professional therapist; he just kept treating his symptoms. He did not exercise and had an unhealthy, high-sugar diet. This combination of his poor health habits and poor coping skills eventually led to significant health problems. His anxiety levels rose, he became indecisive and unsure about how to deal with both work and domestic responsibilities, and he started “disappearing” for hours at a time, or staying up late to be by himself.
As time went on, Don suffered through three bypass surgeries and bladder cancer. His poor health habits continued, and his self-destructive tendencies remained largely unchanged. Don refused to face and accept the reality that he was alienated his family, and he never accepted that he had personality dysfunctions needing to be addressed in psychotherapy. Instead, he covered them up, like he did so many things in his life. Lacking responsible adult guidance, his children learned to be self-defeating in their own ways. All of them ended up in counseling trying to understand their coping deficits and how to overcome them. Before his death from multiple health problems, Don told his kids he was aware of his negative impact and poor parenting, but confessed he lacked the strength and motivation to overcome his self-defeating ways. Don’s sole purpose for living was designed to avoid stress and discomfort at all costs. In narcissistic fashion, he was concerned only with himself, and constantly preoccupied with running from negative experiences, even while knowing he was neither providing emotional support for his family, nor being a positive role model for his kids. The result not only destroyed him, but also inflicted devastating psychological damage on his family.