Self-Destructive Behavior, Part IV

When you habitually work to avoid stress, you risk becoming weak, passive, and dependent on others; your self-esteem suffers; you become self-critical, and vulnerable to serious problems like depression. At this point, you may resort to self-defeating – even destructive – coping actions that damage your mental and physical well-being. Therapist Michael Church has identified four self-destructive types: Direct-Active (Blog entry 11/5/21), Indirect-Active (Blog entry 3/4/22), Direct Passive (Blog entry 4/15/22), and Indirect-Passive. The Indirect-Passive type includes those who are dependent and fail to establish a positive and stable identity. Their self-concept is fragile, and they remain child-like in functioning. They often remain in chaotic, abusive and unsatisfying relationships, even when they have the means to get out. They tend to excuse and justify the abuse received by others and rationalize why they do not change their lives. They readily allow others to take advantage of them and even abuse them and those around them.  

Stephanie’s parents both died before she was 10. Growing up, her primary parental figure was an aunt who met her practical needs, but not her emotional and social needs. Stephanie recalled feeling lonely and alienated as a child and adolescent. In her teen years she developed chronic anxiety that was probably due to the loss and abandonment associated with losing both parents. Simply put, she suffered from separation anxiety and insecure attachment as a child.

Her anxiety persisted into college and beyond. In college she developed a close relationship with a classmate, and after graduation they married and had a child. They both worked, but Stephanie burdened herself with work responsibilities, so much so that her performance often suffered. As her high anxiety and stress became connected with her work and her marriage, she sought counseling on and off, and took various anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications with limited success. Due to her continuously high stress levels, she also developed medical problems that lowered her quality of life and further strained her marriage.

Her daughter graduated from college and was accepted to medical school. Suddenly, Stephanie felt purposeless because her “child” no longer needed her. Adding to her stress, her husband became friendly with a woman who was perceived as a threat by Stephanie, and the marriage slowly deteriorated. One day, home alone with her thoughts and anxieties, she committed suicide. Indirect-Passive types rarely harm themselves, and her suicide is somewhat of a mystery. Her chronic anxiety and chronic medical conditions, however, together with marital issues and lack of purpose, appear to have caused a psychological tsunami that she could not handle.

Stephanie suffered significant adverse effects during childhood that undoubtedly caused her chronic anxiety as an adult. It was difficult for her to enjoy life and depression was never far from her door. She never developed a stable and positive identity, which led to low self-confidence and goals with minimal sense of purpose. A life without meaning and direction is difficult for anyone, but especially for someone with her physical and mental health issues. How could she be expected to deal with significant stressors without sufficient purpose to deal with such suffering? Her suicide suggests she gave into self-defeating and self-destructive tendencies rather than turn her negative emotions and thoughts into constructive and growth-oriented patterns.

His Son is Gay

            Jim is 46. He’s a construction worker. Makes good money, too, and has good benefits. His wife, Alice, works part-time at a local department store to help make ends meet. They have two teenage boys – Jordan, 17, and Jeff, 15 – to feed. Jim also likes to take Alice out to eat once a month, and the family enjoys taking a two-week camping vacation in the mountains every August. The family budget is a challenge at times, but with Alice’s extra pay they’re able to make it and even put a little aside each week.

            But last week Jim’s world spiraled downward when Jordan announced to the family that he was gay. Jim was furious, and adamant with his son: “No son of mine is going to make that choice to be a fag! That’s not how I raised you. You’re a man so start acting like one. If you can’t handle that, get the hell out of my house. Go live with Aunt Fay. Knowing her, she’ll probably take you in.”

            No ifs, ands, or buts with Jim. He believed that “choosing” to be gay was disgusting, sickening, and perverted, an anti-Christian abomination condemned in the Bible, and he would disown Jordan if he insisted on that lifestyle.

            From a psychological perspective, Jim is coping poorly. First of all, note the intensity of his emotions. His reaction to his son’s news is exaggerated, full of emotion, and showing all the signs of avoidance based on fear. What is he avoiding? What does he fear? Why is he unwilling to let his son live his own life? Why does he insist on controlling how his son behaves? Why is he unwilling to have an adult conversation with Jordan?

            Many psychologists would agree that Jordan’s actions probably threaten crucial elements of Jim’s identity, his core self. Specifically, Jim – carrying at the center of his self-esteem a variety of insecurities – hears what Jordan says and is plunged into anxiety believing that others may think that he, Jim, is gay; or a lousy parent; or a general failure in life. Jordan’s statement also arouses and torments Jim with guilt and self-doubts about who he is. In short, Jordan’s announcement taps into Jim’s underlying insecurities. Jim must avoid and deny these conflicts at all costs or his personality will disintegrate into self-criticism, depression, and self-destructive actions. Jordan must be cast out to protect Jim’s fragile stability.

            The fact of the matter is straightforward: extreme, either/or, authoritarian thinking occurs to deny and avoid unwanted inner tendencies and insecurities in oneself by targeting “them,” the “others,” the “enemy,” with extreme hatred and other negative emotional attacks. For Jim, the issue is not really Jordan’s homosexuality; the issue is protecting Jim’s fragile ego.

A politician, Barry Goldwater, once said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Psychologists, on the other hand, see inflexible and extreme attitudes and thinking as a desperate attempt to deny, to cover-up and avoid facing long-unresolved emotional conflicts and anxious self-doubting. Extremists doth protest too much, which shows an inability to cope well with stress because they must safeguard their unstable self-esteem.

Are you an extremist? Do you refuse to consult, negotiate, and compromise with those who disagree with you? What are you avoiding? Do your values and sense of purpose in life revolve around dominating others so you don’t have to face yourself? Confronting these and other such questions honestly and realistically are a first essential step in being able to cope with stress.

Don’t Focus on the Stress

Let’s face it, those who have trouble coping with stress spend too much time focusing on the stress. “I’m so stressed out! I’m going to lose control!” Well, take a deep breath and focus on some realities: Stress is a normal, unavoidable aspect of life, and feeling stressed does not make you inferior to others; you can schedule stressful events under your control when you expect relatively few demands and changes in other areas of your life; you can reserve some time for yourself each day to relax, if only for a few minutes, and take a walk, listen to music, or chat with a friend – although not about stress; you can commit to and nurture important aspects of your life – your values – such as marriage, career, children, friendships and family. These are constructive actions that will distract you from focusing on stress itself and corresponding emotions like fear, frustration, and anger. Above all, when stressed, you can choose to stay away from self-defeating behaviors like excessive eating, drinking, spending, or gambling. These are avoidance actions that will only lead to increased stress. Instead of choosing such behaviors, focus on choosing actions that bring you a sense of fulfillment, satisfaction, and usefulness. Your actions define who you are. Choose them wisely.

Stress Control. Basic Steps

After her third session in counseling, Blayne was about to leave, but turned around and said to her counselor, “How about next week just giving me the low-down on handling stress. No psychological mumble-jumble, just the basics. Give me a list I can post on the fridge.”

“Just happen to have one handy,” the counselor said. “Remember, though, these things work best when they are integrated with your individual circumstances. That’s where I can help.” Here’s the list she handed to Blayne:

Be personally accountable for evaluating your abilities, actions, and thinking. Coping accountability does not mean blame yourself for everything.

Modify your interpretation of stressful events. A threat can be viewed as a challenge.

Exit from the self-pity parade. It’s not all about you.

Work toward a realistic optimism and frame of reference about life. Realism is not found by listening to authoritarians.

Balance your decisions with logic, impartiality, and self-control. Do not let others make decisions for you.

Identify your values and connect your actions to them. Do the right things for the right reasons.

Focus on empathy for others rather than on your problems. Listen to others, not just yourself.

Lower your voice, smile more, and be humble in your interactions with others.

Every day, do something that makes others feel good.

Every day, thank someone who makes you feel good.

At the end of the day, write privately about events troubling you. Doing so can help you restructure your thinking about them.

Indoctrination vs. Education

            In last week’s entry (The Gift of Failure), we noted that parents who enable and indulge their children create adults who are largely helpless to meet coping challenges as adults. These victims of childhood overindulgence must avoid failure at all costs because they are not equipped to handle it; they have never been taught how. In adulthood, some become overbearing, domineering bullies so they can hide their fear of failure. Others, feeling helpless and isolated, turn to cult groups and surrender their free will by pledging allegiance to the group’s beliefs, standards, and values.

Any way you look at it, when parents raise their children to believe that they are special and immune from accountability for their actions, they are indoctrinating their children. At its simplest, indoctrination means teaching a person to accept – uncritically – a set of beliefs. There are no ifs, ands, or buts – what is taught is an absolute, the way things are, and the way things should be. In this case, the child is trained in a type of solipsism by being reminded repeatedly that they can do no wrong; they are the main ingredient in the recipes of life; they are immune from failure; and when failure does occur, it is because of the intervention of some other group – the enemy – that wants to defeat them.

Young people readily accept this “teaching.” It is comfortable for them. There is security in believing, and being able to proclaim, “I am in charge; I am superior; I can only lose if you cheat. You are my enemy and you need to be cast aside as irrelevant.” Notice how indoctrination is based on fear, insecurity, and psychological instability: You must accept this reality or you will be defeated by others who are out to get you and destroy your way of living. And who are these others? Candidates are chosen from a long list: those of a different race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, political philosophy, religion, etc., etc., etc.

Some parents, however, choose a different childrearing path for their children. Instead of indoctrinating their kids to the parents’ way of thinking – which indoctrinating parents do to strengthen their belief that they are good parents – they choose to educate their children and produce independent thinkers. This is a difficult path for both parents and their children because while it builds healthy levels of self-esteem, it is also full of disappointment, discomfort, frustration, aggravation, and, yes, failure.

Education challenges children to learn about new things. This learning often requires discarding mistaken ideas, developing tolerance when offended, and facing the fact that their perspective is not necessarily superior to other ones. Education requires them to accept the fact that to improve, they must learn more; it requires them to get outside of themselves and be open to new sources of information; education requires them to exercise critical thinking by questioning and researching the validity of things that they read and hear. Education produces discomfort, complexity, and challenges to the belief that, “I am the primary ingredient in the recipe.”

In general, education is a type of productive and effective coping with stress. It requires you to accept real and verifiable facts, to be accountable for your opinions and attitudes, to follow a critical-thinking plan when confronted with a challenge, and to avoid becoming excessively dependent on a dictatorial guru who would convince you that his way is your only way.

In short, indoctrination is an emotion-based platform for dealing with stress; education, on the other hand, is a problem-based platform. Danny, 14 years old, asks his mother, “Did my friend Billy get autism by being vaccinated when he was a baby?” His mom replies, “Absolutely. His mother had him vaccinated when he was 2-years-old. Right after that, he started behaving strange. There’s no doubt why he got autism.” That’s an emotion-based answer. A problem-based answer would be something like, “Doctors and scientists have done a lot of research and shown that vaccines do not cause autism. It can get complicated, but we can go online and find examples that you might understand. For example, does it make sense that thousands of babies receive vaccinations, but only a much smaller number become autistic?”

Emotion (indoctrination) vs. Cognition (education) – which process works best for evaluating reality? Indoctrination declares homosexuality is evil and decadent; education proposes that people do not fall in love with a gender. Indoctrination affirms Christianity is the only religion; education shows that there are many religions that provide pathways to God. Indoctrination categorically states that Blacks are inferior to Whites; education presents data that when provided with equal environmental opportunities, Blacks can match Whites in achievement. Indoctrination preaches the earth is flat; education demonstrates how we know it is round.

How should you raise your children? The same way you should approach stress: Not by being indoctrinated into rigid and strict attitudes and actions; not by denial, distortion of facts, projection of your fears onto others, hypocrisy, prejudice, and other emotion-based strategies. The fact is, you will be a stronger person psychologically and emotionally when you acquire understanding of perspectives and people who differ from you; when practice empathy and humility; when you put self-preoccupation aside for honest and respectful communication with others; when you experience the essence of education.

The Gift of Failure

Well-meaning parents often structure their child’s activities to ensure that the child experiences huge doses of success. Whatever the activity, from playing a musical instrument to participating in athletics, some parents dedicate themselves to guaranteeing that their children succeed most of the time. Failure is to be avoided at all costs because it will, in their eyes, damage the child’s self-esteem. When the inevitable failure experience occurs, they shelter their child, enabling the child to develop patterns of avoiding responsibility and hardship by blaming adversity on others. Over the long term, when this child matures and is confronted with failure, being raised under this parental style dooms them to inevitable frustration, rationalization, blaming others, and low self-esteem.

Fred’s son, Carson, a first-year college student, was caught stealing in the cafeteria. Carson was suspended for a semester, but he appealed, and he and his dad met one afternoon with a Dean. Fred said, “I think you made a mistake; Carson would never steal.” The Dean proceeded to show them a surveillance tape that left no doubt; Carson clearly pilfered a sandwich and walked off without paying. Fred said, “Come on, he was obviously hungry, in a rush to get to class, and intended to pay for the sandwich later. Right Carson?” “Absolutely, dad,” Carson obediently responded. They lost the appeal. The real tragedy here, however, is that kids like Carson never get a chance to learn from their failures. They are protected so much they don’t have to face the reality of failure, be accountable for their actions, and work to correct the faulty actions that led to the failure.

Some parents not only hover over their kids and swoop in to protect them from failure, but also teach them extreme thinking patterns so they can blame failures on others. Extreme thinking – things are either right or wrong, or it’s always us vs. them – is a form of protection from failure because you can always displace the failure on the other guy. When parents raise their kids to think in these extreme ways, as adults their children will fear that others will ridicule, reject, or criticize them – or, at worst, prove to be superior in ability. This fear will make it easier to reject “the others, them,” and blame them for personal shortcomings. “I am always right; it’s always about me.”

If you fall into this trap, such self-absorption is psychologically damaging to you because you do not accept reality, or take responsibility; you have no sensitivity or empathy for others, and no social conscience; you will be unable to deal with fear and anxiety about who you are; you will try to avoid social interactions with others, including parties, giving presentations at work, or speaking up in meetings; you will sacrifice flexibility, openness, and productivity, essential elements of effective coping.

In short, parents who enable and indulge their children create adults who are largely helpless to meet coping challenges in any effective way. These victims of childhood overindulgence must avoid failure at all costs because they are not equipped to handle it; they have never been taught how. Some of them become overbearing, domineering bullies so they can hide their fear of failure. Others, feeling helpless and isolated, turn to cult groups and surrender their free will by pledging allegiance to the group’s beliefs, standards, and values.

Any way you look at it, when parents raise their children to believe that they are special and immune from accountability for their actions, they are not preparing them to cope effectively with the realities and challenges of life.

Your Motives — Unconscious?

Last week we introduced a discussion of self-criticism, and how it can undermine effective coping with your life stressors. We asked you to imagine being at a dinner party and accidentally spilling wine on your host’s table cloth. A simple accident, right? Or, are you one of those people who likes to speculate on possible unconscious motives behind what appears to be a chance mishap. For instance, as you dwell on the spill later, are you likely to consider the possibility that deep down you really dislike your host, and the “accident” was really intentional, although unconscious? That is, your unconscious anger toward the host caused you to reach for your glass carelessly, increasing the likelihood of knocking over the glass.

Here’s a word of caution: If you get into a habit of analyzing your actions as expressions of your unconscious mind – “The reasons for what I do are not what they seem to be” – you’re entering a world of speculation and uncertainty, and definitely not learning how to cope in a healthy way with life challenges facing you. Speculation about unconscious motives can be fun, but it does not help you solve a stressful problem. It is purely hypothetical, leads to one blind alley after another, and robs you of control of your thinking. As such, this speculation can be seen as a form of denial that helps you absolve yourself of responsibility for your actions. And, as readers of this blog know, such absolution may be comforting in the short run, but over the long run it will increase your stress level.

Self-Criticism I

All of us need a kick in the pants now and then, especially when we’re not working up to our full potential. At these times, both criticism from others and from ourselves can be helpful in motivating us to quit coasting and get ourselves in gear. But like anything else, we can overdo being hard on ourselves. Self-criticism can be especially troubling because it can begin with a trifling matter, but escalate into a regular pattern of thinking. For instance, do you often make a mountain out of a molehill? You went to the store and one of the items on your list was peanut butter. When you got home, you discovered that instead of smooth, you bought crunchy. Granted, your spouse and kids refuse to eat crunchy, but should you beat yourself up over this mistake? Of course not. Hit the pause button, step back, and let some critical thinking enter the picture. No one is going to starve; call your wife at work so she can stop by the store on the way home if she really craves some peanut butter.

As therapist Michael Church points out, self-criticism can also enter the picture if you treat others’ mistakes differently from your own. When you see others slip up, do you show empathy and understanding, recognizing that their mistake does not reveal a character flaw? When you make a similar mistake, however, do you criticize yourself and blame your imperfect personality? “I’m a dummy…so careless. What’s the matter with me? Why am I such a klutz?” If you’re willing to forgive others when they make a mistake, why not yourself? The fact is, self-forgiveness can be a great way to cope with stress.

Imagine you’re at a dinner party and you accidentally spill some wine on your host’s beautiful table cloth. A simple accident, right? Or, are you like some people who would be so horrified that they shower themselves with self-recriminations and can’t wait to leave the party? Sometimes it pays to remember that accidents do happen, and self-forgiveness is more appropriate. After all, you didn’t spill the wine intentionally because you dislike the host. [See next week’s post for a discussion of this type of interpretation.]

When it comes to self-forgiveness, it’s unfortunate that psychology – and society, for that matter – generally focuses more on the importance of forgiving others, not yourself. When it comes to resisting the temptation to continually criticize yourself, however, self-forgiveness becomes important because it is a form of self-acceptance. At the dinner party, accept the accident and offer to pay for cleaning. Self-forgiveness will help you avoid inappropriate emotions like guilt, regret, shame, and threats to your self-esteem. Without such forgiveness, you are at risk for concluding it is not the behavior that is wrong or bad, it is you. If you reach this conclusion, it becomes easier for you to decide that you do not deserve happiness and need to be punished. This attitude can lead you away from a willingness to live with vigor, autonomy, and a willingness to face challenges; and lead you toward ambivalence about your competence, neglect of your needs, and low self-respect that can sabotage a productive life.

So, when it comes to self-evaluation when you screw it up, remember: Don’t blow things out of proportion; don’t be quick to assign character flaws to yourself; forgive yourself.

Emathy or Ego? Your Choice

            “It’s all about me.” “People should treat me with kindness because I have suffered trauma in the past.” “I know more than most people.” “My group’s position is the correct one.” These statements are examples of selfishness, conceit, vanity, arrogance, self-preoccupation, self-absorption, and narcissism. Such attitudes and characteristics are profoundly incompatible with effective coping. Why? First, they are unrealistic, and based on denial of one’s own weaknesses and others’ strengths. Second, many will reject narcissists and force them to operate only in their personal comfort zone surrounded by their like-thinking “tribe.” Third, those who are self-absorbed do not see the need to develop strengths that make them flexible in a variety of situations. Fourth, arrogance hinders personal growth that comes from honest self-evaluation.

            When you present yourself as the primary ingredient in the recipe, you show yourself as a robot, a non-human. You know you are susceptible to weaknesses and mistakes, but you are unable to be realistically self-aware, and you must constantly try to cover up your shortcomings and your insecurities. In the long run you come across as hypocritical, feckless, untrustworthy, and incompetent. You cannot accept who you are, or refrain from presenting yourself to others as someone superior. Self-absorption is the only way you can avoid facing the truth about yourself, the truth that plunges you into anxiety. You live in a world of denial and deception.

            The following are comments from clients participating in group therapy. Note how they transition away from arrogance and self-importance:

“Telling my story to others, and listening to their stories, helped me organize the basic facts, the reality of the event. I felt less alone.”

            “I discovered it was OK to be nervous; OK to feel ashamed like I was the Lone Ranger, alone in my turmoil.”

            “I found it was OK to laugh, and talk, and share. There was a lot of that in my group.”

            “We shared our secrets, our darkest days. I felt a sense of belonging because there was a bond of trust, privacy, an unspoken understanding that our secrets would never leave the group. It gave me a sense of identity beyond myself, and the security that feeling brought me was unreal.”

            “New people would show up. It was hard for me to listen to them because I was reliving my own experience. But the long-term effect was acceptance and a feeling of personal strength.”

            “I knew I was reaching an inner peace and strength when it occurred to me that I had become as much a helper in my group as one who needed help. When I shared my story with newcomers, I could see it in their faces. There is life afterwards; it goes on.”

            “I discovered sympathy and empathy…I mean to the point that I realized it was not all about me. We asked the same questions, faced the same demons, and found lifelines. Since joining my group, I have felt more human than ever before in my life.”

            These comments show that the speakers have moved away from self-preoccupation and self-absorption, and toward empathy for others. We usually think of empathy in terms of helping others, but it’s more. If you have been previously victimized or are presently dealing with emotional upheaval in similar ways as another, who can understand their plight more than you? The true human beauty of empathy, however, is that both the giver (you) and the taker (the other) reap the psychological benefits. There is no more effective therapy than empathetic service to others. Whatever your plight, you are not alone in your difficulties. The best way to facilitate your ability to cope is to make sure that, as you travel the road to finding personal satisfaction, you leave no one behind – including yourself.

A colleague shared a story with me, and it is one of the best expressions of empathy I have ever read. She asked a Vietnam veteran how he continued to cope with the personal losses he suffered during the war. He replied: “I celebrate their memories by fulfilling their bucket lists. I do what I can to continue their lives. I give hope for those who are lacking it. I don’t attend pity parties. I read to those who lost sight because even though I lost things, I still can see. I get groceries for those who lost limbs. I do what good I can because there was a reason I was spared.”   

People hear what we say with their brains, but they listen to us with their hearts. When you are able to reach your listeners’ hearts, you are communicating with empathetic messages. And you know what will happen next? You will discover that your personal coping efforts will be greatly enhanced because you will realize you’re communicating with your own heart. That self-discovery will bring you independence and empowerment with empathy. Your independence will be without isolation and loneliness; your empowerment will be without self-absorption.

A focus on your ego and self-importance is incompatible with effective coping. You will be trapped in a vise of your own insecurities. You will be susceptible to the controlling influence of others, and robbed of your autonomy. Only by selflessly helping others in need can you free yourself from that vise, and live a much more enjoyable and satisfying life.

Passionate Coping

Are you passionate about your life? By that I don’t mean you love every aspect of your life, jump from one enjoyable aspect to another, and see yourself as somewhat superior to others who seem to wrestle regularly with stress. No, passionate means you value your life; you believe it is important to be an active participant in life; and you have a realistic and humble confidence in being able to meet the challenges you face.

Being passionate encourages you to engage yourself in both the good and the bad aspects of living: You try to connect with your stress, not avoid it, even when faced with difficult challenges; you believe that effort and action are more important than ambivalence; you do your best to plan how to meet challenges, and following failure, you modify your plans rather than withdraw; you seek achievement, not stagnation. These are the components of passionate coping – Connecting, Effort, Planning, and Achieving – and they are effective coping strategies.

Tennis star Billie Jean King once said: “No matter how tough, no matter what kind of outside pressure, no matter how many bad breaks along the way, I must keep my sights on the final goal, to win, win, win, and with more love and passion than the world has ever witnessed in any performance.”

When it comes to coping with everyday stress, the only change I would make to King’s statement is to substitute “try” for “win”: “No matter how tough, no matter what kind of outside pressure, no matter how many bad breaks along the way, I must keep my sights on the final goal, to try, try, try, and with more love and passion than the world has ever witnessed in any performance.” Remember, successful coping is not about winning; it’s about effort that brings you satisfaction and fulfillment, knowing that you have done the best you can.