In this blog, we regularly point out that poor coping with stress usually results from avoidance tendencies. That is, confronted with a challenge, or a threat, or just something you would rather not face, you take measures to avoid what’s facing you and thereby avoid the stress that goes along with it. Unfortunately, when you run from problems you are engaging in denial: “This is really not all that important for me, so I’ll just ignore it and it will go away.” Or, diffusing your responsibility, you pass it along to someone else who “will take care of it and save me the trouble.” Either way, you avoid the stress and receive some reinforcement – stress reduction – for doing so. The problem is, your rewarded avoidance tendencies can become habitual, and other problems will inevitably pile up and grow until you become desperate and overwhelmed with anxiety, depression, and their associated symptoms. When you get into a pattern of avoiding stress, you become weak, passive, and dependent on others; your self-esteem goes into the toilet; you become self-critical, and vulnerable to more serious dysfunctions. At this point, it may seem reasonable for you to resort to self-defeating and destructive coping measures. This is a pattern of thoughts and actions that inflicts significant damage on your mental and physical well-being, and significantly reduces your quality of life.
Several weeks ago, our blog entry introduced this pattern of self-sabotaging behavior, and noted that therapist Michael Church has identified four self-destructive types: Direct-Active, Direct Passive, Indirect-Active, and Indirect-Passive. We will look at each one over a series of blog entries. This entry concerns Direct-Active. This type impulsively seeks out inappropriate and destructive actions and situations, without much forethought. Examples of this type of self-destruction include alcohol and drug abusers, compulsive gamblers, self-mutilators, bulimics, daredevils, and a large percentage of those in prison.
Consider Robert, who sought psychotherapy with symptoms of anxiety and depression. He was married with children, lived in a nice neighborhood, and had a decent job. However, lurking beneath this façade was a dark psychological history. Robert’s early upbringing was cold with little emotional support from his parents, particularly his dad, who was a poor role model. His parents fought regularly, they criticized Robert as worthless, and generally used him as a scapegoat for their own anger and unresolved issues. His friend, Jeff, lived nearby and – drawn to the warmth and supportive atmosphere of Jeff’s home –Robert spent most of his time there.
Over time Robert became envious and jealous of Jeff’s life, and always felt inadequate in comparison to Jeff. Robert had trouble facing these and other negative emotions, and lived his life in denial. He acted like his life was stable and satisfying, but inside he was a bundle of insecurities, frustration, unresolved anger toward his parents, and a self-image of being a loser. Over time his behavior began to deteriorate into a self-destructive cycle. At work he constantly asked for raises and advances in pay, even as his job performance decreased. He began to cancel appointments at work, come in late, and sometimes miss work entirely. It seemed like he wanted to be fired!
What was going on? No one knew, but Robert had piled up an enormous gambling debt, despite borrowing large sums of money from every family member and friend he could tap. He used the loans to continue gambling, and never paid back any of them. Eventually, no one would loan him money. He felt trapped and alone, and was ashamed of how he created such a financial mess and put his family in jeopardy of losing their home. His counselor recommended he regularly attend Gamblers Anonymous, come clean with his wife and friends, and continue to explore in therapy his root problems and associated emotional difficulties. Unfortunately, he discontinued therapy, and about a year later ended his life, leaving behind his wife, children, and a mountain of debt.
How can we account for Robert’s tragic end? First of all, as his gambling debts grew and he faced bankruptcy, he still avoided coming out with the truth about the hole he dug for himself. Second, he never accepted the realities of his childhood and adolescent issues and the anger that consumed him. Third, he kept his inner conflicts secret while refusing to get the help needed before his troubles became almost insurmountable. By the time he entered therapy it was too late to prevent serious practical, family, and self-esteem problems. At one level, he knew that the fallout from decades of emotions he failed to confront were about to affect his family and reputation. Lacking effective coping skills and the self-esteem he needed to face the consequences of his actions, he responded with the ultimate act of avoidance, suicide.