Why do we hurt ourselves?
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | December 30, 2019
We hurt ourselves. We sabotage healthy endeavors to escape the discomfort of change, settling back into our self-made prisons.
We evolved to navigate adverse environments driven by internal mechanisms of survival. With the power to direct, we not only survive, but can also flourish. Yet, not every action is self-promoting, oddly, we routinely harm our futures, doing things we know will destroy. We claim to be logical creatures, but act irrational, hurting ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually. Why?
“I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.” Ovid (Roman poet)
Bizarre and paradoxical behaviors typically aren’t irrational; they just appear irrational because the causes are lost in realms of complexity. Our tidy theories of understanding, when lived outside pristine laboratories, fail to accurately explain action. The conscious logic competes with conflicting unconscious drives in the dirty reality of complexity. The adolescent deliberately mutilates flesh, the lonely lover sabotages promising opportunities, and the hopeful graduate drinks himself silly the night before his final exam, assuring a subpar performance. We dream of success but foolishly act with destruction. Like Ovid, we see the right way but follow the wrong.
We don’t need more knowledge; we need guidance on how to do what we already know we should do. We need to stop self-harming and get about productively living. We need to unite hidden agendas, bringing them to the light and then act to bring about healthy and happy futures.
We need to stop self-harming and get about productively living.
Ovid’s laments from a couple millenniums ago were recently echoed by a young poster on Reddit, “I feel like I can accomplish anything but then soon after I get demotivated and go back to my same useless routines. Then I feel incapable of accomplishing my goals.”
A blatant act of self-harm is cutting—the harming of flesh with a razor or knife. Mathew K. Nock, a Director of Psychology at Harvard University, thoroughly explored non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). He presented some of his findings in a 2009 article aptly titled: Why Do People Hurt Themselves? Nock discovered a connection between NSSI behaviors and ineffective affect regulation. He found that self-injury was associated with high emotional reactivity and without proficient ability to mediate; self-cutters lacked skills to tolerate discomfort and competence for clear communication (Nock, 2009). The pain of cutting distracts from intense psychological pain while simultaneously calling for help, “I hurt; I need help.”
While most of us aren’t cutters, we also struggle, lacking proficiency to sooth and communicate. We don’t know how to say, “I hurt; I need help.”
Life is troublesome, to say the least. We don’t have the pleasure of sailing on smooth waters. We live in calamity, surrounded by violence and stress. Too many children suffer. Raised in physically and emotionally abuse environments. Their development is stunted, never building sufficient skills to manage the intense pressures of complex environments. These children, in turn, often grow and pass along the same deficiencies. Children that have inadequate tools to manage elevated physiological arousals will default to maladaptive responses. One of these maladaptive responses is self-sabotage.
Pain must be addressed. Our bodies demand action. Ideally, we respond adaptively; but without proper teaching, our systems act on their own. The body and mind soothe pain, through escape, numbing, or ignoring while continuing behaviors that sabotage the future. Without cognitive imprints that considers future outcomes, we default to immediate gratifications. Susan David, in her excellent book Emotional Agility, writes, “By definition, immediate gratification makes us feel good a lot faster than do the tiny tweaks and disciplined, steady work that can actually get us to higher ground.” (2016. Location 2189).
Self-flagellation isn’t new. Mortification of the flesh was common throughout known history—self-punishment was a reminder of human depravity. Physical pain distracts, frees the mind from the festering pain of shame and inadequacy, redirecting attention to a visible wound that we have control over. We can reopen the wound or watch it heal.
A razor digging into outer layers of skin is relatively benign compared to some of the deeper wounds that unconsciously tear the fabric of our souls. The addictions, blown opportunities, and abusive partners repeatedly destroy wellness in good people. We sabotage healing, pulverizing futures for scanty rewards of immediate gratification. Lurking beneath conscious experience is a self-punishing intruder, flogging our souls and ripping our psychic flesh. Since these monsters live in the unconscious, we are powerless, confined to their self-punishing chambers. We serve these self-denigrating masters, convinced that we don’t deserve better.
Susan David explains, “These self-sabotaging responses are not what we choose to do; they’re what we’ve been conditioned to do, and will continue to do until we unhook from the flight to the familiar and find the agility to shut down the autopilot, show up, step out, and take agency of our own lives.” (2016, location 2196)
Other scientists and philosophers also hypothesize that self-sabotage is a function of unconscious processes. Common theories suggest there are competing elements in the mind; such as Freud’s id, superego and ego, or Transactional Analysis’s Parent, Adult and Child. Not long ago, theories began to identify physical structures in the brain that fought for dominance, pitting the right brain against the left, or limbic system against the cortex. While each theory has strengths and weaknesses, they expand understanding, escaping the confusing limits of a unified whole. By acknowledging different elements of the mind or brain, we may better comprehend sabotaging actions. The behavior that pushes us off track is satisfying a different goal.
By acknowledging different elements of the mind or brain, we may better comprehend sabotaging actions.
Rhawn Joseph, although his current work has fallen from scientific grace, wrote an intriguing book on the duality of the mind. He pointed to the unconscious motivations of the right brain as a stranger to consciousness. He wrote:
“if your parents frequently scolded you for being "no good," "worthless," and "a failure," and you act otherwise by becoming happy, successful, or involved in a promising healthy relationship, the Parent (the internalized parent) will do its utmost to sabotage you so as to maintain the familiar. . . If what is familiar is to be hurt, used, rejected, neglected, and to feel badly or worthless, experiences which do not conform to these well-ingrained expectations will be rejected as well. (2001, p. 210)
Many of our well-intentioned hopes become casualties of our own wills. We do and say things that effectively relieves the pressure. Succeeding in love, careers, and recovery is hard work. The path to improvement travels across rugged ground and over steep inclines. We slip scraping our knees, get poked from thorns on overgrown foliage, and question the accuracy of our direction. The underworld comes to the rescue, providing refuge from the difficult trails. We stand up a potential lover, we get drunk instead of study, we explode at the boss we rely on for a positive evaluation. We destroy the possibility of the reward so we can get off the treacherous path to success. Perhaps, we want to fail. (See Any Old Excuse Will Do).
In many ways, our unconscious deceptions are magical gifts that sooth discomfort. Our minds abilities to persuade a conscious being to self-destruct and then project blame elsewhere is quite a feat. A mini-political battle happening in our own heads, destroying programs and blaming the other side of the aisle for the failure.
Robert Trivers, an American evolutionary biologist and sociobiologist, presented self-deception as an adaptive evolutionary strategy. Instead of an ugly reality of human thought, as an amazing evolutionary addition to human survival. He writes, “Deception can be beautiful, complex, and very amusing. It can also be very, very painful. To be victimized by systematic deception in your own life can cause deep pain” (2014, location 768).
These internal marauders, interfering with our lives, must be faced. We must unveil the hidden parts of ourselves that keep sabotaging dreams. In Carl Jung’s words, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
We must take responsibility for self-sabotaging behaviors. We never completely understand what goes on behind the curtain of consciousness; but we can reasonably assume that destructive behaviors serve some goal, perhaps, to escape a discomforting fear or protect a sensitive ego. “When we ourselves are forced to face our own mistakes and take responsibility for them, the result can be an exhilarating, liberating experience” (Tavris & Aronson, 2015, location 3447).
Susan David addresses this self-deceiving phenomenon, “information that challenges these familiar and therefore “coherent” views can feel dangerous and disorienting, even when the disconfirmation shines a new, positive light. Fear of success, or fear of even being “okay,” can lead to self-sabotage, including underperformance in school, being a slacker, or ruining an otherwise healthy relationship because you haven’t “earned” it (2016, location 2176).
We have this damning tendency to stay on course, give in to underlying waves of motivation. Facts may surface, shining a new light, providing exactly what we need to escape the dungeon, but the facts frighten. Instead of finding glory in freedom, we return to our cell and shut the door. We choose to be doomed. We call ourselves unlucky—a victim of circumstances.
Nathaniel Branden, the self-esteem guru, explains:
When we “know” we are doomed, we behave in ways to make reality conform to our “knowledge.” We are anxious when there is dissonance between our “knowledge” and the perceivable facts. Since our “knowledge” is not to be doubted or questioned, it is the facts that need to be altered: hence self-sabotage. (1995, p. 9)
Evolution has blessed us with both conscious and unconscious mechanisms for survival. We can reel in the unconscious self-sabotaging behaviors by directing conscious attention to these little beasts. Instead of excusing and ignoring, or blaming and hating, we can resist their nasty pushes for self-destruction. We can notice the internal existence of opposing forces, evaluate their logic, and then do what is best for our futures, experiencing the exhilaration of liberation. We can courageously escape the darkness of past learning for the bright frontiers of a better future. We can become the person of our dreams.
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Branden, N. (1995). The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem: The Definitive Work on Self-Esteem by the Leading Pioneer in the Field. Bantam; Reprint edition
David, S. (2016) Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Avery; First Edition edition
Joseph, R. (2001). The Right Brain and the Unconscious: Discovering The Stranger Within. Basic Books.
Nock, M. (2009). Why Do People Hurt Themselves? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(2), 78-83.
Tavris, C.; Aronson, E. (2015) Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Mariner Books; Revised, New edition edition
Trivers, R. (2014) The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Basic Books; Reprint edition