Many depressed people tell me they want to stop their self-destructive behavior, because it is causing their depression. The self-destructive behaviors they are referring to range from addiction, to cutting, burning, or hurting themselves. Most often though, they are referencing having made choices that they regret, such as occasional overeating, overcommitting themselves to projects, or getting involved in relationships with partners who hurt or disappoint them.
I don’t believe that the motivation for any of this comes from wanting to hurt oneself. Self-destructive behavior is not necessarily intended to be self-destructive; ordinarily, people engage in such behaviors in an effort to help, protect, or heal themselves. Unfortunately, the same methods intended for benefit can also cause harm.
Sure, addictions cause self-harm, but that is usually not what addicts have in mind when they immerse themselves in an addiction. Developing and feeding an addiction is usually an attempt to cope with overwhelming emotional (or sometimes physical) pain. This pain may include shyness and social anxiety, the pain of withdrawal from the addiction itself, or the pain of trauma, abuse, losses, and shame. To a large extent, addiction is physiological and doesn’t reflect the addict’s intention—addiction cravings compel the addict to get relief by using more.
Finding the true intention behind self-destructive behavior reveals a core need for self-preservation. For example, cutting and burning the skin looks self-destructive, but it can be lifesaving in relieving emotional pain intense enough to cause suicide without this relief. Relief is stimulated when physical pain (including hunger as anorexics know) releases endorphins—something our bodies ingeniously do to numb pain and provide some euphoria to help us survive the pain.
Self-harm can also offer a sense of being in control, when someone feels disempowered. It can call attention to the emotional pain made visible through the physical injury. Recognition of pain can be an essential step in getting the help people need, but please don’t take this as a recommendation to inflict pain on yourself. There are better ways for those willing and able to find help.
Choices People Regret
One common example of choices people regret is selecting partners who abandon them, or who are addicted or abusive. Sometimes people do this out of an attempt to reconstruct and heal the painful elements of their childhood relationships. By first finding partners who hurt them as their parents did and then determining how to get their partners to stop hurting them, they can try to heal what they couldn’t with their parents.
For example, someone who experienced abandonment from a parent in childhood will often choose a partner who fits this pattern. While potential partners who trigger this abandonment memory will continue to be a source of attraction, if the adult experience of abandonment is mild, rather than harmful, the person may learn to heal the wounds left by the parent.
It’s harder to find a path toward healing when the chosen relationship turns out the same way the relationship with the parent did, as in when the abusive partner fails to change. Fortunately, many times people are able to choose partners who are somewhat similar, but not as extreme as their parents, and who are able to grow and change to become less hurtful. For some, their first relationship can provide an opportunity for healing, and for others, many relationships or many years may pass before they get it right. Whether or not it works, I believe people’s intentions in choosing hurtful partners are to try to resolve emotional wounds from important childhood relationships, not to hurt themselves.
For example, if when you were 12, your parents acted unpredictably and out of control during their divorce, you may have realized that bingeing and purging made you feel more in control of the chaos. If you’d been older, you could have dealt with the chaos by getting away from it, talking to a good listener, or mediating the conflict. But as a 12 year old, your skills and freedoms were limited and you had to use what you had at hand to survive. Perhaps you continued the practice of bingeing and purging because you needed it, and it worked. Then in adulthood, when you felt trapped in other scary, chaotic situations, you might naturally use the method you developed in childhood for gaining a sense of control. Do you see that while this might look like self-destructive behavior, it might actually be a young part of you doing its best to protect you?
There are also people who have developed a pattern of doing something to sabotage the possibility of obtaining what they want. It is almost as if they are addicted to going their own way. This person might feel cursed, or like an inevitable failure, because after trying so hard again and again, success is still unobtainable.
These kinds of self-sabotage might include repeatedly enrolling in school, only to drop out or flunk out; saying exactly the wrong thing in a social situation; doing something at work that results in being fired; or alienating and distancing new friends. If someone tries to help them, they argue with the person, negate any suggestions, and undermine any chance that the help would be effective. Even in these instances, when people seem to be blatantly trying to ruin anything good, I still believe they are trying to protect and help themselves.
First of all, they are not trying to destroy themselves—their actions result in feelings of deprivation, frustration, and disappointment, not total destruction. Their motivation is often to protect themselves from controlling, intrusive parents. By undermining a parent’s efforts, the child can achieve a separate identity, passive power, and independence, and can express anger about being mistreated. The goal, then is self-preservation.
First, a note on suicide: while suicide might appear to be the ultimate form of self-destruction, most people who want to kill themselves just want the emotional or physical pain to stop, and they don’t see any option other than death. In an odd way, suicide is still a form of self-preservation.
It is rare that people actually intend to destroy themselves or their lives. When people are overwhelmed with guilt, they may believe that they deserve to be punished by death. This can happen, for example, to a child who survived an accident when a sibling didn’t. Yet, even in this case, the person probably sees death as the only way to find relief from intense guilt about something that seems unforgivable to them.
Generally, the term self-destructive suggests that an evil force inside is determined to destroy us, and that this force must be hated, conquered, amputated, or exiled. The more I learn about so-called self-destructive tendencies, the more I discover that, in fact, a part of the person is trying to protect or heal the self. The method of self-harm is usually one developed during childhood. Sometimes when a person is using one of these methods, the action is reminiscent of a child. The method of protection is not only child-like, but the behaviors and thought processes also match the skills, resources, and perspective of a child at the age when the trauma first occurred. Resolving the trauma allows the person to develop less hurtful ways of coping with painful feelings.
So ask yourself if you do anything you think is self-destructive. Then drill down into what this behavior might be related to, and see if you can find a positive intention, even if it is a child’s view of how to achieve that intention. I’d love to know what you find.
© Copyright 2010 by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT, therapist in El Cerrito, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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