Self-sabotage: why don’t we do what’s good for us?

The experience of shooting ourselves in the foot is so familiar we can readily identify it in ourselves and others. Humorously: Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. Seriously: Women who remain in abusive relationships and emasculated men who equate sensitivity with passive submission.

We all sometimes do the exact opposite of what would be good for us. Interestingly, there may be very good reasons why.

All therapists have witnessed this “disorder” first-hand. Sufferers are straight-A students who become pregnant their senior year of high school. They are Christians who still cannot accept the concept of grace. They are poker players who have a hunch they will lose, and still go all-in with pocket threes. They are employees who do the minimum necessary, seemingly ignorant their superiors hope to promote them. They are teens who try drugs, fully aware of what they are getting into. They are people who woulda, coulda, shoulda, but didn’t.

There is no shortage of psychological explanations for self-sabotage:

  • Psychoanalysts call it a response to parental demands for perfection that evolves into fearful and compulsive anticipatory response to abuse.
  • Object relations theorists claim it results from emotionally needy parents who send mixed messages to their children (“You can be whatever you want…but please don’t ever move away”), who as adults feel torn when opportunity knocks.
  • Family therapists say it’s a byproduct of an “enmeshed” family pattern, when independence is perceived as a threat to family stability and the growing child is guilty about healthy individualism.
  • Behaviorists argue it results in rewards that reinforce future underachievement, such as secondary gain from playing dependent or helpless roles. (“As long as I am sick, I will get lots of attention.”)
  • Cognitive therapists call it flawed thinking: we think we are failures, preventing us from acting confidently, leading to subsequent failure.

The latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders makes no mention of Self-Defeating Personality Disorder. Some feminist groups say SDPD pathologizes women and some researchers claim too much overlap with other mood or personality disorders.

Another reason professionals have so much trouble with this behavior is that it is paradoxical. People like to think they have their best interests at heart and will make good choices given clear, logical opportunities. But they don’t. People are strange. Their motivations are surprising, and sometimes unclear, until much later. No wonder this disorder doesn’t fit into a medical manual.

So what is going on? First, it is true that humans limit themselves, but often less out of self-hatred and more out of regard for someone else. Sometimes we love others to our detriment. Children are especially vulnerable to this one-downsmanship, going to great lengths to protect weak family members (especially parents) by refusing to assert themselves. Second, sometimes success is scary. There are reasons why we turn down scholarships, promotions, job interviews and opportunities to move to a better place: every decision involves loss, choosing to succeed means leaving security and comfort.

Of course, our standards of success may be so out of whack that it is actually healthy to be skeptical of ambition. Really, is there anything wrong with merely wanting a safe, predictable job with decent benefits? Inherently, no. People that long for it, however, may feel overwhelmed in their current lives or, worse, equate passion and ambition with self-centeredness. These people are quick to remind you of what they have humbly sacrificed, which is every bit as self-righteous. This guilt is the heart of self-sabotage.

This leaves two realities. First, passivity in any form (M. Scott Peck called it ‘laziness’) seems to be one of the worst of human ills. While we cannot do our best all the time (nor should we, necessarily) it is beautiful when we do our best at something. Second, ethics lie at the heart of the human experience. Passion alone does not obviate morality—as George Carlin reminds us, fascists are extremely motivated, too.

A first step toward health is recognizing that often our bad choices stem from complexities of our personality and do not imply self-hatred. It is easier to forgive ourselves when we accept that many of our ills are less malicious than we think and may rather be misguided attempts to benefit others. Second is to commit the incredibly selfless act of self-care, recognizing that healthy selfishness (first, remove the log from your own eye) is necessary to help others.

Jay Pope is a psychology professor at Fresno Pacific University. He is also a therapist at Link Care Center in Fresno, where he treats a variety of psychological disorders, specializing in treating pastors and missionaries.