Psychology and treatment of self-destructive behaviour

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(2) 11/04/2017 16:20h
Psychology and treatment of self-destructive behaviour

Self-destructive behaviour is, at first glance, amongst the most enigmatic and counterintuitive emotional disorders. How is it possible that someone would wish to harm themselves?
It seems to run directly against what appears to be everyone’s apparently obvious wish to seek out pleasure and happiness. There’s something disturbing about wishing to damage oneself, not protecting oneself, to seek out suffering. People who discover this trait in themselves are often deeply troubled by it.
And yet, if we take a step back for a minute, sooner or later we will observe that self-destructive behaviour is far from being unusual.
Indeed, it does sometimes present itself in very clear and recognisable forms, where the wish to destroy oneself is manifest and conscious (or almost): self-mutilation, certain drug-abuses, or exposing oneself willingly to another person’s violence, are examples of this.
However, these manifestations, so blatantly recognisable, are not by any means the most common forms of self-destructive behaviour. Far more common are all the subtle and compulsive forms of self-sabotage, of which the individual has no awareness whatsoever, and that effectively attack her or his wellbeing.
To be continually self-derogatory, seeking humiliation without realising it, approaching everything from a negative standpoint, going through mysterious and repetitive failures, insidiously (and firmly) hanging onto pernicious situations, or constantly finding oneself in the position of a victim are among the many ways that can be used to harm oneself.
We should also note that, from a larger point of view, some ideologies (be they religious, political, or other) derive a feeling of validation ––often of moral superiority–– on the experience of suffering. They thus attract individual who seek intellectual justification for their unconscious self-destructive needs.  
If we investigate these situations in depth, we will first discover the relatively transparent incapability of allowing oneself to be simply happy. But we will also find, and much less obviously so, the secret pleasure that is obtained from suffering –– secret because it is unacceptable to our consciousness.
How does this come to be?

Masochism ––for this is, in fact, what we’re discussing–– goes far back in human development. According to the research of psychologists and psychoanalysts, one of its facets could be that it is what allows us to bear a certain degree of displeasure that is unavoidable in human existence. 

Since this facet was recently discussed at a conference in Madrid by a renowned psychoanalyst, Marilia Aisenstein, let’s briefly take a moment to describe it and differentiate it from self-destruction.

All human beings have the experience that life inevitably presents us with situations that entail a certain degree of suffering: the efforts we have to make, for instance, to reach our goals, and that aren’t necessarily pleasant.

Indeed, in order to grow in life, to become more educated, more competent, healthier, we have to be able to tolerate the suffering that comes with trying to achieve that, and be able to enjoy making an effort. This could be seen as a kind of self-protective masochism, a capacity to positively invest a certain degree of displeasure and be able to bear frustration. This facet will help us to delay satisfaction, grow, and obtain more complex and susbstantial achievments.

The other facet of masochism, however, the kind that’s at work in self-destructive behaviour, is of an entirely different nature: it brings nothing positive, does not help the individual to advance, and tends to trap him or her in detrimental and persistently self-generating downwards spirals. How does it operate, then?

In most cases, we can observe two vectors that combine in order to produce these situations.

The first vector is an unconscious feeling of guilt that demands punishment as much as it forbids feeling fulfilled or accomplished. This concealed guilt, that often comes more from unconscious wishes than from actual wrongdoings (though not always), condemns the individual to unhappiness to atone for her or his unconscious transgressions. However, since these transgressions are unconscious, and hence experienced as constant and unchangeable, the atonement is never permanent and must be continuously renewed.

The second vector is a defence mechanism that consists in transforming what hurts into pleasure –– to enjoy pain in such a way that that which was supposed to be a disagreeable warning sign becomes a source of pleasure. This twist of the way the ordinary psyche works is a very effective way to protect oneself from certain kinds of emotional suffering, but it distorts mental functioning, it hijacks it in order to make it into a system that produces suffering, which is the opposite of its original function.

These two vectors sometimes come together in a powerful alliance that is felt to be more pleasurable, more controllable, than the pleasures and disappointments that ordinary life subjects us to. There’s a quantitative issue at stake: sometimes individuals who engage in self-destructive behaviour are so anchored in it that they may feel that they get more of a feeling of mastery and pleasure from making themselves suffer than from trying to be happy.

The treatment of self-destructive behaviour involves becoming aware of the unconscious feeling of guilt, understanding the wishes, and sometimes the actual facts, that created it, and working through that complex constellation of feelings. Parallel to this, suffering will have to be disassociated from pleasure –– this means giving up a solution that aspires to beat life at its own game. It’s a highly attractive solution, but its price is enormous.

It is important to recognise that this is not easy therapeutic work; when these systems of mental functioning have had enough time to become solidly installed in the individual’s personality they are particularly tenacious –– all psychotherapists, be they psychologists, psychiatrists or psychoanalysts are familiar with this.

That said, it is far from impossible to help people who suffer from these difficulties. With sufficient therapeutic means and a strong wish for change on the patient’s part, it is possible to bring about deep change that will help her or him to allow themselves to enjoy their lives.

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Psychoanalyst in Madrid, Psychologist in Madrid

Comments (2)


04/01/2019 05:27h

Pure genius I am astonished at what i just read and the more i read it over and over the more i uncover about the problems i have


20/05/2020 01:33h

Ive Never felt so close to the truth

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