Everybody sabotages themselves. Everybody. And almost no one understands with much clarity WHY they behave in self-defeating ways…especially over, and over, and over again.
This is the dilemma Cudney and Hardy, both practicing therapists, set out to address in this book: what a full cycle of self-defeating behavior looks like, how and why it gets underway, and how we minimize and disown the prices we pay for our self-defeating behavior so it’s likely to repeat.
Their model of why people behave in self-defeating ways begins with lessons we learn and conclusions we form about life in moments of distress (actually, they have a whole theory about how moments of distress themselves are generated— a sweeping theory about how cultural systems interact with intrapersonal systems in toxic ways to produce “toxic” results— but, for the sake of brevity, it’ll suffice to say that, for a number of reasons: we humans experience distress).
According to the authors’ hypothesis, we experience distress, and from that distress we form conclusions about life and the world, and we behave accordingly. And our behavioral choices in our moments of distress work, at least once. Well, I mean ,they “work” to the extent that our anxiety or distress in that moment is, in fact, diminished. So, our brains file the particular conclusion about life away as “valid,” and the behavior that flowed from that conclusion as useful and likely to be repeated.
Oy. If only it were that simple.
The problem with all of the above? Sometimes we’ve actually formed invalid conclusions about life. We’ve misinterpreted the fact that our behavior reduced our distress in the moment to mean that “this behavior works, thus the confusion that informs it is valid.” We’ve mistaken an anxiety-reducing behavior for a truly effective behavior— and, what’s more, we’ve filed all of this away unconsciously, because seriously, who needs to devote conscious attention to such a supposedly straightforward conclusion?
Thus: cycles of self-defeating behavior are born.
When we’ve drawn concussions about life and the world that aren’t valid— but we’ve done so unconsciously, thus limiting our opportunities for actually evaluating those conclusions— we’ve set ourselves up to repeat less-than-adaptive behavior that follows from those conclusions, over and over again. Moreover, the authors state, invalid conclusions about life and the world give rise to “mythical fears,” i.e., fears about what calamities might befall us if we DON’T react to life with the self-defeating behaviors informed by our faulty conclusions.
All of this happening unconsciously, you understand.
I know, I know. It gets a little complicated. Let’s take an example.
Let’s say, you’re treated unfairly by someone out there in the world. Someone’s mean to you. You respond to this meanness by becoming temporarily withdrawn and avoidant, thus reducing your distress in that moment. Problem solved, right?
In this model of behavior, the authors would argue that you form and unconsciously file away a conclusion about the world: “Other people are going to be mean to me.” The behavior that flows from that, becoming withdrawn and avoidant, seems logical, given that conclusion. Problem is, becoming withdrawn and avoidant will eventually turn into a behavior that will leave you alone, lonely, and unsupported— a truly self-defeating behavior.
The conclusion you’ve drawn— “other people are going to be mean to me”— is, in fact, an overgeneralization. The truth is, some people will be mean to you, some people won’t.
But since your behavior of becoming withdrawn and avoidant solved your anxiety problem in the above example, you don’t bother to examine the soundness of this conclusion. You assume it’s valid— it must be, if I’m feeling better, right?— and you file it away…thus setting the stage for you to play out the behavior of withdrawing and avoiding again, and again, and again, because of the mythical fear generated by this conclusion (i.e., if I DON’T withdraw and avoid, I’m going to be hurt, because other people are always mean, right?).
There are a few moving parts to the theory, but if you run through it a few times, it clicks. Cudney and Hardy’s theory does hang together.
Cudney and Hardy then take it all a step further and say that, when people come around to feeling the pain generated by their self-defeating choices, most choose not to examine the faulty conclusions that gave rise to mythical fears that facilitated self-defeating choices.
Rather, the authors say, most people go down the road of minimizing and disowning the prices they pay for their poor choices. Because anything’s better than having to examine the conclusions you form about life and other people, at least when mythical fears are plaguing you.
So that’s the basic model. Distress leads to anxiety-reducing behavior, which leads to drawing inaccurate conclusion, which leads to mythical fear, which leads to repetition of self-defeating behavior, which leads to minimizing and disowning of prices, which reinforces/gives no reason to examine inaccurate conclusions. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Everybody with me?
After laying out this model, the authors spend much of the book examining the exact nature of how self-defeating behaviors get played out.
For example, they make a distinction between a broad self-defeating behavior and the specific inner and outer “techniques” used to carry them out. Using the above example: if the broad behavior is alienation and avoidance, the specific inner techniques may be the cognitive distortions you use to distance yourself from people; the outer techniques may entail actually physically avoiding people and withdrawing from company.
The authors also dive into specific ways people go about minimizing and disowning the consequences of their poor choices— letting others pay the price, pretending to “confess” to their poor choices with full intention of engaging in them again, and so forth. The authors offer example after example of people who firmly refuse to examine the conclusions and fears underlying their behavior, and who instead externalize the living crap out of every poor choice they make.
What to do about any of it?
Well, cut it out.
Assume responsibility for your choices.
Sound simplistic? Eh, kinda. I do think one of the weaknesses of this otherwise incredibly thorough, very readable self-help book is that the authors conceptualize almost every single form of self-defeating behavior you can imagine as a “self-defeating behavior” that an be analyzed and treated according to their model. They kind of pooh-pooh the idea that people feel things and react to them in the moment, instead taking an almost conspiratorial approach to why-we-do-what-we-do.
The short version of what the authors recommend anybody do about their self-defeating behaviors are, search for your mythical fears, and then trace them back to your faulty conclusions. For example: if there is a behavior that’s kicking your butt, ask yourself: what am I afraid of happening if I DON’T do this? This, ideally, will lead you back to the conclusion that you drew but filed away— a conclusion that you can reality test and eventually dislodge, thus dissolving your mythical fear in the process.
In other words: you do cognitive-behavioral therapy with yourself. (Which is fitting, given that one of the jacket blurbs comes from the late Albert Ellis, father or Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy.)
Likewise, in very CBT-style, the authors recommend monitoring your self-defeating behaviors to get a clear look at what their triggers are, as a means of further clarifying and uncovering the faulty conclusions and mythical fears those behaviors are a response to. The overall idea is that, when these mythical fears and faulty conclusions are exposed to conscious examination (instead of remaining filed away in the unconscious, where they have been residing), they’ll collapse under their own irrational weight.
Then, of course, the authors recommend replacing the specific self-defeating techniques with which you used to carry out self-defeating behaviors with “winning behaviors,” i.e, alternatives that support your long-term goals and values. The authors counsel the reader to approach this project with patience and self-compassion— after all, you’ve been reflexively responding to mythical fears for a long time, your inner self is going to need some support if you’re going to move forward.
I have to say, this is a well-put together book. In contrast to last week’s book, Jeff Schwartz’s “Brain Lock,” which felt like it was dragging out pamphlet-length material to fill a book, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of wasted words or space in Cudney and Hardy’s book.
I like how they recommend not just “STOPPING” a dysfunctional behavior, Bob Newhart-style, but rather replacing those behaviors with behaviors that can fill that vacuum with goals-and-values directed activity. I mean, it’s never quite that easy, as anyone who has ever tried to kick a bad habit can attest, but in principle it’s plenty sound.
I think the authors maaaaayyyyy go a bit far in conceptualizing the mopey behaviors that accompany depression or the avoidant behaviors that accompany PTSD as “self defeating behaviors” that are motivated by mythical fears deriving from invalid conclusions about life. I think there’s room for the idea that, a lot of the time, people just feel something and then respond in instinctive ways that aren’t necessarily driven by labyrinthine webs of conclusions and inferences (i.e., I don’t think you have to have derived a false conclusion about life to respond avoidantly when you’re sad or anxious; I think those are pretty universal reactions). What’s more, I think there’s a danger of getting into unhealthy self-blame if you send patients delving deeply for how THEY have misinterpreted the facts of reality when they respond— fairly normally, I’d say— to painful experiences.
I’m not convinced every reaction is a choice, in other words.
All that said: I think this is an elegant, novel model through which to help understand frustrating self-defeating behavior. I wish more attention was paid to self-sabotage as a concept, insofar as the vast majority of people who ever find themselves seeking therapy struggle with it.
Thumbs up from the Doc on this one.