Tuesday, January 6, 2009


For well you know that it's a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder.

The Beatles

Polonius: My lord, I will use them according to their desert.

Hamlet: God's bodkin man, much better. Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?

1. Nassir Ghaemi, M.D. has another thoughtful post on his Psychology Today blog about psychiatry's financial and pharmaceutical imbroglio. As he argues, it is impossible to expel drug companies from psychiatric research and education altogether; too much of value would be lost. Rather, analogous to Wall Street overreach in general, what is needed is much stricter regulation, oversight, and cultural change.

He contends that individual psychiatrists and patients ought to reform themselves by resorting to drugs only for clear-cut "diseases" and not for vague symptom management. It sounds great; the problem is the persistent ambiguity of psychiatric diagnosis. So long as mental disorders are not natural kinds but have elastic boundaries shading into normality, the inclination to use more medication rather than less will persist. Psychiatry has always had an identity problem inasmuch as there is no lasting social consensus about what psychiatrists should be doing. This is due to lingering scientific and philosophical confusion that doesn't appear likely to be settled to general satisfaction anytime soon.

2. The New York Times has an intriguing article today about self-handicapping, or engaging in self-defeating behavior in the interest of maintaining self-esteem. This is obviously usually unconsciously motivated; an academic example would be skipping class or failing to study for an exam so that, if or when failure occurs, one can explicitly or implicitly have the consolation, "It's not as if I really tried."

This is a fascinating process because it rings so true and yet feels so, well, self-defeating. As the article notes, this kind of behavior "works" well in the short term (with respect to maintaining self-image) but not so much in the long term, when routine practitioners come to be viewed as whiners and slackers. And yet we seem to know people who undertake this strategy not merely as regards specific tasks, but also with major life projects. If one sabotages significant relationships or careers, one escapes ever "really" being tested.

If, as seems unlikely, one wins out despite apparent attempts at self-defeat, then things look great. Actually, one of the evolutionary hypotheses for substance abuse frames such behavior as an attempt to demonstrate one's fitness despite evident impairment. Just as a peacock sends the message, "Look how tough I must be if I can pour this much energy into a glorious tail," risky intoxication sends the message, "Look how tough I must be if I can get things done despite being falling down drunk half the time." Both phenomena are extreme versions of showing off, in unconscious and evolutionary senses. Like much of evolutionary psychology, this substance abuse hypothesis may not be true, but it's interesting nonetheless.

How would one go about managing self-defeating behavior?. Life entails risk and the possibility of failure; there is no getting around that. But the self-defeatist arguably does what he does either because his self-esteem is too fragile for either modest failures or because, due to narcissistic inclinations, he consistently attempts tasks beyond his ability. The process would involve fortification of self-esteem with supported and gradual exposure to appropriate risk. Then--carpe diem. As always, this is a "day" easier talked about than "seized."


Anonymous said...

Ok. So I read this article, which essentially outlines self-defeating behaviors as habitual? Or does the article address the habitual/developmental piece of self-defeating behaviors?

" The urge goes well beyond a mere lowering of expectations, and it has more to do with protecting self-image than with psychological conflicts rooted in early development, in the Freudian sense. Recent research has helped clarify not just who is prone to self-handicapping but also its consequences — and its possible benefits. "

I'm a little lost on a lot of this jargon. It is difficult for me to ascertain if there is a middle ground in "self-defeating" and direct sabotage. It would appear to me that there is more of spectral range of behaviors. One might struggle with success, and "self handicap" for any assortment of issues, self-esteem jumps to mind (projection).

I also think back to two particular concepts of possible relevance. The "self-fulfilling prophecy", but more over the notion of the Elephant who has a chained foot as an infant and learns its resrictions, such that it stays in place with a mere string by adult-hood (don't try this at home).

Novalis said...

Interesting--well, the article describes the behavior in purely cognitive terms, as a way of arranging a situation so as to view the glass as half full rather than half empty. As we all know, it is far harder to study developmental paths, although we make inferences about them all the time.

I hadn't really thought about the self-fulfilling aspect of low self-esteem, although in a way it seems just the other side of the same coin. Like all defense mechanisms, sometimes self-handicapping works and sometimes it doesn't (by "work" I mean defend against anxiety).

This brought to mind the psychoanalyst Karen Horney, who thought that we have three basic ways to cope with life, whether dysfunctionally or successfully: confrontation, dependence (on supportive others), and detachment. I see the latter as a very broad version of self-handicapping: as in the Beatles quote, it defends against anxiety by saying, "I really don't have a dog in this fight anyway." Detachment/self-handicapping is opting out of the challenge in question.

I can imagine situations in which this wouldn't be a bad thing--maybe Fred deep down didn't think grad school would be in his best interests (and not due to fear of failure) but didn't want to have to tell his folks that, so he was "sick" the day of the GRE instead.

Novalis said...

I should add that neither the article nor my comment ties self-handicapping to any specific diagnosis or "disorder." I mentioned "narcissistic inclinations," but we all have those at some level. Self-handicapping is a refined version of rationalization that is dysfunctional only when indulged in to excess.

Retriever said...

Good post. Karen Horney rocks. The drugs link good but set me to brooding that tho we need the big drug companies (at least partially because of our insane liability system) to develop better drugs, there will always be questions about the science when it is all about profit. While the big companies will (except in stupid Hollywood movies) be motivated not to distribute drugs that kill and/or maim people, there is mainly incentive to just produce a good enough or different enough drug to make a fortune until the patents run out. That is very different from a dedicated individual with a personal stake or academic team working together to CURE.

The self-defeating behaviors NYT article is good. The only wrinkle I would add to that argument is that many people do self-defeating things in the throes of severe depression. Totally out of character when they are healthy. For example, being forgetful, irritable with the boss, oversleeping an exam, losing car keys before driving to THE job interview. Perhaps it is unconscious, or perhaps their minds are truly hurting and limping along at half efficiency. This is where the disease and volitional aspects of diffficulties are so intertwined.

Anonymous said...

I think it has something to do with not fulfilling one's potential: fear of exhausting the expanse/height/depth of one's potentialities can leave a lot to be desired if the best of all possible beings one can become, culminates in a gravely disappointing or unsatisfactory figure.

It's better to be a work in progress, with all the self-delusional grandiose ideas about possible greatness, than to be an inflated nothing, having reached the end of your frayed tether with not much else to look forward to but death -- the ultimate letdown.

Most people prefer road trip lives, forgoing the allure of destination so that they may be happily undisappointed. It's a pitiful cocktail of cowardice and fragile ego, that only leaves one half-inebriated -- never fully intoxicated with the fruition of one's efforts.

I don't think much can be done about it, because inevitably the majority of society is average and can only attain average heights of success. Only a select few have that heady combination of attributes that scream greatness from all angles, leaving nothing to be desired. Who wants to put effort into being ordinary?

But then again, gifted children also have a tendency--borne of the self-satisfied narcissistic knowledge that they are superior, having experienced the reach of their precocity at a very young age, and having everyone else confirm this view with constant adulation and admiration--to slacken their efforts for fear of puncturing their inflated egos that rest on the whole idea that they are innately special and therefore don't need to put effort into tasks that should come naturally. Upholding this aura of effortless brilliance often leads to failure because the gifted child becomes confounded by tasks that are truly difficult--even by a highly intelligent person's standards--since the practice of actually *trying* is a grossly undeveloped skill and completely foreign to the child's hitherto mode of being.