Self-attack as a tricky defense against change

By Dr. Keith Witt
February 27, 2023
Self-attack is a common defense against change. Someone disgusted with a mistake or moral failing might feel intense anger or shame and lash inwards, as in “I’m such an idiot!” When this reaction doesn’t lead to compassionate self-observation and self-correction, it often means the person is avoiding authentic self-awareness and growth. Interior insult can feel like a problem is being addressed but doesn’t involve true responsibility and positive change. It is a form of pseudo insight. This is so common that most of us do it at least occasionally. Some of us do most of the time, which is a major block to growth and intimacy. Is self-hatred a spandrel? I think the self-hatred response is a natural concomitant of human moral evolution, but what use is it? How could the self-hatred defense be useful? Is it a spandrel? A spandrel is a genetic term. It is an inadvertent capacity arriving randomly with another genetic system. Is the self-hatred response a random capacity that came with morality, or aggression, or dominance? I don’t think so. I think self-hatred is adaptive, since it so often leads to attention to what needs to be healed and grown. All humans seem to simultaneously crave change and growth while resisting change and growth to some extent. Like many human motivation systems, we have opposing drive systems to self-support and self-attack to balance each other. We crave new perspectives/behaviors while resisting letting go of old perspectives/behaviors. This is analogous to we want to go to the party, but also want to stay home and avoid being social. This opposing-motivation-system dynamic often happens when we make mistakes or violate values. When we believe we’ve violated a value or made a mistake, our unconscious often reacts with shame emotions to motivate us to feel virtuous again, using any combinations of a variety of responses, some healthy and some not so healthy. Some healthy responses to violating a value or making a mistake and feeling distress are:
  • Look for what we did wrong, and then change thought and behavior to do right. For example, you’re driving across the desert, look at your speedometer, and see you’re going 95 MPH. You feel a little alarm at breaking the speed limit, reduce to 75 MPH, and feel better.
  • Look for what you did wrong, discover an outmoded value and refine your value. For example, you’re at nude beach, suddenly feel embarrassed when you see one of your friends walk up to you naked. You remember that you’ve decided your don’t-be-nude-in-public value doesn’t apply to nude beaches, and you feel better. You’re refining your don’t-be-naked-in-public value to don’t-be-naked-in-public-unless-you’re-at-a-nude-beach.
  • Mistakes can lead to self-hatred. A healthy response to a mistake is to acknowledge the initial surge of embarrassment and anger turning into a self-hatred story, and then do something different. For instance, you’re in a hurry and accidentally shatter a bottle of olive oil on the kitchen floor. You feel the surge of anger, and then relax and accept what happened. As you’re cleaning up the mess, you practice the Navy Seal mantra, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast,” to create a new virtuous habit.
  • You notice shame and self-attack, are confused about why you feel bad, and go talk to someone you trust to figure out what’s happening and what you should do about it. For example, you get uncomfortable when your friends compliment your paintings, you talk to a therapist and determine you learned as a child to not delight in your accomplishments (because parents/culture believed such delight is selfish, egocentric, unkind, etc.), and you refine your values to include the idea that it is good for everyone involved for you to feel pleasure in compliments.
Some unhealthy responses to violating a value or making a mistake and feeling distress are:
  • Denying you did anything wrong, rationalizing that what you did was fine, blaming someone else for the violation—basically the whole gamut of psychological defenses used to relieve distress while not taking responsibility for what you experience or do.
  • Try to coerce others to validate that you didn’t make any mistakes or have any responsibility for any problem.
  • Attack yourself globally (“I’m such an idiot!” “I hate myself!” “I deserve punishment!”) to avoid specifically examining and acting productively in the incident.
This last unhealthy response—attack yourself globally to avoid specifically examining yourself in the incident—is tricky because it feels like taking responsibility by putting yourself down, but you are actually avoiding authentic change. The dialectic of progress: child-centered parenting is particularly vulnerable to the I-hate-myself defense. I believe that modern science-based parenting is generally superior to previous models in most ways. Persuasive social research has taught us to emphasize supporting the interior experience of each unique child while using emotional coaching techniques in an authoritative parenting environment (as opposed to an authoritarian, permissive, or unengaged environment). Unfortunately, this focus-on-the-child-feeling-heard-and-safe approach leaves children vulnerable to learning that, “I hate myself!” can mobilize support, validation, and avoidance of whatever cued the response (usually a mistake or transgression). This is like the “You hate me! You don’t love me!” defense, which can level modern parents and distract them away from providing appropriate boundaries. Fast forward a child who can avoid responsibility with “I hate myself” and we have adults who, when confronted with mistakes/transgressions, unconsciously go to “I hate myself!” to avoid real growth and responsibility. We all make mistakes. We all hurt others on occasion. We all are regularly faced with ways we can improve through mistakes and lack of embodied knowledge. Especially in intimate relationships, the “I hate myself!” defense plunges couples into victim/persecutor/rescuer drama triangles rather than into healthy self-observation, self-correction, problem solving, and enhanced intimacy. The self-attack defense in action Anything that impairs compassionate self-observation and self-correction constitutes avoidance of responsibility and agency. You go to the dinner party, drink too much, and dominate the conversation. Your wife points this out to you on the way home and you get lost in a wave of self-loathing. “I hate that I do that! I’m such an idiot!” “I have no social skills!” But is there a resolve to drink less and socially reference more at the next party? If not, you’re probably enacting the “I hate myself!” defense. In extreme cases people can scream at themselves, hurt themselves, and generally attack their worth as human beings. None of these responses helps compassionate self-observation and healthy self-correction. To further confuse situations, people occasionally acknowledge a bad habit, but not take the next behavioral self-corrective step—as in an impotent, “I really should share the floor more in conversations,” followed by the same lack of self-awareness and bad behavior at the next dinner party. This reflects the Chinese proverb, “Knowledge without action is like no knowledge.” Time-specific and behavior-specific change is hard to fake Mediation as alternative problem solving has been increasing in popularity since Anatol Rapoport developed the model in the 50s. Mediators report 80% positive outcomes for their process, and I believe that the satisfying results come largely from their insistence on specific focus, mutual understanding, and time-specific and behavior-specific observable change. When working with couples, I frequently observe them complaining about each other or themselves, with a subtext of assigning blame rather than solving problems. For example, he points out that she screamed at him for getting the wrong kind of bread, and she responds, “I can be such a bitch sometimes! I hate that about myself!” This completely avoids the real issue of her attacking him when her subjective distress rises above a certain threshold. She’s unconsciously employing the self-attack defense to avoid responsibility and self-correction. A healthier response might be, “I get triggered by you making a minor mistake, I get a surge of anger, and I want to blame and attack you or me. I need to notice that surge and correct away from attacking either of us. Please point out the next time I’m disproportionate like that.” This is compassionate self-awareness plus commitment to specific behavior change (not to mention an invitation to deeper interdependence and intimacy). Healthy self-awareness and self-correction need to be compassionate and non-objectifying Self-awareness plus self-correction is not always healthy. Almost any awareness that privileges objectification and attack is by definition unhealthy, and there are examples with all worldviews.
  • In red egocentricism, awareness of lack of fealty to the Power-God and correction towards blind loyalty degrades a sense of a virtuous autonomous self and normalizes emotional/physical violence.
  • In amber conformity, feeling sympathy for the dangerous non-believers can cause guilt or embarrassment at not hating the designated enemy. This can lead to self-correction towards further objectification and abuse. Mass formation psychosis is the most deadly example of this.
  • In orange rationalism, feeling ashamed of having sympathy for the loser in a business deal or sporting event can lead to dissociation and deeper resolve to be “tougher”—to objectify and exploit others more easily. This is classic extractive capitalism.
Compassionate self-observation requires a Wise Self (the Witness) and a capacity to practice humility—the acceptance of potential wrongness—and a true sense of responsibility. This naturally leads to commitments to act on personal mistakes or moral failures, resulting in both horizontal and vertical health. We see this Wise-Self-plus-humility dynamic addressed in multiple intra-psychic therapy systems from the psychoanalytic models of Freud and Jung, to the humanistic approaches of Gestalt Therapy, Transactional Analysis, and Psychosynthesis, to the more modern systems of Imago, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Emotionally Focused Therapy, and Internal Family Systems. All are based on compassionate self-observation coupled with specific positive behavior change. Self-attack blocks Wise-Self-plus-humility, all the while disguised as taking responsibility for mistakes or moral failures.

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