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.
- 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.
- 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.
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