Even teens who are popular and appear to be doing well may feel secretly isolated emotionally, harboring distress that seeks expression through self-destructive behavior.
Neurobiology of Breaking Habits
Self-destructive behavior patterns, such as addictions, are hard to break because they provide immediate relief. But their aftermath makes people defeated and ashamed, requiring more relief, and the cycle continues. These habitual, compulsive behavior patterns limit new learning and connections in the brain by obstructing opportunities to experience the positive rewards from sustainable, effective coping strategies.
Kaitlyn, 17, was bright, vibrant and charismatic. She was adopted at birth (and knew this all along), then struggled from early childhood with both epilepsy and an unbearable sense of psychological pain and inner isolation she could not articulate.
Kaitlyn’s shame and sense of herself as unlovable had its origins in feeling unwanted and abandoned. She was naturally outspoken, gregarious and likable, but developed an early pattern of self-consciousness and inhibition with peers, driven by fear of rejection. She learned to act according to what she thought friends and boys wanted – anxious to be liked and secure her relationships.
Shame, Rage and Self-Harm
Kaitlyn had a history of self-harm, typically provoked by real or imagined rejection. She harbored a secret fantasy of being hurt and then rescued, and impulses to make her pain visible and have it validated by others. This dynamic was an unconscious attempt to manage overpowering feelings. It brought others close enough so she wasn’t alone, while reassuring her she was still loved.
Shame is a terrible feeling of badness associated with wanting to hide one’s head and disappear. Kaitlyn’s feeling of shame and badness was fueled by episodes of rage at home, confirming her fear that she was a “monster” who drove people away and didn’t deserve love and happiness. Rage can be a defense against intolerable shame, when shame turns into blame and is projected onto others. In this way, the bad feeling is passed on like a hot potato, providing temporary respite from feeing terrible, but propelling the cycle of shame and self-destructive behavior.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and Self-Sabotage
Shame-based self-perceptions that are acted out through self-destructive fantasies and behavior create a self-fulfilling prophecy, providing rigged evidence of badness. Feelings such as worthlessness, badness, and inferiority have various origins in early experience when we are developing a sense of self. These feelings may later be experienced as factual — as if they represent the truth about who we are. When such compartmentalized experiences of oneself remain secret and unarticulated they can lead to unconscious pressure to make this inner “truth” a reality, leading to self-sabotage.
Dysfunctional behavior patterns are habits with psychological, often unconscious, motives. Breaking them requires insight into what function they serve and the discipline to stop them. It also requires courage and initiative to try out new behaviors and allow a different chain of events to occur. On a neurobehavioral level, new behaviors that generate positive feedback create new pathways in the brain, allowing momentum for psychological growth and change.