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Self-Defeating Personality? Its Link To Childhood Trauma.

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Why Do Some Seem To Have A Self-Defeating Personality?

I have written elsewhere on this site about how my illness caused me to behave in ways that were self-sabotaging in the extreme.

Some psychoanalysts refer to people who are, to put it informally, their own worst enemy, as having a self-defeating personality disorder; below, I briefly explain how this disorder, according to psychodynamic theory, can be strongly connected to traumatic childhood experiences.


Self-Defeating Behaviour And Its Relationship To Childhood Trauma:

Self-defeating and self-sabotaging behavior in adulthood, with its roots in adverse childhood experiences, often lies at the heart of addictions (such as drugs and alcohol), compulsions (such as gambling) obsessions (e.g. in connection to romantic relationships), depression, low confidence, pride, and poor self-esteem.

Those with a self-defeating personality may:

  • reject the help of others
  • avoid pleasurable activities (this is distinct from being UNABLE to enjoy activities, which is known as anhedonia).
  • be unable to derive satisfaction from achievements which, instead, may induce negative emotions such as guilt and depression
  • be very self-sacrificing when it comes to helping others but not when it comes to helping him/herself
  • behave in a way that sabotages his/her relationships with others so that s/he is rejected (this may be linked to a repetition compulsion)
  • fail to complete tasks that could improve his/her life even though s/he has the ability to do so (e.g. a highly intelligent student who does not do assignments or revise for exams).

Most people are unaware that the source of these types of self-sabotaging and problematic behaviors lies in their difficult early life. This lack of awareness of what really lies behind our self-destructive inclinations is due to the fact (according to psychodynamic theory) that we repress (banish to the unconscious) the true cause (our painful childhood) as to be conscious of it would be too distressing. This is known as a psychological defense mechanism.

Psychodynamic theory also postulates that it is necessary to break through our psychological defense to bring into consciousness understanding and insight into these clandestine, dark, and dysfunctional motivational forces.

Only then can we turn our behavior around so that it helps, rather than hinders (putting it very mildly in many cases, including my own) us.

Essentially, then, to cure ourselves we need to resolve our, thus far, unresolved childhood emotional conflicts; these may include, for example:

– having been rejected or abandoned by our parents.

– having been unloved by our parents.

– having been emotionally deprived by our parents.

– having been excessively controlled and manipulated by our parents.

Self-Defeating Personality Disorder

Self-defeating personality disorder (also sometimes referred to as masochistic personality disorder), whilst not included in the current edition (fifth) of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), is still frequently referred to by mental health professionals to help explain various aspects of behavior. To be considered as suffering from a self-defeating personality disorder, an individual will be suffering from a minimum of five of the following symptoms :
Theories Relating To How Self-Defeating Personality Disorder And Masochism May Be Related To Adverse Childhood Experiences :

– Francis Broncek theorized that self-defeating personality disorder/masochism is linked to the episodic or chronic experience of not being loved as a child, as having been rejected/abandoned as a child, and/or having been used as a scapegoat in childhood,

– Berliner (1947) stated: ‘in the history of every masochistic patient, we find an unhappy childhood, and frequently to…an extreme degree.’ He also proposed the idea that masochism serves as a defense mechanism that protects against the development of depression or, even, schizophrenia.

Grossman (1991) stated that self-defeating personality disorder and masochism are linked to severe traumatization inhibiting a person’s ability to sublimate the pain psychological pain generated by the traumatic experience into productive mental activity.

-It has also been hypothesized that a child who has been brought up by a very strict parent or another significant authority figure and has been treated in such a way as to make him/her feel worthless, unlovable, and frequently deserving of harsh punishment, may grow up to internalize such views so that they form part of his/her set of core-beliefs.

Such individuals are also likely to have profound, pent-up feelings of shame and guilt which they seek to exculpate and atone for through self-punishment (both consciously and unconsciously) or by subjecting themselves to abuse, mistreatment, and punishment by others.

A Study Examining The Link Between Childhood Trauma And Self-Destructive Behaviour:

A recent study, carried out by the researcher and world-renowned trauma expert, Van der Kolk and his colleagues, looked at this link between having suffered childhood trauma and the subsequent development of self-destructive and self-damaging behavior.

Each person in the sample of 74 individuals who participated in the study had a diagnosable psychiatric condition (either bipolar disorder or a personality disorder such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) and each was monitored over various lengths of time (the average length of time and that a participant in the study was monitored was four years).

During the period of time that each individual was monitored the researchers recorded all instances of self-destructive/self-sabotaging behavior (such as substance misuse, bulimia, anorexia, deliberate self-injury, and suicide attempts).

The extent to which each of these individuals had experienced childhood trauma was measured by their own self-reports of their childhood experiences.

It was found that those who had suffered childhood trauma (including neglect and separation from the primary carer) were far more likely than average to self-injure (by cutting self), to attempt suicide, and to behave, in general, in self-destructive ways.

It was also found that those who cut themselves did so in order to achieve a dissociative state (in this case, the dissociative state is induced to distract the self from unbearable mental anguish by inducing physical pain which is more tolerable and, therefore, preferable to the mental pain.

Further Findings:

Individuals who participated in the study were least likely to recover from their proneness to behave in self-destructive ways if, as a result of their childhood trauma, they had developed problems forming and maintaining relationships with others in their adult lives (click here to read my article on how these two things can be inter-related).

It has been suggested that those individuals who have a propensity to self-cut and/or attempt suicide find stress extremely difficult to cope with as adults as it triggers memories and feelings associated with their particular childhood trauma.


Treatment for this disorder can be complicated, not least because those suffering from it may well shun offers of help (a symptom of the condition – see above). However, treatment options include group therapy, family therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and counseling.


Now let’s look in a little more detail about the concept of repetition compulsion (see above). According to psychodynamic theory, if we do not resolve these issues relating to our childhood trauma, we will continue to be unconsciously driven to put ourselves in situations that cause us to re-experience the highly distressing emotions originally generated by our traumatic childhood experiences.


Well, according to Sigmund Freud, the answer is that this repetition compulsion (as he phrased it) represents our inwardly driven frantic and desperate attempts to gain mastery over the original trauma and its associated negative emotions, something we (inevitably, because we were powerless) failed to do in childhood.

Example: A woman rejected in childhood by her parents may be unconsciously driven to try to form relationships with utterly unsuitable men who are bound to reject her.

Yes, incredible as it may sound, according to psychodynamic theory, her unconscious mind compels her to form relationships that are doomed to failure (some go as far as to say all our behaviors are, in the final analysis, unconsciously driven and our sense of control over our own fates is a foolish fantasy; but we are submerging ourselves in murky and hazardous philosophical waters here).

Finally, it is also theorized that we will also interpret events negatively, when it is not objectively justified, in an attempt to recreate our adverse childhood experiences and the negative emotions which pertained to them at the time. So, following on from the example above, if we were rejected by our parents as children, we may constantly believe others are rejecting us when this is, in fact, NOT the case.




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  David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).







David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).






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