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Earl R Smith II, PhD

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Most behaviors are patterns – recurring tendencies – rather than one-off acts. People tend to do the same thing over and over even though it generates unsatisfactory results. They don’t seem to be able to take the most common sense advice.

If hitting yourself in the head with a hammer is causing you pain, put down the damn hammer!

This sage advice is so routinely ignored that I have come to accept that the underlying drivers of the behavior are beyond the control of the individuals who continuously run into walls and can never seem to figure out why they are hurting.

Now you would think that it is so obvious that one should avoid self-sabotaging behaviors that it is unnecessary to focus on it. But that is not the case. Let look at one of the most visible and self-damaging patterns.

From the World of Politics: There are a group of people in this country who support a political party that has been the cause of their increasing economic and social discomfort. Daily we see images of people who have nothing or next to nothing supporting a political establishment that is dedicated to transferring wealth upward from the poor and middle class to the wealthy.

Take the example of Elkhart, Indiana. The policies of the Bush administration had decimated the economy and social structure of the town. Unemployment was very high, jobs were being moved overseas, homes were being lost to foreclosure as a result of the free market philosophies of simple-minded Radians and Libertarians. In short, the town and its population were the victims of a cabal that was dedicated to sucking every last asset out of places like Elkhart and passing it on to their wealthy patrons.

So the Obama administration comes into office facing a major economic and financial meltdown – not to mention having to deal with wars that the Republicans started so that they could accelerate their project of making the wealthy wealthier. Elkhart was on its ass. But, over a period of seven years, and as a direct result of sensible policies, the town recovered. Unemployment went down as jobs came back, housing prices began to rise and, most importantly, so did disposable income levels. Elkhart was back big time.

It seems reasonable to assume that the people of Elkhart have the same aspirations as the rest of us. They want a better future for their children, good jobs, a town that flourishes and is a great place to live. They want to be secure in their homes and live the American Dream. That makes what came next so difficult to understand.

President Obama recently made a visit to Elkhart. The reception he received was striking. Instead of being welcomed as the leader of a highly sucessful rescue effort – an effort that gave them their future back – that put Elkhart back on the map – he was treated as the enemy. It was clear that the people of Elkhart could not wait to vote for another Republican as president. The question is why.  How could blind partisan politics trump self-interest? Why would a group of people prefer the group that almost destroyed their town to the one that came to its rescue and helped to save it? Why would the people of Elkhart risk the future of their town, their own future and the future of their children by backing a political party that clearly screwed them before? Why would they favor the decimator over the rescuer?

Enjoying The Pain? There is no explanation available that meets any standards of logic. No step-by-step analysis will provide even the remotest sensibility. The behavior is simply irrational and self-sabotaging. It is like insisting that your daughter marry the guy who regularly beats her up because you like his aftershave. The residents of Elkhart are apparently eager to drink the koolaid and suffer the stomach cramps with a smile.

Try this possible explanation: The people of Elkhart have such a low opinion of themselves and their town that they believe that they deserve to get screwed and cannot understand how anybody would come to their rescue. They believe that they don’t deserve to succeed and anyone who helps them fail is their friend.

The strength of any hypothesis is measured by its ability to predict future actions. This one pivots on the assumption that the people of Elkhart enjoy getting screwed and are willing to do everything within their power to make sure that they get screwed as often and thoroughly as possible. That seems to be a fair predictor of what the people of Elkhart are likely to prefer.

Overriding Fundamental Human Responses: Self-sabotaging behavior are potent as much for what they proscribe as what they prescribe. Simple human responses such as gratefulness for improving opportunities and a tendency to thank those who helped to make their lives better are strictly forbidden. How do you explain this? The closest I can come is the Stockholm syndrome.

Capture-bonding is a psychological phenomenon described in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with the captors.

The captives in that 1973 hostage crisis not only accepted their role are prey of their captors, they came to identify with and actually admire them. Perhaps the residents of Elkhart have accepted that they and their children are appropriately the victims of the Republican party and are determined to play their role even at the expense of their well being and the future of their children. That they are eunuchs in the elephant’s harem.

Hierarchy of Needs: In 1943 a professor named Abraham Maslow published A Theory of Human Motivation. In it he outlined a hierarchy of needs that defined human reactions to the situation they found themselves in. The bottom of his pyramid – the very basic of human needs – was physiological. Air, water, and food are metabolic requirements for survival in all animals, including humans. Clothing and shelter provide necessary protection from the elements.

But the voters of Michigan apparently prefer to be governed by a cabal that provides some citizens lead poisoned water. In other areas, they support organizations that seem to be dedicated to making it as easy as possible for terrorists to get assault weapons. They back a political party whose policies drove millions of their fellow Americans out of their homes. Gas prices go up, food prices go up, trade deals are structured to benefit corporations at the expense of workers, unions are busted, the right to bargain eliminated, taxes go down on the wealthy and the very needs that Maslow saw as fundamental to the human condition go unmet.

Next up the pyramid comes Safety – according to Maslow this includes personal security, financial security, health and well-being and a safety net against accidents/illness and their adverse impacts. Again the people of Elkhart find themselves under attack by the policies of the very party they swear allegiance to. As a client of the NRA, the Republicans are doing everything possible to make sure that terrorists have no trouble getting their hands on assault weapons. As a client of big pharma, they are making sure that no company is held accountable for producing the equivalent of commercial heroin. (The don’t want a repeat of the sucessful campaign against the tobacco companies you know) As a client of Wall Street, they make sure that no one is held accountable for almost destroying the world financial system – in fact, they support most of them in keeping their jobs.

Enter the Mirror: It’s time to turn inward. I have seen such behavior in lots of people and you probably have tendencies that sabotage your own interests. How about it? Got the guts to be honest with yourself. One of my most read articles is Eleven Habits of Self-Sabotaging People. It was written after I interviewed over a hundred people about their tendency to self-sabotage. Go ahead, read it and then let me know how many of those behaviors you engage in on a regular basis. How many ways are you limiting your potential? It was Socrates who observed that “a life unexamined is not worth living.”

Self-reflection leads to self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is the foundation for self-awareness. Self-awareness reduces self-sabotaging behaviors and opens up the possibility of a more fulfilling and considerably less frustrating life. It’s easy to discuss such behaviors in terms of politics. But your life doesn’t turn on those discussions. It turns on the depth of your self-knowledge and your ability to cease making it more difficult unnecessarily.

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

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