Self-torture: the Ultimate Defense Mechanism

There are times when anger isn’t just a passing mood but something that weighs on you night and day. Whether you’re maliciously attacked, shamefully denied by someone who was supposed to be there for you, or simply neglected by a loved one, the pain runs deep. Our choice is simply to fight or fly, but we like to think we’re more sophisticated than that.

You want to explode like a volcano, but you prefer to keep the peace. After all, knee-jerk retaliation just makes things worse. There’s always reasoned confrontation, but that’s risky; it’s hard to balance tact and honesty. Passive indifference looks like the easy compromise. Run it through your mind: it seems peace-loving and high-minded. You like it, and decide the best defense is non-reactivity.

While you keep up a brave face, however, your emotions are pressing on you. The upset is still there; it doesn’t evaporate. If no outlet’s available it’ll find an inlet — to your subconscious. What began as simple anger is inflated by anxiety.

Repressed emotions take an insidious toll. They tear you apart and you don’t even know it.

We gravitate towards the familiar even if it’s painful

You may recognize this tortuous cycle. A family member makes a joke at your expense, then laughs condescendingly when you feel slighted. Next time it happens you keep your feelings to yourself, nursing your resentment. An opportunity arises and you return the insult. You’re not consciously looking for it. It’s indirect; you hide your motives even from yourself. You pretend innocence.

This is passive aggression, born in families everywhere. You might call it a relationship, but it’s more of a codependency.

Humans gravitate towards the familiar. Even if it’s painful we choose to go where we’ve been before. We know we can cope there, and feel safe. Having chosen silence, the prospect of speaking face-to-face is intimidating. We grow entrenched. Complacency is easier than honesty, so we find a way to rationalize dishonesty. The more we hide from it, the more the pressure builds.

The bad feelings grow stronger, and yet and we don’t know why, but like physical pain emotional pain is telling us something.

How do we believe a lie we tell ourselves?

The ego evolved as a rational intermediary between our instinctive selves and the social world outside. Not acknowledging our feelings is not mere ignorance; it’s deceit. It ties us up in gluey strings of self-justification. Compounded by unaddressed feelings, self-deceit makes us act out of sync with our needs. We become irrational, and eventually self-destructive.

It’s often thought that self-destructive behavior indicates self-hatred. In fact, it’s usually about avoidance, the least demanding of all possible defenses. The results are similar: finding society too complicated, we seek isolation; or we deprive ourselves of comforts; or we indulge in eating, shopping, drinking, sex or drugs. Our self-image is highly adaptable, and for that very reason it can go haywire. We’re on the run. In this state, the thought of sitting down for a few minutes to breathe quietly unsettles us.

Denial is weird. How do we believe a lie we tell ourselves? Somewhere inside, surely we know. Perhaps that’s why breaking through takes a third person — someone objective, whether a friend or a professional. First though, you have to be open to the possibility. You need to be ready.

Real empathy requires integrity, and integrity takes time

For all its apparent simplicity, readiness is a quasi-mystical state. No one can talk you or trick you into it. It’s always the logical thing to do, and yet logic can’t lead you there. One day you simply decide that you can’t live the lie any more. It’s not a foregone conclusion. Some people never face it. They suffer until they die. Really.

If you’re graced with readiness you’ll taste freedom at last, but that’s just the first step. You need to consolidate your clarity. You’re not just making a rational decision, you’re countering an emotional habit, embarking on a process of change.

At this point you may want to share your good fortune. This is tricky. If you need others to get it and they don’t, you risk a reversal. Real empathy requires integrity, and integrity takes time.

The lesson is tough: you can’t save anyone; you can’t change anyone; you can’t fix anyone. What you can do is to live from one moment to the next with all the integrity you can muster. By freeing yourself you become an example. Who will get it and who won’t? Can’t say. Just be satisfied with your own step forward. The best thing you can do for others is to become clear in yourself. Everything good follows from that.

Attachment to delusion and self-torture is bizarre and incomprehensible, but it’s human. Don’t be fooled by the apparent normalcy of the world, or by the suggestion that life should be rational. Maybe it should be, but it just isn’t. That’s the sticking point, and until we accept it there’s no moving forward. We choose habit over freedom by default, and gradually inch our way out to extremes. The best way to change is to catch ourselves while we’re being defensive before it turns into self-destruction — and let go of the habit. It takes resolve, but first of all it’s a matter of self-trust.


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

10 thoughts on “Self-torture: the Ultimate Defense Mechanism”

  1. Stephen,
    Is being “ready” the same as being mindful? And is integrity another word for the wisdom gained by meditation and mindfulness?
    This topic hits home for me as I recently had a serious break with my brother over his bad behavior over the past 10 years. I won’t bore you with the details. What’s interesting to me is when i realized that our relationship had been seriously broken, I felt little pain or sorrow. I just realized calmly that we were totally different people and incompatible. He was unwilling to change and saw my attempts at reconciliation as a weakness to be exploited for his personal gain.
    I can’t change my brother but I can change myself and how I react to adversity. People come and go in our lives. I’m not sure if I’ve just become impervious to life’s disappointments or developed real wisdom?

    1. Hi Neal: Being ready leads us to mindfulness, so it’s different. It’s like Christian grace or Buddhist merit, something indefinable and yet a prerequisite. It’s a momentum that gives you the power and willingness to act.

      I too reached an impasse with my brother. My stance has generally seemed clear, but sometimes I still find myself longing for an impossible ideal. Nothing’s permanent.

      Your last question is wonderful in its honesty. I can’t answer it for you, but I can commiserate with the difficulty of knowing whether you’re impervious or wise. Perhaps both?

  2. Thirty-eight years ago, my friend John, a disciple of Stephen Gaskin, persuaded me to step onto the Path by total honesty and openness. It freed me, thrilled me, enlightened me, changed me, made me a better, happier man. I’ve never regretted it.


  3. I’m glad someone finally put this into words. Because I surely wouldn’t have been able to. Not in my current state anyway…

    I really like what you’ve written… especially the part about “being ready”

    Maybe the notion of knowing that you can and will deceive yourself is a first step… and then learning to recognise it when it happens over time

    But knowing it is just a first step onto a long and hard path of self-confrontation, however… and man, can it be hard…

    You’ve basically put all my thoughts into words. Thanks. I’ve always felt a bit alone in thinking about it this way because I never knew anyone who shared these thoughts… I guess It’s nice to get some external validation sometimes 😉


    László from Holland

    1. The fact that you felt alone in thinking like this, László, is a testament to the conspiracy of silence about this. It happens to everyone. Those who stop denying their denial are ready for change.

  4. Thanks Stephen, but I don’t like to think in conspiracies. It creates an atmosphere of helplessness. I don’t think people are deliberately hiding this information from us. They just don’t know or are too busy or too scared… The reason of me being alone in it is more a matter of never having been able to really express myself in the past and of not being heard :\

    1. I don’t mean by conspiracy that it’s deliberate, or that you’re helpless. Indeed, we’re all in the same boat; we reinforce each others’ illusions that somewhere there really is a secure and rational life. The point is, do you believe that there’s some imaginary boat that’s bigger and better?

  5. How does one know when they are lying to themselves? Is it when you realize you don’t have the normal human tools to navigate this maze of misery we call life or when you tell yourself you can do anything you put your mind to? Because both seem delusional but the less delusional seems to be the devil I know: that I am somehow Constitutionally unable to live the way others do or even pretend that it’s possible. I am a heroin addict that should have been dead 15 years ago but I am not even a good drug addict.

    1. Hi SugarD: neither of those options is always a lie, nor are they always true. Mindfulness teaches you to trust your gut in any given situation, knowing that if you’re wrong you’ll learn and adapt. The big difficulty is self-trust. It’s hard for anyone, and harder for addicts, but I hope you’ll try. I wish you the best.

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