No one sabotages their well-being on purpose
“Self-sabotage” is a popular topic in mental health and addiction discussions. However, as a behavioral neuroscientist and mental health expert, the concept of self-sabotage makes no sense to me.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Here’s what I mean. Scientifically, no action of the brain is truly meant to sabotage the “self.” In fact, the brain is wired to make sure every action you take maintains or enhances your life. Obviously the calculations can go awry at times.
This is especially true in addiction. Drugs are taken because they increase good feelings and decrease bad ones. If you look at it that way, addictive behavior makes perfect sense. Even though it eventually leads to pain in the form of trauma, bad decisions, and mental health problems, it began as a quest to feel “more good,” or “less bad.”
Other mental health issues also fall into this same way of understanding behavior. Suicidemakes sense in this context, viewed simply as an attempt to escape unbearable mental or physical pain (not existing is better than feeling terrible forever). For individuals struggling with severe mental health dysfunction such as schizophrenia, dementia, etc., this way of looking at behavior requires an understanding of the distortions caused by the disorder: Reality may be greatly distorted, but the brain is operating true to form through actions that feel good and enhance quality of life through the distorted lens.
I was reminded of my objection to the concept of self-sabotage, while listening to the podcast, “Serial,” about Sgt. Bergdahl, a U.S. Army soldier currently facing a court-martial. In June of 2009, he left his post in Afghanistan without permission and was quickly captured by the Taliban. Five years later, in May 2014, he was released when President Obama arranged a prisoner exchange.
Sgt. Bergdahl claims he left his post that night to go to a nearby base and report concerns he had about his superiors. However, throughout the story, his comments and the comments of those who know him reveal that his thinking has always been somewhat biased. This becomes clear as soon as one hears that Sgt. Bergdahl tried to prove he was just like the Jason Bourne character in the “Bourne” movies. When we hear about his lifelong obsessive tendencies and paranoid delusions we can imagine that the departure from base as simply the latest in a string of seemingly odd behaviors and not a single actat all.
Sgt. Bergdahl schizotypal personality becomes a turning point in the podcast, allowing listeners to gain a better understanding of his fateful actions. Scientifically, his brain was just doing what it’s wired to do. It was seeking to enhance the quality of his life in the context of his distorted view of reality.
If we could all interpret a person’s actions through a scientific understanding of the brain, then the discussions about self-sabotage would cease, because everyone would know there’s really no such thing.