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Aug 20

Blowing Things Up: Self-Destructive Responses to Frustration

frustrationWhy do we sometimes come up with self-destructive responses to the unpleasant feeling of being trapped or the anxiety of an unhappy life situation?

I talked about this a little bit in an earlier post that was based on an article in the New York Times. In that article, it was noted that many people  may find it so hard to deal with the stress of being alone that they will voluntarily inflict pain on themselves as a way of distracting themselves from the tension.

An analogous situation is when a person finds himself trapped in an unsatisfactory life or perhaps an unsatisfactory relationship.

Sometimes we get so frustrated that we create a crisis that causes pain to all of those who are around us.

I talked about his with a middle-aged man, who’s the father of one child and who has been married for about 10 years, his family is living in San Francisco in a small apartment, trying to make ends meet.

He’s really successful in the biotech world. However, he feels stuck sometimes in his marriage, and tends to identify his wife as the person responsible for all of the things about his life that he is unhappy about. She’s the one that insisted that their daughter had to go to a school which costs as much as college used to cost, and she is the one who wanted to be sure that she worked part time so their daughter would not come home from school to an empty house. All of this means he has to work really hard. And that there isn’t an opportunity to do the backpacking and outdoor stuff that he enjoyed as a young man.

His level of frustration about this builds and builds and builds, and at a certain point he will go on a completely excessive and immoderate drinking binge of several days. He often puts his health and life at risk, and certainly threatens his marriage and upsets his daughter. Exploring this behavior with him last week, we came up with the notion that he latched onto that this was a life “reset” button.

It was similar to the experience of someone running a Windows computer, where Windows has been running too long and now things just don’t seem to be working right, there’s a buildup of frustration, and eventually you have to shut down the computer, and perhaps even reinstall the operating system. It’s destructive, things are lost, but, in the case of a computer, it may be the only solution.

However, for him, wild and reckless behavior probably is not the only solution. There is a real appeal to dramatic behavior. Things change. Maybe everything is called into doubt, but at least the constant tension will not continue.

This solution does not really recognize how much he has the potential to make changes that require determination and effort, but are associated with fewer risks.

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