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Childhood Trauma and the Tendency to Self-Sabotage

Updated: Mar 27

Group of children enthusiastically participating in a race outdoors

Often, because of childhood trauma, self-sabotage becomes a conditioned behaviour. In fact, trauma is basically the learning to self-sabotage as a result of the continuous reinforcing that 'caring for other people's needs is more important than caring for one's own'. In this case, the abusive parents' needs were more important that the child's. Therefore, when the child thought it was a good idea that they say, asserted their autonomy in spite of their parent's demands, the child was scrutinized for it. The repetitive and continuos reinforcement of this, conditioned the child to self-sabotage in order to meet the abusive parents' needs. The more the child abandons their own identity, the more they are rewarded with attention and acceptance from the abusive parents.

See, we are programmed from childhood. Our behaviour is programmed, reinforced, conditioned. So, if you were prone to receiving negative reinforcement for self-care as a child from an abusive parent, the same will hold true about your adulthood except that at that time, you will be negatively reinforcing yourself on a regular basis in order to confirm your childhood conditioning. We live and we learn, right? But the first layer of learning, the childhood one, is a lot more ingrained within our unconscious. This means that any other layer of learning we may accomplish as we grow, will continue to sit on top of the original, developmental stages or layers of learning. Therefore, as adults, we will continue to self-sabotage and mimic our childhood conditioning, mostly from an unconscious level. We will get back to this later.

You may wonder what negative reinforcement means in this context. Negative Reinforcement is a term used often in Applied Behavioural Analysis theory. It is defined "Negative reinforcement is a term described by B. F. Skinner in his theory of operant conditioning. In negative reinforcement, a response or behaviour is strengthened by stopping, removing, or avoiding a negative outcome or aversive stimulus". So, living with an abusive parent who may use this in order to stop you from caring about yourself would look like a parent demanding that their needs be met first and then you can take care of your needs, if they allow it that is. This would depend on your behaviour, your willingness to participate in the abuse by doing as they said, and the speed at which you did it. If you did not participate, they would probably force you, which would mean removing your autonomy.... your identity. The identity then becomes enmeshed with their identity because you as the child now live to satisfy their needs, not yours, which would lead to co-dependency and the willingness to continue to deal with the abusive parent even years later.

Self-care was negatively reinforced by submitting the child to a undignifying situation, stopping them from participating in their own care, removing the possibility to please the abusive parent if they took care of themselves, and avoiding their needs in order to meet their parents'. Now, why is it true that self-sabotage is helped through psychotherapy? Going back to the concept of the unconscious, it is true that through counseling you are able to become more self-aware, of course, having someone who can be your mirror in a sense is a great tool to have. However, ultimately what the counselor facilitates is the ability to become self-aware, self-reliant, trust your decisions by strengthening your identity and autonomy. See, self-sabotage is only visible when you start becoming aware of it. It can take years to get to the point where it is identifiable because it had become such an automatic part of your behavioural pattern.

You know you have reached a point of healing when you become willing to explore your behaviour, paying attention to the periods in your life when you tended to self-sabotage and why. Are you doing it because you want to fulfil a supposed reality? The reality that you are supposed to self-sabotage? Sometimes what happens is that even though we may have become aware that a certain action is not ideal for us, we continue to do it anyways knowing, on an unconsciously level, that this action is not right for us. Not following your instincts will almost be a way to validate you, affirming that you are doing the ' 'right thing' by self-sabotaging, not caring for yourself, and fulfilling the self-fulfilling prophecy that you needed to make sure other people's needs were met before your own. This will validate the conditioning you have received from childhood. In some unconscious level, this will even give you a sense of happiness, relief, and peace because it always did when you were a child and it is conditioned to feel the same just as much today.

M. Raquel S. Soteldo

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