THE HUMAN CONDITION : SABOTAGING SUCCESS : Art of Self-Defeat

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For Kathy, it happened with a strange batch of brownies and a pink slip.

Unable to get along with her boss and unable to find a new job, she transferred to her company's sales department, even though her background was in another field.

In the process, Kathy, 31, wound up as a textbook example of self-sabotage, a psychological syndrome in which people unwittingly torpedo their own careers or relationships.

For her farewell party, before she moved to sales, Kathy baked brownies and, on a whim, added a secret ingredient: marijuana.

"I don't think I was fully aware of how potent (the brownies) would be," says the Eagle Rock woman, who asked that her real name not be used. "I just thought everybody would get a little high and be friendlier."

They got high all right. One employee walked aimlessly up and down Hollywood Boulevard, another thought he was suffering a heart attack, and Kathy spent the afternoon hallucinating on the office roof.

The next day, she was fired. "It didn't take too much self-analysis to figure out I'd sabotaged myself," she says.

Kathy isn't alone. Nearly everyone is susceptible, experts say--from the procrastinator whose success is forever a delay away to the politician whose gaffe costs him the presidency.

Self-sabotage typically hits at the worst possible moment--in the midst of a personal crisis or, more ominously, on the verge of a personal triumph.

What causes such behavior?

In cases like Kathy's, the stage is set when a person can't or won't directly face a dilemma. It's almost as if another part of the mind takes charge, she says: "Consciously, I felt like my only choice was to take the sales job, but unconsciously I guess I knew I wouldn't be able to tolerate it."

Psychiatrist Mark S. Goulston of UCLA says stress also can louse up a person's judgment: "Intense anxiety blurs your mind to consequences. You shoot from the hip to do anything that gets you out (of the unpleasant situation)."

Yet self-sabotage is just as likely to strike when things are going well.

A prominent San Diego attorney, for example, began stealing rulers and other small items from judges' chambers after winning a prestigious law award.

One possible explanation: If someone's self-image doesn't match up to his accomplishments or position in life, he might try to trip himself up somehow, says Tom Rusk, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego.

"It's very frightening to be successful beyond your own imagination. You feel awful and squirmy and like a hypocrite."

Another element is what Rusk calls the familiarity principle: "We tend to do what is familiar or what we're used to. If we act or are treated in unfamiliar ways--even if they're better--we become increasingly uncomfortable and we consciously or unconsciously act to bring ourselves back to our familiarity zone."

That might explain why some lottery winners squander their jackpots, experts say.

And it could also account for the many public figures who self-destruct amid fame and fortune. Unsure whether they are admired for their true selves or just for their status and money, some "have to fail" to find out who their real friends are, Goulston says.

Others feel out of control and want to be stopped, he says, or they get a sense that "this can't last forever" and do themselves in before fate or someone else does it first: "It's an out-of-control action with the intention of keeping control."

At least one therapist, however, says the whole concept of self-sabotage is a myth. It implies that people aren't aware of, or responsible for, their behavior--as if some hidden part of the mind is calling the shots, says Marise Scharlatt of West Los Angeles.

Take the case of former Sen. Gary Hart, whose alleged affair with actress Donna Rice cost him a shot at the White House. Did he unconsciously instigate the liaison to destroy his campaign? Not likely, Scharlatt says: He simply got caught in a behavior that began long before.

But San Diego psychologist Yanon Volcani says Hart was so reckless--at one point even daring the media to tail him--that he must have somewhat wanted to get caught. And that points to self-sabotage. Another test, Volcani says, is the stupidity factor: If the No. 1 comment everybody makes about the behavior is that it "was really dumb," it probably indicates self-sabotage.

One arena in which people excel at stupidity is relationships, a popular hangout for self-saboteurs. Oprah and Donahue are practically overrun by men and women pioneering ways of finding the wrong partners and losing the right ones.

The details vary, but the basic problem is the same, psychiatrists say: A deep-seated feeling (usually fear of intimacy or unworthiness of affection) causes a person to undermine his or her love life.

For added adventure, some mix the romance with a little business. Rusk tells of a San Diego-area executive who combined unhappiness at work (running his father-in-law's company) and unhappiness at home (his wife had suddenly become a "born-again" Christian) with an affair with his secretary.

And later, police arrested him at a shopping mall for indecent exposure.

"At some unconscious level,"' Rusk says, "he was asking to be destroyed."

But self-sabotage also has its subtler manifestations. One of the most common is procrastination.

A La Jolla woman who habitually postpones work assignments, for instance, at first attributed the problem to laziness, distractions and lack of discipline.

"But when it becomes a well-established pattern, you can't help but wonder whether something else is going on," says the woman, who asked to remain anonymous.

Maybe putting everything off to the last minute is an insidious way of blocking success by making it impossible to do anything exceptionally well, she theorizes: "You permanently condemn yourself to (mediocrity)."

Psychiatrists agree. Success--or the prospect of it--intimidates a lot of people because they don't think they can live up to it, experts say.

"That's why counselors try to help people picture themselves beyond their own expectations," says Rusk. "If you can't envision (success), it's hard to allow it to happen."

Another problem is loneliness.

Goulston says some procrastinators find it hard to get motivated because they carry "an ache of loneliness" from childhood:

"Down deep, there's a yearning to be part of a team . . . and they self-sabotage because they really want someone to come in and do (the task) with them."

One solution, he says, is to make a pact with a close friend or spouse. UCLA psychiatrist Goulston should know: He's writing a book with another person, even though he tells that person what questions to ask him, because he says otherwise the book wouldn't get done.

Other methods for beating self-sabotage involve mirrors and masquerades and mindfulness.

People who become their own worst enemies invariably suffer from poor self-image, Volcani says. One remedy--hokey as it might sound--is a daily pep talk in front of the mirror. He suggests something like: "I know you don't believe this, but you're a good person, you deserve respect and here's why. . . ."

If the exercise is repeated enough, and the negative emotions it stirs up are confronted, it should start to sink in, he says, especially if backed with action. "Fake it till you make it," Volcani urges.

He tells of a woman with a habit of choosing partners who are self-centered and rejecting. If she instead decides to date a man who ordinarily strikes her as "boring"--i.e., someone who genuinely cares for her--she might discover that what initially seems like boredom is actually her own anxiety about intimacy.

Finally, experts say to be mindful of situations in which self-sabotage is likely. In the crucible of a personal crisis or other pressures, for instance, be on guard against any impulsive actions, Goulston advises: Stop to consider the consequences and weigh other alternatives.

Volcani notes that self-sabotage often is foreshadowed by a buildup of such symptoms as irritability, anxiety, headaches, nightmares, careless driving and/or increased use of drugs, alcohol or other escapes. Step back and try to figure out the root cause or seek professional help, experts say.

Ignoring such signals, Volcani says, leaves only one way out--disaster.

He calls self-sabotage "the last gasp of a soul that says, 'My God, change this situation.' "

For the Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 7, 1992 Home Edition View Part E Page 2 Column 1 View Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction Self-sabotage--In the article about self-sabotage in Friday's View, the name of West Los Angeles therapist Marsie Scharlatt was misspelled.
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