Self-destructive adaptation: the dangerous tendency to "normalize" what harms us

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Louise Hay
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Who in their right mind could accept something that hurts them? It is normal to try to get away from what harms us. Yet, defying common sense, many people remain prisoners of toxic couple relationships, accept jobs that generate enormous tension and little satisfaction, and remain tied to a family that regards and treats them as if they were a black sheep.

For Freud himself it was an enigma that someone could give up and act systematically against his own interest and that his choices did not respond, at least apparently, to the pleasure or reality principle. To describe these cases, he coined the term "moral masochism", referring to a general pattern of suffering in the service of some goals that the rest of people find difficult to understand.



The normalization of suffering

In 1995, psychologist Theodore Millon described a self-destructive personality style that is characterized by a recurring pattern of choosing people and / or situations that end up producing disappointment, failure or abuse, although other possibilities are available. They are the people who, without knowing very well why, always end up establishing harmful relationships or getting involved in projects doomed to failure in advance. These people suffer from what Freud called the "compulsion to repeat", which consists in repeating relationships or circumstances that evoke a painful past.

But the truth is that beyond this trend, we can all fall victim to self-destructive adaptation. Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and prisoner of the Nazi concentration camps, offers us a clue to understand what is happening. He said that "an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior."

As humans, we have an incredible ability to adapt, even to the most extreme conditions. In some cases, that adaptability may be our salvation, but in others it can make us suffer unnecessarily. Therefore, although for an outside observer that dose of masochism is a completely abnormal reaction, for the one who experiences it it is a "normal" response to a situation that should not occur.



When a situation repeats itself constantly, it can become the only reality for those who live it. A person who is mistreated, manipulated or humiliated frequently can end up normalizing these behaviors, assuming they are part of their life and, therefore, doing nothing to end them.

When situations arise that generate suffering or harm us, the first reaction is pain and rebellion, but if we decide to stay in that situation - for any reason - it is likely that our unconscious will set in motion a psychological mechanism to "protect" us from what is happening.

This mechanism acts as a smokescreen, preventing us from seeing what is happening, preventing us from suffering more by continuously analyzing the situation in which we are immersed. If the problem is possessive jealousy of the partner, we can begin to see it as a "proof of love". If we are stressed by the amount of work, we will take it as a proof of our "competence".

This mechanism of rationalizing what happens to us allows us to better deal with a harmful reality that puts our concept of ourselves at risk, but also prevents us from taking the necessary measures to distance ourselves. Thus a vicious circle is created from which we find it increasingly difficult to escape.

From toxic attachment to moral masochism: why do we endure relationships or circumstances that harm us?

The pain and suffering caused by self-destructive adjustment comes little by little, so they are "easier" to bear than the excruciating pain caused by the great changes. Resistance to change and fear of the uncertain are very powerful feelings that keep us tied to the known, even if it's not exactly the best for us.


It must also be said that falling into a spiral of self-destructive adaptation does not imply that we like to suffer, but that often this becomes the only way we believe it is possible to achieve a goal that, in our eyes, is more valuable, or to avoid consequences that seem even more painful. For example, a person may endure their partner's humiliation because they believe that breaking up would be even more painful or they may continue to endure a painful job because the prospect of not finding another job scares them even more.


Therefore, the dynamics that arise with self-destructive adaptation are usually expressed in a continuum that ranges from anaclitic behaviors to introjective behaviors. People with a more anaclitic tendency tend to stay in those harmful situations to maintain the bond, because the prospect of losing the relationship or certain benefits is unbearable.

Those with a more introjective tendency can become trapped in such situations by the "moral masochism" Freud refers to, because they enhance their ability to tolerate suffering and cope with adversity. These people may also feel proud to stoically face suffering, but in reality they do not enjoy it, it is just an unconscious mechanism to protect their fragile "self". Since they believe they cannot escape and feel fragile in their condition, they try to project an image of strength, re-evaluating the situation they are experiencing.

How to break the vicious circle of self-destructive adaptation?

When immersed in a toxic situation, it is difficult for us to analyze it objectively and impartially. Listening to other people's opinions can help us change our perspective to evaluate what is happening to us more rationally.


If you have no one by your side to talk to, a very effective technique is to imagine that a friend is in the same position as you and you need to give him advice. What would you tell him? This way you can take the necessary psychological distance to see what is happening to you in a detached way.

It is also important that you strengthen your self-esteem. When we fall into a vicious cycle of self-destructive adaptation, it is normal for our self-esteem to suffer. In some cases we may even think that we deserve what is happening to us, we blame ourselves and we denigrate ourselves. Therefore, to get out of the toxic circle in which we find ourselves, we must regain confidence in ourselves, be aware of the fact that, whatever happens, we will be able to emerge strengthened from that experience.


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