David Allen: An integrative model to understand self-destructiveness

The following article is by David Allen (see bio below the article).

My integrative model for understanding self-destructiveness looks at the nature of the relationship between the self and the system or collective; the core ideas are described below. The treatment model involves coaching clients to get past their parents’ formidable defenses to discuss and eventually stop the dysfunctional interactions which both trigger and reinforce their self-destructive personae.

  1. The relationship between self and system is not a constant but a variable.
  2. The self differentiates from the collective in a process known as separation-individuation.
  3. All individuals go through this process as they negotiate the passages of individual development.
  4. At each stage of human development, individuals have been able to differentiate more and more from the collec­tive as human culture has evolved throughout history (Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom).
  5. Consensual validation from other members of the system is necessary for individuals to feel comfortable expressing individuated behavior.
  6. Because individuals have an inborn biological propensity to concern themselves with the survival of the species, they are willing to sacrifice themselves, or aspects of themselves, in order to further what they perceive to be the greater good of the collective (Kin selection).
  7. When individuals find that certain differentiated aspects of self seem to threaten the immediate representatives of the species, the family system, they will attempt to sup­press or even sacrifice those self-aspects.
  8. In order to do so, they develop a false self, or persona, which is then maintained by a variety of self-suppressive devices such as self-scaring or self-mortification. The de­velopment of a persona often causes individuals to appear to be incapable of certain kinds of activities, which makes them appear to be defective in ways that they are not.
  9. The needs of the family system to respond to the evolu­tion of differentiation in the ambient culture conflict with the needs of the system for stability and homeostasis.
  10. Younger members of the family are often induced by the needs of the larger culture to behave in a fashion that is far more differentiated than the behavior of the parents. The parents, who are the leaders of the family system and its most important constituents, may be unable to com­fortably tolerate such behavior, even when they are them­selves attracted to it. The family system becomes threat­ened.
  11. This problem often cannot be solved in ways other than through the sacrifice of the younger system members’ individuality because of two factors: the tendency of fam­ily members to protect one another from anxiety and shame, leading to an avoidance of metacommunication be­tween them, and the tendency of family members to rely on past experience in evaluating new family behavior, leading to the so-called game without end.
  12. These factors not only lead to impaired individual func­tioning but retard the system from adjusting to new cul­tural contingencies. The efforts of individuals to protect one another, in particular, lead to eventual harm for all.

David M. Allen, MD, is professor emeritus of psychiatry and former director of psychiatric residency training at The University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, TN. He has carried out research on personality disorders, is a psychotherapy theorist, and is the former associate editor of the Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. He is the author of “Coping with Critical, Demanding, and Dysfunctional Parents“, “How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders,” co-editor of “Groupthink in Science,” and wrote other books, numerous journal articles, and book chapters.

Published May 2021.