In formulating his psychoanalytic theory of personality, Sigmund Freud postulated two biologically deep-rooted instincts as the driving forces behind all human behaviour: life instincts and death instincts.  The life instinct works on the pleasure principle.  Humans are driven to seek out pleasure and avoid pain at all costs. The need for continual pleasure and gratification is a strong and pervasive motive that must be curtailed.


In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud postulated the death instinct.  The death instinct is less conspicuous and less powerful than the life instinct.  Freud noted that all humans ultimately end up dead, and so it’s logical to postulate, “the goal of life is death.”  Well, maybe?  Although we may all die in the end, do people secretly strive to kill themselves off?  Is there a pervasive and basic human motive to seek out death and self-destruction?  I doubt it.  Towards the end of his life, Freud doubted it also.

Freud didn’t have very much evidence to support his idea of the death instinct.  All of his evidence was anecdotal.  For example, he noted that his patients kept mulling over their past defeats in life rather than picking themselves up and moving forward.  He also noted that many soldiers had a difficult time forgetting past trauma experienced during battle upon returning home from war.  Although this “evidence” does not necessarily support the existence of a death instinct, it does show that it is often easier for people to stay put than move forward.

It may be reassuring to know that while you are putting on your trades, there is not a core biological motive secretly compelling you to naturally destroy yourself.  So, what are the origins of self-sabotage?  The origins are socially learned rather than inherited and biological.  Self-sabotage is closely related to the concept of fear of success.  Individuals with a fear of success have heard societal messages that they will not succeed in certain realms. 

For example, women hear the message, you can’t succeed in a “man’s world.”  Ethnic minorities are told they can’t break through racial barriers, and children from a working-class neighbourhood are told that they would be better off pursuing work in a blue-collar job.  In many ways, it’s much easier to stick with one’s familiar environment than break out into a new direction.  It’s ironic that at the heart of self-sabotage lies a strong desire to achieve success in an area that had previously been closed. 

Although a person strives to break through a societal or psychological barrier to be more than their parents or society told them they could be, they may experience a psychological “tug-of-war” between striving for success and secretly believing the societal impositions against success one heard while growing up.  In the end, overcoming a fear of success concerns identifying these societal impositions, recognizing that one secretly believes them, and convincing oneself that they are false.  That’s a lot easier said than done, but that’s part of the struggle to maintain one’s existence and defeat the “motive” for self-sabotage.

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