“A man doesn’t become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall.”
You may think self-sabotage may be a more modern phenomenon in mankind, but it’s always been with us. Moreover, just about every society on the planet has noticed it and wrote about it. Sometimes in startlingly recognizable words.
The samurai and author Miyamoto Musashi in his epic book about swordsmanship and strategy said one must conquer themselves before they could defeat lesser foes. However, this isn’t a one off. A good part of the text involves dealing with yourself before you worry about other warriors.
Likewise, Viktor Frankl writes about a mental war in his book “Man’s Search For Meaning”. While the story revolves around his time living in a Nazi concentration camp in WWII, he mentions one’s mind could often do them in well before external forces. It’s more of an internal psychological assessment than a historical documentation.
Admiral James Stockdale describes a similar situation with his time in a prison camp in Vietnam. He states, “as with all shocks, its impact on our inner selves was a lot more impressive and lasting and important than to our limbs and torsos.” His writings delve into Stoic philosophy and psychology, mentioning one’s own mind would likely cause them to crack before punishment from the guards.
Rewind the tape a few thousand years and the ancient Greeks created an artform called tragedy. Aristotle’s quote above is about their concept of a “tragic hero”. A personal flaw from this individual sends their world crashing down. Sound familiar?
Now, fast forward again. In 2015 podcast guru Pat Flynn gives a commencement speech called “You Versus You” on the same topic. At a point he even lets the audience hear the “voice in his head” — an announcer offstage — bashing his own presentation.
Mankind has had an endless internal war going on since it could speak and think. Moreover, it’s never ended. So, how can we make peace with the enemy in our mind?
It’s not an easy task; but fortunately, there’s enough written from endless cultures to give us clues.
Identifying The Enemy
A modern navy uses sonar and radar to catch someone or something before it can do harm to their fleet. Dr. Robert L. Leahy, in his article in Psychology today, explains a similar first step in dealing with your internal self. Try and identify when it happens and the language of the attack.
This is the whole purpose of Pat Flynn’s speech mentioned earlier. Using the announcer offstage is just a clever way of identifying the verbal internal attack and the damage it can do.
Dr. Leahy explains these inner attacks can be so common, you don’t notice them. He recommends keeping a log of your thoughts when possible. If you notice a continual list of self-attacks, you likely have an issue. The log can also help you notice if the attacks have a common form or language; this enables your radar to warn you when it’s happening.
Flynn also reminds us this self-criticism is usually over-the-top as well. None of us would accept verbal abuse of this type from another person. But it’s par for the course in our mind.
Finding Meaning Defuses Self-Sabotage
Viktor Frankl in his book mentions the horrors of life in a concentration camp. From the point of arrival, the inmates were treated as less than human. The Nazis never even bothered to take their names, and only referred to them as numbers.
He says once an individual could see no meaning or significance in their life, they gave up. These people often destroyed themselves — walking into electric fences on purpose or just shutting down and wasting away. However, Frankl says even in this darkest of places, one could find enough meaning to continue on.
The process of writing not only helps us identify negative thoughts, it also helps us to see significance in our lives. Author and professional storyteller Matthew Dicks uses his homework for life method to find meaning. Basically, he just writes interesting moments of his day in a spreadsheet.
Over time they accumulate, giving him endless meaningful stories to tell. It also shows him his life has significance, even though the events he refers to may be small.
The stoic philosopher Seneca did something similar. He’d write down the events of his day as a method to get a gauge on how he was living life. So, this written account can not only point out significance, but it can also show if your thoughts are blowing small things out of proportion.
Dr. Leahy says we often over-criticize ourselves, focusing too much on things we do wrong instead of right. Finding meaning and significance can be a counterbalance to our internal enemy’s finger-pointing. It’s proof everything you do isn’t wrong.
That anchor of meaning also gives the internal saboteur inside less ammunition when its ugly head appears.
The Modern Tragic Hero
Aristotle couldn’t write a tragedy better than the life of Axl Rose. The poor boy from a broken family found an artistic talent, which made him millions. Unfortunately, the singer continually did his best to sabotage his own new-found success.
In the Reelz documentary “Axl Rose: Guns N’ Roses Frontman”, they explain the title of his band’s first album “Appetite for Destruction” was a sort of inside joke. It’s a reference to Axl Rose’s innate ability to destroy everything around him physically and mentally.
The documentary shows how Rose’s cringe-worthy behavior alienated himself from his bandmates and regularly blew up in his face. However, he’d manage to pull things together for a time, becoming even more successful, before burning everything down in an even bigger fire. For Axl, it was a lather-rinse-repeat formula.
Eventually Rose found himself alone, all his bandmates left. Guns N’ Roses was now Axl Rose. He spent 14 years trying to make an album himself with studio musicians — one of them called “Bucket Head”. This character wore a bucket on his head while on stage and insisted a chicken coop be built in the recording studio.
Like I said, Aristotle couldn’t write a story more sensational. However, this one has a happy ending.
No More Appetite For Destruction
While it may appear Mr. Rose was on a road to self-made disaster, his tragedy had a different ending. While he never kept a log of his thoughts, it was utterly apparent Axl was the main problem in the equation; there was no one left to blame.
He couldn’t deny it when he was the only member of his band and chickens roamed freely in his studio. Rose decided he needed to make drastic changes, or he might end up walking into his own version of an electric wire.
The rocker gave up his obsession with supermodels and started dating a woman his own age with adult children. Her family adopted Axl, which gave him a structure and meaning he never had in his self-absorbed life.
Suddenly, the appetite for destruction left him. Axl made up with his former bandmates and went on a successful tour.
With meaning in his life, Axl made peace with his internal enemy. He changed so much AC/DC even used him as substitute singer when Brian Johnson couldn’t tour anymore. So, he was able to escape the Greek tragedy.
Making Peace With Ourselves
Friedrich Nietzsche once said the worst enemy we meet will always be ourselves, and it is us who lie in wait in dark caverns. Just about every civilization in various times recognize this as true.
Obviously, the internal enemy which faces us all is a big problem and takes various forms for each of us. However, it isn’t a hopeless fight. A few internal self-defense mechanisms can make the battle much easier.
- Identify the attacks and their language by keeping a log. Once you can notice the attacks coming, you have a better chance at deflecting them. Also, once you know the common language of your internal enemy, you can realize when you’re overly criticizing yourself.
- Keep track of meaningful things, especially if they’re small. According to Frankl, even a concentration camp inmate could find meaning in their life. Having the counterbalance of meaning makes it harder for self-sabotage. Even Axl Rose could silence his internal enemy with a solid meaningful ground to stand on