Self Destructive Instincts vs Survival Instinct

I have self destructive tendencies.

I also have strong survival tendencies.

Both play out in my life. (yours too)

The father of psychoanalytic theory, Sigmund Freud (1920), believed we are born with a self destructive instinct. All of this is carried out at an subconscious level. To Freud we are are own worst enemies. In life we sabotage ourselves.

Let me give you an example in my own life.

When I first started working on my doctorate at the University of Southern California, I was twenty five years old. I enrolled in my first seminar. I always arrived early to class. I religiously followed a routine before class. I would eat an early dinner on campus, and study in the library for two hours or so to prepare for class. I knew exactly how long it took me to walk from the library to class. I never deviated from that routine.

Why? This was my big move in life. I had finally arrived at a top university. This move would propel me in my career. It would give me a sense of personal satisfaction about my intellectual ability that I thought was suspect.

Then came the day of the final exam. It was a three hour test. I went through my same routine. I arrived early to class only to find out that my fellow students were already madly writing away. I looked up at the clock and to my utter shock, I had arrived an hour late.

My professor walked up to me, and asked, “What do you want to do?”

What happened? If you concur with Freud’s theory, I had unconsciously sabotaged myself. Where did that hour go? I lost it. My subconscious mind blocked my conscious mind. I had caused my own self destructive behavior.

So when the professor asked me what I wanted to do, it was a turning point. I seriously considered packing it in. “What a screw up I am. I don’t belong here. I’m fooling myself.”

At that moment the professor repeated , “Well, what do you want to do?”.

All of the sudden, another thought came to me. “What the hell, what do I have to lose. I’ll take the exam.”

I did, the rest is history.

Where did that second thought come from? Harvard Physiologist Walter Cannon called it a survival instinct (1915). It’s flight or fight. In the moment of decision, I decided to stay and fight it out. It’s one instinct countering another instinct. We overcome obstacles because we decide to.

It ended well enough.

Self destructive behavior is a complex feature of everyone’s personality. The instinct is there from the beginning. It’s reinforced when we make mistakes.

On the other hand, we are also born with a strong survival instinct. It pushes us forward to improve ourselves in spite of the mistakes we make.

Most of our mistakes are self inflicted, and most of our movement forward in spite of our setbacks are a product of our decisions to press on.

Our greatest battles are with ourselves. Victory or defeat is in our minds.

Press on.

I’m Changing, . . . Yet Again