Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Success: Self-Destructive Behavior as an Expression of Autonomy in Young Women
Risky and even self-destructive behavior is strikingly prevalent in clinical work with adolescent girls and young adult women. Such behavior can certainly be frightening to the therapist, who may be tempted to take on the job of reigning in this dangerous acting out by attempting to manage whatever appears to be overwhelming to the adolescent. This clinical stance reflects the notion that self-destructive behavior may represent evidence of entrenched psychopathology and impairment in the capacity to cope with feelings and impulses. In this essay, I suggest that much of this self-destructive behavior may be part of the normative, highly conflicted struggle among young women to separate from long and close bonds with family, especially mother. By hurting or defeating herself, the adolescent can rebel and assert her power without actually carving out a viable niche for herself in the world that could take her away from emotional or practical dependence. Given this developmental function, high-risk behavior need not be regarded solely as a manifestation of regression or as a permanent or fixed adaptation, but rather it may be part of an evolving struggle with autonomy that includes progressive strivings. I am not suggesting that all adolescent risk-taking is necessarily self-destructive or self-defeating in nature, and I am not suggesting that any such sort of destructive behavior merely be accepted as healthy or adaptive for young women. Rather, I argue that, even when risk taking is mostly self-destructive, there may be an underlying progressive developmental struggle taking place in relationship to a caregiver, which may include the parent, the
therapist, or both. Given the developmental function of such risk taking, the therapeutic effort to control these symptoms may have a paradoxical effect, fueling the drive to defy parental/therapeutic authority through self-destruction. The provocative or dangerous aspects of the adolescent's behavior here may function to disguise from the therapist, and from the adolescent herself, the self-assertive nature of this emotional and interpersonal struggle.