The Adolescent Saboteur

The Adolescent SaboteurWe frequently use the term “self-sabotage” to describe behavior that, at least on the surface, appears to work to the patient’s disadvantage. Wikipedia defines sabotage as “a deliberate action aimed at weakening a polity or corporation through subversion, obstruction, disruption, destruction or underhand tactics…one who engages in sabotage is a saboteur. Saboteurs typically try to conceal their identities because of the consequences of their actions.”

Wikipedia notes that one possible derivation of the word is from the French sabot, a wooden shoe or clog. Sabot became the French name for the brake on a wagon, as a shoe was pressed against the outer rim to halt its progress. Another etymological hypothesis is that sabotage derived from the Netherlands in the 15th Century, when workers would throw their sabots (shoes) into the wooden gears of textile looms to break the cogs, fearing the automated machines would render human workers obsolete. Sabotage is often advocated by labor unions as a means of self-defense, and as a protest against unfair, de-humanizing working conditions.

As clinicians, we often take note of patient’s “self-sabotage”, observing the many ways in which individuals ingeniously preclude or disrupt their growth, assemble and deploy roadblocks that impede their path forward, maneuver themselves into situations that completely prevent the possibility of success. And with this in mind, our initial clinical efforts are often directed at attempting to disarm the saboteur, since s/he appears to be working against his/her own best interests.

Sabotage, however, even when directed against oneself, may serve important functions, so we should not necessarily endeavor to too quickly deprive our patients of this strategem. As noted above, the act of sabotage has its origins in potentially useful, even necessary, personal and inter-personal functions such as braking, self-defense, self-preservation, and protest.

For example, adolescents are often trying to slow down their development when they feel that they’re being ushered towards the cliff of departure too hastily. In this respect, self-sabotaging behavior is the braking force that can retard the process, and make it clear to whoever is too forcefully propelling them forward—family, school, community—that separation and individuation cannot and should not be rushed.

Other adolescents engage in self-sabotage as a protest against conditions that have not been favorable to their development. Numerous teens have confided in me that they refuse to blossom as young adults as a way of making it insistently clear to their parents that are unhappy with the ways in which they were raised. They will steadfastly refuse to supply their family with the relief, pride and feeling of liberation that growing self-reliance would stimulate until there is some recognition on the part of the family’s leadership that mistakes were made, and until parents display a willingness to convey regret and remorse to their recalcitrant offspring.

And then there are adolescents who try to disrupt the machinery of their own lives because they are afraid that, like the Dutch textile workers described above, they, themselves, are becoming obsolete or irrelevant as they continue to stolidly march along through childhood and adolescent rites of passage. Self-sabotage becomes the most honest and authentic way they have of trying to maintain a hold on the childhood identity that they are most familiar with as the windswept adult world that they are entering attempts to tear their juvenile selfhood away from them.

Psychological treatment of adolescents becomes even more complicated than it already is because teens will inevitably direct sabotaging powers at the treatment enterprise itself. These are the cases I find most compelling, adolescents showing up in my office with boiling fury, with sullen silence, with hostile indifference. The clear message from them to me (and to everyone else) is: “I don’t want what you want for me. Your belief that you know what is best for me has nothing to do with what I believe is best for me. I will fight you off with all of the courage, perseverance and cleverness that I can muster.” Well-meaning adults, including the clinician, are not perceived as caring, supportive advocates (despite our efforts to appear and behave that way), but as occupying entities who, in the adolescent’s eyes, wield illegitimate power and must be neutralized or annihilated so that s/he can survive.

In that sense, the toughest adolescent patient can be understood not as “resistant”, but as a fierce resistance fighter, a brave and lonely young adult who is doing whatever he or she must to fight off, repudiate or rebuff those who pose a threat to his/her very existence.

When we examine adolescent self-sabotage from this perspective, we may find that troubled and troubling teens begin to appear a little less annoying, a little less obnoxious, a little less stubborn—we may, in fact, even begin to grow fond of them. And as they trust that we are not interested in depriving them of, or forcefully confiscating, their precious self-sabotaging efforts, they are more likely to allow us to help them examine its role in their lives, and better able to thoughtfully consider whether or not the role of saboteur is one that is worth maintaining. When that happens, their motivation for self-sabotage may naturally and gradually dissolve, and, as a result, they may even become a little more fond of themselves.

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One Response to “The Adolescent Saboteur”
  1. Zach Wilson says:

    This is an exceptional post, and one of the best things I have read on adolescents in a long time. Thank you, Dr. Sachs, for your insight and sensitivity.

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