The self-destruction instinct
Under Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, we as living beings are programmed to do everything we can to create and preserve life. Our instincts are our hidden inner allies that help us ensure that by having us go towards things we enjoy and away from things that bring us pain. We don’t even need to be conscious of them. We just need to trust them to do their work and to save us from any pots flying towards our heads, because that’s how nice they are. However, there’s a fascinating piece that’s missing in this picture — our self-destruction instinct.
What is the self-destruction instinct?
The self-destruction instinct is a part of the self-preservation instinct, just like death is a part of life. It’s completely natural and has to do with the decision on when and how to die. It’s an instinct because it’s not necessarily something we consciously control. It just is there, ready to activate whenever the time is right. So one might ask, how does it decide when is the right time?
In its normal healthy functioning, the self-destruction instinct will kick in at old age. It will happen when the pain of continuing life in this physical body exceeds the benefits of remaining in it. In this sense, we can see how it’s part of the self-preservation instinct, as it saves us from suffering.
In its non-healthy functioning, the self-destruction instinct expresses itself in our lives much earlier than that. This is the case when as children we inherit or develop:
The “I shouldn’t exist in the first place” story
It can be because our parents didn’t really want to have us as a child. Or because we’ve seen them going through great pain and felt their lives would be easier if we weren’t around. Or because we see ourselves as born, i.e. ‘thrown into this world’, as an act against our will that dooms us to suffering. Whichever the reason, this story often remains in the unconscious because it’s quite painful to look at. From there, it orchestrates an array of expressions of the self-destruction instinct that go underneath our radar or we don’t know how to handle:
- Physical or psychological disease — the belief that we shouldn’t exist in the first place can manifest in ill health. For example, a child that carries it will tend to get sick much more often than other children. The stronger the belief, the more likely it is for us to develop diseases that threaten our lives before old age.
- Unhealthy habits and risky behaviours — we can feed our self-destruction instinct with unhealthy food, cigarettes and other behaviours that shorten our lifespan. Or, as has been my experience, be a bit more reckless than usual and expose ourselves to extra danger. For example, walking alone in dark places with no protection, crossing streets as if you are an iron man/woman, extreme sports etc.
- Social self-sabotage — our ability to survive has a lot to do with our ability to create social bonds and status for ourselves. Thus, the ‘I am not supposed to be here in the first place’ story can limit our ability to express ourselves. It can lead us to play small and stay small, not feeling worthy of others’ attention and love, as a form of self-sabotage.
- Blockages to procreating — if we believe we shouldn’t exist in the first place, physical and psychological blockages to making kids make perfect sense. “What right do I have to give life to someone else if I was not supposed to be here myself?”. “It’s painful to live a life I am not supposed to be living. I don’t want to transfer that to someone else.”
What can we do to bring the self-destruction instinct to its healthy balance?
You guessed it. Stuffing ourselves with medications, doing diets, putting on cigarette patches or taking courses in public speaking won’t resolve the issue of a dysfunctional self-destruction instinct. It might help move it from one way of expressing to another, at best. What we can do instead is address the root cause, the story of not being supposed to be here in the first place. How do we do that?
1) Come back to own our decision to be alive in the first place
Our current collective myth about birth states that we come here because our parents have decided to have a child (or had the misfortune of getting one against their will). In that myth we have no say in coming to this Earth, it happens to us. It’s as if we are some sort of ‘object/victim’ of creation. The reason I say this is a myth is because we have no idea of where the hell we are coming from. And we don’t know if it is true that we don’t have a say in it!
In fact, many spiritual traditions state that our souls make a choice to come here. They say we pick the location and the parents which are best suited for our soul’s path. So do we come here out of our own will or are we thrown in by some force outside of ourselves? Or both? No one knows what’s the truth. And we don’t need to. What we can do is notice how the stories feel and which one supports our wellbeing and flourishing:
- “I am not supposed to be here in the first place. I was thrown into this life outside of my own will.”
- “I have chosen to come on this Earth, as all other beings, because there’s something for me to experience/do around here.”
I have come to believe there’s a time in life when we need to own our decision to come to Earth and hang around. Not because we know it’s true that we are here on purpose. But because it’s healthy for our bodies and psyches to be here on purpose. And because we are aware of the limitations of our capacity to know the “objective truth” not as a hindrance, but as a power to choose the stories with which we navigate this mysterious reality.
2) Figure out why we chose to come to this Earth
OK, so if we assume we came here on purpose, what was that purpose? If our souls wanted to come here given their options of doing all these other things that souls can do, what was it for? Well clearly, there was something to experience around here that felt tempting in some way. This means that something was probably something pleasant, right? I mean it’s OK to go through some suffering to get to that pleasant thing. But it doesn’t make sense to come here to suffer for no reason, unless we assume our souls are masochistic or something!
So that leaves us with — our souls came here to experience the enjoyment of being alive in physical form. That enjoyment can and is experienced in infinite ways in each moment by humans and non-humans alike. We can explore our own tendencies. What are the things that make us feel alive? What are the things that make us feel like it was worth coming here?
If you like me happen to be someone carrying a dysfunctional self-destruction instinct, this exploration is not just a nice-to-have. It’s a matter of life or death! It might sound crazy, but our subconscious minds KNOW if we want to be around here or not. They know if we find it enjoyable, if we find it purposeful. As we raise to consciousness our free will and decision to live and enjoy life, we create the conditions for a subconscious mind that also favours our wellbeing.
Healing our collective self-destruction pattern
If we take a step back from our individual lives and stories, we can see the pattern of self-destruction playing out in our species’ collective unconscious. It has a lot to do with the objectification mindset, in which we see ourselves as objects of creation (whether it was a god that created us or a strangely well orchestrated set of chemical reactions). “We didn’t want to come to this Earth. We are not sure what we are doing here, but here we are. Let’s get busy with things, see what happens.”
What happens is the creation of a shared reality on the base of a lack of will and purpose, in separation from our divine power and nature. This generates suffering. The more we suffer, the less we see a reason to hang around here. So we unconsciously create the conditions for humanity’s collective self-destruction. As we become aware of this, we can stop the perpetuation of this pattern. We can heal, one person, one will, one purpose at a time, trusting the momentum generated by that to do its work with the rest of us and our planet.
About Lessons in Paradise
I believe we already are in paradise, regardless of where we are and what’s going on in our lives. I believe life is a journey towards becoming aware of this and enjoying as much of it as we can in the limited amount of time we have here. The Lessons in Paradise vlog is the space where I share my process of shedding patterns and beliefs that obstruct our view in order to replace them with presence, joy and wonder. It’s also my invitation to you — an invitation to connect and journey together in creative ways, as we help each other see through to the greatest expression of ourselves.