When Matt Gaetz, the Republican congressman currently under investigation for allegely sex trafficking a 17-year-old girl, dramatically tweeted about being a “canceled man” last April, clinical psychologist Daniel J. Winarick fired back. In his professional opinion, he thought it was possible Gaetz met the diagnostic criteria for self-defeating personality disorder — formerly known as masochistic personality disorder — but as Winarick pointed out, both clinical labels have since been canceled, just like Gaetz.
What Winarick means is that self-defeating personality disorder, or SDPD, was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1994 due to a lack of evidence to support the condition and criticism that the label unfairly stigmatized victims of abuse. However, now that the term is being revisited to try to ascertain what’s wrong with men like Gaetz, the symptoms may be worth re-examining — not only to figure out what his problem may be, but also to make sure the rest of us don’t fall into a toxic cycle of similar behaviors.
According to psychotherapist Brent Metcalf, the original criteria for self-defeating personality disorder isn’t exactly what we’d imagine “canceled man” personality disorder to be, and like all mental health diagnoses, it’s much more complicated than what can be summed up in a tweet. “The person [with self-defeating personality disorder] may often have a compulsive need to be around people, circumstances or an environment that are sources of drama, pain or negative treatment,” Metcalf explains.
These people tend to reject support that could help their situation and experience depressive episodes after birthday parties, job promotions or other events that would usually be seen as positive. They may also seem uninterested in people who treat them well, rejecting intimacy and sabotaging any sense of pleasure. And unlike those who just get in their own way occasionally or are a little too hard on themselves, “with self-defeating behavior, the individual is going out of their way to sabotage the positive outcome because they thrive on the negative results or feelings,” Metcalf continues.
As for why the diagnosis was “canceled,” again, since the terms masochistic personality disorder and self-defeating personality disorder were used interchangeably by professionals, the word choice was criticized for pathologizing survivors of abuse. “Some [psychologists and researchers] began to argue masochistic personality disorder applied to females who kept finding themselves in domestic violence situations,” Metcalf says. Plus, research found a lot of overlap between SDPD and avoidant personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, major depression and anxiety disorders.
It’s important to note that masochistic and self-defeating personality disorder were always on the cusp of legitimacy, listed only as a proposed personality in the appendix of a revised edition of the DSM, the DSM-III-R. This meant that it was a suggestion, depending on recommendations made from additional research. Clinical psychologist Carla Manly explains that the DSM is periodically revised “to honor the evolution and often-substantial shifts in our understanding of mental health diagnoses.”
Metcalf and Manly agree that problematic behaviors associated with personality disorders occur on a spectrum. As a result, “some people can certainly engage in self-defeating behaviors without meeting the criteria for a personality disorder,” Manly says. Some of these behaviors might include overeating, drinking too much or overspending. Metcalf adds that many people with self-defeating tendencies may also meet the criteria for depression and anxiety, which can be addressed with medication and therapy.
Beyond that, Metcalf recommends taking inventory of what stressors trigger self-destructive tendencies. Once these are identified, “when we want to self-sabotage or practice self-defeating behaviors, we can try to practice mindfulness, meditation, doing an art project, journaling, getting plenty of exercise, establishing a stable sleeping pattern and having a healthy diet,” Metcalf explains.
In the end, it’s mostly about filling that self-defeating mental space with something constructive and “finding new habits that are different from the ones that lead to perceived failure.” And since self-defeating individuals also tend to set themselves up for failure by taking on too much, Manly recommends learning how to “say no to requests that are unreasonable, overly demanding or presumptive in nature.” (This, of course, is good advice for wherever you fall on the self-defeating behavior spectrum.)
Oh, and it’s probably not worth pathologizing people who cannot seem to get out of their own way — even if their delusional Tweets are begging for it.