In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Turning Against the Self is a Freudian defense mechanism in which an original desire to harm others is directed towards oneself.
Freud’s psychoanalysis contained many of the key elements for this idea, but this particular mechanism was elaborated on by his daughter, Anna Freud.
An example of Turning Against the Self would be an individual who burns him- or herself with cigarettes. Although considered a type of masochism, there are different interpretations as to why people burn themselves.
One interpretation is that harming oneself is a kind of misguided altruism. Alternately, it’s possible that an individual is dulled to pain because they’ve entered another type of consciousness where physical pain doesn’t matter or, perhaps, register.
As with most defense mechanisms, socially sanctioned activities like smoking would also fall into the category of turning against the self.
Freud, himself, was a heavy cigar smoker. When he contracted jaw cancer he didn’t stop smoking cigars, although it’s not clear if Freud knew about the correlation between smoking and cancer. As a leading medical man, one would think that Freud was aware of the harmful effects of smoking. In 1929 the German physician, Fritz Lickint, had published a paper outlining the link between smoking and cancer¹ (Freud died in 1939).
Digital Dame adds:
The link between cancer and smoking was discovered at least as early as the 1920s. I remember seeing an old B&W silent showing people on a float in a parade (maybe it was an anti-smoking rally?) dressed as skeletons, or the Grim Reaper, as an anti-smoking campaign. There’s an article on Wikipedia about the anti-smoking movement and the Nazis. Maybe because of its association with the Nazis, the anti-smoking movement never really took hold here? As late as the 1960s doctors were telling people it was good to light up, and many doctors themselves were smokers.²
Given our present day awareness, one could argue that all smokers are turning against the self with their self-destructive behavior. The same could be said with alcoholics, drug abusers, hydrogenated vegetable oil and aspartame consumers, etc.
As our knowledge of harmful substances grows almost daily, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between normal versus abnormal, as well as defensive, destructive or adaptive behaviors.
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¹ Hanspeter Witschi, “A Short History of Lung Cancer” http://toxsci.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/64/1/4
² See in context