At some point in our lives, we all make poor decisions. Some people recognize self-destructive behavior soon enough and find healthy ways to deal with the situations in their lives.
On the other end of the spectrum are people who make poor decisions over and over again. They never seem to find a way to stop making things worse for themselves. This is what a self-destructive behavior pattern looks like.
What is really interesting about self-destructive behavior is that scientists say it is a kind of coping mechanism. It’s more prevalent among people who have had traumatic life experiences or those who have hit “rock bottom”.
The problem with negative coping behavior is that even though you may experience some relief, the respite is short-lived. It just does not contribute to solving any of the problems you may be attempting to avoid or run from.
On the contrary, engaging in a pattern of self-sabotaging behaviors only increases the problem. In the end, you find yourself caught up in an endless cycle of regret, guilt, shame. This then results in more destructive behavior until for, some people, it’s sadly too late. They resort to extremely destructive and very harmful behaviors which can include suicide.
What Is the Root Cause of Self Destructive Behavior?
Psychological research confirms that people who engage in self-destructive behavior are likely to be more emotionally sensitive than most.
Additionally, self-destructive individuals may also have had childhood experiences that invalidated their emotions through constant criticism and neglect. Such a childhood did not provide the opportunity to express emotions in a healthy way. Sometimes the child lacked any role model who expressed emotions in a healthy way or used positive coping mechanisms to face life’s challenges.
Children who are placed in emotionally painful situations are prohibited from expressing their pain and act in certain ways. They may adopt certain coping mechanisms to numb the pain instead. Such escapist tendencies may compound and become worse in adulthood.
Often, when you resort to numbing your pain you don’t know of any better ways to express your emotions. You may seek “help” from alcohol, drugs, overeating, or in bad relationships. The more you resort to one or more of these negative coping mechanisms, the more hopeless and out of control you begin to feel.
However, not every self-destructive person has had a traumatic childhood. But, many have a strong feeling of inadequacy, inferiority, shame. They feel they are just not “good enough”. Self-destructive behavior patterns are difficult to change if you don’t recognise there is a problem. It’s also easier to gain a temporary sense of relief through poor choices rather than take the steps to address long established issues.
Tied closely to traumatic childhood behavior is the emotion of shame. Shame is usually a coping strategy a child develops when they don’t feel safe expressing emotions, especially their dark and angry feelings.
If a child cannot express emotions outwardly in a safe environment, they project negative emotion on themselves. Shame, guilt and anger are very common.
Who am I, really?
It’s common for self-destructive people to say or think things like:
“I am bad.”
“Why would anybody else love me.”
“I hate myself.”
“I’m a total failure.”
In essence, a strong feeling of shame about oneself leads to self-hatred, which can hold back your life. It can lead to serious self-destructive behavior.
A difference exists between shame and guilt. Guilt can work as a moral compass, helping us to make better choices and improve our behavior. Guilt is recognition that you have done something wrong, which gives space for improvement going forward.
Shame, on the other hand, is a feeling that you are “bad”. When you feel shame, you cannot separate your real self from certain actions even when these actions do not define whom you truly are.
Whereas guilt will have you thinking ‘I did something bad’ shame will get you thinking ‘I am bad.’ Often when you feel shame, you do not allow space for improvement because you cast yourself in certain absolute terms.
Shame is essentially the feeling of anger turned inward. When you are angry with yourself, you do not see anything good about yourself. You tend to overlook your positives and instead focus obsessively on negative traits.
As a way of dealing with the painful and confusing emotion of shame, you may engage in behaviors that attempt to destroy this “self” that you hate so badly. You may abuse alcohol and drugs, physically harm yourself or intentionally put yourself in harm’s way.
Interestingly, these behaviors do not take away but rather worsen the feeling of shame and the pattern goes on and on.
Habits of Self-Destructive People
Unhealthy eating habits, smoking, alcohol, and drug abuse are some of the most common self-destructive behaviors. However, self-sabotage could also take other forms that may not always be easy to recognize. All can set you back significantly and affect the quality of your life.
You may be engaging in self-destructing behavioral patterns:
- If you are constantly blaming others for your own lack progress in any area of your life. For example, “I could earn more if it wasn’t for my bad manager,”. Or, “I could lose more weight if my spouse cooked healthier food.”
- When you seek perfection in everything and you miss the small improvements or the small reasons why life is worth living.
- As you are completely unable to manage your time better. As such, you procrastinate so much that you don’t achieve your goals and you become unreliable.
- If you choose to be unhappy in situations where you can be happy. As such, you may end up creating unnecessary drama.
- When you overthink so much that you get caught up in a pattern of indecision. You don’t take action instead of demonstrating proactive action and problem-solving.
- If you are reactive instead of proactive in most of your relationships. For example, instead of listening and acknowledging other people’s viewpoint you disregard them and are always quick to assert your own opinion or viewpoint.
- When you overwork and create a stressful life for you and those around you. You take up more work than you can possibly complete.
- If you are excessively self-critical when you could benefit from being self-accepting and compassionate.
- When you make poor decisions in your love relationships. You choose partners who treat you badly and who reinforce your own negative self-image.
Putting an End to Self-Destruction
Ending the pattern of self-destructive behavior is possible but it takes effort and awareness. Remember, these behaviors have developed over many years so there will be some resistance at first. However, with a lot of commitment, self-compassion, and help from others, you can overcome self-destructive behavior and begin living a more peaceful, fulfilling, and healthy life.
Resolve Self-Destructive Behavior by Putting Your Trauma into Perspective
The first step toward breaking free from negative habits or behavioral pattern is becoming self-aware. You need to be aware of yourself destructive behavior and the true impact it is having on your life.
Next, seek to understand why you are choosing to engage in coping behaviors that are less helpful and more destructive. Re-examine your past experiences. Did you receive excessive criticism from family members? Were you physically or emotionally abused? Were you discouraged and even shamed from expressing your emotions?
Putting your trauma into perspective allows you to begin understanding yourself better. This way, you can start to see that you are not bad but rather some of your past experiences were bad.
When you take a step back and remove yourself from the fog, you become an observer of your behavior patterns and thoughts. This is when the healing can begin.
Mindfulness is a word that is thrown around and can sometimes lose its meaning and importance. However, many studies show that mindfulness practices, especially when facilitated by a professional therapist, can help to change habits.
Mindfulness is not necessarily about achieving a state of relaxation, although some mindfulness practices such as yoga and cognitive meditation can make you feel more relaxed.
Mindfulness is not about achieving a state of constant happiness and positivity either. Rather, mindfulness is the ability to recognize and accept the present moment – the beautiful now.
In the context of breaking self-destructive behavioral patterns, mindfulness allows you to experience your thoughts and feelings without acting compulsively.
Mindfulness is therefore not about fighting negative thoughts or feelings. It’s about sitting with these feelings and actively postponing the need to act on them.
As a result, your emotions will not feel overwhelming and push you to engage in any of your usual self-destructing behaviors. Rather, you will become more and more in control of your thoughts and feelings.
Examples of structured mindfulness practices include cognitive behavioural therapy, loving-kindness practices, compassion-based meditation, and meditation practices based on Tibetan Buddhism traditions.
Write A Different Narrative
Past trauma is a key reason why people engage in self-destructive behaviors as adults. These deeply entrenched early memories and experiences largely shape our view of the world. It affects how we perceive others and ourselves.
The good news is that while you cannot change your past, you can be in control of your present. You can always improve your future. Rewriting your narrative can be a challenging process as it often involves revisiting your past in order to put the present into perspective.
Writing a different narrative means breaking the cycle of self-criticism and self-hatred that you have become so accustomed to. It means starting to question whether the negative narrative you tell yourself is really true.
Practices such as talk therapy, narrative therapy, and journaling can help you contextualize your triggers and therefore understand yourself better.
Focus on Improving Instead of Eliminating
Many self-destructive people who want to adopt better habits focus on eliminating all their self-destructive behavior at once.
The thing about letting go of old habits and adopting new ones is that a gradual progress is more effective and has more staying power than quick fixes.
Attempting to eliminate all your self-sabotaging habits at once is actually self-defeating. This will send you into a spiral of self-loathing, and the vicious cycle goes on and on.
A better approach is to take it a step at a time. Identify your most dominant self-destructive behavior. Then, commit to improving this behavior with the goal of acquiring a new positive habit in place of the old behavior.
While elimination implies a quick fix approach, improvement implies gradual progress. Remember, to change ingrained habits, you must also commit to changing your environment. This requires identifying your triggers and creating a safe environment. This environment is free of the things that can encourage you to act compulsively on your negative thoughts and feelings.
Be Compassionate to Yourself
Self-care, self-love, or self-compassion can be a challenge. This is especially true for someone whose self-destructive behaviors stem from past trauma and shame.
In fact, even the thought of loving yourself may at first make you feel like you are selfish, or that no one else loves you.
However, self-compassion can allow you to take better care of yourself. This will help to improve the negative impact that trauma can have on your physical and mental wellbeing. Self-love also gives you permission to grieve, to forgive others and yourself, and to feel gratitude.
Self-compassion is especially important in breaking self-destructive behavior. This is because when you approach yourself with love, kindness, and understanding, you can make the distinction between making a bad decision and being a bad person.
The first step to developing self-compassion is recognizing that you are not perfect and that nobody expects you to be. Realize that you are human and like other people, you have flaws but more importantly, you have the potential to improve.
Next, approach yourself the way you would a friend. It is highly unlikely that you constantly criticize your close friends, or are harsh toward them, or undermine their capabilities. So, why would you do these things to yourself?
Self-sabotage and destructive behavioral patterns are struggles that many people go through. You are not alone. Just because you found yourself in a spiralling cycle of destruction doesn’t mean that you are a bad person or that you are damaged. With awareness, commitment, and support from a coach, you can overcome self-destructive behaviors and live a new beautiful life – on your terms.