What is self-destructive behaviour, why do we develop destructive patterns, and what can we do to move past these negative behaviours?
Have you ever found yourself doing something, even though you know it’s not good for you? We all engage in behaviours that aren’t good for us from time to time. Whether unintentional or intentional, self-destructive behaviour can include any kind of behaviour that harms you physically or mentally. But what kinds of self-destructive behaviours are we most likely to take part in, how do you know if what you’re doing is self-destructive, and what can you do to break these unhealthy behaviour patterns?
What is self-destructive behaviour?
Self-destructive behaviours can include a wide range of activities, habits, and actions. Generally speaking, anything that is certain to cause you harm (physically or emotionally) is a form of self-destructive behaviour. Some are easier to spot, while others may be more difficult to identify. Self-destructive behaviours can include:
- Binge eating (a commonly misunderstood eating disorder, where you feel unable to stop eating large quantities of food) or under-eating.
- Compulsive behaviours (e.g. shopping, gaming, or gambling to the point where you spend more than you can afford or have no time for anything else).
- Self-harm (injuring yourself on purpose, as a way to regain a sense of control or cope with difficult emotions when feeling overwhelmed or upset).
- Engaging in risky activities (e.g. impulsive or risky sexual encounters with strangers or sex workers, cheating on your partner, drinking too much alcohol or taking illegal drugs to the point you feel out of control).
- Attempting suicide.
You may also have other, often harder to recognise signs of self-destructive behaviour that you are doing without realising it. This could include:
- Changing things about yourself in an attempt to please others.
- You put everyone else first, without considering what you want (unnecessary martyrdom or self-sacrifice).
- Staying with or clinging to someone who is not interested in you or is not healthy for you to be around.
- Engaging in self-derogatory or self-deprecating behaviours or language (e.g. insisting you aren’t attractive, capable, intelligent, or ‘good’ enough. Refusing to take credit for your own hard work or successes).
- You refuse help.
- Exhibiting aggressive or alienating behaviour to push others away or as a method of protecting yourself.
- You neglect yourself physically or mentally (e.g. frequently not getting enough or poor quality sleep, skipping meals or exercise, not having a self-care routine, not seeking support for ill mental health).
- Chronic procrastination or avoidance.
- Wallowing in self-pity while refusing to make helpful or healthy changes.
- You have a self-defeating mindset (you tell yourself you’re going to fail or you can’t do something before you even try).
- You hold yourself back (you try to appear less capable or intelligent, to lower others' expectations of you and decrease your chances of failure).
Am I self-destructive? How to recognise the signs of self-destruction
Sometimes, we can recognise our self-harming behaviours. But for some of us, our patterns of self-destruction might not be so clear. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering 'Why do I behave this way?' or 'Why do I keep doing this?', it could be a sign that, on some level, you recognise an unhelpful or unhealthy behaviour that needs to change.
Recognising and acknowledging our self-destructive behaviours can be tough. You may have the urge to ignore it, and hope it goes away. Or you may think that by acknowledging it, you are somehow making these behaviours ‘more real’. But the longer we resist naming our unhealthy behaviours, the more time we spend allowing them to rule our actions and choices.
What causes self-destructive behaviour?
While there’s no single cause of self-destructive behaviour as a whole, there are different life experiences that can make you more likely to engage in risky or destructive behaviours. For example, if you’ve experienced addiction (drug or alcohol), trauma, neglect, abuse (emotional or physical), know someone who self-harms, feel socially isolated, or have particularly low self-esteem.
Self-destructive behaviours can also be a sign of other mental health conditions, including anxiety, eating, or personality disorders; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); or depression.
We spoke with Counselling Directory member, Psychotherapist, Counsellor and Clinical Supervisor (MBACP, Dip.Couns), Kim Lord, to find out more about what causes people to develop self-destructive behaviours.
“Self-destructive behaviour can often be linked to feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness which can be developed in childhood. Experiencing some form of trauma or neglect early on in life can impact how we view ourselves, sometimes leading us to the conclusion that we are just not ‘good enough’.
“Sensing rejection or experiencing abuse or abandonment as a child can result in feelings of unworthiness and the thought that we don’t deserve a good life or other people’s love and compassion. These feelings can lead to self-destructive behaviour, where we may consciously or subconsciously try to block out these feelings of worthlessness, or sabotage opportunities and relationships in our lives.”
For many, self-destructive behaviours unintentionally become a coping mechanism. For example, if you push others away with aggressive, passive-aggressive, or alienating behaviours, you may feel like you’re remaining in control, as you are the one to reject them before they can reject or abandon you.
It’s never too late to seek help for destructive behaviours. No matter what your experiences, if you are able to admit that something is wrong and there may be a problem, you are able to seek help and support.
What should I do if someone I love is being self-destructive?
If someone you know and love has started to exhibit self-destructive behaviours, there are ways you can gently approach the situation. Kim explains:
“It can be extremely distressing to see a loved one engage in self-destructive behaviour, however, it’s important to approach them in a non-judgemental way to reduce the risk of them withdrawing even further. Communication is important to try and gain an understanding of what is going on without trying to ‘fix’ them or solve their problems. Sometimes the seed of change can be planted simply from a person feeling heard and understood.
“Of course, if there is immediate risk of harm to them or someone else, then action needs to be taken and this may involve contacting a GP or emergency services. Encouragement to seek help from an objective professional such as a qualified therapist may be a good option.”
How to find help for self-destructive behaviour and break self-destructive patterns
Changing how you behave and react to situations can take time. There’s no instant cure or overnight solution. According to researchers, it takes around 66 days to break a habit, and establish new, healthier ones. Things may be slow going at first, or you may have a great start only to falter along the way; the important thing is to keep trying until your automatic self-destructive habit is replaced with a new one.
Worried you may be stuck in a pattern of self-destructive behaviour? Recognising you need help is the first step toward breaking negative behaviour patterns. Kim explains more:
“If someone is worried about self-destructive behaviour this is already the first step towards breaking these patterns, as it demonstrates that a degree of self-awareness is present. Consulting a therapist may be helpful to start looking deeper into why you may be repeating these behaviours, where they originated from and what you can do to change them. I feel it’s often necessary to do a bit of time travelling with clients by examining the past that informs their present.
“People often develop ways to ‘get by’ as a child that proved useful to them back then, but that are no longer useful or even harmful now they are adults. We would work on building a positive self-image and identifying the resources available to them now that they are older and can make their own choices. Ultimately, we would want to eradicate these self-destructive behaviours completely.”
But is there a single ‘best’ method we should be trying, to overcome self-destructive behaviours? Kim’s not so sure.
“I’m not sure there is one ‘best’ method out there for changing these behaviours, as each experience is unique, and we all respond differently to various ways of working. I personally believe that the path to leaving these behaviours behind is built upon self-knowledge and a desire for change. Self-compassion is also important. Balancing out the inner critic with caring and more helpful thoughts can encourage people to value themselves and realise that they are deserving of a good life.”
If you’re looking to make positive changes and get rid of self-destructive patterns, try:
Journaling can provide a consistent, easy form of self-reflection, helping you to improve your self-awareness over time. As explained by Grace in The power of journaling, you can “use journaling to reflect on therapy sessions, arguments with your partner, and to process daily life. Journaling is like a best friend or a mirror. You tell her something, and she will often respond back. I write to no one and everyone, and when I think I don’t have the answer to something, it will form, like magic, on the page in front of me.”
Practice mindfulness and meditation
Mindfulness (the practice of focusing and being aware in the present moment, focusing on what you can feel, see, smell, and touch) has been shown to have a positive effect on people’s physical and mental wellbeing. Mindfulness and meditation can help you to better identify and manage your feelings by helping you practise emotional regulation. They can also help reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, and even show cognitive improvements, positively impact your memory, relationships, and physical health.
Create a sustainable self-care routine
Self-love and self-care shouldn’t be second thoughts. Self-care is an important, healthy way of ensuring your emotional needs are being met. It doesn’t have to include long, hot baths and aromatherapy; self-care can be whatever you need it to be. That could mean mindful cooking or meal prep to help you eat better, setting a more strict bedtime routine to ensure you are getting enough sleep, or even finding ways to set boundaries to look after your wellbeing.
Work with a professional
Self-help can only take us so far. For some problems, working with a qualified, experienced professional can provide a level of insight, guidance, and expertise we may struggle to find on our own. Working with a counsellor can help introduce you to the right tools to help put your mental health first. A therapist can help you learn how to overcome unhealthy behaviour patterns, and create new, healthy coping mechanisms.