I have to admit that this has probably been the most difficult post for me to write to date. For me, the topic of self-destruction hits really close to home. I feel like this entire past week, I’ve been challenged to look myself in the mirror and consider the ways in which I am and have been self-destructive.
Before we delve into this conversation, I want to be very clear in stating that I am not a trained mental health care professional and I can only speak from my own experiences. In developing today’s discussion, I’ve selected sources which I believe to be the most credible and to contain the most helpful information about this topic.
On that note, I want to offer a word of caution if you plan to do additional research on this topic as there are many articles out there which I feel offer incomplete or oversimplified and even potentially harmful information about this very complex topic.
Really, it’s impossible to expect that a single blog post could provide a comprehensive discussion of everything there is to know about self-destruction. So to that end, I would encourage you to read more about this topic here, here, here, and here. These articles will be a good start to understanding this topic – for yourself or perhaps for a loved one who has self-destructive tendencies.
Some of you may be wondering what it means to be self-destructive or you may be asking if you are self-destructive. Nearly any behavior can become self-destructive when it has the potential to cause us harm.
Some of the most common self-destructive behaviors include:
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Compulsive gambling
- Over eating (and under eating)
- Sabotaging relationships
- Engaging in frequent casual sex
- Committing self-harm
The list goes on and on. Even things that sometimes appear “healthy” on the surface can become destructive – like dieting (e.g., under eating), over exercising, unnecessary self-sacrifice (e.g., which result in giving up on your own goals), or being overly independent (e.g., refusing to ask for or accept help).
Have you ever done something and then asked yourself why you did it because it seemed irrational afterwards? For example, I can think of at least a few people I know who feared that their relationship with a significant other was about to end and then they caused a huge fight with that person. Almost inevitably the relationship ended as a result. Why do we sometimes sabotage ourselves like that?
Do you know someone who seems to have a skill for making a bad situation worse? Or maybe you are that person? *raises hand* In reality,we probably all know someone who struggles with self-destructive behaviors. We see them do the same things over and over again which have damaging effects on nearly every aspect of their lives and result in disappointment and failure.
Self-sabotage or self-destruction is not a rational behavior. In fact, for the most part, we tend to know it’s a bad idea when we’re doing it. We know it’s probably going to cause us (or possibly others) harm in the long run, but we go ahead and do it anyway. Sometimes, it feels like it’s impossible to stop doing whatever it is.
In this case, logic doesn’t really work because we already know that logically, this is a bad idea. Whether you believe you may have some self-destructive tendencies or you have a loved one who is self-destructive, I think you will find the information provided in today’s post to be helpful.
I’m going to break this discussion into two major parts. First, to understand why we do this and second, to understand what we can do about. Awareness is key here because once we’re down the path of self-sabotage, it’s pretty hard to pull ourselves back. Prevention and self-care are the best tools to help us manage our self-destructive tendencies, but I’ll talk more about that later.
Part 1: Why do we do this?
Self-destruction is not an indication of someone who is broken or defective. It can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that we must have something ‘wrong’ with us – an addictive personality type or some other disorder that compels us to be this way. However, that’s simply not true. There are many intelligent, successful people who struggle with self-destructive behaviors. (And chances are, you know some of them.)
Self-destruction is not driven by a desire to suffer or fail. Some therapists have made this claim, but that line of thinking is outdated and completely unsupported. Additionally, when we blame ourselves and begin to believe that we are simply bad people, or that we are incapable of making the right decisions, we tend to exacerbate the situation. We create a greater sense of stress (and perhaps even guilt) and continue to behave in the same way because we have failed to understand the true cause of our self-destruction.
Self-destructive behaviors provide a sense of relief. Despite the fact that some self-destructive behaviors seem rather unpleasant (e.g., self-harm), they share the commonality of providing a sense of relief for their actors. This relief may come through pleasure or distraction or escape or as a means of expressing emotion. Certainly, what provides a sense of relief for one person will not be the same for another. Yet, the most important thing to understand here is that the behavior is something that feels helpful in the moment, but is actually harmful over time.
Self-destruction is a coping mechanism. In the simplest terms, individuals seek relief through self-destructive behaviors because they are attempting to cope with overwhelming negative emotion. The behavior itself allows them to “turn off” the emotion even if it’s just temporary. While individuals who act self-destructively are actually very diverse, Wupperman (2018) notes that they tend to share these common characteristics:
- Experiencing emotion more strongly than others
- Growing up in an adverse or invalidating environment
It’s important to note that this is a great oversimplification and may not apply to every person in every situation. Again, I encourage you to learn more about this topic by seeking out qualified individuals and credible resources.
Part 2: What can we do about it?
If we understand the underlying cause for our behavior, we gain awareness to better address our self-destructive tendencies. While we will always encounter unexpected events which trigger negative emotional responses (like the death of a loved one, going through a breakup or divorce, the loss of a job, and so on), we have the opportunity to better prepare ourselves for these experiences through self-care and planning.
In a moment, we’ll get to some practical and hopefully meaningful approaches for learning how to overcome (or prevent) our self-destructive behaviors, but first I want to address what doesn’t work (because there’s a lot of poor – and just plain incorrect – information out there).
Shaming doesn’t work. Telling someone they’re going to die, or destroy their life, or whatever other consequences you can think up, by continuing their behavior will not help them stop committing that behavior. In fact, it may very well have the opposite effect because the desire and pressure for relief will likely increase. And worse, it may also alienate you from this person.
This is why the idea of letting a person hit ‘rock bottom,’ or tearing them down to build them up, or posting embarrassing pictures of them (like the ones where an obese person has a heaping plate of food in front of them) tend not to work (as in, almost never). If we acknowledge that the self-destructive behavior is being committed in order to “turn off” negative emotion, we can begin to understand why shaming simply doesn’t work.
Distraction from or avoidance of the emotion doesn’t work. You may have heard people say things like, “You just need to find a hobby to distract you from doing (whatever your destructive behavior is)” Remember earlier when I said that virtually any behavior has the potential to become self-destructive? That’s because even if you give up smoking for say snacking, you’re only exchanging one self-destructive behavior for another potentially self-destructive behavior. Substituting doesn’t work because ultimately we’re still avoiding the emotion and that’s what got us here in the first place.
This is particularly dangerous because avoidance of our emotions accumulates over time. It’s not that the emotion ever goes away when we ignore it. In reality it builds much like steam in a pressure cooker. The more we ignore our emotions, the more steam we add to the pressure cooker, until one day we simply can’t hold it in and it explodes (think mid-life crisis, nervous breakdown, etc.). We have to learn healthy ways to feel and cope with our emotions without always needing to escape from them.
The following paragraphs will include some of these healthier ways to cope with our emotions.
Stay present with the emotion. Instead of ignoring or attempting to distract ourselves from our emotions, recognize them for what they are; be mindful of them. Name them, acknowledge them, and address them with curiosity. You may find that you’re feeling particularly anxious and ask yourself why you might be feeling that way. Oftentimes, our emotional responses are justified by something that is occurring in our lives (either internally or externally). It’s okay to feel sad, or angry, or frustrated, or anxious.
Acknowledging that you feel down doesn’t mean that you are in any way failing – quite the contrary, emotional experiences are a normal part of life! When we acknowledge our emotions and allow ourselves to feel without judgement, we can be empowered to move forward. Remember, the emotion is temporary and it will pass. The key is not to let these emotions impede our ability to continue living – we can coexist with our emotions, acknowledging that they are present (and uncomfortable), but that we will still persevere despite them.
Seek support and assistance from others. Finding a qualified mental health care professional can be invaluable. I want to make a point here that terms like “counselor” tend to be used rather loosely. If you’re seeking professional help, look for someone with the title of Certified Mental Health Counselor, Psychologist, or Psychiatrist to be sure you’re going to receive the best level of care from a trained and qualified professional.
Additionally, know that you may need to ‘try out’ a couple of different professionals before you find the right one. Finding the best mental health care professional for you is a bit like finding the right hairdresser (I think women may be able to relate to this example a bit better than men, but hopefully you will still get the idea). If you don’t find that you have a good connection with the first provider you meet, don’t get discouraged – simply make an appointment with someone else and try again (then repeat this until you find the right fit).
Ultimately, your ideal mental health professional will be someone who is able to provide help and support without judgement.
Practice self-compassion. Instead of beating ourselves up when we feel the need to behave self-destructively, it’s important to remind ourselves that we are doing the best we can in this moment. Practice positive self-talk like, “I know I can do this if I put my mind to it.” This is something that tends to be difficult for most people, so it may be helpful to think of what you would tell a friend in the same situation and then compassionately say those words to yourself.
When we experience negative emotions, it can also be helpful to practice self-soothing behaviors. Try listening to some calming music or taking a bubble bath or playing with a pet or going for a walk. When you find that it’s difficult to focus, taking a break to relax can be so much more productive than forcing ourselves to push through it – show yourself a little grace, you deserve it.
Find creative outlets to express emotion. Drawing, painting, dancing, playing an instrument, writing music or poetry, journaling, or any other practice that allows for creativity can be highly productive outlets for expressing our emotions.
In many ways, doing so allows us to explore our emotion with some curiosity and to face it, rather than ignore it. We don’t have to be ‘good’ at any of these art forms and it doesn’t have to be pretty (more than likely, it will result in something ugly and that’s okay). The point of this expression is that in some way, we are able let the emotion out – it’s a means of processing our feelings, and it can be very cathartic.
Learn to let go. Letting go of the past is so much easier said than done – I know. Forgiveness for ourselves and those who have hurt us can be incredibly freeing, however. You don’t even need to tell someone you’re forgiving them, you can simply have the intention and then commit to doing it. And, you can do the same in order to forgive yourself. You may even practice reciting a mantra such as, “I am worthy of compassion” to help you do this.
One activity which has been helpful for me in the past was writing a letter to someone who hurt me which said everything I wished I could say to them (all of the good, the bad, and the ugly). Afterwards, I buried the letter as a symbol of letting those things go; putting some sort of closure on the past and committing to moving forward.
You may have noticed that while I mentioned I have some self-destructive tendencies, I didn’t actually name them. I was extremely purposeful in writing this week’s post and I intentionally left this out because quite frankly, it’s not important.
Additionally, as I’ve mentioned in others posts, I don’t think it’s healthy for us to compare ourselves to others because it sets us up to think in terms of ‘better than’ or ‘worse than’ which is unproductive and damaging. One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to simply recognize ourselves for who we are as individuals and show some grace for the areas where we have room for growth.
Whether you read this post in an effort to find some help for yourself or for someone else, I hope you will walk away knowing that you are not alone. So many people struggle with self-destructive behaviors. Remember that our negative emotions will pass with time and that there are many healthy ways to practice coping.
If you have any questions or comments, I encourage you to post them below or to send me a private email.
All my best to you,
Babauta, L. (2014). A guide to changing self-destructive behaviors. Zen Habits. Retrieved November 30, 2018, from https://zenhabits.net/destruct/
Hathaway, K. (Ed.) (2016). Dealing with negativity. University of Minnesota. Retrieved November 30, 2018, from https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/enhance-your-wellbeing/health/thoughts-emotions/deal-negativity-healthy-way
Neuman, F. (2017). Why do some people do self-destructive things? Psychology Today. Retrieved November 21, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fighting-fear/201701/why-do-some-people-do-self-destructive-things
Rollin, J. (2018).What if you changed the way that you view self-destructive behaviors? The Eating Disorder Center. Retrieved November 21, 2018, from https://www.theeatingdisordercenter.com/blog/what-if-you-changed-the-way-that-you-viewed-self-destructive-behaviors
Wupperman, P. (2018). Beyond self-destructive behavior. Psychology Today. Retrieved November 21, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-self-destructive-behavior
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