What Does It Mean To Be Self-Destructive?

The human condition involves a lot of trial and error, learning hard lessons, and finding a way to manage in the greater universe.

Let's face it - life is HARD sometimes. Our struggles can lead us down a path to the other side. There are many ways we cope with the challenges we find. Our coping mechanisms - self-destructive or not - are successful as they see us through the moment, however, the self-destructive coping mechanisms may interfere with our lives.

One of the most difficult parts of managing self-destructive behavior is identifying these behaviors. No one likes to admit that they are not doing the right thing, what's best, or what's healthiest for them. However, if you stop and take stock of your life, a lot of patterns with negative outcomes are rooted in self-destructive behavior.

Self-destructive behavior is often associated with guilt, shame, and a need for self-punishment. The person experiences a real - or perceived - personal failure that motivates a need to justify feeling bad.

That said, how do we go about identifying these behaviors?

First it's important to understand the different types of and motivations behind self-destructive behavior.

Types Of Self-Destructive Behavior:

Self-destructive behavior may be the result of many different things. Very commonly it is used synonymously with the term "self-injury;" however, self-injury is more accurately a form of self-destructive behavior. Further, there are many other ways besides self-injury that a person may engage in self-destructive behavior.

Most self-destructive behavior can be categorized in to the following:

Conceptual Behavior: Conceptual self-destructive behavior includes metaphorical self-destructive behavior like deliberately sabotaging your image such that you become a social outcast or pushing people away until you are completely isolated. This behavior may become a justification, or self-validation, for why all your relationships fail, or why you will never be good enough. Essentially, you're creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Literal Behavior: This includes taking physical action to be self-destructive. Examples include substance abuse, alcohol use, self-injury, or other behaviors that cause physical harm or detriment.

Impulsive Behavior: Self-destructive behavior derived by impulses often have greater implications; often there is an underlying impulse disorder driving behavior, such as ADHD, OCD, and other impulse-related conditions. Self-destructive behavior stems from uncontrolled impulsive behavior in that the individual is unable or unwilling to take an objective look at the situation and respond appropriately, rather than acting in the moment with no thought, often fueled by very passionate emotion.

Habitual Behavior: Lastly, there is a category of self-destructive behavior born out of repeated and habitual action. Consistently engaging in the same behavior in response to a type of situation will result in your brain defaulting to that action when you are stressed. In fact, the more often you engage in habitual behaviors, the stronger the neural pathway in your brain becomes. While it is not impossible to create new pathways, it does take forethought and effort.

Okay, so there are categories of self-destructive behavior, but what does it mean?

First and foremost, it doesn't mean that you want to hurt yourself, that you are weak, or that you're a bad person.

On the contrary, self-destructive behaviors are actually born of a need for a coping mechanism. This can be due to an acute trauma, a recurring trauma, a painful event, or any situation in which you must just get through. Coping mechanisms are great for that, and often we don't have much choice in how or what we do to cope with a situation, as coping mechanisms are generally reactive rather than proactive.

This applies to self-destructive behavior as coping mechanisms are often about doing whatever it takes to survive the moment, consequences be damned. We take comfort where we can find it.

The self-destructive behavior may also fill a void or inadequacy in a person's ability to respond to a situation.

For example, for someone who wants to end a romantic relationship, knows it can be a very painful situation. However, if that person does not know how to end the relationship, or if ending the relationship leads to uncontrollable emotions, a self-destructive way of managing that situation would be to drive the other person away. The individual gets to cope by not having to experience the negative emotions when the other person walks away.

Models Of Self-Destructive Behavior:

Self-destructive behavior can be further described in three distinct models:

1) Primary Self-Destruction: This model includes deliberately engaging in actions that result in physical harm. The choice is made with a conscious understanding that it will result in physical harm.

A primary example of this behavior is self-injury.

Self-injury is a behavior in which an individual physically harms oneself by cutting, burning, hitting, or otherwise injuring the body. Self-injury is a very powerful coping mechanism as those who self-injure experience an endorphin rush after injury, which often leads to a pervasive feeling of calm. Self-injury is self-destructive because the person is unable to adequately process and experience emotions, and as a result, turn to injury to manage overwhelming stress.

Read more about self-injury.

The ultimate example of Primary Self-Destruction is suicide. For some, the intensity of the stress and emotions become too much for that person to handle, and he or she decides to take his or her own life in order to stop the pain.

Read more about suicide.

2) Trade-Off Model: The Trade-Off Model demonstrates a person engaging in a behavior that causes harm, in order to obtain a real or perceived benefit. For example, someone who engages in substance abuse is using the Trade-Off Model.

In this case, the individual recognizes that the drug is harmful; however, he or she is willing to take the risk in order to receive the perceived benefit of altering his or her feelings.

For those who do not know how to cope with stress and become overwhelmed by it, many turn to substance abuse. This is largely due to the numbing effect some drugs have, or the euphoric feeling that other drugs induce. It is purely a way to escape the moment. However, it does not solve the issue at hand, or prevent you from feeling the emotions in the future.

Read more about substance abuse.

Another example of the Trade-Off Model is a person who intentionally makes a decision that will, or will likely, result in harm. This can be for the purpose of later failure and the ability to blame the failure on previous bad decisions.

Eating Disorders are another typical example of the Trade-Off Model. Specifically, eating disorders are a way to control unbearable emotion or pain through intense control over the body. Often those who have an eating disorder understand that it's harmful to the body, but feel it is worth the risk to have that control. Eating disorders not only take a psychological toll on the person, but the body is also physically harmed by not receiving enough nutrition to support itself, loss of bone, acid-erosion, and internal organ failure. Eating disorders are destructive enough to kill someone.

Read more about eating disorders.

Counterproductive Strategies: The final model of self-destructive behavior can be described by a Counterproductive Strategy.

In this case, a decision is made without the forethought or insight of potential harm. However, through decisions made along the way, the individual suffers harm. It is typical for this to be the result of poor self-esteem, negative self-appraisal, depression, and low personal insight.

For example, a lot of self-destructive behaviors stem from a lack of self-confidence. A person may feel awkward or incapable of responding appropriately in a situation, and as such, that person's confidence diminishes. As his or her confidence diminishes, the person is placed in to an emotional position that may lead to an inability to cope.

The inability to cope is what leads to self-destructive behaviors because the individual likely believes that he or she is the problem, and internalize those feelings. In this situation, an individual may sabotage him - or herself because he or she does not believe that he or she is capable. By creating a dynamic in which failure is imminent, it "proves" the negative misperception of worthiness.

Examples Of Self-Destructive Behavior:

Now that we understand the models of self-destructive behavior, the following is a primary list of examples of self-destructive behavior:

  • Avoiding responsibility
  • Over-sensitivity to criticism or feelings
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Addictive behavior
  • Pervasive pessimism
  • Excessive self-sacrifice
  • Abusive relationships
  • Letting yourself be taken advantage of
  • Codependency
  • Enabling others
  • Ignoring your health
  • Setting yourself up for failure
  • Substance abuse
  • Reckless or dangerous behavior

Common Misperceptions About Self-Destructive Behaviors:

When push comes to shove, most people can probably list a few things that fall in to the category of self-destructive behavior. Here though is the place to break down some of the misperceptions about self-destructive behavior.

Myth: He or she is just asking for attention.

Truth: This may or may not be true in that in some situations the person knows that his or her actions will result in harm. However, there is most likely secondary issues at play. Self-destructive behaviors may be a cry for help or the symptom of a bigger issue.

Myth: If I ask questions, I'll push someone to continue harming him- or herself.

Truth: Often self-destructive behaviors are extremely isolating. Because of the lack of self-confidence and negative self-image associated with self-destructive behaviors, it is often a very silent condition. Asking questions is often a great first step.

Myth: He or she will never change.

Truth: This is probably the most heart-breaking reality of self-destructive behaviors. Change is absolutely possible. That said, it's also extremely difficult. In most cases, it is a known coping mechanism and easy for a person to default to. Further, unless he or she wants to change, there is little you can do to help him or her until he or she is ready. The most important thing is to make sure that your loved one knows you are there to support him or her when he or she is ready.

Myth: Every time I try to help, he or she does the same thing. Why bother!?

Truth: Self-destructive behaviors are extremely frustrating. It is much easier for you as an outsider to see what might be an obvious choice. However, when you are in the thick of it, it can be very difficult to see how your choices impact your situation. Be loving and patient until your loved one is able to gain new perspective.

Myth: Why does he or she do this? Why doesn't he or she just stop?

Truth: There are many reasons why a person may engage in a self-destructive behavior. It may be the result of trauma or abuse, a means to cope with an overwhelming situation, or an unfortunate perception of deserved punishment.

It's important to realize that self-destructive behaviors are not always black and white, and it is usually not a matter of "just stopping." Addictive personalities, personal situation, access to resources, familial obligations are just a few of the other contributing factors as to why a person would continue to engage in self-destructive behaviors.

Myth: He or she obviously likes pain.

Truth: Actually no. Pain is, well, pain. It hurts. It's a desperate means of surviving an even more painful event. No one should have to be in pain.

What To Do If You Are Self-Destructive:

If you have found this page because you are engaging in self-destructive behaviors, there are some things that you can do or consider that may help you on your journey.

You are worth loving! This is so so so important. Often we engage in self-destructive behaviors out of a belief that we deserve it in some way. This couldn't be further from the truth. Whether a particular situation is your fault or not, you are still a person worth loving and who deserves to not be in pain.

Self-destructive behaviors are not one-off. Generally self-destructive behaviors occur in a pattern or cycle of events. Take stock of the situation. What led to the self-destructive behavior? What led to that? How did you first learn of this behavior? Why does this behavior help you? What are some alternative solutions to the situation?

Find somewhere for the baggage. This is a general item. For some, turning to a higher power is effective. For others, therapy is effective. And for still others activity is effective. Wherever you decide to vent, find a safe space to put your thoughts and feelings without judgment.

Work on stress management. A key to effectively managing stress involves regular sleep, a healthy diet, and plenty of exercise. Try to reduce caffeine intake and avoid drugs, alcohol, or smoking. Keeping your body sharp goes a long way to improving your mood. When your mood and body are in good shape, it is easier to manage stress.

Mentally rehearse. If you find yourself in a frequently-occurring situation, take some time to mentally rehearse alternative endings. What are other things you can say? What are other things you can do? Ultimately you know what will happen if you continue making the same choices, and they lead to harm and unhappiness. Mentally rehearsing alternative will make it easier for you to utilize them in the moment.

Build your confidence. Because low self-esteem is a core component of self-destructive behavior, it is important to boost your self-image. There are many ways to build confidence. Take up a hobby that you excel at. Keep a journal and record difficult situations. Use the journal to review and mentally rehearse, and then keep track of your progress. Find something to be proud of. Confidence and self-esteem will improve your general well-being as well as increase your ability to cope with stress.

Be patient with yourself. This stuff is HARD yo. It take a lot a lot a lot of practice. Recognize and validate your steps, however small they may be.

What To Do If Your Loved One Is Self-Destructive:

Nothing is more frustrating than watching someone on a spiral of self-destruction. We've all seen it at one point or another, whether it's skipping class or work, drinking too much, hanging out with the wrong crowd. What can you do to help your loved one when he or she is engaging in self-destructive behavior?

Love him or her unconditionally. Love isn't always easy, but your loved one needs to know that you are there for him or her no matter what. When he or she is ready, you need to be there.

Voice your concern. This comes with a grain of salt. There's a difference between voicing your concern and berating them. Instead of "why do you keep making these stupid decisions!?" consider saying "I've noticed that you've missed a lot of days of work this month. Is everything okay?" In this way, you've voiced the concern about the behavior without being judgmental. Asking if he or she is okay expresses your care and concern. In this way, you can objectively point out your observations without fueling the flame.

Disassemble the pattern. Because most self-destructive behavior is part of, or the symptom of a pattern, help your loved one take it apart, bit-by-bit. By examining all angles, your loved one may be able to realize a new perspective. Help him or her practice the situation - what to say or do, so that he or she can change the pattern. What triggers the pattern or cycle? What is the outcome? What is the desired outcome? How can you make that happen?

Be a resource. We all aren't expected to be experts when it comes to this, and it's perfectly okay to feel like it is bigger than you can help with. What you can do is to look up therapists, information, and resources for your loved one to pursue. Offer a ride or to make the first call with your loved one.

Know your limits. You certainly don't want to get sucked in to the cycle, and as such it is important to recognize your limitations, and to step away if needed. This doesn't mean you're abandoning your loved one, rather it means that you will become a resource for that person rather than the direct solution. It is also important to not burn out. This can be heavy stuff and you won't be able to help your loved one if you can't take care of yourself.

What NOT To Do For Someone Who Is Self-Destructive:

While there are many ways to help someone or yourself in regards to self-destructive behaviors, there are also things to avoid that are harmful.

Don't be a dick - Seriously, we all go through some serious shit and sometimes we just need someone to be there.

Don't be judgmental - we all experience things differently and everyone has a right to his or her own feelings.

Don't blame us - trust me, we already feel badly enough about our actions - we don't need your reassurance that it's our fault.

Don't pull the rug out - even if you aren't able to help, find a way to extract yourself from the situation in a way that your loved one feels supported, rather than abandoned.

Stay calm - don't give in to high emotions. Be a steady support.

Your pain is not his or her pain - Even if you have experienced a similar event, your experience will not be identical to someone else's experience. While sharing your story could be helpful in illustrating how you overcame the situation, make sure that it's not all about you.

Don't tell him or her how he or she should feel.

Don't say "if I can do it, anyone can." - this is incredibly invalidating

Don't be afraid to ask for help.

How To Manage Self-Destructive Impulses:

The other element to self-destructive behavior is how impulsive behavior plays in to destructive behavior. Impulses refer to an uncontrollable urge to engage in a behavior. Often impulsive behaviors are made with little to no regard for the outcome of the situation. With little to no forethought, it is easy to make decisions that result in harm because you did not think through your behavior before acting upon the impulse.

It can be hard to slow down impulsive thinking and it is possible to do so. Practice is key. As referred to above, mentally rehearsing situations you find yourself in frequently may help prime your brain to engage in alternative decision-making. Find ways to insert time in to your response - count to three before answering, take a deep breath, whatever helps you regain control.

For specific impulse-disorders such as ADHD or OCD, therapy and medication treatment can help tame the impulses enough that you are able to slow your thinking down.

Finally, having clear guidelines and planned coping strategies is vital. While it may seem silly to practice these skills when you are not upset, practice will allow you to make a different decision or use a coping skill more automatically, rather than relying on your previously established coping mechanism.

Related Resource Pages On Band Back Together:

Substance abuse

Addiction

Self-injury

Shame

Guilt

Feelings

Impulse disorders

Self-esteem