Self-Defeating Behaviours: What are they and how can we minimise them?

Counterproductive and destructive behaviours – some are easy to identify – others are not. For example: getting a tattoo or piercing? Self-defeating or not?

In fact, it could be either.

Anxiety & Stress Visualization

First, ‘self-defeating behaviour’ is defined as: ‘Any behaviour that stands in the way of us reaching our potential in a healthy and constructive manner.’

We are, in effect, dealing with a conscious/sub-conscious conflict. Most of us will struggle with self-defeating behaviour at some point in our lives, and it is something that comes up a lot in regular counselling sessions with clients.

To understand better what self-defeating behaviour looks like, I think it’s best to have a look at a ‘real-world’ example:

Real Life Self-Defeating Behaviour

Sarah has been married 8 years but believes her husband is avoiding her – therefore he must be having an affair.

She uses hostility, driving her husband to stay at work longer or to go out more, thereby causing her to show greater hostility to him as he pushes away.

On exploration, there is no evidence for this affair, except that the sub-conscious has solid evidence based on a past learned experience.

The husband became more hostile, sometimes physically, and had an affair: the self-defeating behaviour creating the outcome she feared.

Where did this come from?

The previous partner had affairs, as did her father.

So, how are self-defeating behaviours born?

We learn certain behaviours from experiencing certain things throughout our lives. But what we forget is that if you always do the same thing, you’ll get the same results. As in the example above, Sarah learned to be suspicious of her partner from past experiences, but in being suspicious she created the very problem she was afraid of.

We may also learn self defeating behaviours from family, friends and so on. Ultimately we maybe find it hard to change certain behaviours, because they may feel natural or they may offer some kind of reward such as tension reduction. For instance, tattoos or other drastic changes to the body might temporarily relieve anxiety or self-esteem issues. If this is the case, the issues need to be addressed first rather than using the behaviour as a coping strategy.

Minimising self-defeating behaviour

What strategies can we employ to minimise our self-defeating behaviours?

Notice when you are lying to yourself

Most smokers, for example, know that smoking is bad for them… so why don’t they quit?

At some point a person started smoking, perhaps young enough to think they would quit before getting ill. Perhaps family members smoke or smoked, normalising the behaviour. Or maybe they just thought it looked cool.

Whatever the reason for starting smoking, eventually the connection was established between smoking and tension reduction, due to satisfy nicotine cravings, and thus the sub-conscious uses smoking to reduce all tension.

But this need to reduce tension associated with the cigarette is only nicotine related, and doesn’t actually reduce all tension – the individual need sot understand the difference, so that they can be true to themselves, and have a better chance of quitting.

Don’t be afraid of change

We often fear all the things that may happen if we try to change these behaviours: we run the risk of failure… or success! (I.e. when you get to the top of the hill there’s only one way down, so what’s the point of trying to succeed?) We need to be aware of the things that hold us back, the fears and doubts in our minds, and remember that these are our limitations, and we are more than them. If we are ruled by our fears we will continue to behave the same way and get the same results.

Don’t play the victim

Despite our efforts to minimise self-defeating behaviours, many of us still self-perpetuate them by playing the victim and blaming other people, things or reasons for our behaviour. We still know it’s wrong, but when given the opportunity to act as the victim – feeling like “I have no choice” – we’ll take it as it means less pressure on ourselves. This, again comes back to lying to ourselves, where we know the external factor is not to blame, or entirely to blame, and yet we accept this as the conclusion.

To change behaviour, and improve ourselves effectively, we have to accept responsibility for our actions and the way we behave if we wish to get better – and see positive change!

More than anything though, we have to want to stick with the change, otherwise it just won’t stick. So, know your goals, note your weaknesses and what you want to change, and be consistent in the process. Stick at it, and work to make changes for life!

Find this article useful? Share it on social media! We’d also love to hear what you thought so tweet us or get in touch. For more about counselling check out our counselling page if there are some self-defeating behaviours you think it would be best to talk through with myself or one of our other friendly counsellors.

– Steven Lucas

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