Self-defeating Behaviour, Is It Ruining Your Life?

 Many people develop self-defeating behaviours within their personal and working lives or their relationships with others. If you have a self-defeating behaviour, you are not alone! 

Self-defeating behaviour can happen at any point in a person’s life and more than one self-defeating behaviours can run coherently.

Self-defeating behaviour is behaviour which is either unwittingly or deliberately self-sabotaging. An example of this would be an unproductive behaviour such as pursuing an unrealistic career goal or an unrequited love. Some people would persist in this behaviour because they genuinely believe that they would eventually hit upon a good outcome, not because they are intent on self-defeat.

Self-defeating thoughts such as; “I have never been able to do that…I’m just no good at it.” or “It’s just too much like hard work, I won’t bother!” or  "I’ve already made too many mistakes — I’m too old to change.” are common in people with self-defeating behaviours. 

There are lots of different forms of self-defeating behaviours: 

The “all or nothing” thinker will develop behaviours based on their belief that if they don’t do something completely and entirely then they have failed and there’s no point in doing it any longer. 

This kind of pattern is common in people with weight issues. After mistakenly eating something off plan for example, the automatic thought is often one of total defeat; “Oh well, I’ve blown my diet entirely, I may as well finish off the cakes.”  The client feels like a failure, but this is linked to low self-esteem and quite often, pre-existing beliefs about themselves or learnt behaviour that they ‘fail’ in general. 

This self-defeating thought forms a pattern, and then a new maladaptive behaviour is learnt.  In this instance that the client is unable to diet because they always fail. 

The subconscious is well meaning, and it does everything it can to protect the person, but this is at any cost, and the trade-off is sometimes that the individual ends up in a worse situation than they started off in.

Sometimes the subconscious is working from out of date or incorrect information, and various kinds of therapy can help to start to alter these ideas and behaviours.

Beaumeister and Scher (1988) distinguished three models of self-defeating behaviour. These were based upon how intentional the behaviour was. 

The first model; ‘Primary self-destruction’ is when people deliberately seek to harm themselves. Examples of this type of behaviour are masochism and self-harming.

The second model is classified as ‘Trade-off’. This is when the person knowingly makes a trade-off in a situation. An example of this is when a person smokes; they know the relative risks involved, but they make the decision to trade off the risks against the (perceived) pleasure they get from smoking. 

“In the trade-off, people will deliberately choose to do something that they know will harm them, so that if they fail later they are able to blame their failure on the bad choice they previously made.”  

The third model of self-defeating behaviour is “counterproductive strategies.” This is where the person intends on doing something to help their situation, but unintentionally creates an even worse situation. Of course, no one can ever really know if a strategy will eventually pay off, so in  order for it to be classified as a self-defeating behaviour, it has to have become habitual; something that the person does repeatedly despite getting the same negative outcome. 

Some self-defeating behaviours are easy to recognise. Misuse of potentially damaging substances such as drugs, food, alcohol etc. are easy to spot, because the person partakes of these things as a way of comforting themselves or to escape.

Sometimes emotional behaviours that are self-defeating are harder to spot. For example, a person may have extreme perfectionist tendencies, but this may not be apparent on the first few sessions. It is the job of your therapist to take on the role of detective in order to find out the issues/self-defeating behaviours that you may have. 

Other emotional self-defeating behaviours could be over confidence, under confidence, being incredibly defensive, aggressive or hostile. Perhaps the person has extreme shyness or an overly suspicious nature. Some people will use avoidance to extreme levels and this can gradually turn in to agoraphobia or severe social anxiety.

So when it comes to treating self-defeating behaviour, what kind of therapy techniques can be used? 

Self-defeating behaviours can be treated with Hypnotherapy, Counselling or Psychotherapy. Sometimes identifying the behaviour is enough to enable you to change it. Other times, identifying it and then using a method such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) where the therapist will guide you through various behavioural changes in order to deal with situations in a more positive manner. 

The first important thing to remember is, always seek out a qualified and accredited therapist when dealing with any kind of issue in your life. Websites such as this one are a great place to start in order to find a therapist that is right for you.

The second thing to remember is to shop around! Talk to the therapist on the telephone and make sure that you are comfortable with them when you call. A good working relationship is essential if you embark on any therapy.

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