Self Destructive Behavior

My Father who raised my brother and I was a heavy smoker and due to his smoking, he was rushed into hospital and needed an operation to remove one of his lungs.  He recovered from his operation determined to stop smoking but before long he was smoking again despite all the warnings! Unfortunately, he passed away about 16 years ago and of course,I still miss him.   Why do we continue to over-eat, smoke, drink excessively, shop compulsively and engage in a variety of other activities that are detrimental to our health and well-being?

Self-destructive behaviour typically starts with a negative belief about yourself. You aren’t happy with the way you look. You don’t think you’re intelligent enough. You don’t feel worthy of love and so on.

These beliefs are often formed during childhood and can be indirectly communicated to us by parents, peers and society. We internalise these messages which begin to affect all of the decisions we make about ourselves and the world around us. We may not be aware of it, we unconsciously seek to punish ourselves for our perceived inadequacies.

Self-destructive behaviour can provide temporary relief from uncomfortable emotions. At first, this does not seem to make sense – Why would you hurting yourself make you feel better?   Take, for example, a woman who was bullied at school. She learned to dislike herself and developed social anxiety and as a way of coping and avoiding certain feelings, she begins smoking. Smoking significantly numbs her, reducing her anxiety and enabling her to deal with daily stressors. Though the cigarettes are damaging to her health, the immediate relief she receives is enough to outweigh any potential long-term negative consequences. Once she has created the habit, smoking becomes not just a way of dealing with anxiety but also a way to celebrate success! All of this can mask the original reason for starting.

What can I do?

Knowing where to begin seems to be the most difficult part – do you change the behaviours first and see what emotions come up or do you explore the root cause of the self-destructive behaviour now and worry about changing the patterns later? Well, the answer is both.  You must address the belief and behaviour simultaneously to affect lasting change.

Though it may be unpleasant, I encourage you to open yourself up. This is more easily done when you apply the principle of “no blame, no praise.” Do not attach positive or negative value to what you discover. Simply allow it to reveal itself to you.

Look back at when the self-destructive behaviours began. See what thoughts and feelings emerge. What was happening at the time? What decisions did you make? Discovering what was there in the past will give you greater ability to make healthier choices in the present.

In childhood, we have a limited way of dealing with negative experiences and emotions. We all did the best we could with the information and resources available to us at the time. As an adult, you now possess greater insight, knowledge and skills. You have the power to choose healthier ways of coping.

One way to change behaviours you don’t like is to find the positive intention behind the behaviour. Assume there was a good reason why the particular behaviour developed. Maybe it helped you avoid feeling anxious. Maybe it allowed you to ignore something you didn’t want to deal with. Maybe it provided you with a sense of power.  After you identify the positive intention behind the behaviour, take a few minutes to brainstorm new, current ways to accomplish the same intention. Make a list of 3-5 things that you can do now, instead of the old behaviour, and pick the one that feels right to you.

You can do this with a therapist or a friend you trust and respect.  The next time you feel yourself slipping into a pattern of self-destructive behaviour, stop! You can consciously choose a new way of being in the world.

What decisions will you make today?

David Lloyd

Psychotherapist

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Impacts of childhood abuse

As a father of 5, I like all parents think I can protect my children from the predators that are out there but the painful truth is that is not always possible.  The problem is that most abusers are people we would not expect and, in many cases, they do not understand that what they are doing is abuse. The problem is that the serial abuser is extremely good at hiding what they do. The typical stages of grooming are:

  1. Targeting the child
  2. Gaining trust
  3. Filling the need
  4. Isolating the child
  5. Sexualising the relationship
  6. Transfer of responsibility

The above list is calculating, very frightening to us as parents and for the victims, the impacts are long-lasting.   In my work as a Psychotherapist, I have worked with many of my clients who have and are living every day with the impact of childhood abuse.

How can the abuser do that?

This is a question I ask myself every time I hear about childhood abuse on the news or from my clients.  Studies have shown that abusive people find it easier to act on their desires if they have convinced themselves that what they want to do is OK.  They may tell themselves that they are more important than the children they abuse, that the abuse isn’t harmful, that they deserve or are entitled to it, that part of being a man/woman is being sexually dominant, or that the child consented.  Some abusive individuals may have psychological difficulties that contribute, such as problems controlling their emotions, a preoccupation with sex, or impaired abilities to feel for other people or understand social rules. They can also be victims of abuse themselves.  The truth is, it is difficult to understand and justify why this happens but unfortunately the reality is – it does.

What can we do?

Some types of abuse may be prevented by educating ourselves and our children. We need to teach them things like appropriate vs. inappropriate behaviour and how to say no when someone is asking them to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Children more frequently come across an older child or adult (who they most likely already know) that is trying to entice them into an abusive situation, rather than an obviously scary stranger who they know immediately they should avoid. I have not lost sight of the fact that on some occasions the parents may be the abusers, which is when we need the people around the family to raise the alarm.

We should also set rules and boundaries in place when it comes to playdates, sleepovers, parties, babysitting—basically in any situation where your child may be exposed to others, while not constantly in your presence. Also, it is recommended that we never force affection. Children must always be able to choose how they wish to show their affection to others. Make sure to listen closely and validate their concerns. Strive to make them feel that they are in a safe environment and can trust you. This way if an approach or actual abuse does occur, they will feel comfortable coming to you for help. There are many good articles on the internet about prevention. Yes, it is a shame that we as parents have to think about these things, but unfortunately, we do.

What is the impact?

Those suffering from abuse are 25 times more likely to fail at school. Childhood sexual abuse has been correlated with higher levels of depression, guilt, shame, self-blame, eating disorders, somatic concerns, anxiety, dissociative patterns, repression, denial, sexual and relationship problems.

Survivors often experience guilt, shame, and self-blame. It has been shown that survivors frequently take personal responsibility for the abuse. When the sexual abuse is done by an esteemed trusted adult it may be hard for the child to view the perpetrator in a negative light, thus leaving them incapable of seeing what happened as not their fault. This is something that is cultivated by the abuser, as you will see in the grooming stages as the final stage ‘Transfer of reasonability’

Research is starting to show abuse on teenagers results in harmful, physical changes to teens’ brains. Children who had been emotionally or physically abused had less grey matter in their brains than children who were not victims of abuse

The affected area of the brain involves attention, decision-making, emotional and impulse control. Teens who are victims of child abuse experience mental health issues and may be at a greater risk of addiction, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Adult survivors often live with memories for a long time. Some survivors keep the abuse a secret for many years. They may have tried to tell an adult and were met with resistance or felt there was no one they could trust. For these reasons and many others, the effects of sexual abuse can occur many years after the abuse has ended. Remember that there is no set timeline for dealing with and recovering from this experience.

How can someone start to heal?

Survivors are often troubled by how long and difficult the healing process is. In my experience, the healing process never really stops but it can and does make a huge difference if confronted.  It is important that victims stop being victims and recognize that they are a survivor, that they have managed to make It through what most of us could not imagine and they no longer have to be ruled by the programming of their past.

There is no linier healing process! More than likely, there might be a need to do the same stages again and again. Survivors might spend a number of years dealing with their abuse and feel they are able to cope and can focus on having a “normal” life.  Then a change in their life can reignite unresolved memories and feelings which leads to a focus on healing again.  Each person’s healing is unique, for some, certain stages will be more prominent and require more time and attention than others.

I have abbreviated the potential stages of healing below, however, as I have already stated, these can vary and be in different orders:

  1. The emergency stage: Beginning to deal with memories that have been long-suppressed
  2. Remembering: Many survivors suppress some or all memory of what was done to them. Remembering is the process of getting back both memory and feeling, and understanding the impact abuse has had on their life.
  3. Believing it happened: Survivors often doubt their own memories. Accepting that the abuse happened is a very important part of the healing process.
  4. Breaking silence: Most survivors kept the abuse a secret. Telling a safe person is a powerful healing force that can dispel the shame that often accompanies victimization.
  5. Understanding that it wasn’t your fault.   Adult survivors must learn to place the blame where it belongs—directly on the shoulders of the abusers.
  6. The child within: Many survivors have lost touch with their own innocence and vulnerability. Getting in touch with the child you once were can help you develop compassion for yourself.
  7. Grieving: Most survivors haven’t acknowledged or grieved for their losses. Grieving is an important part of letting go and helping to move forward
  8. Anger: Anger is one of the stages of grief and can give the required energy needed to move through grief, pain, and despair. Directing anger at the abuser and at those who didn’t protect them is part of the healing process.
  9. Disclosures: This is not for everyone, but if appropriate can be empowering and transformative.  Talking about the abuse and its effects with the abuser or with family members can help to let go of pain and fear.
  10. Forgiveness: Those who know me know I’m a big fan of William Paul Young who is the author of ‘The Shack’. Paul himself is a child sex abuse survivor and I would recommend you take a listen to his talks on YouTube.  Paul talks about the difference between, Forgiveness and reconciliation. He talks about forgiveness as forgiving yourself and letting go of limiting emotions you feel towards your abuser. He also goes on to discuss Reconciliation as reconnecting with that abuser and rebuilding trust. I believe this is a good and important definition of forgiveness. The reconciliation part, however, is another thing altogether.
  11. Spirituality: Having the support of a spiritual connection can be a real asset in the healing process. Spirituality is a uniquely personal experience which might be through religion, meditation or nature. The important thing is that it has to make sense to you.
  12. Resolution and moving on: Having done the work and created psychological tools that can help rebuild inner strength and self-esteem it is possible to face the world more trusting and less fearful.

There is always help if you are affected by anything I have written, as they say, “it’s good to talk”

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