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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