At some point in your life, you've probably done something that could be classified as "self-destructive." The reality is, whether they want to admit it or not, most people have engaged in behaviors that aren't good for them. The real problem is when it becomes a habit or an unhealthy pattern develops.
What is self-destructive behavior?
Self-destructive behavior is a pattern of actions that could hinder a person's physical and emotional well-being or their ability to achieve important goals. And sometimes, these behaviors are not just a hindrance but outright harmful, according to therapist Ibinye Osibodu-Onyali, LMFT. They can be physical acts—like drunken driving or self-harm—but they can also be emotional.
"Physically self-destructive behaviors can be anything that creates harmful or unsafe physical circumstances," trauma and relationship counselor Katie Lorz, LMHC, tells mbg. Those might include anything from substance abuse to self-harm, as well as more subtle acts like mindless social media scrolling or willfully ignoring your body's need for movement, hydration, or nutrition.
"Often, they are also ways for a person to 'check out' when life gets too stressful or if there aren't supports, knowledge, or a pattern of handling stress, uncertainty, and difficult relationships well," she adds.
Emotionally self-destructive behaviors involve making yourself feel bad, typically by putting yourself down, denying your own needs, or putting yourself into situations where you're likely to get hurt by others.
Clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., notes that most—if not all—people engage in some sort of minor self-destructive behavior at times. "When we are consciously aware of self-destructive behaviors that are minor and infrequent, they tend not to have serious consequences," she explains. "However, chronic self-destructive behaviors tend to interfere with daily life and can have serious long-term consequences on mental health, physical health, and overall well-being."
Examples of self-destructive behaviors.
There are plenty of variations of self-destructive behaviors, from obvious to subtle. Here are some examples, according to our experts:
- Drinking too much
- Drunk driving
- Putting yourself in risky or dangerous situations
- Ignoring bodily needs for movement, nutrition, hydration, etc.
- Pulling continuous all-nighters or otherwise denying yourself adequate sleep
- Mindless or endless social media scrolling
- Watching too much TV
- Engaging in risky sexual behavior
- Cycling through toxic relationships
- Cheating when you're in a happy relationship
- Hurting people you love
- Denying your own needs or wants
- Taking on more than you can possibly handle
- Excessive spending or spending money you don't have
- Endless ruminating or dwelling on past mistakes
- Negative self-talk
- Impulsive decision-making
- Isolating yourself from your community and loved ones
- Putting yourself in situations that are traumatizing or re-traumatizing
- Ignoring mental health symptoms like anxiety or stress
What causes self-destructive behavior?
The root causes of self-destructive behavior can vary from person to person, according to licensed drug and alcohol counselor Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho, LSW, LCADC, CCS, CCTP. Some of the most common causes include a lack of positive coping skills, unresolved issues from childhood or adolescence, and poor mental health.
Lorz describes self-destructive behaviors as being the product of either misguided attempts at self-protection or moments of dissociation. They're often shaped by beliefs you have about yourself, what you deserve, and how you have taken in the messages of the world and those around you, she says, making them essentially a response to personal circumstances that have had a traumatic impact on you. They may have even worked (or you believed that they have worked) in the past to protect you from feeling stressed, overwhelmed, hurt, exhausted, scared, or in danger, she adds, but ultimately these coping mechanisms are now causing more harm than protection.
Osibodu-Onyali adds that when people have experienced multiple negative events or even traumas, it changes the way they view themselves, others, and the world. "They begin to expect bad things to happen, and when good things come their way, they introduce self-destructive behaviors so that things return to the negative pattern they are used to. It's not that they enjoy negativity; it's just that it's familiar," she says.
Additionally, self-destructive behaviors can be symptoms of many mental health issues, according to Manly. For example, a person who is suffering from depression may engage in self-protective behaviors, like not going to work due to a lack of energy or to avoid stress, that are ultimately self-destructive. Those who suffer from substance use disorders may resort to self-destructive behaviors, including stealing to maintain the addiction or driving while under the influence, with little or no ability to genuinely appreciate the long-term impact; the cumulative effects of these behaviors are often tragic.
"A variety of mental health disorders such as BPD often leave the sufferer stuck in a cycle of self-destructive behaviors that leave the individual feeling angry, isolated, and misunderstood," she adds.
How to stop self-destructive behavior in yourself:
Understand the behavior and why it's harmful.
The key to preventing self-destructive behavior is to understand it, Osibodu-Onyali says. She recommends starting by getting clear on how the behaviors are harmful to yourself, and then from there, "begin to unpack how one's thought patterns, history, or traumas have led to the consistent pattern. Behaviors are self-destructive when the pattern is consistent."
Track the behavior.
It's often helpful to nonjudgmentally track the issue. When we notice what triggers the self-destructive behaviors, we become more aware. Through increased awareness, we often stimulate change just by noticing, avoiding, or mindfully "leaning into" the situation.
"Write down these activities and see how much you are doing them day to day," Lorz recommends. "When you are doing them, are you avoiding other things? Avoidance and distraction are ways of coping that can be healthy, but when done too much, are ultimately self-destruction. What do you do to avoid and distract from stressful, difficult, or unpleasant things?"
A great example here: Let's say whenever you sit down at your computer to work, you *have* to have a snack to munch on. Lorz says it's likely you're not hungry but stressed or anxious about the emails in your inbox. By tracking your behavior, you may realize that whenever you are anxious, stressed, or bored, you get something to eat.
"Mindless eating can be self-destructive. Planning out your snacks for the day or making a list of other ways to de-stress or reward yourself for difficult or stressful tasks can help turn a self-destructive behavior into a mindful activity (which becomes self-protective and empowering) and add stress reduction coping skills to your toolbox," she says.
Address the root cause.
Kotkin-De Carvalho says understanding the underlying factors contributing to your self-destructive behavior is crucial for breaking its destructive cycle.
"For instance, if you have poor coping skills, then working on strengthening your ability to manage negative emotions and stress is an important step," she says. On the other hand, if mental health issues or unresolved issues from your childhood are at the root of your self-destructive behavior, she recommends seeking out a qualified mental health professional to help you address those issues.
Similarly, journaling about minor self-destructive behaviors can often be highly illuminating, according to Manly. The key to this type of journaling is to allow your mind to free-associate without judgment, she adds. When you let your mind flow without fear of criticism, the psyche often begins to "work things out" behind the scenes.
Delay acting on impulse.
As an immediate stopgap, halt self-destructive behavior by simply delaying action. When you're in the moment about to engage in an action you have identified in the past as self-destructive, wait a few minutes before doing anything. Sometimes just giving yourself a pause to let the impulse—and the turbulent emotions behind it—pass through you and then quiet down is all you need to no longer feel the need to move forward with the action.
Develop other, healthier coping mechanisms.
Be proactive about learning and practicing coping skills and habits that stop self-destructive behaviors before they start, Lorz says.
"Having a variety of coping skills and habits that support mental health and well-being, and create outlets for stress reduction, can help your mind and body to build resilience and empowerment for healthy ways of coping and handling stress and uncertainty," she notes.
"Developing psychological resilience, or the ability to adapt and bounce back from adversity, can also be very helpful in overcoming self-destructive behavior," Carvalho adds.
Get an accountability buddy.
This is a great way to get external support when your inner critic or inner protector is telling you that your self-destructive behavior is the only thing that's going to make you feel better, says Lorz. This is one reason that fitness buddies, Alcoholics Anonymous, and coaching or psychotherapy can be very successful in helping you grow and change self-destructive behavior.
While this may feel scary, it's also one of the best ways to get perspective. This action alone can help you feel less hopeless, less alone, and more capable of achieving your goals. It creates a bridge of connection that is empowering and healing.
Lorz says it may be as simple as saying to a friend: "Hey, I've got to work tomorrow. Can you remind me of that when I go to order a second or third drink tonight? I want to be ready and alert for my presentation in the morning."
How to handle self-destructive behavior in others.
If you realize someone around you is exhibiting self-destructive behaviors, Manly stresses the importance of approaching the situation in a detached way. This helps you to avoid getting overwhelmed or getting drawn into any negative cycles.
To start, she recommends taking the time to assess your own needs before confronting your loved one. Ask yourself what you need to feel safe and respected in this situation. Once you've mentally prepared yourself and defined your boundaries to yourself, you can bring up the self-destructive behaviors or patterns you've noticed.
When doing so, Manly notes taking a gentle approach is best. "Avoid criticizing the person or allowing yourself to get pulled into an argument," she says.
Regulating your own emotions is essential here, she adds. You definitely don't want to be locked in a battle of words or even a physical battle with this person. While you're speaking up because you care, it's important to also explain your boundaries and what you are and aren't willing to tolerate while offering your support.
If changes aren't being made, it may become necessary to lovingly detach from the situation, says Manly, and to recognize that you can't fix another person's issues for them, especially if they're unwilling to help themselves.
And remember: Sometimes support simply looks like encouraging someone to seek out support from a mental health professional who is best equipped to do this work.
When to see a professional.
Using the above methods to stop self-destructive behavior on your own can be effective, but there may come a point where you feel like you need more help. Hunter says that if you find that no matter how hard you try, you still seem to be making life harder for yourself, it might be time to seek out help.
Additionally, if you are at risk of serious harm, are finding yourself increasingly isolated due to losing friends or loved ones, and/or can't seem to keep a job, it is definitely time to seek out the help of a mental health professional.
How do you fix self-destructive behavior?
If you’re dealing with self-destructive behaviors yourself, there are several things you can try on your own. You can start by learning your triggers, understanding the root cause of the behavior, and tracking your actions. A great way to get started here is by writing it all down in a journal. You can also get yourself an accountability buddy to help you along the way. However, if your self-destructive behaviors start feeling like too much to handle alone, consider seeking expert help.
If you've noticed self-destructive behaviors being displayed by someone you care about, then try having a conversation. Sit your person down and bring up the issue in a gentle way, while maintaining your own boundaries. Again, if the situation feels too overwhelming, suggest your person talk to someone more equipped to deal with self-destructive patterns–i.e., a mental health professional.
What's the root cause of self-destructive behavior?
The root cause of self-destructive behavior will vary from person to person. But in general, these behaviors often stem from unconscious factors related to unresolved trauma or dysfunctional patterns learned during childhood.
Everyone makes bad decisions from time to time, but when a person makes harmful decisions consistently, it could be classified as self-destructive.
The key to preventing self-destructive behavior is to understand it. Your understanding of these behaviors may come from doing your own research and self-reflection, or it may come from sitting down with a professional.
Either way, remember that self-destructive behaviors don't define you. There is hope for healing and developing healthy habits that will lead you toward becoming the best version of yourself.
Stephanie Barnes is a freelance writer from Kingston, Jamaica. She studied Information Technology from the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean and spent several years as a front-end/iOS engineer. Her work has been featured at The Huffington Post, Healthline, The Lily, HelloGiggles, Business Insider, and more. She's passionate about all things mental health, technology, and binge-worthy television.