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Self Defeating Behaviours

This is the first in a series of articles about Self Defeating Behaviours. Firstly, what are self-defeating behaviours? How do we define them? According to psychologists Scher & Baumeister (1988) it is defined as “any deliberate or intentional behaviour that has clear, definitely or probably negative effects on the self or on the self’s projects”. Sometimes these behaviours will appear to be part of their personality. However if we look a little closer, some of these self-defeating behaviours would appear to be learned responses observed and saved by the subconscious mind for use in the same situation when it arises. These responses are tried and tested, they were useful once even if they are not now but the subconscious keeps throwing them out there because the conscious perceives the stressful / threatening situation as a learned one and delegates the task of dealing with it to the trusty subconscious which then responds with the appropriate self-defeating behaviour.  Here is a list of categories to help us define types of self-defeating behaviour:

  • Misuse / excessive consumption of substances that could be potentially harmful to the person in the long term. For example: smoking, alcohol, overeating, drugs.
  • Unbalanced attitudes: Is someone overreacting / reacting to a situation abnormally? Are they defensive, always worried, hostile, suspicious (with no real grounds), are they a perfectionist, excessively shy, avoid things, have a lack of confidence??? (There are loads, I would go on but this would infringe upon my word count!)
  • Sexual Dysfunctions: the mind is a powerful tool so this does not only cover the physical conditions that can infringe upon a person’s sex life but also the psychological issues that can cause impotence and lack of interest in sex.
  • Procrastination: I am a self confessed expert at this particular self defeating behaviour, it basically means leaving everything to the last minute and avoiding even really important stuff (yes I am typing this article two days later than I should have been – guilty as charged!). 
  • Self-Defeat, or not even trying, this can be seen as laziness but the person usually believes they’re not worth it, life isn’t worth it etc. 
  • Compulsive / ritualistic behaviour: this is in the excess, not the usual rituals we associate with life transitions. For example when I was much younger I had a ritual where I had to have the light switches off in a certain way so I would run up and down the stairs until I had them in the right order, then of course the landing light would have to be the last light to switch off so I had to make sure the switches were set so they would all be in a certain order before the final switch went down before the landing light went off. Yes it was time consuming and definitely to my detriment. Glad I grew out of that one!

When therapists are working with people suffering with these disorders everyday we would notice many more, but this is at least a basic list.

Next time I’ll look at an individual self-defeating behaviour from the above list. If you have spotted a behaviour and want to talk about it, please feel free to go to our website and contact one of the advertising therapists for a chat.

by Jenny