If you engage in self-destructive behaviors, you may feel like you’re trapped in a painful and dangerous cycle. You realize that the behaviors are causing you harm, but the urge to engage is so strong that it seems impossible to resist. Your actions provide a short-term sense of relief, distraction, or numbness from whatever is causing your distress, but this relief is quickly followed by guilt and shame. Then, your painful emotions continue to escalate, resulting in you turning once again to your self-destructive behavior.
Self-destructive thoughts occur for a wide variety of reasons. Maybe you struggle to regulate your emotions or don’t have healthy coping skills for stress, and self-destruction is your opportunity to escape from your pain. You might have grown up seeing your parents engage in self-destructive behavior, so you’re now repeating the cycle. Many people feel addicted to their self-destructive actions, and despite recognizing how harmful their behavior is, they’re unable to stop.
Sometimes, we actively choose to engage in self-destructive behaviors even though we know they’re harmful. Other times, our choices may happen subconsciously. Self-destructive behavior can also take on a variety of forms. Substance abuse is one of the most common manifestations of self-destructive behavior, and because substances are also physically addictive, this can be an incredibly challenging obstacle to overcome. Other self-destructive behaviors include self-injury, excessive spending, reckless driving, seeking out toxic relationships, and any other action that creates risks or problems in your life.
While self-destructive behavior might provide a temporary relief from your pain, it will never help you overcome the challenges that are causing your distress. Understanding how to stop self-destructive behavior is the key to breaking the cycle and facing your struggles head-on. When you overcome the desire to engage in self-destruction, you allow yourself to devote your energy toward truly healing and growing.
What Is the Cause of Self-Destructive Behavior?
The cause of self-destructive behavior isn’t the same for everyone, but there’s always an underlying mental health issue at play. Self-destructive behavior is usually an unhealthy coping mechanism for life’s challenges. The behavior may provide a temporary sense of relief, escape, or protection from stress or trauma. The more you engage in the behavior, the more addictive it can feel. Unhealthy coping mechanisms never truly solve your problems, though. They only provide short-term relief while creating more long-term challenges.
Adverse childhood experiences are the root of self-destructive behaviors for many. Childhood trauma can have a profound impact on your emotions, behaviors, and relationships later in life. If you haven’t processed and overcome your trauma, you might feel drawn to self-destructive behaviors as an escape. People also often learn self-destructive behaviors as children by watching their parents. If one or both of your parents was trapped in a self-destructive cycle, you may internalize it and begin to mimic their behavior as you grow up.
A lack of self-love or self-worth can cause self-destructive behavior, too. If you struggle with self-esteem, you may tell yourself that nothing good will come your way. You seek out harmful and unhealthy experiences because you feel like that’s what you deserve. Your self-destructive behavior acts as a confirmation to yourself that you’re not worthy of health or happiness.
Self-destructive behavior can be a symptom of a mental health disorder as well. For instance, bipolar disorder causes manic episodes that may result in reckless and impulsive behavior. Depression may prevent you from taking care of yourself or nurturing your relationships. Self-destructive behavior is a hallmark of substance use disorders, too.
Examples of Self-Destructive Behavior
Self-destructive behavior takes many forms. You might struggle with one specific form of self-destructive behavior, or you may experience several forms of self-destruction all at once. Sometimes, self-destructive behavior puts you at risk of physical harm. In other cases, the behavior impacts your mental health or relationships.
The following are common examples of self-destructive behavior:
- Excessive drug or alcohol use
- Seeking out toxic relationships
- Cheating on your partner when in a happy relationship
- Binge eating
- Reckless driving
- Impulsive spending
- Risky sexual behavior
- Ignoring your health and medical needs
- Procrastinating on important tasks
- Excessive social media scrolling
- Isolating yourself from family and friends
- Negative self-talk
Here Are Six Strategies for How to Stop Self-destructive Behavior
1. Understand your triggers.
Self-destructive behavior doesn’t happen for no reason. There’s probably at least one underlying reason that you feel the need to self-destruct as well as several specific triggers that bring the urge to the surface. If you can recognize what triggers your self-destructive tendencies, you can approach challenging situations with more self-awareness.
Think back on your self-destructive behaviors in the last few weeks or months. What happened right before you felt the impulse to engage in a reckless behavior? How did you feel? What thoughts came to mind? Can you identify any patterns in the situations or experiences that led to the self-destructive action?
2. Challenge your shame.
Shame is a core element of self-destructive behavior. After the relief from the self-destruction wears off, you may feel intense guilt over what you did. However, these emotions only fuel your emotional pain and strengthen the self-destructive cycle. Breaking free from the shame is essential.
The best way to challenge your shame is to avoid labeling yourself based on your actions. You can acknowledge that you made a mistake or that you did something bad, but this doesn’t make you a bad person. If you label yourself as a bad person, you’ll start to believe that something’s inherently wrong with you and that you’ll never improve. Instead, by thinking of yourself as a good, worthy person who makes mistakes, you give yourself permission to grow.
3. Don’t tell yourself what you “should” do.
When overcoming self-destruction, it’s very easy to tell yourself what you “should” do. For example, you might say that you “should” go for a run or call a friend when you feel the urge to drink. However, trying to force yourself to do the “right” thing can lead to a sense of resistance, and it can ultimately worsen your shame if you do slip up.
Instead, you could tell yourself that you are allowed to choose a healthy alternative to your self-destructive behavior. For instance, you could turn to alcohol when you’re in pain, but you’re also allowed to call your friend for support. This helps you focus on healthy coping skills while removing the internal struggle that occurs when you try to force yourself to change your behavior.
4. Delay acting on your urges.
It might feel impossible to stop self-destructing, but delaying the action might seem more manageable. If avoiding self-destruction is intensely difficult, try waiting 30 minutes to engage in the behavior instead of acting on the impulse right away. The urge may fade as you wait, so you might avoid the behavior altogether. Even if you eventually give in to the impulse, waiting before acting can weaken the self-destructive cycle and make it easier to avoid behavior next time the urge appears.
5. Remember that you’re a work in progress.
Overcoming self-destructive behavior is not an overnight process. Practicing self-compassion and forgiveness is essential as you work toward healthier coping skills. When you’ve relied on self-destructive actions to numb your pain for so long, you likely feel some degree of mental, emotional, or physical addiction to the behaviors.
Self-improvement is a lifelong journey, and what’s most important is that you continue to take steps toward wellness. Slipping up as you break out of self-destructive habits is common and expected, but continuing to try despite making mistakes is a sign that you’re on the right path.
6. Try therapy.
Healing from self-destructive behaviors on your own can be very difficult, especially if you’ve been using them to cope for a long time. If you’re struggling to overcome self-destructive habits, it might be time to reach out to a therapist for support.
Counseling is your opportunity to explore and understand exactly why you developed self-destructive behavior and what triggers it. Our psychological habits can be extremely complicated, but processing your thoughts and beliefs in therapy can help you gain insight into your own mind. Your therapist can help you heal from the underlying emotions or experiences that have caused your self-destructive habits and replace your unhealthy coping behaviors with positive ones.