Are You Self-Destructive? Is Anybody?

self-destructiveMany depressed people tell me they want to stop their self-destructive behavior, because it is causing their depression. The self-destructive behaviors they are referring to range from addiction, to cutting, burning, or hurting themselves. Most often though, they are referencing having made choices that they regret, such as occasional overeating, overcommitting themselves to projects, or getting involved in relationships with partners who hurt or disappoint them.

I don’t believe that the motivation for any of this comes from wanting to hurt oneself. Self-destructive behavior is not necessarily intended to be self-destructive; ordinarily, people engage in such behaviors in an effort to help, protect, or heal themselves. Unfortunately, the same methods intended for benefit can also cause harm.

Addictions

Sure, addictions cause self-harm, but that is usually not what addicts have in mind when they immerse themselves in an addiction. Developing and feeding an addiction is usually an attempt to cope with overwhelming emotional (or sometimes physical) pain. This pain may include shyness and social anxiety, the pain of withdrawal from the addiction itself, or the pain of trauma, abuse, losses, and shame. To a large extent, addiction is physiological and doesn’t reflect the addict’s intention—addiction cravings compel the addict to get relief by using more.

Physical Harm

Finding the true intention behind self-destructive behavior reveals a core need for self-preservation. For example, cutting and burning the skin looks self-destructive, but it can be lifesaving in relieving emotional pain intense enough to cause suicide without this relief. Relief is stimulated when physical pain (including hunger as anorexics know) releases endorphins—something our bodies ingeniously do to numb pain and provide some euphoria to help us survive the pain.

Self-harm can also offer a sense of being in control, when someone feels disempowered. It can call attention to the emotional pain made visible through the physical injury. Recognition of pain can be an essential step in getting the help people need, but please don’t take this as a recommendation to inflict pain on yourself. There are better ways for those willing and able to find help.

Choices People Regret

One common example of choices people regret is selecting partners who abandon them, or who are addicted or abusive. Sometimes people do this out of an attempt to reconstruct and heal the painful elements of their childhood relationships. By first finding partners who hurt them as their parents did and then determining how to get their partners to stop hurting them, they can try to heal what they couldn’t with their parents.

For example, someone who experienced abandonment from a parent in childhood will often choose a partner who fits this pattern. While potential partners who trigger this abandonment memory will continue to be a source of attraction, if the adult experience of abandonment is mild, rather than harmful, the person may learn to heal the wounds left by the parent.

It’s harder to find a path toward healing when the chosen relationship turns out the same way the relationship with the parent did, as in when the abusive partner fails to change. Fortunately, many times people are able to choose partners who are somewhat similar, but not as extreme as their parents, and who are able to grow and change to become less hurtful. For some, their first relationship can provide an opportunity for healing, and for others, many relationships or many years may pass before they get it right. Whether or not it works, I believe people’s intentions in choosing hurtful partners are to try to resolve emotional wounds from important childhood relationships, not to hurt themselves.

For example, if when you were 12, your parents acted unpredictably and out of control during their divorce, you may have realized that bingeing and purging made you feel more in control of the chaos. If you’d been older, you could have dealt with the chaos by getting away from it, talking to a good listener, or mediating the conflict. But as a 12 year old, your skills and freedoms were limited and you had to use what you had at hand to survive. Perhaps you continued the practice of bingeing and purging because you needed it, and it worked. Then in adulthood, when you felt trapped in other scary, chaotic situations, you might naturally use the method you developed in childhood for gaining a sense of control. Do you see that while this might look like self-destructive behavior, it might actually be a young part of you doing its best to protect you?

Intentional Self-Sabotage

There are also people who have developed a pattern of doing something to sabotage the possibility of obtaining what they want. It is almost as if they are addicted to going their own way. This person might feel cursed, or like an inevitable failure, because after trying so hard again and again, success is still unobtainable.

These kinds of self-sabotage might include repeatedly enrolling in school, only to drop out or flunk out; saying exactly the wrong thing in a social situation; doing something at work that results in being fired; or alienating and distancing new friends. If someone tries to help them, they argue with the person, negate any suggestions, and undermine any chance that the help would be effective. Even in these instances, when people seem to be blatantly trying to ruin anything good, I still believe they are trying to protect and help themselves.

First of all, they are not trying to destroy themselves—their actions result in feelings of deprivation, frustration, and disappointment, not total destruction. Their motivation is often to protect themselves from controlling, intrusive parents. By undermining a parent’s efforts, the child can achieve a separate identity, passive power, and independence, and can express anger about being mistreated. The goal, then is self-preservation.

Actual Self-Destruction

First, a note on suicide: while suicide might appear to be the ultimate form of self-destruction, most people who want to kill themselves just want the emotional or physical pain to stop, and they don’t see any option other than death. In an odd way, suicide is still a form of self-preservation.

It is rare that people actually intend to destroy themselves or their lives. When people are overwhelmed with guilt, they may believe that they deserve to be punished by death. This can happen, for example, to a child who survived an accident when a sibling didn’t. Yet, even in this case, the person probably sees death as the only way to find relief from intense guilt about something that seems unforgivable to them.

Generally, the term self-destructive suggests that an evil force inside is determined to destroy us, and that this force must be hated, conquered, amputated, or exiled. The more I learn about so-called self-destructive tendencies, the more I discover that, in fact, a part of the person is trying to protect or heal the self. The method of self-harm is usually one developed during childhood. Sometimes when a person is using one of these methods, the action is reminiscent of a child. The method of protection is not only child-like, but the behaviors and thought processes also match the skills, resources, and perspective of a child at the age when the trauma first occurred. Resolving the trauma allows the person to develop less hurtful ways of coping with painful feelings.

So ask yourself if you do anything you think is self-destructive. Then drill down into what this behavior might be related to, and see if you can find a positive intention, even if it is a child’s view of how to achieve that intention. I’d love to know what you find.

© Copyright 2010 by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT, therapist in El Cerrito, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 18 comments
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  • Hannah

    Hannah

    August 5th, 2010 at 7:08 PM

    I am in my early twenties and am absolutely addicted to buying new footwear.It all started off in high school and I do not know how many pairs I have myself.Although it is not causing any hurt or harm to me,it sure hurts my pocket and I end up being with too little money early in the second half of the month due to my footwear buying spree.

  • Terry

    Terry

    August 6th, 2010 at 3:51 AM

    Some people tend to start hurting themselves after going through a tough time or after losing someone special in life.They tend to think that their life is over after that event and do everything bad onto themselves and never make an effort to make themselves happy.

  • Austin

    Austin

    August 6th, 2010 at 4:31 AM

    I don’t get this, man. What could possibly be good about hurting yourself?

  • HUGHboy

    HUGHboy

    August 6th, 2010 at 11:07 AM

    I’d hate to be in touch with someone who hurts himself…would make me paranoid about him and I would prefer staying away…

    So you see, such behavior also makes a person’s friends get repelled and his social life is even more degraded. So such people really need to reach out for help.

  • Kris

    Kris

    August 6th, 2010 at 1:23 PM

    Although I’ve recently gotten help and started therapy, I’ve had a history of self destructive behavior that dates back to middle school. I’m now 21 and have finally found some peace, but I endured years of pain starting with chasing all of the wrong guys to developing a drug addiction. My parents are both divorced and remarried which led to many of my emotional issues growing up, but now I’m trying to have the mindset of keeping the the past in the past and focusing solely on myself and what’s best for me right now. Sometimes I have to stop myself when I begin to have those self destructive thoughts, but therapy has really helped keep me level.

  • Steve

    Steve

    August 6th, 2010 at 9:42 PM

    Honestly do believe that there are people out to harm themselves and yes I do think that addicts start out feeling this way. Why would you even get so in over your head with drugs if you were not hell bent on exhibiting this type of self destructive behavior?

  • Cynthia Lubow

    Cynthia Lubow

    August 8th, 2010 at 3:16 PM

    Hi Steve,

    I agree with you that some people get into addictions to hurt themselves, but the vast majority start out because it feels so good and/or it gives them a break from emotional or physical pain. People start out this way. Once addiction takes hold, their biology changes, so they feel terrible without using the substance or activity, and only normal when they do.

  • Stacie

    Stacie

    August 9th, 2010 at 6:44 AM

    We are all self destructive up to a point- it’s in our nature, but we have to battle against that to become a bigger and better person

  • Trouble Maker

    Trouble Maker

    September 23rd, 2010 at 11:05 PM

    Lots of depressed people tell me they want to stop their “self-destructive behavior,” because it is causing them to be depressed. Sometimes they are referring to an addiction, other times they mean cutting, burning or hurting their bodies. Most of the time it is about choices they regret, such as occasional (not addictive) overeating, over-committing themselves to projects, or getting involved in relationships with partners who hurt them or disappoint them.

    I don’t believe that the motivation for any of this comes from wanting to hurt oneself. I believe these things happen when people are trying to help, protect or heal themselves. The problem is that the same method intended to benefit them (and to some extent usually does) also hurts them. For most people, then, “self-destructive behavior” is not intended to be self-destructive; the intention is just the opposite.

    Addictions

    Sure, addictions cause self-harm, but that is usually not what addicts have in mind when they engage in their addiction. Developing and feeding an addiction is usually an attempt to cope with overwhelming emotional (or sometimes physical) pain. This pain may include shyness and social anxiety, the pain of withdrawal from the addiction itself, or the pain of trauma, abuse, losses, and shame. Also, to a large extent, addiction is physiological and doesn’t reflect the addict’s intention–addiction cravings compel the addict to get relief by using more. Damage caused by the addiction is an unfortunate side-effect.

    Physical Harm

    Finding the true intention behind “self-destructive behavior” reveals a core need for self-preservation. For example, cutting and burning ones skin looks self-destructive, but it can be lifesaving in relieving emotional pain intense enough to cause suicide without this relief. This relief comes because physical pain (including hunger, anorexics know) releases endorphins–something our bodies ingeniously do to numb pain and provide some euphoria to help us survive the pain.

    Also, hurting ones own body can offer a sense of being in control, when people feel otherwise disempowered. It can also call needed attention to emotional pain that can be made visible when it is reflected in physical injury. Getting pain noticed can be an essential step in getting the help people need. Please don’t take this as a recommendation to inflict pain on yourself. There are better ways, but the better ways may not be accessible, without help, to people who are young, limited, or have not been parented well.

    Choices People Regret

    One common example of choices people regret is choosing addicted, abusive or abandoning partners. I believe people do this mostly out of an attempt to reconstruct and heal the painful elements of their childhood relationships. By finding someone who hurts them like their parents did, and figuring out how to get their partners to stop hurting them, they hope to heal what they couldn’t heal with their parents.

    For example, someone who grows up with a parent who is always leaving in some way often chooses a partner who is also abandoning. If they choose one who is less abandoning and/or able to become much less abandoning than their parent, it helps to heal this emotional wound caused by the abandoning parent. They will probably always tend to be attracted to people who trigger this abandonment memory, but if the abandonment is mild, and not harmful, they may no longer need to choose partners who hurt them like their parent did, or suffer from the wounds their parent left.

    This potential for healing isn’t so obvious when the chosen relationship turns out the same way their relationship with their parents did (the addict partners stay addicted, or the violent or abusive or abandoning partners stay that way–just like the parents did). But very often, people are able to choose partners who are somewhat similar to the chooser’s parents, but not as extreme as their parents, and more able to grow to become even less like the hurtful parents. For some this works in the first relationship, and for others it takes many relationships and/or many years to get this to work. Whether or not it works, I believe people’s intention in choosing hurtful partners is to try to resolve emotional wounds from important childhood relationships, not to hurt themselves.

    For example, if when you were 12, your parents were divorcing and acting unpredictable and out of control, you may have realized that bingeing and purging made you feel more in control of the chaos. If you’d been older, you could have dealt with the chaos by getting away from it, or talking to a good listener, or mediating the conflict. But as a 12 year old, your skills and freedoms were limited and you had to use what you had at hand to survive. Then you practiced it repeatedly, because you needed it, and it worked. So when you became an adult, and felt trapped in other scary chaotic situations, you would naturally use the skill you developed in childhood, because it worked in a similar situation. Do you see how this might look like self-destructive behavior, but actually be a young part of you inside doing her best to protect you?

    Intentional Self-Sabotage

    There are also people who have developed a pattern of doing something that sabotages them on the way to getting anything they want. It is almost as if they are addicted to getting in their own way. This causes the person to see themselves as an inevitable failure, or cursed, because they try so hard, yet over and over, they don’t get or keep what they want.

    Some examples of this might be starting school and dropping out or flunking out repeatedly; or saying exactly the wrong thing in a social situation; or doing something they know will get them fired; or alienating friends each time they develop a new set. If someone tries to help them, they argue with the person, negate any suggestions, and undermine any chance that the help would be effective. But even in these instances where people seem to be blatantly trying to ruin anything good, I still believe they are trying to protect and help themselves.

    First of all, they are not trying to destroy themselves—their actions result in deprivation, frustration and disappointment, but don’t kill them. Often the motivation for this is to protect themselves from a controlling, intrusive parent. By undermining the parent’s efforts, this child can assert her own separate identity, passive power, independence and anger about being treated this way. These are all very important aspects of a whole person, so the intention, still, is self-preservation.

    Actual Self-Destruction

    First of all, I’m not necessarily counting suicidal people as self-destructive. Most people who want to kill themselves, just want the emotional or physical pain to stop, and don’t see any other way than death. In an odd way, that is still self-preservation.

    Rarely, people do actually intend to destroy themselves or their lives. When people are overwhelmed with guilt, they may believe that they deserve to be punished by death. This can happen, for example to a child who survived an accident her sibling didn’t. Yet, even this is probably ultimately about seeing death as the only way to get relief from intense guilt about something that seems unforgivable to them.

    Generally, “Self-destructive” implies an evil force inside oneself that is determined to destroy us, and therefore must be hated, conquered, amputated, or exiled. When I learn more about that force, I inevitably find that it’s actually a part of the person trying in her own way to protect or heal herself. The method used is usually one developed during childhood. Sometimes when a person is using one of these methods, their actions are reminiscent of a child. So not only is the method of protection child-like, but the behaviors and thought processes match the skills, resources and perspective of a child of the age when the method was developed (which is when the trauma occurred).

    The resolution to any of this is to resolve the trauma that originally caused the need for protection and healing, and to learn less hurtful ways of coping with painful feelings.

    I have lots more to say about the young parts inside us, but I will leave that for another day. In the mean time, ask yourself if you do anything you think is self-destructive. Then drill down into what it is about for you and see if you can find a positive intention, even if it is a child’s view of how to achieve that intention. I’d love to know what you think.

    Thanks for your time, enjoy your lives.

  • Samrx

    Samrx

    March 1st, 2011 at 11:01 PM

    You are a competent writer man…great way to put down your thoughts on a serious subject like this. For the first time I could understand what the topic meant.

  • amy

    amy

    March 14th, 2013 at 9:30 AM

    Fantastic article! I have had clients who’s behaviour has been misunderstood as self destructive and as some form of punnishing themselves, which of course to the outside viewer is how it looks. But to the client it is often a knee jerk reaction to a stressful situation in the only way they know how. To some it is self soothing.

  • Ned Sabbagh

    Ned Sabbagh

    October 8th, 2013 at 10:59 AM

    I was in a relationship with a self-abuser/destructor. I actually didn’t realize at the time just how bad he was to himself. I knew his fingernails and toenails were always cut to pieces and I tried to get him to stop. Something happened and he just dumped me one day out of the blue with no real explanation.
    Looking back now I see that he needed to do this to survive. He was unable to feel happy and stay in the relationship we had. I do not hate him I pity him.

  • Girl looking for answers

    Girl looking for answers

    December 12th, 2013 at 5:18 PM

    I have a problem with cutting myself I don’t understand why I do it I just know it makes me feel better and others say ppl who are self distructive can have stable relationships but I have been in a 10 year relationship and actually I don’t think I can live without him. But every time he upsets me I cut myself to feel better. I don’t want to be this way forever but it’s literally as addictive to me a a junky to the needle. Someone tell me what type of mental illness they believe I have or if you think there is nothing wrong with me. Just give me oppenions. I’m lost!!!!!

  • GT Support

    GT Support

    December 13th, 2013 at 8:26 AM

    Thank you for your comment, Girl looking for answers. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Missing you

    Missing you

    January 4th, 2014 at 2:08 PM

    Don’t assume that self destruction is based on pain and suffering,it is a way of gaining control that may not be obvious to others,but it does happen.
    I have a tendency to self destruct when things get too much.
    Recently my son died after a 19 month battle with very rare brain tumours,he was 23 ,I am 44.life without him is unbearable, I had no control over his illness and I could not even help him die properly,he died a horrible death which took several days.when it was over I just left,I hate myself for not being able to make him better,as a parent it is my job.
    So I hit the self destruct button.
    I don’t shower.
    I rarely change my clothes,my feet are horrid and I like that they look that way.
    I know it is worse than it has been before because now I don’t wash my hair either,every day I look bad and it’s a relief,why should I look anything else,bad is the perfect good.i don’t give a shit any more.
    I have four other children including a baby of 15 months but I just can’t,don’t want to do anything.
    I can’t be bothered.
    I know if I didn’t have my baby then I wouldn’t even get out of bed in the morning.
    I have no doubt that I will find other ways of self destructing and will continue to do so,until I know not when,but for now,this level of control is what keeps me sane,I don’t think any one has the right to judge me,try watching your son die ,how would you react,there is no right or wrong way.
    It is all a matter of survival,any way you can,even if its hanging by a thread until you feel a little less stit and can take a slightly better grip.

  • Nikki

    Nikki

    January 17th, 2015 at 3:12 PM

    just because a person is using harmful drugs doesn’t necessarily mean they are self-destructive in the sense that they are trying to harm themselves etc. I’ve been a meth addict for over 10 years and live a very happy life. Granted, it could be better, but whose life couldn’t?

  • tess

    tess

    May 12th, 2015 at 11:07 AM

    Im a 22 year old female, i havent experienced what some of the others have on here have and I feel deeply for all of you. My issue is I have been building myself up to be “what i want to be” and be successful for a long time, since I was 16. I quit everything good I have going for myself, I wont lose this extra weight,I go through periods of time where I hide from life. I feel like I put myself beneath what Im capable of. And I find myself going to fantasy world instead of what I need and want to do for myself. Im trying to understand what made me feel this way to where Im now an adult still self sabotaging. Bouncing from getting it together to drugs, cruddy friends, danger, not working, over eating, and being lazy even though Im not. I’ve never been able to be thin and active since I was six or seven years old. I dont think I understand how to be social at times and I feel like im disgusting and not worth anyone’s time. Im actually pretty smart and I can get stuff done, I have been able to do some great things with my life at times.

    I agree that when we go through something, to cope or feel right about it to move on, we do use these forms of self sabotage to protect and heal. it makes all the sense in the world.

    you will regain strength the more you search for your healing. Self sabotaging and self harming and all these things may be a form or searching, you feel this pain until you finally learn from it. I may go through this now and regain strength/figure it out and then later on down the road in life, something else could happen. bringing yourself down is the first step in learning how to build yourself back up, each step at a time.. no matter what form, how long, or why or how old you are.. its a part of your life and you grow temendously from it, no matter how long it takes. If we didnt feel from anything deeply in these ways we wouldnt learn, there’d be nothing to learn and your life would have a different purpose, you’d be someone else.

  • Kate

    Kate

    May 24th, 2015 at 8:28 AM

    I’m 39 and I’ve just finally admitted that I’ve been exhibiting a range of self-destructive behaviour since I was about 15. I even remember wondering at about that age how much I could physically push myself before my mind would break. I don’t know where that came from or why. And since then I’ve drunk, taken drugs, indulged in risky sexual behaviour. Pretty much everything. I don’t do drugs every week or anything like that but when I do drugs or drink alcohol I always do it to excess. I can’t just enjoy in moderation. My friends can. They know when to stop but I just don’t. I can’t it don’t want. I don’t know. And I’ve self harmed. Not badly but the scars are there. And I don’t know why I do all of this. I have just today also finally admitted that I am depressed. Took a long time to realise that. But again I don’t know why. I would like to know why because I would finally like to stop. So it would be interesting to know whether other people understand their self-destructive behaviour.

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