Self-destructive behavior is a subconscious or intentional, impulsive, or planned action or way of life that can cause physical or psychological harm. It is a complex dysfunctional behavior that can escalate and lead to death in extreme cases. Early intervention and treatment can prevent this outcome.
Self-destructive behavior is not listed as a diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association but is considered a symptom of other underlying psychological disorders. Although there are studies of self-destructive behavior in disorders such as borderline personality and autism, it is hard to find scholarly articles on self-destructive behavior in the general population with no underlying psychological diagnoses.
A Coping Mechanism
Some psychotherapists, such as Lisa Frentz of The Institute of Advanced Psychotherapy, believe self-destructive behavior is a substitute, dysfunctional coping mechanism. Subconsciously or consciously, it is person's way of dealing with the burden and emotions of psychological or physical trauma.
From this viewpoint, people may use self-destructive behaviors to cope with or mask emotions and feelings such as:
- Anxiety and inner conflict
- Anger and bitterness
- Self-hatred or hatred towards others
- Self-pity or shame
- Loss or grief
- Sadness, despair, or hopelessness
- A sense of loneliness and isolation
Someone may also view her self-destructive behavior as self-punishment for lack of control over her world, or perhaps a way to communicate her need for help and support.
For some people, self-destructive behaviors, such as smoking or drinking, might just be a bad habit that continues even while they are aware the behavior is harmful. For others, it is a way to take control over uncomfortable thoughts and internal conflict.
Everyone has a need to feel they have some control over their inner and outer world and may take risks to keep that control. The pathologic self-destructor, however, goes beyond this to try to exercise control over a world where she feels she has little control.
Someone may engage in a single or multiple self-destructive behaviors, which can range from various degrees of self-defeating habits to risky or life-threatening activities. Suicidal intent is not usually at the heart of most harmful activities, but those activities could lead to accidental death or increase the risk of suicide.
Common self-destructive behaviors include lifestyle and behavioral habits and physical self-harm.
These habits can be deliberate or unintentionally become a problem. Tobacco, alcohol, and drug abuse are among the most common self-destructive habits, which in turn can lead to a cycle of substance abuse and self-abuse. Other self-destructive lifestyle habits include:
- Gambling and other behavioral addictions
- Sex addiction and risky sexual behaviors
- Eating disorders including:
- Undereating or anorexia
- Overeating or binge eating
For example, the rape victim, thinking that the way she looked caused her rape, may become anorexic or binge eat to change her appearance as a way of taking back control.
These habits are self-hating, self-sabotaging, and self-defeating.
- Obsessive compulsive habits
- Excessive self sacrifice
- Self-neglect such as ignoring health needs
- Impulsive risk taking such as high-speed driving or skydiving
- Staying in abusive relationships and becoming a victim
- Alienating behavior to isolate self from others
- Self-defeating thoughts such as, "I know I'm going to fail"
- Deliberate sabotage of school, work, or relationships
For example, the successful lawyer or CEO, wracked by self-doubt and inadequate coping skills, sabotages her work by indulging in reckless activities to reinforce her sense of unworthiness. A diabetic feeling a lack of control over his illness and unable to cope takes control by ignoring dietary advice.
Deliberate physical self-harm is more common among adolescents, who may have problems of self-identity and social abuse. It is also common among children with developmental disabilities, such as autism.
Physical self-harm is the most extreme and visible evidence of self-destructive behavior and includes cutting the skin, as reviewed in a 2013 Boston University article. Other self-harm includes:
- Scratching, carving, burning, stabbing, picking, pinching, or punching skin
- Hair pulling and eyebrow plucking
- Excessive body piercing and tattooing
- Excessive plastic surgery
- Suicide attempts, the ultimate self-harm
The physical self-abuse may provide tangible evidence to a person, who feels shame and self-loathing, of her inability to cope with her underlying conflict in a constructive way.
Self-Perpetuating and Addictive
Once started, the self-destructive activities may become self-perpetuating as a person attempts to cope with the persistent fears and anxieties. When the behavior brings only temporary relief, a person may have recurrent periods of self-loathing, increased feelings of guilt and shame, and an increased need to regain control.
The ongoing need to exercise control and the fear of losing control escalates the behavior. The self destructive habits may spiral out of control and become habitual or addictive. This can cause someone to feel more fearful or dejected and lead to suicide attempts or accidental death. An example of this is when the drug binge wears off, yet the underlying problems remain.
Signs of the Behavior
Besides visible evidence of physical self-abuse, signs that a person may be self-destructive or that the problem is worsening include:
- Telling lies to create a public persona or a mask of being in control
- Secretiveness to hide behaviors
- Wanting to be alone
- A breakdown in relationships
- Excessive personal control
- Explosive emotions when seeming control breaks down
- Expressing a wish to die or suicide attempts
Underlying Psychosocial Factors
Insights into the psychology of self-destructive behavior include the following psychosocial factors that may underlie, trigger, or sustain a person's self-destructive actions:
- A lack of self-worth or poor self-esteem
- Social rejection or a fear of rejection
- Fear of facing a challenge
- Fear of success, so sabotages self
- Fear of a relationship, so sabotages it
- Feeling lack of control over life or actions
- Lack of healthy coping mechanisms in times of stress
- Lack of psychosocial support
Several environmental, psychological, or psychiatric factors may increase the risk of self-destructive behavior. Childhood trauma or abuse is felt to be at the root of many self-destructive behaviors, especially in teens and young adults. Negative experiences get internalized, leading to poor coping skills and a distorted view of self, the world, and other people.
Other risk factors include:
- Poor psychosocial childhood development
- Disordered childhood family, school, and social environments
- Autism and other developmental disorders
- Depression and anxiety disorders
- Personality disorders, such as borderline personality
- Impulsivity or risk-taking personality
- Lack of or disturbed attachment to others
- Major psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder
- Substance addiction, leading to a cycle of substance abuse and self-destructive behavior
- Major medical diseases, such as as diabetes and HIV/AIDS
Someone with self-destructive behavior can be helped by unmasking the underlying psychosocial disturbances and addressing any risk factors. Psychotherapy by a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other psychotherapist may include:
- Behavioral therapy, including:
- Hypnosis or self-hypnosis
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which uncovers the issues and works to change them
- Dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT), an intensive form of CBT, which validates the issues as a way to change them
- Learning coping skills such relaxation techniques, for example, meditation, relaxation imagery, and passive muscle relaxation
- Learning to replace negative thinking and actions with positive ones
It is important to seek help early from family and friends or your doctor if you feel you are vulnerable to engage in self-destructive behavior. This may prevent you from initiating the behavior and get you help to deal with your problems.
If you are engaged in self-destructive behavior and can't stop or dealing with underlying problems or risk factors you can't handle, don't hesitate to seek professional help. It is important to do this before the problem escalates out of control and increase the risk for suicide or your accidental death.