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How to Stop Self Destructive Behaviours

Updated: Mar 31, 2022

Everyone engages in self destructive behaviour at some point in their lives. Whether intentional or not, these behaviours can lead to personal and social consequences. However, moving past these self destructive behaviours and living a happy life is completely possible with patience and a willingness to change.


Identifying Your Self-Destructive Patterns


Define your tendencies. It is important to first identify the specific behaviours you engage in that you think are destructive to you before attempting to change them. Self-destructive behaviours can be anything that harms your physical self or your psyche. Compile a list of all of your self-defeating behaviours that you’d like to change.

o Any of the following qualify as self-destructive behaviours: self-harm (cutting, picking, hitting/punching, scratching, hair-pulling), compulsions (gambling, overeating, substance use, risky sex, excessive shopping), neglect (not paying attention to your needs, health, refusing help), and thoughts/behaviours that cause psychological harm (pessimism, being overly needy, denying responsibility, allowing others to treat you poorly). There are too many types of self-destructive behaviours to list them all here, so attempt to explore your life and behaviours for all tendencies that you have that harm you in some way.

o Do you drown your shame, remorse, and guilt by succumbing to substance use and abuse, such as alcohol or drug abuse, or nicotine use?

o Write down all of the specific self-destructive patterns that you have. You can keep a journal and list each one there.

o If you are unsure about what some of your patterns might be, ask family members or friends if they can point out any behaviours that they think you do that are potentially harmful.


Understand why you engage in self-destructive behaviours. Some studies suggest that individuals may engage in self-injurious behaviours in order to distract themselves from painful thoughts or emotions.

o For each self-destructive behaviour you have written down, identify a reason for why you engage in this behaviour. For example, there are many reasons you might drink alcohol to excess such as: wanting to fit in, feeling insecure, wanting to relax or reduce stress, and desiring to have fun. Think about how the behaviour benefits you.


Determine the consequences. Identify why each behaviour is negative. For example, if you find that your alcohol use is destructive, identify the bad things that have happened in the past when you drank too much. This list might include: blacking out, feeling hungover, making bad decisions, hurting the people you love, and engaging in illegal activities. Write down how you feel after dealing with these consequences such as angry, sad, guilty, or shameful.


Track your behaviours. Keep a journal of when you engage in self-destructive actions. Identify the event, as well as your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours (whether self-destructive or not). Simply keep a log of any self-destructive behaviours you engage in and notice what patterns of events, thoughts, and feelings emerge.

o For example, if smoking cigarettes is one of your self-destructive behaviours your list might include positives such as it helps calm you down and is relatively social, and negatives might involve issues such as significant risks to your health, the addictive nature of cigarettes, the high cost of cigarettes, and medical costs.

o Identify the advantages of making a change. Based on your assessment of your self-destructive tendencies, identify the positives and negatives of changing each specific problem behaviour. This will help you decide which behaviours are most important to prioritize.


Modifying Your Mentality


Accept responsibility. Sometimes we may blame others instead of looking at how we contribute to our self-destructive behaviours. It can be difficult dealing with underlying pain due to a difficult childhood or a difficult marriage where abuse patterns are prevalent, but we can take control of our own lives by addressing our emotional difficulties, helping ourselves, and overcoming our addictions.


Identify unhelpful thinking patterns. Our thoughts tend to be linked to our feelings and behaviours. In order words, our perceptions of ourselves and the world dictate how we feel and act. These ideas are central to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a type of treatment that is commonly used to treat self-destructive behaviours.

o Write down the thoughts that you associate with each of your self-destructive behaviours. Ask yourself, “What do I think right before I do this? What thoughts influence and maintain this behaviour?” For example, if alcohol use is the problem, one might think, “I’ll just have one drink. I really need this drink. I deserve to drink. Nothing bad will happen.” These are the thoughts that encourage a person to consume alcohol.

o Acknowledge your negative thinking habits. Some of these might include: catastrophizing (thinking the worst will happen), over-generalizing (also known as black and white thinking, where one tends to think something is either all good or all bad), mind-reading (thinking you know what others are thinking), and predicting the future (thinking you know what will happen). For instance, if you believe that another person is thinking something bad about you, this could result in you feeling depressed or angry, which could trigger self-destructive behaviours. If you modify this thinking you can prevent the negative emotion and behaviour.


Alter your self-destructive thoughts. If we change our thoughts, our feelings and behaviours will follow. Once you have a complete list of the thoughts, you can begin to challenge these thoughts when they come up.

o Keep a thought diary. Identify the situation, feeling, and thought. Then identify ideas that support the thought, and ideas that do not support the thought. Finally, use this information to create a thought that is more realistic. For example, if the situation is your mother yelling at you, you might have felt angry, and thought, “She’s the worst mother.” Ideas that support this thought might be: she yells, and she doesn’t know how to communicate calmly. Ideas that refute this idea might be: she tells me she loves me, she provides me with food and housing, she supports me, and so on. A more balanced perspective overall (in order to counteract the thought that she is the worst mother) could be, “My mother has her faults and she does yell sometimes, but I know that she is trying to help and that she loves me.” This thought may lead to less anger, and thus, a healthier behaviour (instead of drinking alcohol or socially isolating).


Practice, practice, practice. Once you identify your unhelpful thinking, and develop alternative thoughts, you need to practice changing these thoughts as they come up. Be aware of any negative emotion you have (anger, sadness, stress), and identify the thoughts you are having in the moment.

o You can refer back to your thought diary to assist you. Then, actively change the thought you are having. If you are thinking, “My mother is terrible and doesn’t love me,” remember the alternative thought you identified before and repeat it to yourself over and over, “My mother loves me but she sometimes loses her temper."

o Log your progress and learn from mistakes. Continue to keep a diary of situations that could lead to self-destructive behaviours. If you identify negative thoughts, write down alternative thoughts that might produce a better outcome. If self-destructive behaviour was used, identify an alternative. For example, if the situation was your mother yelling at you, you may have thought, “I can’t stand her. She doesn’t care about me,” followed by feelings of anger and resentment, followed by a behaviour of locking yourself in your room and isolating from social contact for several days. Identify another way you could have thought and dealt with the situation. For instance, you could change the thought to, "I love her despite her weaknesses, and I know she cares about me even when she acts this way." Try to think those thoughts the next time the situation occurs (your mother yells). Then, you may feel better and attempt to reconcile instead of engaging in a self-destructive behaviour.


Coping with Triggers to Self-Destructive Behaviours


Understand the link between emotions and behaviours. Strong negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, and anger can lead to self-destructive behaviours. Finding new ways of coping with these triggers is crucial to reducing self-destructive behaviours.


Do some serious introspection. More than likely, there are triggers that precipitate your self-destructive patterns. Use the activities in the previous step to identify thoughts, feelings, and situations that trigger self-destructive tendencies. These will include not just your feelings, but the specific situations which seem to coincide with self-destructive behaviours.

o Continue working in your journal. Keep a page devoted solely to identifying and tracking your triggers to self-destructive behaviours. For example, some triggers to drinking alcohol might be: when my mother yells at me, when I feel stressed out or overwhelmed, when I hang out with friends who drink, and when I am home alone and feeling lonely.

o Actively avoid situations that trigger you. For instance, if you want to reduce your drinking, but you know that if you hang out with certain people that will try to pressure you to drink alcohol, avoid this situation altogether. Instead of putting yourself in a potentially risky situation where it may be difficult to say no, give an excuse or explain that you are in recovery.


Make a list of your coping skills. Is important to understand how to cope with these triggers (situations, emotions, and thoughts) to self-destructive behaviours. In addition to changing your specific thoughts, you can also actively change your self-destructive behaviour or replace it with a new behaviour that is more effective in helping you cope.

o Try communicating with your higher power, if you believe in a power greater than yourself. Sometimes, we need to talk about something to let go of it.

o Try new activities. Find alternatives to your self-destructive behaviours that don’t cause more harm than good. For example, you could try: writing, painting, colouring, sports, camping, hiking, walking, collecting things, helping others, or gardening.


Tolerate the emotion. Avoid trying to immediately escape an emotion. Focus on longer term healing instead of on instant gratification. Distress tolerance is about learning to deal with emotions instead of simply trying to avoid feeling them. Emotions are a natural part of life.

o When you feel a strong negative emotion (anger, depression, stress, frustration), instead of immediately trying to distract yourself or make yourself feel better in some way, say to yourself, "I am feeling _____, and this is a natural feeling to have. Although it is uncomfortable, it won't kill me, and it will pass."

o Our emotions give us valuable information about how to deal with the current situation. Try thinking about why you are feeling that emotion and what it is telling you. For example, if you are feeling very angry at your mother for yelling at you, identify why you are so angry. Is it because you are hurt by her words, because you think it is inappropriate, or perhaps because you are worried she might do something violent?

o Focus on how it feels in your body to feel that emotion. If you feel angry, do you feel tightness in your shoulders, does your body shake, do you clench your fists or teeth? Experience the emotion fully even though it is uncomfortable to do so. Thinking about exactly how it feels in your body can help to take away some of the power of the emotion. After all, feelings are just feelings.

o Use writing as therapy. Write down your thoughts and feelings that lead to self-destructive behaviours.


Take care of your health. Sometimes stress can cause us to engage in unhealthy behaviours in order to cope such as: eating junk food, not exercising, and sleeping less.

o Get enough sleep. Most people require at least 8 hours of sleep per night to function optimally.

o Eat and drink healthfully. Avoid overindulging in snacks, sweets, or junk food.

o Exercise in order to cope with negative emotions such as stress and depression.


Engage in healthy relationships. Insecure attachment in relationships is correlated with a higher degree of self-destructive behaviours. Social support is very important to the recovery process of self-destructive behaviours. Identify secure attachments you have with family, friends, and other relationships and cultivate these connections.

o Focus on having quality interactions with your loved ones. Spend time with these individuals by: eating together, exercising, talking, walking, playing a game, or trying a new activity.

o If you have people in your life who are not supportive or who are abusive toward you, consider detaching or getting space from these individuals. You can start by creating boundaries and explaining to them that you will not tolerate certain behaviours such as yelling at you.


Get help. If you engage in self-harm behaviours this could be associated with depression, anxiety, and aggressiveness. Furthermore, self-destructive behaviours can sometimes be linked to a history of abuse or trauma as well as substance use issues. Contact a psychologist or therapist.

o Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) is a useful treatment for individuals who may have emotional dysregulation or anger, self-harm issues, suicidal thoughts, substance use (alcohol or other drugs), and relationship/interpersonal difficulties. DBT focuses on improving your mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotional regulation, and distress tolerance.

o Problem Solving Therapy (PST) helps individuals solve problems better (instead of using self-destructive behaviours) and learn useful coping skills.

o Cognitive Restructuring (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy-CBT) is about changing your maladaptive beliefs, which helps to reduce negative behaviours.

o Explore medication options. Consult a psychiatrist for additional information or to discuss psychotropic options.

Sources and Citations

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