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Understanding Self-Destructive Behavior


You’ve probably done something self-destructive at some point.

Just about everyone has.

Most of the time, it’s not intentional and doesn’t become a habit.


Self-destructive behaviors are those that are bound to harm you physically or mentally.


It may be unintentional.

Or, it may be that you know exactly what you’re doing, but the urge is too strong to control.


It may be due to earlier life experiences.

It can also be related to a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety.


Read on as we look at some self-destructive behaviors, how to recognize them, and what to do about them.


Self-destructive behavior is when you do something that’s sure to cause self-harm, whether it’s emotional or physical. Some self-destructive behavior is more obvious, such as:

  • attempting suicide
  • binge eating
  • compulsive activities like gambling, gaming, or shopping
  • impulsive and risky sexual behavior
  • overusing alcohol and drugs
  • self-injury, such as cutting, hair pulling, burning

There are also more subtle forms of self-sabotage. You may not realize you’re doing it, at least on a conscious level. Examples of this are:

  • being self-derogatory, insisting you’re not smart, capable, or attractive enough
  • changing yourself to please others
  • clinging to someone who is not interested in you
  • engaging in alienating or aggressive behavior that pushes people away
  • maladaptive behaviors, such as chronic avoidance, procrastination, and passive-aggressiveness
  • wallowing in self-pity

The frequency and severity of these behaviors vary from person to person. For some, they’re infrequent and mild. For others, they’re frequent and dangerous. But they always cause problems.


You might be more prone to behave in a self-destructive manner if you’ve experienced:

  • alcohol or drug use
  • childhood trauma, neglect, or abandonment
  • emotional or physical abuse
  • friends who self-injure
  • low self-esteem
  • social isolation, exclusion

If you have one self-destructive behavior, it may raiseTrusted Source the likelihood of developing another.

ResearchTrusted Source shows that self-harm is common in both people who have and do not have a mental health diagnosis. It can happen to anyone of any age, although teens and young adults are more likely rested Source to engage in physical self-injury.

Self-destructive behavior can stem from a mental health condition, such as:

  • Anxiety disorders: Characterized by debilitating fear, worry, and distress.
  • Depression: Overwhelming sadness and loss of interest. It usually involves a variety of physical symptoms, as well.
  • Eating disorders: Conditions like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating.
  • Personality disorders: Inability to relate to other people in a healthy way.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD is an anxiety disorder that starts after you’ve experienced a traumatic event. StudiesTrusted Source shows that PTSD and impulsive personality traits may put you at risk of self-destructive behavior. The rate of self-destructive behavior is particularly high among veterans who have been exposed to trauma.



Four Questions to Help You Turn Off Your Anxious Autopilot

A therapist explains how to live a more thoughtful and less frantic life

Anxious people often come to therapy for answers.

But as a therapist, I’m more interested in questions.

Questions engage the front part of our brain, the part that solves problems and sets goals.

They direct us away from our fight-or-flight…


If anxiety is running your life, it can be useful to have a set of questions that help tease out your best thinking about how to navigate the day.

Here are four questions I ask my therapy clients to help them dial down their anxious autopilot and live a more thoughtful life.

  1. If you’re not paying attention to your anxiety, what will happen?

You can’t change anxious behaviors if you are unable to define them.

So sit down and describe to yourself (in writing or out loud) what it looks like when you’re stressed and running on autopilot.


Anxious autopilot could look like:

  • Avoiding everyone who makes you anxious.
  • Imagining everyone is upset with you.
  • Randomly attacking tasks without any plan.
  • Focusing on how others need to change.
  • Overfunctioning for your family or colleagues.
  • Focusing on the “what if’s” instead of today’s reality


      2. How would you like to be more responsible for yourself today?

You’ll notice that this is a different question than “How would you like to calm yourself down?”


Because turning off your anxious autopilot will generate more anxiety in the short term, as you learn to self-regulate your anxiety without relying on unwanted behaviors.


Being more responsible could look like:

  • Having an important conversation, even if it makes you nervous.
  • Prioritizing personal health over others’ happiness.
  • Being more objective about how much you can accomplish in a day.
  • Focusing on the facts and not the worst-case scenarios.


3. How would you like to be less responsible for others today?

When we become anxious, we often try to control others in order to calm ourselves down.

When you begin your day by considering how you might over-function for others, it’s easier to step back at the moment and let others be more responsible for themselves.


Being less responsible for others could look like:

  • Not taking over when people are less efficient than you.
  • Asking questions instead of jumping in to give advice.
  • Just letting people be anxious.
  • Not reminding family members of their responsibilities.
  • Sharing your thinking instead of trying to convince people you’re right.


4. What would be the evidence that you were functioning less anxiously?

If you can’t describe how you’d like to function, it’s difficult to interrupt what’s automatic.

This is why I always ask therapy clients, “What would be the evidence of real change?”

Feeling less anxious is one sign, but so much of the day’s stressors are out of our control.

It’s best to have other markers of progress that keep you motivated.


Evidence of less anxious functioning could look like:

  • Accessing your thinking instead of always borrowing others’ thinking.
  • Following your best thinking, even if it requires some discomfort.
  • Not being so hard on yourself when anxiety predictably takes over.
  • Reflecting on your day to help direct yourself tomorrow.

There’s no magic in these questions.

They simply require you to foster a curiosity about how you function.

To observe the ways you manage anxiety, and to consider what it looks like to live differently.

The hard part is embracing (or at least tolerating) the stress of taking yourself off autopilot.

Over time, people learn that this discomfort is manageable.

Because nothing beats the relief of living life guided by your best thinking instead of your worst fears.


5 Simple Tips to Effectively Overcome Difficult People

Powerful advice for humans, not monks or philosophers.

Clipart of Building Relationships free image download
No matter what, we occasionally deal with difficult people — people who randomly insult you, push you around or treat you hatefully for no reason.


But as a person who long suffered from low self-esteem, those incidents used to cut me really deep and cause a lot of resentment.

All the typical, clichéd advice didn’t help.

Kill them with kindness.

Have compassion for them. Etc. (If anything, they made me feel worse.)


Fortunately, after a lot of self-work (and trial and error), I found several influential ways to overcome their behavior, walk away feeling like nothing ever happened, even feel pride in how I handled the situation.


Even better, they didn’t require me to have the patience and tranquility of a monk or ancient philosopher; they work perfectly in the real world with all our current flaws, failings, and more.


1. Stand Up For Yourself

In my experience, this is the best way to overcome a rude person and shorten how long it takes to get over your emotions.


Many people will disagree; in fact, you often hear advice like “put yourself in their shoes,” “maybe they’re having a bad day,” etc.

But why does it matter how bad their day is?

Nothing gives them the right to treat you cruelly.

(After all, do you act like an ass to innocent strangers when you’re having a bad day?)

And how is pretending to be nice going to help? You’ll just let people take advantage of you and repress your anger. (More on that later.)


Standing up for yourself doesn’t mean throwing punches, swearing, or being a jerk in return; it means calling them out for their behavior in a fair, calm, and mature way.

It’s not about “releasing” your anger; it’s about training the world how to treat you and respecting yourself.


You don’t need to call out every little thing, but for the moments that matter, say something.


For example, just yesterday, I arrived in a new country and encountered an extremely abusive and mean person (despite me being as polite as possible).

But I didn’t “pretend” to be nice and I didn’t “pretend” to be their therapist; I respectfully put my foot down and let them know I wouldn’t tolerate it. Problem solved.


The best part?

A few seconds later, I was over it!

I had no lingering resentment, regrets, or anger; instead, I had more self-respect for having the courage to calmly voice my feelings and not tolerate their rudeness.


Now, if you struggle to stand up for yourself—or still disagree—the next tip might help...


2. Stop Being So Nice To Everyone

I’ve noticed that some people teach you to be nice to rude people because, deep inside, they’re deeply hurt by it.

What makes them feel better is thinking that they’re “good” by pretending to be nice.

(But you can still be a “good” person while not always being “nice.”)


In reality, they fear not being liked.

They fear other people having a poor opinion of them.

They fear “hurting” other people (and feeling guilty because of it). But those beliefs do nothing for them.


Admit it: When random people are mean to you, you feel some rage at that moment.

Yet we’re taught to “be nice” and “empathize” because we don’t know how to handle our emotions. So we just repress it, smile, and wonder why we have back pain or migraines later.


“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.

If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

— St. Thomas, Verse 70


If you never express your anger correctly, you will create repression and pain.

Ultimately, forcing yourself to be nice to everyone at all times — especially when you don’t want to be — only creates more problems:


“Trying to be too nice — all things to all people — is a self-denial that sends increased energy into the shadow…

The denial is a complex or a formational cluster of pent-up thoughts and feelings…

People in great pain often tell me that their lives are great!

But a little probing beneath the surface brings tears, then deep sobbing, as their shadows break down in the light of truth.”

— Steven Ozanich, “The Great Pain Deception”


Now, I’m not saying to be rude to everyone; I’m saying you don’t have to pretend to be nice to everyone.

And don’t delude yourself into believing that being nice means you’re “the bigger person” or you “took the high road” — it doesn’t always.


“The compliant type will be prone to overrate his congeniality and the interests he has in common with those around him…he becomes sensitive to the needs of others….He becomes compliant, overconsiderate — within the limits possible for him — overappreciative, overgrateful, generous. He blinds himself to the fact that in his heart of hearts he does not care much for others and tends to regard them as hypocritical and self-seeking.”

— Karen Horney, “Our Inner Conflicts”


People, we’re adults.

Yes, we all have bad days, but let people be responsible for their actions and behaviors.

If someone acts like a dick, there might be consequences — and if they can’t handle it, that’s their problem, not yours.


Be honest.

Be real.

Let people deal with the repercussions and stop feeling responsible for how other adults feel.


Interestingly enough, after I stopped trying to be so nice to everyone, I started to feel better.

I could finally stop bottling up my true feelings, take action, and not feel bad about it.


3. Put Blame Where It Belongs

I’ve had times I was walking down a street — minding my own business — when someone passed by, insulted me, and then hurried away.


In these moments, it helps to put the blame where the blame belongs.

Don’t try to explain away or rationalize their behavior.

Accept that their rude act says everything about them — their character and personality — and nothing about you.


Know that by being so twisted mentally and emotionally, they’re only destroying themselves.

And know that no matter what they say or how they act, you are still worthy as a human being.

Next, don’t look for things where there are none.

Sure, I believe we manifest things in life, but we must also accept that some people are just assholes. So unless you go around looking for trouble, you can hold your head high and know you played zero part in their behaviors.


Being able to blame them can help in those moments.

After all, why should you get upset?

You didn’t do anything.

(And why should you care what a disturbed person thinks about you?)


4. Stop Changing People

No matter how hard you try, you can never change anyone else.

And frankly, even if you do change them, it won’t change your own life.


“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

― Leo Tolstoy


If you’re always trying to change others and make them act as you want, not only will you fail, but you’ll also set yourself up to be disappointed, frustrated, and upset with many things in life.


Plus, if you really wanted to change the world, the first person you would need to change is yourself.

(Just to be clear, standing up for yourself isn’t about changing people either; it’s about setting boundaries and respecting yourself.)


You are not responsible for other people; they are responsible for themselves.

Everyone has their own traumas, flaws, etc. so the standards you apply to yourself cannot be applied to them.

Focus on yourself and what you need to do first.


5. Be Careful Of Your Thoughts

Whenever you think negatively of someone else, you bring that negativity into your own world because, once you think it, you create it within yourself and your body has no other choice but to follow your conscious thought.


“Your thoughts are creative.

Therefore, you actually create in your own experience when you think and feel about the other person.

This suggestion you give to another, you give to yourself as well, because your mind is the creative medium…

You are not being magnanimous when you forgive, you are really being selfish, because what you wish for the other, you are actually wishing for yourself.

The reason is that you are thinking it and you are feeling it. As you think and feel, so are you.”

— Joseph Murphy, Ph.D.


It did nothing for me to “think positively” just because everyone told me to.

Instead, it helped me to realize that I don't need to like difficult people, but I could still wish for their health, success, happiness, and more.


It wasn’t about “empathizing” with their problems; it's was about understanding that how I think about another person is also being created within me.


It doesn’t happen overnight—you have to practice thinking and behaving in new ways until you build new habits.

But by making the effort, it’ll help you conquer each situation and transform yourself which, ultimately, is the only person you need to transform.

And that’s worth it.



17 Symptoms and Habits of the Self-Destructive Person

17 Habits of the Self-Destructive Person image

Self-destructive behavior comes in many guises – some extreme, some not so extreme.  But in order to continue internally evolving, connect with your true self, and live a life you love, it’s best to look at your devils right in the face.

Symptoms and/or habits of self-destructive behavior include the following:


1.  Housing self-defeating mindsets

Self-defeating mindsets are unconscious forms of self-destructive behavior because they result in self-fulfilling prophecies.  Examples include thoughts such as, “I’m going to fail, I just know it,” “I’ll never get out alive,” “This will completely destroy me,” etc.


2.  Failing to take action

Failing to take action may be passive, but it’s still self-destructive in nature. When we know something is bad for us, but fail to take any action or steps to remedy the issue, we are essentially setting ourselves up for, and guaranteeing, failure.


3.  Over-eating

Over-eating usually appears as the habit of cramming ourselves full of sugary, fatty, and processed foods. This is a distressing habit that can result in many long-term health issues (not to mention the short-term negative impacts on mood, sleep, creativity, etc.).


4.  Under-eating

Many under-eaters fool themselves into thinking they’re benefiting themselves. The reality is that under-eating is usually a band-aid for serious self-image problems and other psychological issues.


5.  Forced incompetence

Forced incompetence means portraying yourself as unintelligent or incapable of successfully achieving something. This habit usually stems from a lack of confidence in your abilities and can function as a coping mechanism (e.g., to deal with academic pressure).


6.  Going out of your way to harm others

What goes around comes around, as they say, and the negative influence you have on others, whether by words or deeds, will eventually manifest in your own life (e.g., through sicknesses, tragedy, legal issues, isolation). On some level, we all know this truth, yet we go ahead and hurt others anyway.


7.  Self-harm

Self-harm is an extreme physical expression of self-destructive behavior. This practice is connected to low self-worth and the desire to cope with emotional pain in a physical way.


8.  Self-pity

A self-pity is an unconscious form of self-destructive behavior. It is destructive because it encourages us to remain inactive (i.e., wallowing in our misfortunes), rather than encouraging a proactive approach towards life.


9.  Drug and alcohol abuse

A self-evident form of self-destructive behavior, drug, and alcohol abuse creates endless misery in the lives of addicts and their friends and family members. Drug and alcohol abuse are usually connected to soul loss – or being disconnected from your soul.


10.  Social suicide

While not always committed consciously, social suicide is the act of deliberately alienating yourself from your peers. This could be through a variety of irritating, repelling, or antisocial behaviors that on some level you know are self-destructive.


11.  Hiding from emotions

Failing to acknowledge negative (and sometimes positive) emotions creates a host of mental, emotional, and physiological illnesses. This is another form of unconsciously manifested self-destructive behavior.


12.  Refusing to be helped

Pushing away advice, refusing to go to rehab, avoiding the psychologist … not wanting to be helped is a reflection of the deep core belief that “I’m unworthy.”


13.  Unnecessary self-sacrifice

Some people are in love with their misery because that is all they have known for a large portion of their lives. Unnecessary self-sacrifice or being a martyr are good ways of making us feel “noble” and “altruistic” while masking the actual act of self-sabotage (which is giving up on the hopes, dreams, and passions that make us truly happy).


14.  Spending too much

Whether through chronic gambling or constant eBay purchases, overspending may seem unusual to have on this list, but it is nevertheless a form of self-destructive behavior that limits one’s freedom and peace of mind.


15.  Physical neglect

Getting poor sleep, refusing to exercise, eating unhealthy food, and failing to maintain the general well-being of your body are all classic signs of common self-destructive behavior.


16.  Mental neglect

Refusing, avoiding, or failing to confront your psychological health issues (e.g., stress, anxiety, depression, paranoia, OCD, etc.) delays the healing process, resulting in the perpetuation of long-term issues.


17.  Sabotaging relationships

Sabotaging your relationships is a complex symptom as it involves a large variety of destructive behaviors such as jealousy, possessiveness, emotional manipulation, neediness, violence, and so forth. When we don’t feel worthy of love, we unconsciously manifest this in our relationships through the way we choose to behave.


You’re Not Broken (You’re Just Human)

If you identify with most of the above signs, you might feel your stomach sink and a dark cloud of sadness/resentment wash over you.


You might start thinking that you’re fundamentally “broken” or something is severely wrong with you. But please understand that it’s normal to identify with a large number of the above signs.


There’s nothing wrong with you.

You’re not broken.

You’re not a lost cause.

You’re simply human.

And that’s totally okay.


Why is it normal to possess a large majority of self-destructive signs?

The answer is that most people have either been negatively programmed by their family or society or have unconsciously adopted these actions as a defense mechanism to protect against mental and emotional pain.

In other words, it’s not your fault and you aren’t to blame. 

You didn’t choose to be self-destructive, did you?

You didn’t think, “hmm, I think I’m going to be self-destructive now,” did you? It’s just what happened.

The goal isn’t to feel terrible about yourself, the goal is to see that “it is what it is” and find ways to reverse, undo, and triumph over your self-destructive tendencies.

We’ll explore some ways of doing that next …



How to Stop Being Self-Destructive

While I can’t give you a magical cure, I can give you some ideas, inspiration, and a few tried-and-tested paths to follow.

Try all of them systematically or select a few and work with them consistently.

On average, it takes around 66 days to establish a new habit according to what researchers have found.

So make it your goal to stick with at least one of these activities for two months.


Here are the practices:

1. Keep a self-reflection journal every day

Journaling has numerous mental health benefits and it’s a powerful way of increasing your self-awareness. In fact, we could say that self-awareness is the most crucial ingredient in overcoming self-destructive tendencies! Read more about journaling and the practice of self-awareness.


2. Practice meditation or mindfulness

There’s a reason why you keep hearing about these two practices and it’s because they work! Even if you struggle to meditate traditionally, there are endless forms of mindfulness meditation out there that might spark your interest. Examples include walking meditation, mindful art therapy, chanting mantras, guided journeys, color visualization, etc. If you don’t know where to start, I recommend downloading a meditation app such as InsightTimer, Calm, or Headspace. I started off with these apps, and they helped me tremendously. Bringing this key spiritual practice into your life can have profound benefits.


3. Do some emotional catharsis

Sometimes, the reason why we’re self-destructing is that a deeper emotion (such as anger, grief, passion) isn’t being expressed. Just think of a kettle: the more it boils, the more steam is released. But if that kettle had no way to release that steam, it would eventually explode! The same thing applies to you: you need a pressure valve, a way to channel your pent up emotions. When you don’t channel those buried emotions in a healthy way, they come out in self-destructive behaviors. So find something you enjoy doing that requires intense mental or physical effort. Examples include boxing, running, singing, dancing, creating art, or plain old screaming and crying (doing this privately is a good idea). One unconventional form of catharsis is called dynamic meditation.


4. Focus on self-love and self-care

Self-love is a basic attitude of kindness toward yourself: it is the practice of taking care of your emotional needs. Self-care is generally more oriented towards your body: it involves eating properly, getting enough sleep, drinking adequate water, wearing comfortable clothing, staying healthy, etc. Both self-love and self-care go beautifully hand-in-hand as allies against self-destruction. Here are two amazing guides you can read on learning how to love yourself and practicing self-care.


5. Shift your mindset

Realize that self-destructive behavior is a sign of inner shadows and core wounds that have gone haywire. Be kind to yourself and realize that you have a metaphorical thorn lodged in your side. You’re trying to get it out, but you don’t know how – and that leads to self-destructive behavior. (It’s a desperate attempt to ease the pain you’re carrying inside.) By shifting your mindset from blame and self-condemnation, to self-compassion, you’ll be empowered to make choices that align with your highest good.

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Shadow Work Journal:

Go on a journey through the deepest and darkest corners of your psyche. Embrace your inner demons, uncover your hidden gifts, and reach the next level of your spiritual growth. This is deep and powerful work!
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6. Seek out professional help

There’s only so much an article on the internet can do to help you.

While you’ve taken a wonderful step towards health and healing, the next step will help even more. Seeking out guidance in the form of a therapist or counselor will aid you with ongoing support and tools.

These, in turn, will transform your life little by little.

And soon, you’ll look back on this behavior with a gentle smile and a sigh of relief, proud of your ability to overcome it.


Self-Destructive Tendencies Q&A


What makes someone self-destructive?

There are many reasons why someone might be self-destructive.

On an emotional and psychological level, self-destructive tendencies may arise from childhood trauma, negative social conditioning, and low self-esteem that is due to having unsupportive or abusive peers.

On a spiritual level, self-destructive tendencies are due to soul loss, or a disconnection from your authentic essence.


What are examples of self-destructive behaviors?

Examples of self-destructive behaviors might include excessive self-sacrifice, over-eating or under-eating, sabotaging close relationships, smoking or drinking too much, drug abuse, and self-harm.


How can I stop being self-destructive?

The first step to overcoming self-destructive tendencies is to simply be self-aware of what’s happening.

Journaling about your discoveries is a powerful place to begin.

The next step is to practice self-care and self-love.

Learn how to take care of your body and nurture yourself on an emotional level.


Why do I have self-destructive thoughts?

Self-destructive thoughts are a product of low self-esteem and a part of us known as the inner critic. It’s crucial to remember that this is just one part of you, not the whole of you.

You are so much bigger than the self-destructive thoughts that randomly pop into your mind. Remember that we all get self-destructive thoughts from time to time, you might just be more sensitive to them due to past trauma.


Self-destructive tendencies can be both conscious and unconscious – and they end up sabotaging our health, happiness, and long-term wellbeing.


But please remember that these harmful behaviors are a symptom of a deeper wound that needs to be shown compassion, and needs to be expressed in a healthy way.


It’s important to remember that you’re not alone.

Like me, you probably can identify with a couple or more symptoms and habits on this list.

Take the first step forward on your healing journey by developing more self-awareness, self-care, self-forgiveness, and self-love, and you will eventually be free of your self-destructive tendencies.

What are your experiences with self-sabotage?

I’d love to hear your stories below! Let’s help others not feel so alone.

17 Habits of the Self-Destructive Person (+ How to Stop)

Aletheia Luna

About Aletheia Luna

Aletheia Luna is an influential spiritual writer whose work has touched the lives of millions worldwide. After escaping the religious cult she was raised in, Luna experienced a profound existential crisis that led to her spiritual awakening. As a spiritual counselor and author, Luna’s mission is to help others find love, strength, and inner light in even the darkest of places. [Read More]