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When Does My Bad Behavior Officially Become Self-Destructive?

If I keep my coping mechanisms small, does that mean I’ll never have a big problem on my hands?

If you’ve ever gotten drunk and hid money from yourself, only to feel great when you accidentally find $20 in a coat pocket years later, you can think of self-destructive behaviors as essentially the opposite of that — the subtle yet consequential choices we make that slowly erode our mental and physical health hide in our pockets until they’re overflowing with trash.

“A pattern of self-destructive behavior is oftentimes a gradual progression, becoming increasingly invasive over time,” counselor and addiction specialist Matt Glowiak explains. It might start with drinking a little bit more frequently after work, decreasing sleep and physical activity, ignoring symptoms of anxiety and depression, disconnecting from people and groups that could keep you in check and “most anything else that sets one further back.” 

Simply put, being self-destructive means getting in your own way over and over again, and then pretending everything is fine. In his work, Glowiak has found that this “gradual progression makes it easier to soften the blow — adjusting one’s beliefs and values to a point where one justifies such behaviors.”

For those struggling with symptoms of depression, anxiety, loss, trauma or low self-esteem, self-destruction can act as a paradoxical salve, helping us self-soothe in the moment. But like the extra whiskey we give ourselves after a long day, we build up a tolerance and need more of it. And because many of these habits start small and with the best intentions of feeling better, they can be that much harder to let go of. That’s also why when loved ones call us out on our self-destructive ways, it’s so easy to push back and be defensive. 

The problem is, when concern from friends fails to register, it can lead to more unprotected sex, gambling, disordered eating, self-injury or continued substance abuse, and spiral out of control enough that the work required to clean up the damage and reverse these issues can be so overwhelming that it seems easier to implode. 

To prevent this from happening, clinical psychologist Kate Lieberman encourages her clients to explore what problems they’re trying to solve with their self-destructive tendencies, knowing that some are more obvious than others. Heavy drinking may be a way to protect against fully experiencing negative emotions. Picking fights, withdrawing and cheating in our romantic relationships may “represent an unconscious effort to keep us safe from the feared consequences of connection,” Lieberman explains. “Procrastinating may be an attempt to protect ourselves from the fear of failure that’s induced when we begin an overwhelming task.”

One way to start changing these behaviors is by keeping a paper trail, Lieberman suggests. This doesn’t necessarily need to be traditional journaling (though it certainly can be), but tracking how much you work, drink and spend in a day. “It’s also important to listen to our gut and take seriously any inclinations that we may be overdoing something,” Lieberman notes. That way, when someone says they’re worried about you, you can check your work before telling them to back off. 

One resource that helps unpack self-destructive tendencies, which can start building as early as childhood, is the Self-Therapy Workbook: An Exercise Book for the IFS Process. It guides individuals through “Internal Family Systems” therapy exercises, an approach, Lieberman explains, that “emphasizes awareness of the motivations and adaptive functions of problematic behaviors or psychological symptoms.” 

Once you have an increased awareness about the purpose of self-destructive behaviors, books like Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions and Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior can be good for working on changing them. Lieberman, however, stresses that “therapy is absolutely the most effective tool to help people overcome self-destructive behavior, and if someone is engaging in behaviors that place them or others in imminent risk, self-help shouldn’t be considered sufficient.” 

It won’t be easy, of course — it’s an individual effort that also includes outside support from friends, family, and like Lieberman said, a therapist. But in the end, it’ll be worth far more than any amount of cash you’ll ever find in your pocket.