Self-Defeating Behavior: Ways to Recognize and Overcome it

Any action taken repeatedly with the intention to sabotage one's own progress in life is considered self-defeating behavior (SDB). Putting up roadblocks for yourself on a regular basis may seem counter-intuitive, yet you may be doing just that.

Key takeaways:
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    Self-defeating behavior (SDB) inhibits success regardless of your desires, goals, or values.
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    This type of behavior is often caused by low self-esteem, negative self-talk, and other painful feelings, which are made worse by failing over and over again.
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    You can overcome SDB by observing behaviors, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs about yourself and questioning them when they prevent you from achieving your objectives.
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    Once you understand the causes of self-defeating behavior, you will establish self-supportive, positive habits to build an effective and rewarding life.

In fact, you may not even be aware of how your actions are preventing you from reaching your goals. The good news is that learned behaviors can be unlearned.

Why do we use self-defeating behaviors?

Lack of self-esteem is one of the primary reasons people engage in SDB. Even though the causes of self-defeating behaviors may vary, they are often triggered by a perceived threat to our sense of identity (ego) or self-worth. It is usually irrational, meaning that you are unaware of it at the time. So why you act irrationally depends on how you feel about yourself and how your subconscious stores memories from the past.

Various factors may cause this, but the end result is the same: feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy, the perception that you do not deserve success, and even self-loathing.

How SDB can be damaging?

Self-defeating behavior sets you up for failure in many ways. For starters, it fosters bad habits that sap your potential for achievement. Because of this, you may find that you always fall short of the goals you've set for yourself.

This type of behavior is also detrimental to your reputation. For example, if you don't meet your targets at work, your supervisor and coworkers may see you as untrustworthy, uncommitted, lethargic, or unmotivated. Failures and disappointments like these deepen emotions of regret and frustration. This, in turn, may lead to shame, which promotes poor self-esteem.

Typical self-defeating behaviors

There are certain types of actions that are typical for self-defeating behaviors. These include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Procrastination.
  • Putting off making decisions.
  • Resisting positive change out of fear.
  • People pleasing.
  • Becoming defensive or taking things personally.
  • Blaming others for your own mistakes.
  • Feeling inadequate.
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs.
  • Comfort eating.
  • Perfectionism.

Beliefs that lead to SDB

Negative self-talk is a common cause of SDB. Here are some examples of thought patterns that can hinder your ability to achieve your objectives:

  • If I am not perfect, nobody will accept me.
  • Everything has to be perfect or it's not worth doing.
  • If I am going to succeed, there is no room for mistakes or any type of failure.
  • It's the other person's fault that my relationships fall apart.
  • I can't ever express my feelings because I will appear stupid.
  • If I am not witty, bubbly, and super interesting, people will not like me.
  • My problems are insurmountable. I am too far gone, so where is the point now?
  • There is something wrong with my personality, so why bother changing it?

Strategies for change and growth

The good news is that you can rid yourself of self-defeating behaviors with practice and become a more proactive and confident person instead. We will cover useful strategies below that can help you defeat your inner saboteur.

How to stop procrastinating

Consider a task that you consistently delay completing for no apparent reason. Maybe you're leaving it until the last minute because you perform best under pressure. But how much stress is that causing you? Not to mention the negative impression you're leaving on your colleagues. It won't work just to say that you're going to quit procrastinating. Instead, you must replace that bad habit with a constructive one.

One of the best ways to fight procrastination is to try to complete the most challenging assignment first thing in the morning. For example, if calling an important client is the most stressful part of the day, then make the call once you get to the office. Similarly, if you have a big project coming up, write down in steps what needs to be done and begin by taking the first step.

After incorporating this technique, the rest of your day or project should go more smoothly.

How to stop rationalizing

Rationalization is an attempt to excuse a conduct that is detrimental to our health. According to Freud's psychoanalytic theory, rationalization is an unconscious effort to avoid confronting the fundamental causes of a behavior. It is the self-talk that minimizes the impact of behavior, such as:

  • So what if I don't do that essay?
  • I can always repeat it in six months.
  • It's not the end of the world.

Take note of your self-talk when you find yourself rationalizing. No matter how absurd or irrational your negative self-talk may appear, type it all down. Writing it down makes it conscious and allows you to be more objective.

How to understand your emotions

Self-defeating behavior is often motivated by emotions of worry, resentment, and inferiority. You have to learn to identify your emotions. At that moment, ask yourself, "What am I feeling right now?" Is it anger, sadness, loneliness, or hurt? Naming your feelings is the first step in learning how to control them. Always strive to regulate your emotions so that you don't engage in acts that have bad repercussions or negatively impact others.

Develop self-supporting behaviors

As you start to develop an awareness of your behaviors, your self-esteem will automatically increase.

Consider the following actions to develop self-supporting behaviors:

When you notice a bad mood or a desire to put an important task on the "long finger," have an affirmation ready to use that is uplifting and motivating. Repeat this as many times as necessary.

Try to set smaller, more achievable goals on the way to bigger ones to increase your chance of success and help boost your self-confidence.

Use visualization or meditation techniques to see yourself as a success. Create a vision of what you want to achieve and focus on it every day.

It's important to keep in mind that it takes 21 days for a new routine to become automatic and at least six months to a year for a habit to become a part of one's personality. Few things make you feel worse than squandering your potential by indulging in self-defeating behaviors, and few things make you feel better once you have conquered them.


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