Lynda M. Gantt, Ph.D., LMFT: What are self-defeating behaviors?
Maintaining Mental Fitness

Lynda M. Gantt, Ph.D., LMFT: What are self-defeating behaviors?


Milton Cudney defined self-defeating behavior “As action or attitude that once worked to help an individual cope with a harmful experience, but that now works against the individual to keep him or her from responding to new moments in life in a healthy way.”

What are the characteristics of self-defeating behaviors? They are behaviors that once worked to assist a person cope with a hurtful or threatening event, and that helps a person deal with psychic discomfort. Additionally, people do it to make sense of a situation that is confusing. Unfortunately, people do not always choose the best behavior. Their choice of behaviors will not necessarily guarantee that the consequences they are trying to avoid will happen.

People choose to engage in self-defeating behaviors because it is easier and quicker than employing an elaborate decision making process, or because a person may lack critical information about other choices. They may have tunnel vision. Perhaps being self-defeating is the process with which the person is most familiar.

Examples of mistaken conclusions from self-defeating thinking would be, “If I act indifferently people won’t be able to hurt me.” Or, “If I remain unhappy or appear to be suffering, God will see me in a better light and rescue me.” Another example could be, “If I am constantly worrying and coming up with different ideas, nothing bad is going to happen to me.” Or, “If I put the blame on someone else, others will exonerate me.” And finally, “If I am always alert to criticism, people will be cautious about attacking me.”

Every self-defeating thought is a response to the fears we have. Anger is a response to fear. Anger is a cover-up for fearful emotions and thoughts. There are two types of fear: Real Fear is based on valid assessment of potential threats. And, Mythic Fear which is based on false fear and that our self-defeating behavior won’t be effective. There is a fear of others discovering negative attributes about you. It may be that deep down you don’t like yourself or you believe that you can’t succeed at the goals you have set for yourself. If you have always put yourself down, changing those thoughts may be difficult.

You may have a fear of what others think of you. Perhaps they will reject you, think less of you, talk about you or exploit you. People may avoid certain situations where they may be evaluated. Other reasons may be fear of being successful or an inability to accept success. A person may focus on the negative consequences of success. Once reaching a level of success may cause a person to question their ability to continue doing so. An A in all subjects may fear being successful in the future so they will intentionally not work as hard and blame it on being bored in class.

If a person can accurately assess why they engage in self-defeating behaviors and replace those thoughts with rational, insightful thoughts and behaviors, then they can begin to recover. Catching negative thoughts as they happen and replacing them with positive thoughts will start the process. Examining what our conclusions are with negative thoughts and what our conclusions are with positive, goal directed thoughts help us to achieve positive results. Acknowledging our success is good for the soul and fosters more successful behavior.

Become more assertive in your interactions with others and don’t take life so seriously. Think logically instead of emotionally. Besides, people don’t remember our foolishness. Most people are so concerned with themselves that they really don’t pay much attention to others. Remember no one is perfect.


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