Self-Destructive Behaviour: What it is, and How to Stop

Medically approved by
Dr Earim Chaudry
Last updated
13th February 2022

In 30 seconds

We all do the occasional thing that isn’t healthy for us. But consistent self-destructive behaviour can have a real negative impact on our ability to live our lives to the full. Some behaviour can be more obvious, like physical self-harm, while others, like constant self-criticism, can be subtler. We look at what self sabotage is, and what we can do about it. 

What is self-destructive behaviour? 

Put simply, self-destructive behaviour means doing things that will cause us physical or mental harm. Psychologists also refer to this as dysregulated behaviour

Sometimes these actions can bring us pleasure in the short-term, or momentarily help us relieve feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. But in the long run, they get in the way of our ability to live a healthy and fulfilled life. 

Some self-destructive behaviour is fairly obvious, such as: 

  • Physical self-harm
  • Excessive drinking or drug taking
  • Risky sexual behaviour 
  • Compulsive gambling or spending
  • Over or under-eating

However, many of us can engage in more subtle acts of self-sabotage. These can look like: 

  • Negative self-talk: Being derogatory as a defence mechanism and putting yourself down.
  • People pleasing or self-abandonment: Changing yourself to please others and denying your own needs. 
  • Procrastination or chronic avoidance: Putting off important tasks, causing stress or having a negative impact on your life at a later date. 
  • Negative relationships: Engaging with people who treat you poorly or clinging to those who simply aren’t interested in you. 
  • Sabotaging relationships: Withdrawing from your connections or engaging in alienating behaviour that causes them to pull away. 
  • Neglecting your mental health: Not seeking treatment for anxiety, depression, stress or other mental health issues. 

If you engage in one kind of self-destructive behaviour, you’re actually more likely to develop another. How severe these behaviours are, how often you might engage in them, and how much of an impact they have on your day-to-day life vary from person to person. But no act of self-sabotage should be brushed under the carpet. 

Some people may not know that they’re being self-destructive. Others might be well aware that their actions – like drinking too much – aren’t helpful, but are unable to resist the compulsion to engage in them. We shouldn’t blame ourselves or feel guilt, though. There are a number of reasons for self-sabotage and dysregulated behaviour, which we’ll look at next. 

What causes self-destructive behaviour? 

Psychologists believe that people engage in self-destructive behaviour to negate intense emotions. Due to a number of reasons, they learned that this kind of behaviour was the only way to reduce their discomfort, and therefore feel strong urges to engage in it when stressed, anxious, or unhappy. 

Drinking too much or using drugs can be enjoyable at the time, and also numb us to feelings we can’t deal with. But these substances aren’t good for our overall health, and can also cause us to act uncharacteristically and commit further acts of self-sabotage. 

Even seemingly small things, like self-effacing comments, can provide relief when facing intense feelings of social anxiety, for example. But over time, these comments only reduce our self-esteem and make us feel worse about ourselves. 

These kinds of behaviours are often associated with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and personality disorders. 

Some overly self-destructive people grew up in adverse or invalidating environments. During childhood, or throughout the rest of their lives, they may have experienced: 

  • Physical or mental abuse, neglect or abandonment. 
  • Family members discouraging emotional expression or struggling with their own, potentially acting in a self-destructive manner themselves. 
  • Bullying outside the home or exclusion by their peers.
  • Low self-esteem. 

What can we do to reduce self-destructive behaviour? 

The main thing to keep in mind when struggling with self-destructive behaviour is that you are in no way at fault. But leaving this problem untreated can seriously worsen your mental health. 

There is lots of help out there, and speaking to a professional about the issues you’re facing is an important first step. 

They will talk you through your options, which include: 

  • Talking Therapy: Speaking to a therapist will help you understand where your tendency towards self-sabotage comes from and dig up any wider underlying issues. It will also help you better manage your emotions.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (or CBT): This can help you learn what triggers compulsive behaviour, and how to respond to these triggers in a healthier way.
  • Medication: If there is a larger underlying mental health issue that’s causing your self-destructive behaviour, like depression, anxiety, or PTSD, medication can help you manage it. 

There are also a number of things you can do yourself to get a better understanding of what causes you to self-destruct and what might help you reduce these behaviours: 

  • Keep a journal: Journaling has many mental health benefits. It improves your self-awareness and helps you spot patterns and triggers that cause your self-destructive behaviours. You might even spot behaviours you didn’t know you were engaging in.
  • Meditate and practice mindfulness: This can help you get out of negative spirals because they will help you better manage emotions and reduce the chronic feelings of pressure that cause you to engage in self-destructive behaviour in the first place. 

Key takeaways 

Self-destructive behaviours count as anything that can cause you physical or mental harm. We often engage in them in response to too much stress or emotions we can’t handle. This doesn’t make us weak in any way, and there are ways we can heal. 

Speaking to a professional is an important first step, and there are other mindfulness exercises we can engage in to help manage difficult impulses. 


What makes someone self-destructive? 

Psychologists believe that our tendency to self-destruct comes from learning that these behaviours are the best way to deal with intense emotions. This can stem from growing up in difficult environments or from having low self-esteem. 

How do you fix self-destructive behaviour? 

Therapy is the best way to fix self-destructive behaviour. Talking therapy helps you identify the reasons you self-destruct, helps you better manage emotions. Cognitive behavioural therapy can help you understand the triggers for your behaviour and change it. 

How does self-destructive behaviour impact those around you? 

One example of self-destructive behaviour is sabotaging relationships, which can obviously impact those around you. Seeing a loved one harm themselves is obviously upsetting too. Self-sabotage also includes refusing to ask for help, so a self-destructive person may not accept help, even if they truly need it, which can be hard for those close to them. 

While we've ensured that everything you read on the Health Centre is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

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