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Self Defeating Behaviour Essay

“Self-defeating behavior is the idea that sometimes people knowingly do things that will cause them to fail or bring them trouble. It is defined as “any deliberate or intentional behavior that has clear, definitely or probably negative effects on the self or on the self’s projects.” (Wikipedia: Self-Defeating Behavior) The concept of and theories behind why a person behaves in ways that are self-defeating is one that has been examined by many psychological approaches over time. In this essay I will define and explain self-defeating behaviours, their origins, causes and reasons for maintaining them, together with examples of such behaviours. Subsequently I will focus on two approaches to addressing self-defeating behaviours, incorporating similarities and differences. I will then give my personal thoughts as a student counsellor. The origins of self-defeating behaviour can often be traced back to childhood. One trigger may be constant criticism whereby the child is told that he/she can never do anything right, is useless and so on.

This can lead to the child engaging in self-defeating behaviour that reinforces their resultant poor self-image. If the parent(s) are seen as the most important people in the child’s life, fear of disappointing them, or of not being able to meet their standards or expectations can result in developing self-defeating behaviour. The child may not even try to attempt a task for fear of failure. Too much emphasis placed on competition with other children in the family for example, may reinforce feelings of failure; of losing and could create the reaction of freezing up or self-sabotage if under pressure as an adult. In essence therefore, learned responses and patterns of behaviour and reactions create a programme of the child’s self-perception of how best to adjust to and deal with family requirements, in order to form and maintain secure bonds with his/her parent(s). However, once wholly unconscious, the programmes can be very hard to recognise and the older a person becomes, the less relative ‘benefit’ their presence provides.

For example, the woman who presents with being unable to assert herself and ask that her needs be met, at work or at home, recognises through therapy that as a child, asking directly for what she needed or wanted was deemed wholly unacceptable by her parents. The notion that she was selfish was reinforced therefore and as such she sought to gain approval from her parents by neglecting her own needs. Suppression and repression of her needs enabled her to feel accepted by her parents. Only through recognising the legacy of this childhood programme, can she as an adult, let go of the past and alter the deeply embedded behaviour and resolve present day self-defeating behaviour. The origins of self-defeating behaviour are not linked solely to childhood. A person experiencing any traumatic event or situation can create self-defeating behaviour; the event or situation having sensitised the person to ‘overreact’ to any stimuli which are regarded as sufficiently similar to the original event. While on the inside it may be perceived as necessary self-protection, the behaviour is none the less self-defeating.

An example would be the war veteran suffering from PTSD, while their reaction of diving for shelter whenever a plane is heard overhead is understandable, it makes no rational sense in their present moment and situation. Another origin of self-defeating behaviour is connected to substances, relationships or past activities that in the past have lowered stress or anxiety levels. Examples would be drinking, drug use, gambling, excessive shopping or sex addiction. While the activity alleviates stress in the moment, ultimately it prevents positive progression and what began as a means of stress release ends up being self-defeating. There are also those people who possess personality traits that if not addressed, could develop into self-defeating behaviour. A shy person may avoid social situations and as such on a personal and professional level they may not reach their potential. Experiences that result in limiting thoughts remain in a person’s mind and when faced with similar circumstances, the old experiences are automatically relived. Those experiences and reactions seemed relevant at the time but not necessarily so for other situations.

They are no longer valid but they continue to influence judgements, behaviours and decisions. “The opinion you hold of yourself today greatly reflects the experiences of your past. These influences, which may have been less than positive, set into motion your network of habits, thoughts, attitudes and beliefs that remain consistent with our low self-concept.” (Lieberman, page 2, 1997) Those who present with self-defeating behaviour have a tendency to intentionally or unintentionally engage in a negative thought process as well as negative behaviours that work against their best interests, resulting in self-sabotage, defeat and failure. A negative dialogue has programmed their mind into sabotaging personal goals and failing to reach full potential. Examples of self-defeating behaviour are: firstly not finishing tasks that are started; focusing on why the task cannot be completed rather than how to achieve completion. Secondly, a feeling of helplessness and being overwhelmed can result in non-completion of a task, due to having felt overly excited about a project or idea which then results in feeling overwhelmed. Some will refuse and deny routes or advice that would benefit attainment of their goal while others will constantly talk negatively to and about themselves.

For some people a project will be started only to lead to procrastination, before starting other projects; all left unfinished. Some will create self-defeat by being late, poor attendance and performance, while others may become addicted to substances or habits such as gambling or eating disorders. In essence therefore, self-defeating behaviours can manifest in many ways, from saying ‘no’ to your child and then giving in 15 minutes later, saying you are giving up alcohol, then meeting a friend for a beer, to prioritising a to-do list only to start at the bottom. These aspects lead on to the question of why someone would maintain self-defeating behaviour/s. The reasons for maintaining them are varied and often complex. Some people view themselves as being helpless to do anything to alter their situation. In doing so it ensures paralysis which is a powerful reason for doing nothing. In thinking they have no choice and even in some cases blaming someone else for their behaviour, a person can provide themselves with powerful reasons for absolving themselves from all personal responsibility.

Those who perceive themselves as victims enable complete denial of responsibility for their behaviour. There are those who will pretend their behaviour has changed for the better, only for something to ‘go wrong’, thereby giving them permission to revert back to the self-defeating behaviour because in their view then, ‘I tried and it didn’t work’. Humans as a species inherently fear change; they become accustomed to the well-worn and well known. A habit requires no special effort or thought, whereas change requires a period of adjustment and the releasing of the familiar. Many therefore will resist change. For some, relinquishing a certain behaviour, albeit a self-defeating one, brings forth fear. Two approaches which can be applied to treating clients with self-defeating behaviour are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and the Psychodynamic approach. For the purpose of this essay the issue of low self-esteem resulting in lack of assertiveness will be used.

“People are more likely to behave in a self-defeating or destructive manner when either there are threats made to their ego or when they have low self-esteem.” (Wikipedia: Self-defeating behaviour) CBT’s roots stem from the development of behaviour therapy in the early 20th century, the development of cognitive therapy in the 1960’s and the consequent integration of the two and it was developed in the 1970’s by Aaron T. Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy. “Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapeutic approach: a talking therapy that addresses dysfunctional emotions, behaviors and cognitions through a goal-orientated, systematic process.” (Wikipedia: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) Self-esteem is often at the core of many psychological issues and it can manifest in depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addictions, as well as lack of assertiveness, be it at home, in the workplace or in social situations. “The major cause of poor self-esteem is past negative programming that is the product of judgemental parents.” (Hadley & Staudacher, page 152, 2001) CBT would teach the client to improve his/her self-esteem by first recognising the relationship between their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

In identifying and becoming aware of these negative automatic thoughts, discovering the underlying inaccuracies in their thinking and subsequently rewriting the thoughts in a more balanced way, the process of change can commence. Not only would thinking in a more positive way increase self-esteem but so too would learning to say ‘no’ to things the client does not wish to do, as well as listing their strengths and achievements and keeping them accessible to read often. In the initial treatment sessions, client and therapist would compile a list of aspects the client wishes CBT to address and overcome. The client who lacks assertiveness would likely have self-doubt about his/her ability to competently and effectively master situations requiring assertiveness. The internal critic would create an avoidance of challenges, opportunities and advancements if left unaltered. In essence, CBT would provide the client with a bespoke programme using relaxation, imagery and behavioural exercises to change negative belief. CBT would focus on how the client interprets their experiences as the determining factor of who they are, as opposed to simply looking at what they experience.

In identifying, challenging and replacing negative or self-defeating thought patterns, CBT would seek to replace limiting and negative thought patterns and behaviours with more helpful and positive ones in order to alter behaviour and emotions. Psychodynamic therapy which evolved from Freudian psychoanalytic theory is founded on the basis that a client’s presenting issue has its roots placed in their unconscious mind. The less aware a client is of these unconscious roots and factors, the more control they can exert and the more likely a client is to remain stuck in self-defeating behaviour. Psychodynamic therapy also suggests that our personalities are shaped by the developmental stages we go through in childhood. The goal of psychodynamic therapy is to facilitate the client’s self-awareness and their understanding of the influence of the past on the current self-defeating behaviour. It enables the client to examine unresolved conflicts that have manifested in the presenting issue.

Psychodynamic therapy will employ several techniques. With regards the client with self-esteem issues, the therapist may consider attachment theory as pioneered by John Bowlby. He asserted that the experience of the earliest bonds a child forms with its caregiver/s has a lasting impact throughout the person’s life. Where the formation of secure attachments has not occurred, self-defeating behaviour can result. Another technique the psychodynamic therapist may employ is free-association in order to explore internal conflicts and issues. “In free association, psychoanalytic patients are invited to relate whatever comes into their minds during the analytic session, and not to censor their thoughts. This technique is intended to help the patient learn more about what he or she thinks and feels, in an atmosphere of non-judgemental curiosity and acceptance.” (Wikipedia: Free Association) Those clients who tend to gain the most from psychodynamic therapy are generally those with a desire to find out more about how their mind works and their internal life. It can facilitate self-reflection, an awareness of and subsequent dealing with vulnerable or painful emotions and a desire for honesty and truth.

While the two approaches share the similarity of seeking to reduce the client’s symptoms, their therapeutic perspective is quite different and therefore they are essentially very different. CBT is a relatively brief therapy which is very instructional in nature, with homework as a significant aspect. It is a very structured therapy, focusing on the present rather than the past. Contrary to psychodynamic therapy it does not place the client-therapist relationship as a main focus. Psychodynamic therapy is less structured and the client, not the therapist sets the agenda for the session by talking about whatever they would like to discuss. It also focuses on the past and the unconscious processes, with the aim being to utilise this process to assist with the presenting issue. Psychodynamic therapy seeks to uncover why the client displays the self-defeating behaviour he/she does, by uncovering deeper, often unconscious reasons for the behaviour, whereas CBT does not. The aim of CBT is to attempt to alleviate the present issue causing suffering as quickly as possible by training the client’s mind to replace negative, self-defeating thought patterns and behaviours with more positive and helpful ones. Some would say that psychodynamic therapy is more effective for treating many issues, so as to achieve lasting change, whereas proponents of CBT argue that their briefer methods are equally as effective.

Strengths of CBT are that the course of treatment is brief and it may be more suited to those who prefer short term, directive treatment who also have a willingness to continue practicing coping skills and doing homework both during and after treatment. However, it is not a ‘quick fix’ therapy and for those who are not able or prepared to put in the necessary work during and long after the treatment has ended, it may not be a successful option. To prevent self-defeating behaviour from returning, it is vital that the client continues to practice and develop the skills he/she has acquired. Strengths of psychodynamic therapy are that it facilitates deep self-reflection, and is led by the client, who has the time to discover more about themselves and their internal world. It may not be suitable for those who prefer more structured, directed session, with the therapist working with them mutually to set and achieve goals, in a shorter time frame.

In my limited view as a student counsellor I have learnt that under the ‘umbrella’ of psychology, there are several diverse approaches, incorporating CBT and psychodynamics, which all hold the fundamental aim of assisting a client’s mental distress to facilitate personal growth, self-awareness and positive progression. At this stage of my training I can certainly appreciate qualities, strengths and weaknesses from each approach that we have studied and find myself drawn at present to a more integrative approach, as I feel that each approach has valid and useful aspects and techniques within it. While the psychodynamic approach facilitates an arena for deep introspection and personal insight from often long forgotten, repressed and unconscious aspects, it does not perhaps provide practical ‘tools’ which might equip a client to further navigate through life.

CBT, being a more technique and goal orientated approach provides tools for the here and now, but perhaps lessens the ability for deeper and possibly more profound self-awareness. Hence there being, in my limited view, merit in adopting aspects of both approaches. In this essay I have introduced the concept of self-defeating behaviours, defined and explained them and their origins, causes and reasons for maintaining them. I subsequently compared two approaches: CBT and the psychodynamic approach, through utilising the example of low self-esteem leading to lack of assertiveness, to demonstrate their respective approaches to dealing with self-defeating behaviour. I then compared the two approaches and provided a summary.


Lieberman, D.J. (1997). Instant Analysis. New York. St Martin’s Griffin Hadley. J & Staudacher, C. (2001). Hypnosis for Change. New Delhi, India. New Age Books Wikipedia:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_behavioral_therapy Wikipedia:www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Association_(Psychology) Wikipedia:www.psychwiki.com/wiki/Self-Defeating_Behavior

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