In our journey toward making positive changes in our lives, one of the things that comes up is the presence of self-destructive behaviors. If we are to grow and move forward, we need to learn how to stop self destructive behaviors. Unfortunately, it isn’t always as easy as making a decision and seeing a change. Often, it takes dedicated effort and a plan. Even with the right action and support, it can take time to amend our behaviors and habits.
What are Self-Destructive Behaviors?
A self destructive behavior is any behavior which causes harm to ourselves. It may be something that is habitual or instinctual, and often is something we do with some consistency. There are countless examples, but here are a few way you may see these actions in your life:
- Smoking, drinking, or consuming drugs
- Bingeing, purging, or unhealthy eating habits
- Cutting, burning, or other forms of direct self-harm
- Gambling, shopping, or spending money unwisely
- Isolation or avoidance when faced with difficulties
- Poor performance at work (showing up late, not getting work done, procrastinating, etc.)
- Lashing out verbally or physically at others
- Engaging in risky sexual activity
With any self-destructive behavior, we may have a habit of beating ourselves up. We often want to change the behavior, but don’t seem to be making any progress. As we lose esteem with our actions, we may engage in even more of the behavior that is causing harm. This can create a downward spiral in our lives.
Mindfulness and Recognition
The first step to working with any harmful behaviors is to recognize it. Chances are that if you’re reading this right now, you probably recognize that there’s some behavior in your life causing harm. We can tune in with mindfulness to help with this process. When we bring mindfulness to dysregulated behavior, we can truly begin the work. We see the behavior clearly, recognize how it is causing harm, and are able to make wise decisions.
In order to make a change with any issue or difficulty we are facing, we have to first acknowledge the problem and see it clearly. If we don’t know what the problem is, we may find ourselves struggling to make a healthy change. Sometimes we need somebody else to point it out to us, while other times we simply find ourselves spiraling until we’ve had enough. However we come to realize what’s happening, we can seize the moment and truly tune into what is going on.
Ways to Work with Self-Destructive Habits
Once you recognize the presence of a self-destructive behavior in your life, what do you do? Often, we see the behavior but don’t know how to make a change. Here are a few things you can do to support yourself as you work toward growth and change in your life.
1. Don’t Beat Yourself Up
For many of us, this is the first reaction when we notice a behavior like this. We judge ourselves for the situation or wallow in self-pity. We don’t need to just let ourselves get away with harmful behavior, but the self-judgement generally does not serve us as well as we think. When we fall into this pattern of reactivity, we don’t actually make a change. We try to strongarm ourselves into behaving better, but it simply does not work.
Instead, try having some compassion for yourself. Recognize that the experience is painful and uncomfortable, and turn toward the pain. Instead of reacting with the judgement, step in with some care and kindness for yourself. These behaviors hurt, and the recognition that we’re causing our own suffering can hurt even worse. Let go of the judgement and try something new!
2. Turn Toward the Pain
Often, there is some pain that drives our self-destructive behaviors. We may ignore this as we focus our attention on the actual behavior itself. However, the pain or discomfort underneath is what is fueling the flame. If we ignore the underlying causes and just focus on the actions themselves, we may not see the growth we want. When we just work with actions, we are trimming the tree. When we look at the underlying pain and causes, we are ripping it up at the roots.
3. Find Support
Support is one of the most powerful ways to encourage growth in the face of adversity and difficulties. Research suggests that social support can help lessen stress, build resilience, and lead to overall better quality of life. By finding someone to support us, we gain many benefits. We become accountable to another, can get a new perspective, find support when we make mistakes, and gain the non-conscious inspiration of surrounding ourselves with healthy individuals. You can find a support group, a psychotherapist, a life coach, a close friend, or anyone you trust to be with you through your journey. You may find a coach who specializes in stress management.
4. Take Baby Steps
One of the major problems we’ve seen with those we work with is that people want to tackle the problems all at once. We have unhealthy coping mechanisms, and are ready to leave them all behind. This can be overwhelming, and the times we don’t succeed can steal our energy away. Instead of trying to figure it all out at once, take baby steps. This starts with a plan. For example, if you want to quit smoking you may start by picking a quit date. Then pick specific cigarettes to give up along the way, like the after-dinner smoke, the morning smoke, or the driving smoke. Create a plan with actionable items so you don’t overwhelm yourself. In our post on acupuncture at https://shifts.coach/holistic/does-acupuncture-hurt/, we cover some research that suggests it can help reduce stress. This is just one little example of something you can do to take care of yourself. Enjoy the little successes along the way.
5. Create Positive Feedback
Although the self destructive behavior causes harm, it also likely creates some positive consequences. Foods high in sugar release dopamine, nicotine releases epinephrine, and shopping can release epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. Understanding this can help us not judge ourselves or take it so personally. The mind and body are responding the stimulus. This is what makes it so difficult to change and let go.
Knowing this, we can add some positive feedback. When you resist that extra brownie, reward yourself with another way to make you feel happy. Go for a walk, simply smile, or get some sunshine. It can be as simple as getting a hug from a loved one, petting a dog, or taking a shower. Build new feedback loops so your brain and body begin associating the absence of the behavior with positive experiences. If we just white-knuckle it and are miserable, it is harder to leave the pattern of action behind.
6. Learn from Setbacks
Finally, we need to learn from the setbacks and mistakes. As we are all too familiar with, we may fall directly into judging. Instead, see if there something that can be learned. What went wrong? Where did you become vulnerable? Don’t just look at the immediate moments before you took the action. See if there were other causes and conditions leading up to the situation that may have influenced the relapse.