What Is Self-Destructive Behavior? Practical Ways To Beat It For Good

Some people call it self-sabotage or punishment directed towards oneself. However, self-destructive behaviors take on many different forms, from eating habits to lack of planning in life to self-injury behavior and feelings of intense shame.

This harmful practice can show itself in many ways and is often associated with mental health conditions such as depression, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, PTSD, and other conditions related to childhood trauma, neglect, and abuse.

Understanding self-destructive behavior isn’t easy, especially if it develops slowly over time, with little or no symptoms until the effects become serious or severe.

When people hurt themselves, they may not see it as self-harm, as often it can also manifest itself in ways that include self-sabotage.

For example, someone that has had a positive job interview that could lead to a great career opportunity or acceptance into a university program might not be confident in their ability.

As a result, they make destructive decisions such as binge drinking that result in low performance and, therefore, a lack of long-term options.

While some of your self-destructive behaviors may seem trivial or unimpactful to you initially, these unhealthy actions often interfere with your happiness and peace.

They also prevent you from engaging in healthy coping mechanisms to deal with difficult situations from the past and present. The first step in addressing self-harm is recognizing what it looks like, even if the symptoms are seemingly harmless at first.

What Does Self-Destructive Behavior Include?

When someone begins engaging in self-destruction, some subtle habits or behaviors may occur regularly, such as nail-biting, binge eating or avoidance of food for long periods, biting and scratching oneself, sleep deprivation, procrastination, and pushing people away.

In more complex situations, these destructive behaviors can lead to self-punishment and self-isolation, substance and alcohol abuse, gambling, ending or sabotaging relationships, and feeling suicidal.

Related: How to Stop Ruminating: What Causes it and Effective Ways to Combat it

Self-destructive behavior

The Reasons for Self-Destructive Patterns of Behavior

The reasons for specific self-destructive behaviors are never simple. Often, the individual wants to succeed, experience love, and enjoy good health, even if these destructive patterns suggest otherwise, or cause harm that interferes with their personal well-being.

All of these behaviors are meant to fulfill a psychological, emotional, or physical need. However, they do the opposite. Whereas positive, healthy activities and behaviors build a sense of confidence, development, and self-improvement.

When people engage in self-punishment or destructive behavior, they are looking to have the same needs met, but sadly the effects result in pain and are a greater risk to their mental and emotional health.

Ultimately, people are looking to address their unmet needs, and it’s instinctual to try resolving a sense of loss or void with dysregulated self-destructive behavior without intending to cause further self-harm.

Impulsive, emotional action is often misguided, even though it may soothe us or provide a momentary sense of relief. However, the sense of relief never lasts long. 

Related: Why am I Feeling Broken? What Does it Mean and Ways to Prevent it

How Can Self-Destructive Patterns of Behavior be Successfully Treated?

The first step to addressing self-destructive behaviors is recognizing them and their purpose in your life. For example, binge eating may distract from a painful experience, or avoiding and pushing other people away prevents an individual from being hurt, as they have in the past.

Understanding self-destructive traits can allow us to reverse some of these patterns and replace them with healthier activities and tools to manage our stress in life.

The Importance of Therapy for Stress Management

Clinical therapy can help provide a clearer understanding of where our destructive behaviors originated, as we aren’t always able to pinpoint them ourselves, especially if they stem from traumatic situations. 

A therapist will be able to delve into what’s wrong with certain behaviors, how to replace them with healthier actions and assist you with facing challenges in a proactive, healthy way. 

Likewise, situations involving substance abuse and self-harm can benefit from addiction counseling and related support. There are many treatment programs and support groups to deal with whatever you may be currently facing.

A compassionate therapist can help identify which triggers cause your destructive behaviors and help you to deal with them proactively.

During this process, you will learn how to control your impulses and manage the unhealthy behaviors that are affecting your mental health and peace of mind. 

The most important thing is to understand when the destructive behaviors began and what triggers them—then finding coping skills and stress management techniques that work best for you to establish a healthy cycle of improved habits. 

Once you understand what triggers the self-destructive behavior, work on replacing old unhealthy behaviors with healthier behaviors. A healthy behavior that assists many people dealing with self-destructive behavior is meditation and mindfulness.

Related: 7 Strategic Healthy Coping Mechanisms to Effectively Deal With Stress

The Therapeutic Benefits of Meditation and Exercise

Meditation and exercise are helpful ways to deal with triggering thoughts or negative ideas that can often lead to self-destructive behavior. Daily meditation and exercise can instill a greater sense of happiness and satisfaction, leading to less destructive behavior patterns.

One of the most significant sources of self-injurious behavior is trauma. It’s often deeply rooted in childhood and can bring about many ongoing challenges in daily life. Self-harm patterns usually begin early in life and grow into more destructive behavior in adulthood.

It is important to recognize this and understand that these issues need to be dealt with rather than ignored. Taking the time to exercise and meditate allows us to experience a degree of self-love or self-compassion.

These behaviors reduce stress, calm the mind and remind ourselves that having self-compassion or implementing self-care in our life is far more effective than reacting to our pain with acts of self-hatred. 

Related: 8 Effective Tips to Manage Stress and Reduce it in Your Life

Improving Health and Positive Behaviors with Meditation

There are many benefits to meditation that improve overall health and well-being. Initially, it’s helpful for you to learn relaxation techniques and recognize the feelings and emotions that can easily trigger destructive patterns in your life so that you can change and improve those behaviors.

Meditation also offers many other advantages, such as: 

  • Achieve greater control over emotional responses and taking time to recognize and reduce the likelihood of negative feelings and reactions.
  • Mindfulness practiced during meditation can reduce the effects of depression and anxiety.
  • Better self-awareness, greater self-esteem, and a deeper understanding of your inner struggles
  • Meditation allows for greater reflection and compassion for other people and awareness of connecting with them more constructively.
  • Restful sleep and improved self-care, which helps stop and prevent further stress caused by irregular rest
  • Increased confidence and self-efficacy, with a better focus on resolving problems and reducing their effects on your life, which in practice, can reduce self-destructive actions
  • Greater physical relaxation decreases stress and allows your whole body to release tension.

Related: Positive Changes You Can Make Today: Practical Tips to Help Your Change

Practicing Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Mindfulness is a major part of meditation, which allows your mind to focus on the present, and become aware of everything around and in you without passing judgment or reacting to it.

Everyone has the ability to be mindful. Simply take a break and allow yourself to pause and experience a sense of peace. Some examples of implementing mindfulness techniques in your everyday life include; taking short pauses throughout the day, taking a break to sit or go for a walk, or becoming mindful during yoga, pilates, or meditation sessions.

Implementing mindful practices in your life offers a solid foundation for constructive behaviors and positive outcomes.

People who regularly practice mindfulness focus on the present and become aware of their surroundings; they have a greater appreciation for nature, life, family, friends, and opportunities that they have encountered.

Mindfulness allows you to live your life with a greater sense of gratitude. Gratitude enables you to pinpoint any negativity in your life and see if it can be avoided.  

Related: How to Live for Yourself Instead of Others: 13 Practical Steps

Self-Awareness Over Self-Destructive Behavior

As we become more self-aware, we have less of a desire to hurt ourselves and we also have fewer opportunities to develop destructive, negative patterns in our behavior. Instead, we become focused on the positive.

Self-awareness is a practice that allows us to suspend personal judgment and expand our minds to explore new ideas, curiosity, and healthy feelings.

When we embrace the present and who we really are, we are offered a constructive way to enjoy life and focus on our positive personal attributes, such as our kindness and character. It also allows us to feel free to explore new hobbies and interests that we may have.

By creating new habits, hobbies and interests, we open ourselves up to experiencing the joys of life, rather than simply focusing on the difficulties.

Related: What Does it Mean to be Your Authentic Self? How to Live Authentically


The ability to recognize self-destructive behaviors and actions are the first steps to dismantling negative behaviors and building constructive, helpful habits at school, work, and home.

While traumatic experiences may trigger many destructive patterns, there are powerful and effective ways that we can address them and become aware of their effect on life.

Therapy or talking to a trusted friend can help you find the source of pain and trauma, followed by developing effective coping mechanisms for improved confidence and mental health.

Self-awareness and stress management offer some of the best methods for reducing the impact of self-destructive behavior within your life. It is important to remember that undoing self-destructive habits is a journey that you can not expect to fix overnight.

Over time, you have taught yourself these strategies to cope with the stress or pain. Therefore, if you do fall back into your old ways, don’t beat yourself up.

Simply get back up and try again. Continue trying until you have taught yourself the meaning of self-love and how to naturally react in a positive way when you get triggered.

Your health and well-being are worth the journey. So, don’t lose hope; keep going. In time you can change your behavior for the better. 

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