behaviourism, Counselling, over eating, psychology, self defeating behavior, self defeating behaviours, Uncategorized

25. Self Defeating Behaviours (part 1)

Self Defeating Behaviours

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Self Defeating Behaviours (SDB) are things that we do when we are feeling, for example, low, fed up, sad, nervous, anxious or have another kind of undesirable feeling that we find hard to handle. So, the behaviour makes us feel better, or at least, we believe the behaviour makes us feel better! It is a “comfort” behaviour, which helps “soothe” us when we don’t like having the feeling.

Why is it self defeating? Often, the SDBs are not very good for us or are unhealthy and when they are repeated more often, can actually be damaging to our health. Common SDBs include, for example, eating junk food, overeating, smoking, drinking alcohol. Think of all the things you do when you need comfort. Can you think of a few things that you often do to comfort yourself or make yourself feel better?

Baumeister & Scher (1988) defined self defeating behaviour (SDB) as “any deliberate or intentional behaviour that has clear, definitely or probable negative effects on the self…(and that) the behaviour must be intentional although the harm to self (does) not have to be the intended or primary goal of the action.”[1]. Furthermore, according to Brownson and Hartzler (2000), a SDB is “a repetitive pattern of behaviour in which the individuals’ goal-directed attempts to fulfill a basic human need, result in unintended and harmful consequences”. Brownson and Hartzler (2000) continue that the “definition places no constraints on the particular problematic situation or behaviour. Rather, the focus is on the process whereby patterns are initiated and perpetuated”.

People who repeat the cycle of unsuccessful attempts to satisfy a basic, “core” need (e.g., love, control, connection with others) with SDBs are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety, and social isolation in later life [2]. This may be further exasperated because the negative consequences of the SDBs eventually contribute to even more undesirable feelings which lead to more SDB… and so on.

From a ‘counselling’ perspective, it must be noted that although a SDB is never the best choice of behaviour, for that individual, the SDB has been helpful on a previous occasion as a strategy to cope, i.e., when the individual felt at high risk of being very hurt or feeling emotional pain. This experience is then stored in the subconscious allowing the individual to resort to the chosen SDB in subsequent times of angst, for example, unaware that they are carrying out behaviour that is NOT actually helping the situation nor helping them to cope. The ironic part of using a SDB is that the SDB eventually provokes the very eventuality that the individual is trying to avoid in the first place.

Some examples of such self defeating behaviours include: smoking, overeating, procrastination, not accepting responsibility (blaming others), not listening, pleasing (other) people, not allowing yourself to enjoy fun or pleasure, always being right, making excuses, e.g., for being late, forgetting an appointment, perfectionism, exaggerating, bearing a grudge forever, self-sacrifice (followed by self pity), being the victim, always being attracted to the same type of person even if not apparent at first, and avoiding change.

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1.Baumeister, R.F. & Scher, S.J. (1988) Self-Defeating Behaviour Patterns Among Normal Individuals: Review and Analysis of Common Self-Destructive Tendencies. Psychological Bulletin, 104 (1), 3-22.

2.Brownson, C., & Hartzler, B. (2000) Defeat Your Self-Defeating Behavior Understanding & Overcoming Harmful Patterns (T1 082). The clearing house for Structured/Thematic groups and Innovative programs. Texas, USA. Accessed 6/1/19.;jsessionid=BAECD64A429CAC98207F80C0FE3868CF?doi=


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