Focusing on self-awareness and coping skills, like reframing your perspective, can help you make small changes to put a stop to self-defeating habits.

Chances are you’ve used self-defeating behaviors at one time or another. Everything from procrastination to addiction can fall under the umbrella of self-defeating behavior.

We consulted Alyssa Goldenberg, LMSW, and Jamie Gellar, LMSW, both therapists at The Dorm with locations in New York City and Washington, D.C., for deeper insight into self-defeating behavior and how to overcome it.

Self-defeating behavior wasn’t officially identified until the 1980s. It’s not considered a disorder but rather a pattern of thoughts and beliefs that can have a negative impact on your life.

This type of behavior can be rooted in low self-esteem, fear, or a need to protect yourself. Rest assured that if self-defeating behaviors are getting in the way of your happiness or success, you can change them.

Self-defeating behavior prevents, reduces, or limits your ability to achieve your desired outcome. For example, you have a goal to get an A in a class, but then you procrastinate researching and writing the final paper which can lead to a poor grade.

There are various theories as to why people engage in self-defeating behaviors.

One theory from 2019 suggests that these behaviors help avoid something else with an even bigger negative outcome.

Other theories suggest that self-defeating behaviors may sabotage one goal in favor of another goal, such as drug or alcohol use used to fit in with a social group.

Self-defeating thoughts and beliefs

Self-defeating thoughts and beliefs are at the heart of self-defeating behaviors. A few common ones include:

  1. People will not love me if I am not perfect.
  2. To be successful, I must never make a mistake or fail.
  3. People who care for or love each other should never fight.
  4. My relationship problems are caused by other people.
  5. I must always be right.
  6. I should always feel in control, happy, and content.
  7. I should suppress or hide my feelings when I feel anxious, sad, or vulnerable.
  8. People won’t like me if I’m not funny, happy, or interesting.
  9. My problems are unsolvable.
  10. I’m inferior and defective.

Responses to these thoughts could include:

  • avoidance
  • procrastination
  • self-criticism
  • comparison
  • overspending
  • social withdrawal

Responses such as these, and other behaviors, can prevent you from reaching your goals. It can be difficult to cope with these thoughts, but you may consider trying the following tips to help you during this time.

1. Be willing to look within yourself

“A lot of self-defeating behaviors are rooted in rigidity and have become routine,” says Goldenberg. She often encourages “finding your edge,” which involves asking self-inquiry questions to discover and uncover things about yourself.

Gellar suggests asking yourself, “Is there something significant I can learn about myself, the other person, or my environment where this is an opportunity for growth and improvement?”

2. Be willing to admit when you need outside support

Overcoming self-defeating behavior will take time.

A licensed mental health professional is trained in techniques to help you identify and change your behavior.

Goldenberg, for example, uses Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO-DBT), a clinical treatment modality that helps people learn about themselves through self-inquiry to help change their behavior.

3. Reframe and check your perspective

Check-in with your counselor or a trusted friend or family member to get their perspective.

Gellar often encourages her clients to ask themselves, is it really as bad as I am making it out to be?

Someone outside of the situation can help you get a better take on what’s happening and help you gauge your response to people or circumstances.

4. Change your language

A change in language can help you rethink and approach situations differently. Gellar suggests replacing “I can’t” with “I won’t” and “I have to” with “I get to.”

The change in language identifies beliefs and problematic behaviors while highlighting your power to choose.

5. Create a safe space toolbox

Self-defeating behavior often appears when we’re anxious, scared, or stressed.

Goldenberg suggests:

  • creating go-to playlists
  • spending time with people that you love, and
  • going to places that bring you back to center

A little preparation can help you work through uncomfortable feelings without putting a stopper in your goals.

Self-defeating and self-sabotaging are sometimes used interchangeably.

Goldenberg clarifies, “Self-defeating behaviors are rooted in beliefs and thoughts, which can become self-sabotaging behaviors. A helpful way to think about this is: self-defeating is related to the thought, and self-sabotaging is related to the action or aftermath.”

“When we are feeling bad about ourselves, it is common for us to unconsciously act in ways that confirm our beliefs,” explains Geller.

Gellar uses the example of someone with a history of chronic health conditions who doesn’t want to look within themself to see how food used as a coping mechanism could contribute to their ongoing illness.

“The client is able to identify that they can be doing more or better but, out of habit, resorts to self-pitying thoughts which unintentionally lead to actions of negative self-talk. Which furthers the cycle of self-defeating behavior.”

In another example, Gellar explains that some people may believe they can’t be in or aren’t worthy of a healthy intimate relationship. Consequently, they continue to choose toxic people because it’s familiar, and they believe that’s all they’re worth and deserve.

Self-defeating behavior, which stems from thoughts or beliefs, is behavior that gets in the way of accomplishing your goals.

In some cases, it can lead to serious behaviors like compulsive shopping or alcohol abuse. In other circumstances, it may keep you from living an active, healthy lifestyle or from making new friends.

If you’re ready to change self-defeating behaviors and habits, be ready to look inside yourself. This can be difficult, but you’re not alone.

With support from friends, family, and potentially a trained professional, you can work through uncomfortable feelings and situations to achieve your goals.