The Definition of Self-Defeating Behaviours

Published January 22, 2012 by matchsoul

To understand the deeper causes of our behaviour, we first must look at what we are dealing with.

A good book I’ve come across in this subject is the aptly titled Self-Defeating Behaviours, by Milton Cudney and Robert Hardy. They define the topic as:

“A true self-defeating behaviour is an action or attitude that once worked to help an individual cope with a hurtful experience but that now works against the individual to keep him or her from responding to new moments of life in a healthy way.”
In other words, these behaviours are outdated programs that have remained inside us, and are being automatically used to deal with new situations although they might no longer be suitable.

Behaviours and Attitudes

One of the things I loved about this book: they included attitudes as part of self-defeating behaviours. This makes perfect sense, as attitudes could be seen as the forerunner to behaviours. We all know the hostile person – one we have to walk carefully around, in case they explode for no reason. Another common type is the suspicious or the defensive person – who is always on guard for insults or threats, even when none was intended.

As we’ve discussed in the previous post in this series, please explore your own lives, and not get caught up in the examples used. As we are dealing with underlying beliefs and thoughts, the principles we discuss are applicable to almost everything. Look at your external behaviours, whether they seem negative or addictive. Look at your general attitude. Look at your internal thought processes and habits. As I mentioned, one of the “addictions” I quit was excessively reviewing past hurts (note the word excessively – otherwise there might be a tendency to start beating yourself up each time you think of a painful memory.)

Here are some more examples, taken from the same book:

Procrastination
Substance abuse
Excessive worrying
Shyness
Perfectionism
Frigidity
Going Deeper

To change effectively, it is best to deal with the thoughts, beliefs, and conclusions that are troubling us at the core. These core beliefs, while not always negative, are enduring ideas and thoughts that we hold strongly, and often subconsciously. They are the root cause of much of our behaviours.

In other words, we can’t always catch them in our thoughts, but rather the more surface expressions – such as “I don’t want to go to this party”. But why don’t you want to go? That requires digging.

The good news, of course, is that by going to these core issues, everything on the surface begins to fall away. I am far from done in my own work but already the changes are exciting.

While this article will present the processes used, it is helpful to look at examples first. There are three general areas we need to look at: Core Beliefs, Faulty Conclusions, and Needs.

Core Beliefs

Core beliefs are covered in just about every system of personal development, but the best I’ve found come from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, so that is the system I am basing this section on. Core beliefs come in three types:

Beliefs about yourself: Martin has failed in every business venture he has took on. He begins to think that he is stupid, worthless, and a born loser.
Beliefs about other people: Martin has been cheated by every business partner he has worked with. He begins to believe that everybody is untrustworthy and unscrupulous.
Beliefs about the world: “The world is a scary, unpredictable place” for example. In a future post, we will discuss how even beliefs we see as positive – “the world is fair and just” can in many ways be the most hurtful.
Let’s examine an example: In the previous post, I mentioned a friend who smoked and drank heavily. She complained of hurting lungs, she coughed horribly all the time, and she told me she was afraid of cancer, but she just couldn’t stop smoking.

Of course, there were many reasons she smoked – habit, chemical dependence, and so on – but when she began practicing awareness, she was surprised to find the main reason she lit up.

Her triggers didn’t make sense to her at first. Her best friend would be telling her of the incredible date she had last night, or she would open the celebrity gossip papers and read of the break-up of a famous Hollywood romance. And that made her light up.

When she began to examine this in detail, she found out why these things triggered her. She had been in a series of horrible relationships with cheating boyfriends, and the shame had remained in her. She believed there was something fundamentally wrong with her.

These shames were deeply hidden, but you might imagine how the chain of thoughts began to form.

Her friend tells of a great date = Oh, I haven’t had one in ages = Why not? = I have never had a normal relationship = Am I too ugly? Stupid? Fat? Disgusting? = There must be something wrong with who I am.

And on and on it would go, until she ran for her whiskey and cigarettes.

Take a brief moment to see if there is anything similar in your own life, anything that is driving your negative behaviours or attitudes. We’ll explore this in detail later, but it is helpful to think quickly on it now.

Faulty Conclusions

The next factor to be looked at is the faulty conclusion, as Cudney and Hardy called it. It might seem similar to core beliefs, above, but there are some important differences.

Let’s explain this with another example I started in the first behavioural post: my tendency to lose it and curse someone out.

I remember the first time I lost my temper in my adult life. I was barely out of my teens, and already I had developed a “nice guy” façade. I was a doormat, letting people walk all over me, and I pushed down my anger, pretending I wasn’t affected. However, that night, my mask of niceness could not hold it back any more.

I was being called names by a man I felt had cheated, used, and abused me for many months. The past hour I have been trying to talk rationally to him, to calm him down, but he just got louder and louder, and threatened to attack me. At that point I exploded – I began shouting back at him. I felt like punching him, and it was obvious in my body language. It scared him so much that he backed off and began apologising profusely. I felt liberated; I felt manly. I was standing up for myself.

From his reactions I subconsciously created some false conclusions. Some were logical, some weren’t.

And that was the start of my tendency to express my anger by shouting and swearing. How were my underlying conclusions faulty? Naturally, there are times telling someone to back off in firm language is your only option. The original situation might be one such example. However, these conclusions had remained in me, and since then had arisen at times such strong reactions were uncalled for.

Based on the original argument, I had subconsciously taken in the false conclusion that shouting was powerful and manly. Every time I felt my masculinity threatened this habit arose to defend it, even in times where it was inappropriate. After a few months letting go of this habit as detailed in the first Behavioural Mastery post, the tendency is nearly gone.

Take a few moments to see if you have any faulty conclusions that underlie your negative behaviours, and if you can trace where you learnt it. My friend, for example, realised smoking made her seem sophisticated and aloof. It somehow made her feel above her need for romance, and so she turned to it whenever she felt lonely.

Needs

The final factor, then, is our needs. While just as important as the first two, this section will be short as the processes are similar.

You could see it for yourself in the examples above. What needs did my friend seek to cover up with her smoking and drinking? Company, perhaps. Love, affection, sex?

What did I want through my anger? I wanted to be treated with respect. I wanted to feel like a man. I wanted my boundaries to be adhered to.

As you can see, all three factors are often variations on one another. A dedicated inquiry into one will reveal the others easily. This will make even more sense when you realise that most of your behaviours stem from the same basic issues.

Your Turn

Please take some time to look into the three factors that lie behind your particular habit, thought pattern, attitude, or behaviour.

Don’t cheat yourself out of this exercise. Take a pen and paper and begin exploring. It might take some time, it might force you to look at some uncomfortable fear inside yourself, but the results are worth it. I put off this work for nearly a year, trying to take the lazy way out, and all I got for it was another year of self-inflicted pain. You don’t have to make it perfect – as your awareness grows, you will naturally find more and more.

Here is a helpful format to aid your investigation. It was adapted from various CBT exercises I have used:

Write down your self-defeating behaviour.
Write down the thoughts or conclusions behind it. Leave some space underneath that sentence.
Ask yourself one of these questions: If this was true, what would it mean? Why is this upsetting to me? When was the first time I did this? What did I get out of it? What was I hoping to get? What am I hoping to get? When do I feel like doing it?
Then write down the answer to that. Leave some space, and repeat, until you are sure you have found the deepest issues.
Depending on the questions you ask, this investigation can take you in many different directions. Try all of them and see what you can uncover from inside yourself. Make this a fun game – but one where the prize is real and substantial.

An example that I’ve adapted from a case study from a psychology textbook – let’s call her Melissa:

Overeating and Obesity.
Why? I don’t know.
What do I get out of it? It keeps me alone.
Why do I want to be alone? I don’t want to be hurt again.
What does that mean? If I get into a relationship I will be hurt again.
What does that mean? All men are out to hurt me.
Why? All my past relationships have ended in severe heartache.
What does that mean? There is something wrong with me. I don’t deserve love. I don’t deserve respect.

A small warning: keep this to your thoughts. Writing down your emotional reactions keeps you stuck. It is the why that concerns us for this exercise, not how you feel.

Points to Note

At this point there are a few things to note:

As you explore, you might find some of your discoveries seem stupid. My friend told me she found it funny and a bit offensive when she realised why she smoked and drank. To cover up her loneliness and pain – what a cliché! But don’t let that be a reason to discard your discoveries, thinking there must be something else. As Cudney and Hardy said, there is nothing that says negative behaviours have to be original or flashy – all they need is to have been temporarily effective.
Secondly, you’ll notice that many of our deeper issues are illogical. I’ve read that chronic “worriers” often believe that by worrying, they are preventing something bad from happening to them – even though they know how irrational that sounds.
Thirdly, we often hold directly conflicting beliefs, conclusions, and needs. My friend said she wanted a relationship, and didn’t want one at the same time. My anger habit revealed a deeper belief in “an eye for an eye”, although consciously I spoke out against such an act. Melissa entered therapy because she wanted to lose weight and find a partner, only to find that she was subconsciously keeping men away. And so we are being pulled in various directions. No wonder we are often stuck, unable to move in either direction. Imagine the freedom, then, that comes when we let go of these conflicts!
Lastly, as you know by now, the choices that we made because of these factors often occurred below our awareness. But don’t think that we don’t have a choice, that our behaviours are beyond our control. When they are in our subconscious, the illogical causes cannot be challenged. This is why we are doing this investigation – we are bringing them to the front, where change can finally happen.
The Next Step

Letting Go

What, then, do we do with this information? If emotional work is your preferred method, then let go of the desires behind it. Feel each statement in your ladder. In the example given – perhaps Melissa could feel all the heartache, and let go of that. Feel that there is something wrong with her, and let go of that. Feel that all members of the opposite sex are bad, and let go of that feeling. Feel the fear of being hurt again, and let go of that. And so on. It might take a long time; measurable in weeks or months, but consistent work will produce results.

Challenging Your Beliefs

A second option is to challenge these assumptions with the techniques laid out in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I have provided a list of the common distortions in that article; see how they might apply to each of your statements. For instance, isn’t Melissa suffering from an overgeneralisation? Three men in a row broke her heart, but it doesn’t mean that all will. Can she know the next man will do the same? Write down your rational response in the blank space underneath the statement.

Goal oriented thinking is another way of looking at your conclusions. Instead of overeating to protect herself, could there be other ways Melissa could try out? Perhaps she should screen her partners or be pickier in her selections. Are there also healthier ways of satisfying the needs? Are there more sensible ways of interpreting your faulty conclusions

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One comment on “The Definition of Self-Defeating Behaviours

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