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Sabotaging Your Life? 5 Aspects Adversely Influenced by Self-defeating Behaviors

Updated on May 27, 2015
Just like shoes, our self-defeating behaviors once served a purpose.  But it may be time to retire them.
Just like shoes, our self-defeating behaviors once served a purpose. But it may be time to retire them. | Source

Why Use a Self-Defeating Behavior?

Many people, myself included, are reluctant to identify their self-defeating or self-destructive behaviors because we don't like to think of ourselves in a negative light.

If I look at the working definition of a self-defeating behavior though, I realize that at some point in my life, a particular behavior worked to get me outcomes that I wanted.

Self-defeating behaviors are actions or attitudes that might have worked in the past, but no longer work. In other words, it's rather like those old comfortable boots or shoes; torn at the seams, stained, and certainly looking worse for wear, even though they were once brand-new. They are worn out; they've served their purpose and it's time to buy a new pair.

Yet, we don't berate ourselves for using them until they no longer were effective or serviceable. We just buy another pair. We need to start thinking of our ongoing self-defeating behaviors in much the same manner.


What Aspects Of Your Life Are Adversely Influenced By Self-Defeating Behaviors?

We can separate ourselves into five categories or aspects where self-defeating behaviors will get us less than favorable outcomes. These are:

  • Social
  • Emotional
  • Mental
  • Physical
  • Spiritual

In my recovery curriculum, I refer to these aspects of a person's life as S.E.M.P.S. Each of the categories are adversely influenced by self-defeating or self-destructive behaviors.

S.E.M.P.S. and Self-defeating

What makes up each aspect? How do self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors influence each category and what makes them a problem for that aspect?


Interaction with others: family, friends, work, school, organizations, religious affiliations, and self-help meetings would be the most common places that you actively interact with other people.

However, your social world extends to your interactions with others even if indirectly. For instance, driving and sharing a road, sporting events, shopping, school functions for your children or any other social activity. There are others present even if you do not actively engage in conversations with them.

Your self-defeating behaviors make social situations awkward, combative or uncomfortable, due to self-esteem issues, either little or an inflated valued of self.

  • Communication with others: Overly critical of self or too critical of others
  • Self-absorbed, self-centered, or self-focused or other-centered and focused at the expense of self
  • Being overly needy, greedy, or unfair or never valuing your personal needs in relationships or too generous with others
  • Aggressive, intimidating tactics, threats, or passive-aggressive behaviors, and weak boundaries


The Five S.E.M.P.S. Aspects


How you feel about situations, people, experiences and your behaviors. There are five general categories of feelings: Mad, Sad, Glad, Bad, and Scared.

Degrees of feelings would fit into these broad categories. Self-defeating behaviors can prompt you to blame and project; feel angry at perceived injustices, experience guilt over your actions, or sadness when you realize your thoughts, actions and behaviors have driven family and friends away.

Three emotions tend to create the greatest problems for people:

When these emotions are present, many people react in a self-defeating manner that prevents them from responding, and they continue to respond to life, people and experiences. With changes, you can stop lugging around your emotional baggage from one relationship to the next.


This aspect deals with how you think and process information and experiences, including your attitudes and opinions about what you are processing and experiencing, and assumptions or illusions that you create regarding your experiences.

Self-defeating behaviors prompt false beliefs, assumptions, and fantasies. Three mental processes create difficulties for individuals and become the way they think about life situations or process and handle their thoughts:

  1. The inability to get to the point: being lost in details and or losing sight of the primary considerations; not seeing the bigger picture or central issue
  2. The failure to stay focused due to: racy thoughts; easily distracted and flitting from one idea, thought, or remedy to the next but doing little to take corrective measures
  3. Obsessing or overly worrying about a situation, person or experience: spending mental energy in thinking about the problem, becoming drained and unable to put the effort into changing the problem.

I Don't Want to Look at the Negative Stuff About Me

I Don't Want to Look at the Negative Stuff About Me

It can be embarrassing to review the patterns of your self-defeating behaviors, not to mention shoe choices, but it is in this type of personal analysis that you will find your patterns.

If you start by processing from the perspective of, “I tend to think, or act, or behave in a particular manner”, and then name the behavior, it can be less embarrassing for some.


This aspect deals with the with the sensory system: sight, touch, hearing, tasting, and smelling. Self-defeating behaviors might include motives and attitudes that influence how you treat yourself or others physically.

No concern for the physical safety or wellness, including:

  • proper diet
  • exercise
  • sleep

Continuing those behaviors that deteriorate the body:

  • drugs
  • alcohol
  • cigarettes

Here too, an individual must take into account what is proper for them; the diabetic would need a different diet than the athlete training for a marathon. Others will develop diseases, disorders, or experience discomfort, staying focused on physical problems, often at the expense of evaluating other factors such as emotional and mental health.

An excellent resource for looking at the emotional or mental component in physical problems is Louise Hay. She and I caution anyone to have a thorough medical examination of physical problems and to not rely solely on an affirmation.

An affirmation can however, reinforce a different mind-set about an issue and be a more positive way to process some emotional and mental self-defeating thoughts and actions, which in some cases, can improve the physical symptoms.


The use of the term "spirituality" has changed throughout the ages. In modern times, spirituality is often separated from religion. It connotes a blend of humanistic psychology often with mystical and esoteric traditions aimed at personal well-being and personal development.

Many people think of this as their moral compass, or socially and ethically correct or incorrect thoughts, behaviors, and actions. When this moral compass is out of line with socially acceptable thoughts, behaviors and actions, you will be at odds with most people and typically not be able to take advantage of opportunities.

Self-defeating behaviors that impact the spiritual aspects of humans are not as easily defined. However, they will generally fall into the categories of lacking a moral compass or operating independent of the personal or cultural values, codes of conduct or social mores like:

  • Theft
  • Fraud
  • Murder
  • Violent Acts Against Others

If the shoe no longer fits, get rid of it.  If the behavior no longer works, change it.
If the shoe no longer fits, get rid of it. If the behavior no longer works, change it. | Source

From Embarrassed to Engaged in Change

Back to the shoes. Anyone growing up from 1950 forward has worn ugly or uncomfortable shoes to be in fashion. Those shoes made a statement, defined you, or served a purpose. Now, they just hurt you.

So, which aspects of your life no longer serve a purpose or are hurting you?

Remember That the Negative Stuff is Not About You, But Behaviors

What is important is to distinguish the behavior from you. If you label yourself as arrogant, with an “I am” statement, it can produce shame, as in "I am arrogant."

Using "I Tend to" statement lessens the embarrassment. If you state, “I tend to be arrogant about subjects when I may not have all of the facts or information about the subject”, it can lessen the shame inherent in a statement like, “I am arrogant.”

An “I tend” statement still realistically describes self-defeating behaviors, thoughts, and actions, but in a manner that is more likely to allow you to view it and then change it.


The Process of Change

Changing self-defeating patterns is more readily accomplished if you break the cycle of change into four distinct parts: :

  1. Identifying your individual patterns of self-defeating behaviors, thoughts, and actions
  2. Finding new ways to process the thoughts
  3. Acting in ways that may feel uncomfortable initially
  4. Changing the way you feel about certain individuals, situations, or experiences

To a degree, some of our actions are undoubtedly influenced by our genes or just by "human nature." However, most of our behavior, in contrast to other animals, has been learned from experience. Psychologists use the term "learning" to refer to any change in behavior that results from experience. (Hergenhahn, 1982).

For instance, a baby reacts to the discomfort of a wet diaper or hunger by crying. Quickly, the baby learns that crying can produce a response in others; sometimes it is to change a wet diaper, other times, someone will feed the baby.

While the baby does not correlate all of the aspects of this action/reaction, nonetheless, the baby learns that crying can get the attention of people who can change the feelings or distress.

It is certainly appropriate for the baby to cry to have something done about their uncomfortable situation. It is less acceptable though, to continue crying to get what you want at age 43. It is not age appropriate, yet many people use crying as a manipulative ploy or self-defeating behavior to get others to do for them.

Just as learning to get needs met in an unhealthy or counterproductive manner took practice, learning better behaviors for the adult or emotionally and mentally healthy person is possible as well. Therefore, if unwanted learned habits, thoughts, feelings, or behaviors are causing problems, they can be unlearned.

Sure there's a lot that needs changing, but don't tackle them all at once.
Sure there's a lot that needs changing, but don't tackle them all at once. | Source

Isolate and Evaluate Your S.E.M.P.S. Aspects

People can overwhelm themselves with all the changes they need to make in their attitudes, thoughts, actions, and behaviors.

Take the five aspects, and then decide which is the most severely or negatively influenced by self-defeating behaviors or is causing you the most difficulty in your life at this time.

Narrowing you focus to what is most problematic will help you decide what to work on first.

Which aspect of your life is most negatively influenced by your self-defeating thoughts, actions and behaviors?

See results

Isolate 2 Behaviors to Change

Working on two Self-defeating behaviors is manageable; more than that, and you can overwhelm yourself.

Next, isolate the self-defeating behaviors for each S.E.M.P.S. aspect and then narrow your behaviors, thoughts and actions that need correcting down to two.

Say you procrastinate. You think that if you spend more time on an assignment for work that it will be perfect, so you think about your layout, content, and power point more than you work on the project. As a result, you did not give yourself enough time to proof the work and found multiple typos during your presentation. You ended up feeling embarrassed, incompetent, and inadequate.

Make the effort to change for two weeks and see what differences you are experiencing.

Make a decision to exercise choice in your behaviors.
Make a decision to exercise choice in your behaviors. | Source

Prioritize: Tackle the Most Problematic One First

Make changes to these unhealthy or self-defeating behaviors for as long as it takes to modify or change. Depending on circumstances, it may take three to four weeks of conscientious effort to improve.

It is counterproductive to think that you could change all of your self-defeating behaviors, thoughts, and actions, at once. You'll set yourself up for a sense of failure if you try to change too many things at one time. You will also feel this same sense of inadequacy if you try to change too many aspects at once and fail to meet your expectations for change.

However, you can change, and reinforcing that changes take place daily and that the changes will improve your life can motivate you to make additional changes.

Once you've identified your problematic behaviors, found an alternative action for them, it is then about how you choose to act.

Journaling allows you to see your results more objectively

New Shoes - New Behaviors - you deserve both
New Shoes - New Behaviors - you deserve both | Source

Journal, Record and Evaluate Your Changes

Journaling reinforces your new outcomes. You can process what new thoughts, actions and behaviors you got and evaluate your results. It will help you see if you need to modify your original plan, or you may see that you have accomplished a particular change and can move to another behavior.

Either way, recording what you did differently and how you felt gives you a clearer understanding of the process and rewards of change. Weighing the outcomes of new behaviors versus the results from self-defeating behaviors can motivate you to continue improving.

If You Never Change, How Will You Know What You Could Have Gotten?

The test for any changes in our lives is ultimately deciding if we like the new outcomes. However, if you don't make changes, you won't know if things could be different. If we do like our new outcomes, we are usually motivated to continue with the new behaviors; if we do not, we can easily revert to the old way of thinking, acting and behaving.

Only you can decide if you like the old way or the new way.

Nevertheless, you will never know if a new way of thinking, behaving, and acting will be more valuable to you until you do things differently, or get that new pair of comfortable, serviceable, and reliable shoes.

© 2013 Marilyn L Davis


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    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 3 years ago from Georgia

      Good evening, Bobbie; thank you for your generosity. I know most of us could use some guidance in particular aspects of our lives. I just didn't realize how much I needed to change 26 years ago when I got into recovery, so much of this was written to help me organize my changes.

    • PurvisBobbi44 profile image

      PurvisBobbi44 3 years ago from Florida


      This hub would benefits so many people who may not be aware they need help in one or more aspects of their life.

      Have a great Thursday.

      I will share with Twitter and put on my re-pin board at Pinterest.

      Bobbi Purvis

    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 4 years ago from Georgia

      Good evening, Mathira. Thank you for commenting; I appreciate it.

    • mathira profile image

      mathira 4 years ago from chennai

      MDavisat, When we are emotionally disturbed life can be terrible. You have comprehensively covered all aspects of the problems of life.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 4 years ago from Georgia

      Hi Billy,

      I have no doubt that you have worked on this issue. Your writing, generous spirit and helpful guidance mirror the positive life you lead.

    • MDavisatTIERS profile image

      Marilyn L Davis 4 years ago from Georgia

      Thank you Denise. You have described the spill over cycle very well. You have also added that you can get back on track at any time through awareness of the problem. Great point.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 4 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      My most problematic areas are the emotional and mental. I find that when I have self-defeating behaviors in these areas, it spills over into all other areas of my life. When I am having a tough time emotionally, I don't feel like exercising and end up eating more. I don't want to talk to others, and my friendships go by the wayside. I become casual in my spiritual life as well. It is a vicious cycle. Over the years, I have been able to use the process that you have outlined here to discover and deal with these problematic areas. Now, things don't get as bad before I realize that I have gone off-track!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great points made here. I have worked through all this and lead a positive life today, but it took decades to reach this point.


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