Nobody wants to be self destructive. Self destructive behaviors come from misguided ideas about how to help ourselves. So if you know someone who self sabotages, you have an opportunity to make a big difference in their life.

When someone lives through a series of self destructive behaviors, we see how much they could benefit from love, understanding, and support. However, it can be extremely frustrating to help someone who hurts themselves.

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To be there for someone who acts in a self destructive way, we have to understand why they go against their own wellbeing. That gives us some clues for the best way to help.

What is this person doing to themselves? Why are they acting in such opposition to their own needs? And how can you help someone who is actively (if unintentionally) harming themselves?

What is self destructive behavior?

Self destructive behavior is when we cause ourselves unnecessary harm, either by putting ourselves in harmful situations, or keeping ourselves from helpful ones. It’s when we act in a way that keeps us from living the life of peace, health, and happiness we deserve.

Self destruction can show in many forms, and is common with mental health diagnoses such as PTSD, borderline personality disorder, depression, and bipolar disorder. It’s mainly linked to experiences of childhood abuse and neglect, which also connect to all of the above.

Self destructive behavior in its different forms may also be referred to as self harm, self sabotage, self punishment, self deprivation, or self isolation.

Some forms of self-destructive behavior include:

All of the above have been re-defined by forward-thinking psychologists as “dysregulated behaviors.” Deep down, people who engage in self destruction are trying to meet a need for themselves — but trying in an ineffective or harmful way.

Where does self destructive behavior come from?

All our behaviors are attempts to meet both physical and psychological needs. If we’re lucky, our instincts bring us solutions and improvement. But not everybody’s instincts tell them how to help themselves properly.

Most of the time, when people engage in self destructive behavior, they are simply following instincts to get their emotional needs met. These instincts may just be misguided.

It’s never as simple as: “This person doesn’t want to succeed,” “They don’t want to be healthy,” or “They don’t want to feel loved.” More often, it’s that positive outcomes don’t feel possible, or even safe, to someone with dysregulated self destructive behavior. Or, someone who is self destructive may not have grown up around positive, self-help behaviors.

Either way, there is usually a reason for self-destructive behavior, and it’s usually not simply malicious or lazy.

Childhood and self destructive impulses

Our self-help instincts are shaped by our childhoods and how caregivers react to and prioritize our needs. If someone’s needs have historically not been met, then their instincts are shaped to reject their own needs. It doesn’t help you to keep trying if you’ve been taught your needs won’t be met anyway.

And if someone’s needs have been met insufficiently since childhood, they learn to pursue poor solutions to their problems, modeled on the ineffective or harmful care they received from parents.

All this is to say: especially coming from abusive or neglectful situations, self destruction becomes more likely.

Self destruction and cognitive dissonance

Self destructive behaviors can also arise from a desire to unify what happens to us with our own personal beliefs about who we are. The difference between these two is called “cognitive dissonance,” and humans naturally find it very hard to tolerate.

We want to believe the best about ourselves, and it hurts when reality doesn’t support that narrative. 

If we try our hardest, our failures feel much more meaningful. We take them to mean there’s something defective about who we are, and we are left without a comforting excuse.

So, many of us self-sabotage because we’re afraid of failure impacting our self-esteem. If we can tell ourselves we didn’t try that hard, or that we had an inherent disadvantage, then failing doesn’t feel as bad. So, we self destructively put barriers in our own way. 

Self-verification theory

In this excerpt from Dr. Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion, we see another way of looking at cognitive dissonance and self sabotage. This take covers Bill Swann’s concept of self verification theory:

“Social psychologist Bill Swann argues that people want to be known by others according to their firmly held beliefs and feelings about themselves – a model known as ‘self verification theory.’ That is, they want their self-views to be validated because it helps to provide a sense of stability in their lives.

“His research shows that even people who make strong negative evaluations of themselves follow this pattern. They seek to interact with others who dislike them, so their experiences will be more familiar and coherent.”

By trying to help this person who self-sabotages, you are giving them the love they need–but they may not feel they deserve it. Thus, it may require some patience to get the love ‘through’ to them.

Why help someone who is hurting themselves?

Someone who doesn’t know how to help themselves, may hurt themselves in an attempt to feel better. The problem with these self destructive behaviors is that they help temporarily, but make the problem even worse over time. Self sabotage drives love away from the person who needs it most.

As we’ve seen, self sabotage and self harm tend to come from a lack of proper self love, and a feeling that one doesn’t deserve better. These feelings are best dissolved by evidence: that you’re lovable, that you’re accepted, that staying present is safe. And the best way to give someone this evidence is to be there for them.

So when a person self sabotages or self harms, receiving persistent care, support, and understanding may feel close to a miracle.

Common self-destructive behaviors, and how to help

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1. Intense procrastination (self sabotage):

If you see someone about to self sabotage by missing a deadline or flaking on a meeting, encourage them to stop and think.

Ask this person to think through what it’ll feel like if there’s a bad outcome to whatever they’re avoiding. What emotions will you feel if the boss hates your presentation, or if you don’t know what to say on a date?

Ask if they’ve successfully overcome a similar feeling in the past. They probably have. Then, suggest they think about past examples of this kind of thing going right, too.

The point of all this is to replace your friend’s conditioned beliefs with realistic ones. Things don’t always go badly. People don’t always hate them.

The bottom line is that we can do amazing things, if we just put ourselves out there: We are strong! We can deal with failure and move forward! The key is to accept that failure is human, realistic, and a real possibility — but that it’s not going to define who we are. By understanding that failure doesn’t make us less lovable, we are able to move past the impulse to self-sabotage.

2. Choosing unhealthy romantic partners:

Do you know someone who regularly self-sabotages by choosing partners who treat them poorly?

Kristin Neff summarizes in Self-Compassion how self destruction in choosing toxic or doomed relationships can really just be an attempt at self-protection: “The certainty of rejection feels safer than not knowing what to expect next.”

So help this person believe that they can expect what comes next–that your relationship is certain.

Your best shot at helping is to become a regular, predictable, stable presence in this person’s life. You don’t have to make promises or explain to them you’re not leaving. Simply be there. Simply show them that you aren’t going anywhere–that you’ll be there to support them through good and bad times, because real love means that.

Even if they haven’t experienced this kind of real love, you can help them build evidence that those who care won’t just pick up and leave. And that evidence can make them feel less dependent on relationships that reinforce their own self-abandonment.

Another option: remind them they don’t have to abandon themselves, even if they think others will. Even if they can’t believe they can rely on others, they always have a choice to be there for themselves. That knowledge makes others’ presence irrelevant. You’ll never be totally alone if you commit to yourself.

Of course, it can be hard to take your own side, if those who’ve loved you haven’t. This is a reason why victims of toxic relationships often have so much trouble helping themselves. And, why they struggle with self destructive behavior.

3. Self harm (self punishment or self deprivation):

This can be an umbrella for well-known forms of self harm, such as cutting and substance misuse, as well as lesser-known ones like self-starving, and skin picking.

If someone actively hurts themselves as a way to meet an emotional need, they will not succeed in getting that need met. They may feel a quick burst of relief, followed by a drop back to baseline (or below).

It never helps to make someone feel like their self harming behavior is crazy or stupid. What does help:

  • Acknowledge the pain that’s causing this behavior. Let the person know their pain is valid, and that they deserve to be able to let it out (either to you or a trained professional).
  • Let them know that even though feeling better might feel hopeless in this moment, that there are a lot of options for.
  • Ask what emotions are making them want to self harm right now. Do what you can to reframe any self-hating statements in a positive way.
  • Suggest doing something together than distracts from the self harm impulse.
  • Or, do something that meets the need that their impulse is trying to communicate.
    • For example, if your friend has the urge to self-starve, that urge might mean they’re struggling to accept their body image. Self acceptance is a real psychological need we all have. So maybe start a spontaneous photo shoot and get a couple sexy shots your friend can appreciate. Or tell them everything you think is great about them, to pull focus from their body to their personality.

4. Self isolation:

Often, we can’t pull someone out of the self-isolating hole. But we can counter the beliefs that cause them to self isolate in the first place (other than Coronavirus….).

Self isolating behavior can come from misguided beliefs about who you are and what you deserve. So if you know someone who’s self isolating, try countering what their false beliefs might be:

  • False self-belief: “I don’t deserve good people in my life.”
    • “I want you in my life.”
    • “I’m lucky you’re in my life.”
    • “It makes me happy when you’re around.”
    • “I sometimes feel I don’t deserve friends, either – but you make things feel better.”
    • “We’re a great friend match. I understand your ups and downs, and the ups are worth the downs 100%!”
  • “If good people are around me, they’ll see how bad I am and hate me.”
    • Let them know what you appreciate about them – their presence adds value, rather than subtracts. Share how you feel about being around them. Explain how they improve your life – even if it’s just that they laugh at your dumb dad jokes when nobody else will! When someone has such negative self-beliefs that they self sabotage, genuine words of encouragement go a long way.
  • “Anything I say is annoying, so I’d better not say anything.”
    • Make an effort, in the moment, to acknowledge what they say. Even if they only make an offhand comment, a simple “Oh yeah,” or “I love that you notice things like that” can make a big difference to those who have been verbally abused and diminished into self destructive beliefs and behaviors.
  • “I’m so broken, nobody would understand what I have to say.”
    • Share that you enjoy talking to this person, specifically because you can talk about emotions and deeper issues in the world.
    • One way to put it to them: “Your experiences have given you a really unique perspective on the world. I really value when you choose to share these thoughts with me. I love that you help me understand things I never noticed on my own.”
  • “My inner world is so crazy, I can’t handle any added unpredictability – including social interactions.”
    • Sometimes mental health struggles make it genuinely hard to stay present around other people. If someone is isolating themselves because they don’t have emotional bandwidth, honor their decision to take care of themselves. Let this person know you’re there for them whenever they’re ready, but that you want them to take the time they need to feel ok.
    • Check in periodically without pressuring, to let them know you think about them.
  • “Who I am is bad, so I can’t be myself around other people.”
    • “I don’t want you to be anything for my sake. I enjoy being around you most when I can tell you’re not worrying about how I see you. Your self is more than good enough.”