By: Steve Greenman, MA, LPC, NCC

“All forms of self-defeating behavior are unseen and unconscious, which is why their existence is denied.” Vernon Howard

What are Self-Defeating Behaviors?

 In their book, Going Home: A Positive Emotional Guide for Promoting Life-Generating Behaviors (Honu Publications 2005), Drs. Gregory and Lori Boothroyd state that “self–defeating behaviors are any behavior or attitude that a person uses to such an extent that it diminishes the best life possible for that person” (p 5).

Self-defeating behaviors (SDBs) are behaviors used to protect oneself against perceived dangerous stimulus from the outside world. These behaviors are often not regarded as self-defeating initially, but rather survival mechanisms. An example could include a young child who is outgoing, but is continually regarded as irrelevant. This contrast could bring SDBs such as negativism or alienation to protect him/her against classmates’ attack.

SDBs tend to live far beyond the initial encounters and become staples of current and future personality traits. The Boothroyds further state that defeating behaviors interfere with the true internal self. Through continual use they can damage physical health, social and interpersonal connections, mental, emotional, and spiritual growth, vocational and educational connections, and financial stability (p 5).

The Boothroyds list of common self-defeating behaviors include:

  • substance abuse – used as a form of escapism
  • inferiority – constantly comparing oneself with others
  • excessive worry – can cause possible health issue due to created stress
  • alienation of others – can lead to loss of possible life-giving and changing contact
  • defensiveness – not willing to listen to others makes one shallow in understanding different points of view
  • negativism – it is hard for others to enjoy a relationship if it is never positive in nature
  • procrastination, disorganization, and indecision – these could all be unhealthy traits for the implementation of a career choice

The Continuing Pattern of Self-Defeating Behavior

 In Going Home, the Boothroyds describe continuing SDB as a circular pattern of behavior. Each step the individual partakes in further strengthens the SDB response imbedded in the unconscious.

The steps are as follows:

  1. Situation (Flashpoint): Something strikes a chord and the SDB is initiated; cues bring out the SDB response.
  2. Conclusion (what the behavior is supposed to prevent): Experience now shows that the SDB is the safest and the smartest thing to do for that particular situation and it is repeated.
  3. Fears (If I don’t use the behavior then….): Individuals wants to avoid being in a frightening situation without the SDBs that have protected them for so long.
  4. Choice (to throw the self-defeat switch again): This stage happens so fast one does not realize they have made a decision to use old SDB; it is an unconscious reaction.
  5. Techniques (tools to implement the choice): Techniques are any kind of thought and action that help promote and deliver the SDB.
  6. Results (consequences of the choice): Using SBDs over time greatly affects one’s emotional and physical well-being. The result stage can be an important avenue of change when one realizes what was lost and is finally willing to do something.
  7. Minimizing (denial of results): A person using SBDs denies that the behavior is bad.
  8. Disowning (dump the responsibility): This stage allows the individual to release the responsibility to anyone or anything other than themselves for their behavior. The individual paints him- or herself as the victim of circumstances.

 How to Eliminate Self-Defeating Behavior

 The Broothroyds share that “it’s time to rediscover and thereby recover home that place within us that’s not in form, not in time and not in space. It’s just here – waiting and beckoning” (p 41).

How to go about rediscovering oneself is laid out in the following 12-step program:

  •  Step 1 – Identify your self-defeating behavior: One should pick a strong, often-used SDB and focus attention on one at a time. The SDB chosen may affect other SDBs and you may kill two birds with one stone.
  • Step 2 – Isolate the flashpoint situation: What creates the stimulus to use the SDB? What particular events or situation arouse your need to use the SDB? It is important to connect arousal points so as to be know when to be aware of your responses to situations.
  • Step 3- Identify your favorite techniques: Techniques are used to carry out the SDB. This is the stage that gives you the ability to catch yourself before implementing an old SDB. The Boothroyds use examples of internal techniques, such an individual dwelling on past hurts or anticipating negative results, and external techniques, such as failing to meet obligations and manipulating others.
  • Step 4 – Do a thorough damage assessment: This is a critical stage in which an individual assesses and connects the dots, so to speak, with SDBs and the effects they have on many aspects of one’s life.
  • Step 5 – Identify your minimizing strategies: In this step, it is time to confront your past minimizing behavior after using SDBs. It takes courage for the individual to realize what is truthful about their behavior and its effect on the quality of one’s life.
  • Step 6 – Identify your disowning targets: Now it is time for the individual to face their personal responsibility for past behaviors.
  • Step 7 – Identify a replacement behavior: People need this step to fill the void in a positive manner that will replace the old SDB.
  • Step 8 – Identify replacement techniques: This step encourages the individual to realize that to be able to sustain behavioral changes will not be easy, and that it will be a continual work in progress.
  • Step 9 – Seize the moment of choice: In this step, it is critical that the individual empower the moment of choices. Take advantage of the changes of behavior one has been working on and don’t be afraid to implement them into a process of action.
  • Step 10 – Identify life-generating results: This step revisits step 4 but instead of listing a self-defeating behavior and its effects, the prescription of this step is to list all positive consequences of the life-generating behavior. Listing positive outcomes will hopefully be a positive reinforcement toward the implemented behavioral changes that are underway.
  • Step 11 – Maximize and enjoy the results: One should be able to take credit for his or her behavior. This does not mean becoming cocky about what one has accomplished, but rather giving oneself credit for the new pathway one is traveling in generating a new lifestyle.
  • Step 12 – Own your new behavior: Finally, one should be able to enjoy the fruits of his or her labor. Realizing the importance of this accomplishment will hopefully give one confidence to tackle other aspects of life that may also be leading to SDBs.

 SDBs are powerful avenues that people take to live their lives. Many times, one does not realize how strong the emotions are in wanting to not be hurt. The goal is to become what Abraham Maslow describes as a “fully functioning individual” versus an individual striving to survive and cope in the scary world that we envision is around us.

“Self-acceptance comes from meeting life’s challenges vigorously. Don’t numb yourself to your trials and difficulties, nor build mental walls to exclude pain from your life. You will find peace not by trying to escape your problems, but by confronting them courageously. You will find peace not in denial, but in victory.” Donald Walters


Steve Greenman, MA, LPC, NCC is a counselor at Mental Wellness Counseling in Traverse City, MI. He specializes in helping families dealing with complex family situations, addictions, and transitions. Steve is also helping clients through the Intensive Recover Program, which helps with recovery treatment, alcohol treatment, and other addictions treatment. Contact Steve at 231-714-0282 Ext. 701

Steve Greenman Traverse City Counselor
Steve Greenman, MA, LPC, NCC | Thoughtful Experience