Column: Self-imposed handicaps

Last week I wrote a column about happiness. This week it seems only appropriate to follow such a topic by discussing the barricade to attaining full happiness: self-defeating patterns.

Born out of the desire to seek short-term relief from an overwhelming situation, self-defeating behaviors are the single most common reason that people engage in psychotherapy.

An example of such behavior – falling on the more severe end of the spectrum – would be alcoholism, where the alcoholic encounters catharsis in his first few drinks. After having a few more, however, he becomes aware of the transient nature of this positive mood state. The more he drinks to solve his problems, the more he exacerbates them. While looking to blame someone for the state he is in, he can only look to one inflictor: himself.

A less serious example of these behaviors (more applicable to college students) would be procrastination, which falls under the top three most common self-defeating patterns.

Self-sabotage can also take on a more abstract form. Maybe your pattern is fixating, over-analyzing or living in your own head. Maybe it begins with a thought that is meant to serve as a social filter (“don’t do that, don’t say that”) before it becomes self-deprecating (“you’re worthless”).

Other examples include stopping for fast food after committing to a nutrition plan, shopping online after resolving to pay your accruing debts, focusing on what other people need to improve rather than what you need to improve and smoking cigarettes.

In all of these cases, self-sabotage initially begins as a way to both self-reward and self-preserve by way of providing instant gratification. After serving its initial ameliorative function, however, the behavior quickly becomes maladaptive.

Dr. Mark Goulston wrote a book called Get Out of Your Own Way that explores the natures of self-defeating patterns. He describes these behaviors as recurring “knee-jerk reactions” that develop more out of impulse than from rational thinking.

“Despite your best intentions, when the same or similar situations crop up again, you might act reflexively and do what you’ve done before,” said Goulston. “We act without regard for long-term consequences and without considering reasonable alternatives.”

Self-defeating patterns ultimately disrupt the flow of our lives and impede us from attaining ultimate happiness. So what are the best ways to conquer them?

Goulston breaks his advice into several steps. He says that first off, impulses that trigger self-defeating behavior begin as physical sensations. Identifying the location in your body where you feel these sensations (Is it in your head? Your neck?) will make you aware of the tangible component that precludes these impulses.

Second, you should connect the physical sensation to an emotion. Why are you feeling tense?

Make a list of situations, sensations and sensory details that trigger your self-defeating behavior. The more you begin to uncover the origins and reasoning for your current mood state, the easier it will be to take corrective action, foreseeing the futility of using your self-defeating pattern as a coping mechanism.

Once you’ve uncovered the reasons for your mood state, implementing and utilizing protective factors will decrease the likelihood of engaging in your problematic behavior.

Such factors may include exercise, a good night’s sleep, proper nutrition, sense of humor and most importantly, social support. It’s important that these factors become a part of the individual’s every-day life, for if they only show their face in fleeting doses, they will not have a consistent curative effect.

It’s also important to go easy on yourself if ever you should slip and engage in the self-defeating behavior that you’re trying to avoid.

We need negative emotions in our lives to tell us that something is off and in need of corrective action. The same can be said of self-defeating patterns. Goulston calls it “converting your self-contempt into self-determination,” and says that people should literally write out a plan of action to avoid future regression. Seeing the plan in writing makes the commitment more tangible, and thus more real.

It can be painful to watch yourself make the same mistakes again and again. Furthermore, it can be just as painful to watch friends or loved ones continue to fall and engage themselves in upsetting situations that all seem to follow the same plotline.

After all is said and done though, these patterns can be broken. Vow to live as your best self by being aware of the components that perpetuate these vicious cycles. And remember that everyone has been in the same boat as you at some point or another – as alone as you may feel, most humans engage in some form of self-defeating habits. With mindfulness and protective factors, however, we can permanently banish them from our lives.

ELENI STEPHANIDES is not a trained shrink but will gladly respond to e-mails sent by students looking to engage in more methods of practicing the self-defeating pattern of procrastination. She can be reached at estephanides@ucdavis.edu

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