Read an Excerpt
What Is a Self-Defeating behavior?
Lynn was visibly distraught. Only a few months past her thirty-second birthday when she first visited our office, she looked at least ten years older, mostly because of the frown lines that seemed cut into her forehead and the tight set of her mouth. A slightly overweight woman, she wore an expensive-looking and conservatively tailored business suit. She told us that she was an office manager at a regional insurance firm, adding somewhat huffily that the company considered her a "top performer."
Why, we asked, had she come to see us?
"Because I have no life," she said grimly."Are you saying that your energy level is low?" we asked.
"That, too," Lynn replied. "But what I really mean is what I said: I have no life. I get up in the morning and I go to work. Then I come home, watch television for a few hours, and go to bed. That's what I do every day, week after week, month after month, year after year: work, eat, sleep. And if I didn't have to support myself, I probably wouldn't work, so that would leave food and sleep. And, of course, the TV."
We asked if she had friends or family. "No family," she replied. "I was an only child, and my parents are dead" Here Lynn paused to light a cigarette, which she smoked while formulating the rest of her answer to our question. "And as for friends," she said after a few moments, "well, I don't have many of them, either. None, really. There are a few women at work I go to lunch with, but they're married and have kids, which doesn't give them time to socialize outside the office. There's Ingrid, I suppose," Lynn continued. "She's single, butshe claims she's allergic to cigarette smoke. Going out with her is more trouble than it's worth."
It's difficult to deal with a complaint as general as Lynn's seemed to be, so we moved on to ask her to describe in detail a typical day in her life. "They're all pretty much the same," she replied, "but, well, there was last Friday...." On that day, as Lynn explained, her supervisor had complimented her on a project that her department had recently completed. But the elation she experienced upon hearing this praise dissipated soon enough. Driving home from her office, she felt a sadness creep over her, a mood she linked with the realization that she faced another Friday evening--and, worse yet, an entire weekend--alone and with nothing to do. To combat her despondency, she sought out a familiar remedy: she stopped at a convenience store, where she bought enough candy, snacks, and cigarettes to sustain her through another evening in front of the television.
At this point we sensed that the lack of life that Lynn had justifiably been complaining about was nothing more and nothing less than an ongoing sequence of self-defeating behaviors. Her life had become an arduous and repetitive ordeal--so much so that she felt best when she felt nothing at all. And like any bright and sensitive person in a similar circumstance, she had felt uncomfortable with this situation --enough so that she had sought help in an attempt to find out what she was doing wrong.
The Big Question
In our years of practice, we have come to notice that many of our clients make statements and display attitudes similar to Lynn's. The refrain we've heard most often from the people we work with goes something like this: "I keep hurting myself, but I dont understand why." We have heard these words so often that we've concluded that despite differences in age, sex, and financial circumstances, most of the people who come to us share a common problem. They simply are locked into the habit of making choices that do not work for them. Acting on these misguided choices, they say or do things that virtually guarantee dissatisfaction and unhappiness. These people (and millions like them) are caught in a cycle of self-defeating behavior and feel that they are doomed to lives of failure, misery, and disappointment.
What, exactly, is a self-defeating behavior? On the surface, it would seem that we could categorize as self-defeating any attitude or gesture that thwarts a person's healthy desire for love, acceptance, fulfillment, or tranquillity. And while it is true that self-defeating behaviors effectively distort the individual's best and healthiest response to a new moment of life, they have another key characteristic that distinguishes them from other behaviors:
A true self-defeating behavior 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.
When attempting to identify and eliminate your own self-defeating behaviors, it's extremely important to keep this definition in mind: to be truly self-defeating, a behavior must have worked for you at one point or another in your life --or, at least, you believed it worked for you. Why is this so? Because, we believe, human beings are profoundly rational creatures. Uncontaminated by false conclusions (which, as you'll see, are the toxic by-products of our culture), they will respond in a healthy and rational way to any situation or circumstance. This innate coping mechanism will work until, one day, an unfamiliar and threatening situation arises. At this point, people will instinctively do whatever is required to eliminate the threat and maintain equilibrium.Self-Defeating Behaviors. Copyright © by Milton R. Cudney. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.