An exploration of what self defeating behaviours and how we can learn to defeat them..
Self defeating behaviours could be described as behaviours that are harmful or self destructive. Some examples of self defeating behaviours are procrastination, drug abuse, sexual dysfunction, compulsive/ritualistic behaviour and general unhealthy attitudes such as isolating oneself, paranoia, extreme jealousy, denial, OCD tendencies, etc. The Self handicapping theory (Berglas and Jones 1987) proposes that people may engage in self-defeating behaviours to validate their own sense of worthlessness. For example, a person who doesn’t enrol on a course that they were thinking of taking because they believe that they will fail it and therefore there is no point. Such people may engage in such behaviours as a means to avoid failure and to preserve whatever self-esteem they might have. Self-esteem can also play a significant factor with regards to self-defeating behaviours. For example, people with low self-esteem are also more prone to anxiety and depression. This can relate to self-defeating behaviours as people with low social esteem are also more willing to engage in self-defeating behaviours such as risk taking and procrastination, (Twenge, Catanese & Baumeister 2002) It’s important to note that an client’s upbringing and parental relationship can play a significant factor. For example, one theory that appears to correspond with this view is the ‘Control mastery theory’ (Weiss 1986) This theory proposes that clients who may have developed depression and anxiety due to their upbringing as children are more likely to engage in self defeating behaviors. As a result, clients from such a background may end up blaming themselves for their mistakes and even go on to engage in behaviours that validate to their parents (or significant persons whilst growing up) that they were right. They may even feel ‘guilty’ for believing that they might achieve something better for themselves as it goes against their parents or significant other’s belief of them.
Considering my own competency whilst working with clients with self defeating behaviours, I have found that client’s whose upbringing has been traumatic in some manner or felt that they were blamed, compared to others unfavourable, or felt that they were not ‘good enough’ whilst growing up as children, often appeared to be engaged with some form/s of self-defeating behaviour/s. For example, one client I worked with; Claire, felt whilst growing up that she was often compared unfaviourably with her older sister by her parents who was very academic and good at studies. Claire (now a young woman) who also did well in her studies developed unhealthy and irrational beliefs of ‘perfectionism. To the extent that if she felt her work was not ‘perfect’ or good enough she would worry continuously and blame herself for her lack of ability- even though there was no evidence to suggest the quality of her work was anything other than extremely good. In addition, this young lady felt the need to constantly please her parents and older sister even now-and had developed a need to please others rather than focus on what she actually wanted in life. This had led her to become depressed- another major self-defeating behaviour. This case demonstrates the Control Mastery theory and how Claire is attempting to validate her parent’s view that she is not good enough at her studies and must try harder.
Throughout the sessions, Claire began to understand how her desire to please others was a coping mechanism- her need to validate her view of what she assumed her parents thought of her as a child –that her efforts were not good enough and she had to try harder. Claire also acknowledge that her parents often did this unconsciously without realising that they were affecting Claire’s confidence at a deep level as she was growing up and Claire felt she did not have the courage to ever tell them how she felt as she feared their disappointment in her (Another classic example of control mastery theory at work). Claire also acknowledge that she was sabotaging herself and her effects through trying to please others by not living for herself and trying to validate her parents view of her. Throughout the sessions, Claire was more able to focus consciously on the present and realised that her fears about her performance were not a true reflection of reality .Claire realised that her fear of not telling her parents how she really felt stemmed from the unconscious fear that they would stop loving her and clashed against her subconscious need to please the people she loved and to validate that they were right. Claire did not feel she could talk to her parents but instead decided to write a letter addressed to her parents- that she has kept. Claire admitted that even though she hasn’t spoken to her parents about how she felt or given them the letter- she now has a good relationship with her parents and does not feel the need to.
2. There are some ethical considerations that we must explore with particular reference to self defeating behaviours. It’s important to note that self-defeating behaviours can be directly harmful to the client. Therefore it is imperative whilst gaining consent from the client that the client is made aware of any extenuating circumstances where confidentiality may be disclosed. E.g if a counsellor suspect that the client may harm themselves or others or a client with substance abuse issues or a history of suicidal ideation- than appropriate action would be taken and the relevant authorities notified. Whilst the obvious ethics must be practiced in any therapeutic relationship e.g. belonging to a reputable organisation bound by a solid ethical framework, regular CPD and supervision, etc. We must also consider ethics such as countertransference (therapists should become aware of the subtle influences of client’s religious, personal beliefs that they could have on them and how therapists can often unconsciously and subtly respond to this. In addition, whilst it might not make sense why a client may be engaging in a self-defeating behaviours its imperative that therapist do not allow their personal beliefs to interfere and ‘condone’ a client whether consciously or unconsciously. (Barnes and Muradin 2001) It may therefore makes sense that the therapeutic approach is client led- where possible.
Finally, I will now explore some of the therapeutic considerations of working with clients with self-defeating behaviours. CBT has been found to be an effective tool in helping clients with self-defeating behaviours. One cognitive approach would be to consider the use of Rational Emotive Behaviour therapy proposed by Albert Elliss. (Reeves 2013) Ellis (2013) believed that negative emotions such as anxiety and depression are caused by the way we view or interpret the world we live in. Negative emotions such as anxiety are due to the irrational way that some client’s may view their model of the world rather than just due to the negative events themselves. For example, an irrational belief that a client may have is that they have to be perfect in everything they do. (This in turn creates self-defeating behaviours such as perfectionism, and in turn can create a lack of esteem, low confidence, depression etc. that can arise due to feelings of disappointment if things don’t turn out to their high expectations. Using this approach, the therapist would help clients to challenge negative beliefs and develop healthier patterns of thinking. Therapeutically, the counsellor would help the client to identify some of their irrational beliefs. Once these beliefs are identified, REBT can help clients distinguish between ‘irrational’ beliefs and rational beliefs that are more acceptable to the client. For example, I worked with a client who had a fear of their face going red and making a ‘fool’ of themselves during a work presentation. Throughout the course of therapy the client was encouraged to challenge ‘irrational’ beliefs and begin to consider healthier alternatives ‘I guess my face going red in front of a group of people might happen but it’s not the worst thing and I’ll just carry on talking’.
Whilst CBT approach may provide a more shorter and direct therapeutic approach its imperative to note that this may not suit everyone. Some client’s may prefer to explore their emotions and have a more person centred approach rather than a therapist led one.
A psychodynamic view of self defeating behaviours would relate well to the ‘Control Mastery theory’ of self defeating behaviours. In particular, as this theory places so much emphasise on childhood and the significant impact a child’s upbringing can have on a the child’s later adult behaviours. In this approach the client’s childhood may be explored. Conflict or trauma at the early stage of psychosexual stages of development may also be explored. According to Freud, any form of conflict or trauma at any of the psychosexual stages of development could lead to adult personality ‘traits’ that may explain why some adults may engage in self defeating behaviours. One major disadvantage of this view is that there are so many confounding variables that may be responsible or contributing to later adult personality traits. For example, an infant who is repeatedly told off for messy potty training as an infant during the anal stage of development may potentially become an anally retentive adult with OCD later in adult life. However this could easily be explained by various other factors, such as peer pressure, learnt behaviour, environmental factors etc. The psychodynamic view also claims that the ID ego and superego are in constant conflict- The ID is the instinctual part of the mind that drive biological urges such as food, water, sex etc. The superego are the moral values and standards that we are taught. Whilst the ego facilitates and arbitrates between the ID and superego. (Reeves When these states are in conflict they create anxiety, According to Freud, the use of defence mechanisms is then used to control this anxiety. If this is the case why are people who engage with self defeating behaviours not employing such defence mechanisms as a means to protect themselves against engaging in these self-defeating behaviours in the first place- or are they? For example, a client who seeks promiscuous sexual relations with various men at a time- increasing her risk of developing STD’S could be engaging in this self-defeating behaviour to avoid a relationship with a loving person- due to a fear of trusting again. Perhaps due to a parent leaving them in childhood. (Displacing- physically intimate behaviour with others rather than someone that she could actually care for due to the fear of that person leaving her) Freud’s psychodynamic view of self-defeating behaviours may certainly account for how a client may engage in a self-defeating behaviour as they feel (whether consciously or unconsciously) that they particular behaviour may be ‘protecting’ them from a repressed event.