What are the self-defeating behaviors that hurt my relationships?

In the previous podcast we discussed how we are not at the mercy of our feelings but rather how we are in control, and can change them by changing our thoughts. We addressed identifying the cognitive distortions hidden in our thoughts and also challenging our irrational beliefs with rational responses as a way to change negative feelings. In this podcast I will address the different kinds of self-defeating behaviors that reinforce negative feelings, and hurt relationships. I will also introduce constructive behaviors to replace the self- defeating ones, and by doing so you will help your self-esteem and improve your relationships.

The following are examples of the types of behaviors that hurt you and your relationships.

Comparison making

It is reasonable to engage in some comparison making, but when it is excessive it is likely motivated by a need to gain reassurance about your acceptability. This behavior however never achieves its purpose because comparison making will always create two polarized attitudes, one of inferiority and the other of superiority. Inferiority is a feeling that is evoked when the other person is idealized because when you elevate them you will automatically devalue yourself. Superiority, on the other hand, is a feeling that is evoked when the other person is demeaned. When you do this, you will automatically see yourself as being better than. A more constructive approach would be to make comparisons within your-self, and then gauge if there has been any improvement.

The search for unconditional love

The search for unconditional love is like chasing your shadow and hoping to catch it but of course this cannot be achieved. Unconditional love is the wishful fantasy that that no matter what you do, no matter how inappropriate or unacceptable your behavior, you “should” always be forgiven and never criticized. This, of course, like believing you can catch your shadow, is not realistic and if you have this belief you will often feel disappointed and betrayed. In the quest for unconditional love there is a false belief that if you are truly loved then others will conform to your ideal of them, and will want to always make you happy. The reality is that in a mature relationship love should be conditional. Obviously, there is comfort in believing that no matter what we do, we will always be loved unconditionally, and suffer no adverse consequences, but actions have consequences, and all relationships need boundaries, and there are some boundaries that can never be crossed, because if they are they will cause irreparable damage.

Testing behaviors

There is a basic human need to trust. Erik Erickson, a developmental psychologist, proposed a theory in which there are stages of development across the lifespan that must be negotiated in order to acquire the necessary abilities to function well in life.
Failure to successfully complete a stage according to Erickson’s theory will result in failure to acquire certain “strengths” or skills needed for the healthy development of self-esteem. In the very first stage of life, an infant is completely helpless and dependent.

The infant has just been expelled from the womb, an environment that was warm and safe, and into a world that is changing and unpredictable. In response to this uncertainty, the infant turns towards their primary caregivers for comfort and protection. If the care they receive is reliable they will develop a sense of trust that the world is safe and that the people in it are dependable. This internalized feeling will be carried with them into all their future relationships, and they will feel secure and confident even when confronted with uncertainty. Failure, however to acquire trust leads to the development of testing behaviors.

A person who lacks trust anticipates that it is just a matter of time before they are hurt, and so in order to minimize the shock when this happens they become hyper-vigilant, and on the look out for signs so that they won’t be caught off guard. This usually results in looking for hidden meanings in words and gestures and constant reassurance seeking. The purpose is to allay fear and establish a feeling of security, but instead of promoting trust testing behaviors causes distrust.

Wanting to make strong attachments quickly

Often times those who fear loss and expect rejection or abandonment want to instantly establish a cement-like attachment in order to capture the other so they can’t escape. Initially, the intensity of this behavior for a person who doubts their appeal is very flattering and validating. Since this behavior is driven by a fear of abandonment it quickly becomes clingy and demanding, and what feels like flattery begins to feel like suffocation and control. Another common strategy used to quickly secure a bond is to prove ones utility by being especially helpful and considerate. The problem with this behavior is that the helpfulness is self-serving and so it is often offered when it is not needed nor wanted, and so instead of feeling gratitude one begins to feel stifled and controlled.

Needing to be needed

Sometimes a person who doubts their desirability can only feel secure in their relationships by adopting the role of caretaker. In the beginning, this role feels good because of the security it offers, but it sets up the relationship to be one-sided, in that when one does all the giving the other does all the taking. After a while being the giver no longer feels good, except the unspoken rules of the relationship have now been established, and so if the “giver” wants sometimes to be a “receiver”, they risk being seen as demanding and selfish.

Needing to be right

A person who lacks self worth needs to always be right, and so finds it painful to acknowledge making a mistake. For them being wrong is equivalent to being a flawed and defective person. The problem with this behavior is that by never admitting to being wrong, the message conveyed is that the other person is always wrong. This clearly is self- defeating because it is unlikely that anyone would want to stay in a relationship in which they are always accused of being wrong.

Keeping closeness at a distance

For some people who feel inherently inferior, closeness feels threatening, and, so when a relationship begins to become more intimate, it is at that point that they withdraw. They push others away, because they doubt that anyone could really love them. They believe that their internal “ugliness” will eventually be discovered and then they will feel the pain of rejection. Another way that a fear of intimacy undermines our relationships is by unconsciously seeking out someone who is emotionally unavailable. There is a wishful fantasy that if they succeed in winning over such a person their specialness will be validated and their feelings of inferiority will disappear.

Beware of Narrative building

Starting in our early years, we begin to assign meaning to our experiences within the context of a relationship. It is through these interactions, with our primary caretakers or attachment objects that we form certain assumptions and beliefs about ourselves, about other people, and about how we expect to be treated. Once established, our core beliefs create a lens through which all our experiences are filtered, meaning we will see what we believe. This is what is called narrative building, and what makes it so difficult to challenge a belief system because we believe the stories that we have created.

Failing to adopt an assertive style of communication

Learning to communicate directly and assertively is necessary to maintain a feeling of positive self-regard and also to begin to overcome feelings of low self-worth. When we are assertive we are willing to confront a person, in a calm and reasonable way about their hurtful or offensive behavior. We are willing to risk saying what we think and what we feel, and invite anger and even rejection. Without assertiveness, you render yourself vulnerable to exploitation and even abuse. Without assertiveness, it is difficult to feel true intimacy because you hide your thoughts and swallow your feelings.

Using a Passive style of communication

Those who communicate with this style remain silent while others often disrespect them. Passive communicators rationalize their passivity by telling themselves that they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. This may be partially true, but the real reason is a fear of being disliked or a fear of retaliation. A passive person often allows others to treat them like a doormat. This obviously doesn’t feel good even to a passive person, and so the anger will build until it can no longer can be suppressed, and like any container, will eventually become filled beyond capacity and overflow.

When this happens anger is expressed in one of two destructive ways. The typical passive aggressive way is hidden and indirect they are afraid to openly display their hostility, and know no other way to express their feelings in a way that feels safe. The other gets expressed with massive forcefulness like a volcanic eruption. All the pent up frustration, hurt, anger, and resentment gets thrown onto a stunned target. This reaction is so excessive that the aggressor immediately feels guilty, and, with remorse, returns to suppressing their feelings and ingratiating themselves again in order to make amends for their aggressive outburst.

Most people will use all of these different styles of communication at different times, but we all subscribe to one most of the time, especially in times of stress when we feel most vulnerable. It is therefore helpful to pay attention to the way in which we relate to others, and begin to actively practice being more assertive, by pushing back when you are being put upon, and when unreasonable demands are being placed on you. Initially, you are likely to feel uncomfortable because this way of relating is so unfamiliar, but be careful not to trick yourself into believing that your discomfort is an indication that you are bad or doing something wrong. Continue to persevere and practice because this is precisely what is needed for you to have a healthy relationship.

All of these behaviors are the self-defeating kind but it is also necessary to actively engage in healthy behaviors. The following are examples of these kinds of adaptive behaviors:

1. Facing feared situations:

We have a tendency to avoid those situations that make us feel uncomfortable. Avoidance provides immediate relief but in the long term it always increases anxiety. If you avoid a situation you are telling yourself silently that there is something threatening and unmanageable about the situation otherwise you wouldn’t be avoiding it. You never give yourself the chance to see if the feared event is as bad as you imagined it would be. A strategy to break this unhelpful behavior is to ask your self what is the worst possible thing that can happen and then come up with a plan to cope with this scenario if it were to happen. Chances are it won’t but if it did, take comfort in knowing, that our imagination is usually a lot worse than the reality.

2. Identify your safety behaviors:

Sometimes we engage in behaviors that we believe will protect us from something unfortunate or from the situation worsening. These behaviors are unhelpful, time-consuming, they sap emotional energy, and they have no value other than to provide a false sense of security. Unfortunately, the more we engage in them, the more power we give them because we reinforce the false belief that they offer protection. A safety behavior is any behavior that makes you feel anxious if you don’t engage in it.

3. Stop reassurance seeking:

When reassurance seeking is excessive it is usually a response to the fear of making a mistake. Of course, it’s normal to ask other people sometimes for their opinions or advice or to double check that you have understood something correctly. But if you repeatedly ask the same questions over and over again or ask what you should do even though you are able to figure out the answer then you are engaging in a behavior that will erode your self-esteem. You are silently telling yourself that you need help and cannot trust your judgment or succeed on your own. The relief that you seek from others by affirming that you did the right thing is damaging because you come to need them to manage your anxiety. This may also cause others to experience you as needy and emotionally draining.

4. Stop People Pleasing:

This is a response to the fear of disappointing or angering others. If you engage in this type of behavior then you are likely to put the needs of others first even at the expense of what’s in your best interest. You are unlikely to assert yourself or push back when someone oversteps a boundary or makes demands that are unreasonable. Interactions are stressful and exhausting because you are always anxious not to do or say anything that will anger or disappoint others. It is helpful to remember that people pleasers tend to overestimate the likelihood that others will be disappointed or mad at them. Being assertive is not aggressive or bad but rather a sign of self-respect.

5. Stop Over-preparation:

This type of behavior is driven by anxiety and is intended to prevent failure. Effort, of course, is necessary for success but at a certain threshold the additional effort is negligible, you would perform just as well without it. Over-preparing is an unconscious strategy we use to diminish the anxiety associated with a fear of failure. So much energy is expended, that your performance will likely suffer and the disappointing outcome will then be used as evidence that you didn’t prepare enough.

6. Stop Procrastination:

This unconscious behavior is used to avoid experiencing anxiety by putting off a stressful or challenging task. Now, of course, sometimes distraction can be a helpful coping strategy when a distressing situation is out of your control. In this situation, short periods of distraction can reduce your anxiety level until you are able to use more effective coping strategies like problem solving. When distraction, however, is used for the purpose of escape you send yourself a message that the situation you are avoiding is too big a threat for you to handle. Procrastination usually creates a self-fulfilling prophecy because if you put something off until the last minute it is likely that the quality of your work will suffer. The solution is to confront the task, and break it down into small and manageable pieces so that it is less overwhelming.

7. Problem solving:

It’s important to improve your coping skills by practicing problem solving. A way to do this involves answering a series of questions that you will use as a framework to guide you to the best solution:

  • Define the problem. Be able to put it clearly into words.
  • Brainstorm all the possible solutions that pop into your mind. Write them all down even if you think they are silly.
  • For each solution generated write down the pros and the cons in separate columns so that you can study them.
  • Once you choose the best option, even if it does not feel like the ideal option, come up with a plan to execute it. This plan should involve a series of steps so it is clear what you need to do.
  • Finally, devise a back up plan in case your initial plan doesn’t work. After all things don’t always go the way we want.

8. Exercise self-care:

Research has found that a regular exercise regimen will reduce stress, diminish anxiety and improve mood. The importance of sleep should also not be under-estimated. It is easier to cope with stress when you are not fatigued. Try to eliminate caffeine, which is a stimulant, long before your bedtime, and even though alcohol may make you feel sleepy, it actually disturbs sleep by disrupting your sleep cycle. It’s also helpful to practice some form of relaxation like focused breathing, mindfulness, yoga or progressive muscle relaxation. There are many resources on-line and some may work better for you than others. Find one that works, and helps you to cope with the stress that is not only inevitable in college but also very much a part of living an adult life.

9. Limit social Media:

If social media is not managed it can create anxiety and depression because we automatically compare our lives to those that we see on these platforms. It’s important to recognize that these pictures are only snapshots of a moment, and that people usually post only the pictures that are flattering and most likely to evoke admiration and envy. They are not posting images of their bad hair day or posting about their embarrassing moments. Beware that you don’t jump to the false conclusions that their lives are perfect and that your life in comparison is lacking. Beware that you don’t use social media as a measure of your self-worth. If you find yourself caring too much about how many likes or comments you get on your posts, it’s likely you are needing external validation because you don’t feel good about yourself. Use this is a sign that you need to take action, and start doing things and looking for new experiences and activities that will make you feel accomplished and proud. Perhaps you are lonely and need to work on finding new friends or even different friends. Perhaps you are unhappy at home and need to change some dynamic with your family.

In any event, when social media becomes more a source of stress than enjoyment it is time to create some distance. Try to go a whole day without checking your social media and do something else instead. Read a book, bake brownies, exercise, talk on the phone with a friend. Do anything that brings you joy. If it’s too difficult to go a whole day without social media then try shorter periods of time-outs because taking a break will give you a break from the negative thoughts and feelings that social media can sometimes stimulate.