Silencing the Voice Within: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior to Help Your Recovery

There’s a term in sports called, colorfully, “the yips.” It’s when a player starts to mess up something they do all the time–shooting free throws, making a short putt, throwing over to first base. It’s not just being bad at the sport, or slowing down from age or injury–it usually involves something easy that the athlete has done hundreds and hundreds of times, something that is now just muscle memory and instinct. The yips come into play when something comes between that instinct and action. That thing is their mind.

An athlete with the yips suddenly starts thinking about messing up, instead of not thinking at all and letting their training take over. They question every motion, and that starts to become self-perpetuating. Some of them “yip” themselves right out of the game. These highly-trained people, who have been among the best in the world at what they do, can give it all away through self-defeating behavior. People who already have significant problems can be affected even worse. Self-defeating tendencies, the tendrils of self-doubt, can impact anyone. For people suffering from a mental disorder and working toward recovery, self-defeating behavior can be a great enemy, a threat multiplier, and something that needs to be overcome.

Understanding the Psychology of Self-Defeat

The first thing we need to do is to understand what self-defeating behavior is. It’s not messing up or making mistakes–everyone does dumb things and makes bad choices–that is part of being human. Psychological self-defeating behavior comes in two intertwined forms: the belief that you aren’t going to succeed, and taking actions, consciously or subconsciously, to ensure that outcome. To self-destruct.

Why people do it is a matter of debate. There are those who think that everything, including our self-defeating tendencies, stem from childhood, and have their roots in disappointment: disappointing ourselves, and disappointing others. Self-defeatists begin to create the expectation that defeat is an outcome of life, and that anything that seems like a victory is just a false hope. Therefore, they sabotage that hope before it has a chance to come to fruition, to avoid the pain of it being illusory.

It’s a way to numb yourself to the world and to embrace disappointment and failure as a way of life. People who are at the top do this: when there is part of them that can’t believe they should succeed, and so take steps to destroy it. The politician who can’t stop from acting out sexually can be in this group, as can the movie star who turns to drugs because she doesn’t believe she should be so successful. Regardless of who you are, the capacity to self-defeat can make problems out of success, and can make failures seem permanent. This is especially troubling for someone with a mental health disorder.

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Self-Defeating Behavior as a Threat Multiplier

Military types like to use the phrase “threat multiplier,” meaning a condition that makes everything worse. Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently used it to describe climate change, saying it would exacerbate war, terrorism, poverty, and many other ills. This mathematical metaphor can also be applied to self-defeating behavior for someone with a mental disorder.

If you are suffering from any mental disorder, you are already plagued with self-doubts. Why is this happening to me, you ask, and then wonder if you deserve it. It is easy to convince yourself that you do, and to convince yourself that you’ll never get better. It’s an added cruelty, but it does more than just add weight to your already-crushing burden. It ties your hands and binds your legs, making it even harder to lift that burden.

Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior

You fall into old habits. Every time you take a step forward, you take three steps backward to the nearest cliff. You pretend that improvement is impossible. It’s not, though. Trained professionals at residential treatment centers can help you recover from your disorder with compassion and care. Your disorder isn’t a failure, it isn’t your fault. And breaking the cycle of self-defeat can help you on your journey to recovery. Here are a few things to remember to overcome this behavior as you are getting treatment for your mental health disorder.

You can recognize your triggers. If you talk with a professional, you should be able to see what behaviors and what environments led toward your self-destructive behavior. Recognizing them is the best way to avoid them.

You can also replace old habits. Try meditation, art therapy, bike riding, poetry: anything that is different from what you used to do that led to perceived failure. Breaking old habits and finding new, healthy ones can get you on the road away from self-defeat.

Most importantly, remember that the overture is not the opera. It’s tempting to think that because we failed before, we will fail again. But the past isn’t always the prologue–the story doesn’t have to follow that course. Your past can be used as a map, a guidebook so you can avoid obstacles that have tripped you up before. Life isn’t a track that goes around and around, unchanging. It’s an open road.

At Bridges to Recovery, we understand that self-awareness and compassion toward yourself are important steps in recovery. Here, our clients receive compassionate and expert care at one of our two comforting and welcoming residential facilities. The road to recovery starts here–contact us today to take that first step.