The Psychological Link Between Addiction & Self-Destructive Behavior

When someone you know or love is struggling with addiction, it can seem like they’re turning into a different person right before your eyes. If you’re having trouble with chronic substance abuse, you might find yourself engaging in new and destructive behaviors, and wondering at the cause of these new tendencies.

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Self-destructive behavior and addiction go hand in hand — but there’s more to the relationship than you might think. Though self-sabotage may appear to be a completely irrational response to stress, anxiety, or trauma, there are actually well-documented psychological patterns at play. Despite the confusing nature of self-destructive behavior, there is a marked path toward understanding and recovery.

What Is Self-Destructive Behavior?

Self Destructive Behavior

Self-destructive behavior, or self-sabotage, is when a person does something that causes negative consequences in their own life. There are three distinct ways in which someone can self-sabotage:

  1. Primary Self-Destruction. This is what most of us think of immediately — when a person intentionally chooses to engage in behaviors that are directly harmful to them. It’s the rarer of the three models, and is often referred to as “masochism” when it’s the only self-sabotage model in play.
  2. Tradeoff. This conceptual model of behavior is more common, as it involves a person choosing to engage in a behavior that has a perceived benefit. It also comes with a strong potential for causing harm. For example, someone might know fully well that choosing to get drunk on a work night will impair their performance the next day, but they do it anyway because the immediate benefit is more important to them than the later consequence. This model is the primary culprit for self-destructive behavior when it comes to addiction.
  3. Counter-Productive Strategies. This model can be difficult to identify at first, because the person involved doesn’t foresee or intend to cause harm to themselves, but they use strategies that backfire when seeking a positive outcome. This is especially common in young people, due to a combination of trouble with self-regulating and low self-esteem. For instance, a young adult with a self-esteem deficit may desire an outcome where their confidence is boosted — a perfectly admirable goal. However, they may choose to receive that boost through questionable channels, like engaging in unhealthy, dangerous, or illegal behaviors in order to earn the esteem of their peers.

Unique Psychological Profile

You’re likely to recognize these models of behavior simply from observing yourself and others, but addiction brings these patterns to a much larger — and more dangerous — scale. In most cases, a person’s self-sabotaging is a combination of all three models into a unique psychological profile that differs among individuals.

Why Do We Do Self-Destructive Things?

The psychology of self-destructive behavior is often rooted in childhood, but can develop later in life if enough stress and anxiety accumulate. The tendency to self-sabotage, whether consciously or unintentionally, comes from a highly critical inner voice that feeds on low self-esteem. Intrusive thoughts like the following are common predictors of self-destructive behavior or tendencies:

  • People I love probably think I’m useless
  • My work will never be good enough
  • No one wants me around

These thoughts creep into nearly everyone’s mind, though their frequency, duration, and severity affect how likely they are to result in sabotaging actions. But where do the thoughts come from?

During early development, we are most highly influenced by our parents, teachers, and caretakers — and we all know that no one is perfect. Oftentimes, the insecurities and psychological upsets of our parents can trickle down to us unconsciously. There are four main parenting archetypes that can lead to the normalization of self-destructive thoughts and behaviors in the long run:

1. The Double-Blind Parent. If there’s one thing a child should have, it’s reliable and consistent affection. Of course, that’s a high bar for the best parent, but the double-blind parent doesn’t provide that at all. Instead, this style of parenting sees the child either swamped in demonstrative love, or rejected, and given the cold shoulder.

Double-Blind Parenting

Double-blind parenting makes it difficult for kids to develop a solid sense of cause and effect — which leads to a distrust of oneself and others as an adult. This makes it significantly easier for intrusive thoughts to settle in and prompt harmful behaviors.

2. The Unpredictable Parent. Rules and consequences are also part of the foundation of a healthy individual. Most people have experienced at least one time where their parent suddenly reacted to an event with more force or anger than necessary, but as a model, the unpredictable parent’s behavior is so hard to understand that it causes long-term anxiety and stress.

The key to the unpredictable parent is that their reactions are governed by factors that aren’t visible to the child, who is on the receiving end of sudden anger, mania, or depression. Untreated mental illness can result in widely disparate reactions to the same situation, as can addiction to drugs or alcohol.

As adults, people who dealt with unpredictable parenting have trouble understanding their own emotions and reading the emotions of others. Trust is hard to come by, which can make it very difficult to break cycles of self-sabotage in addiction.

3. The Appearance-Conscious Family. You’ve probably known at least one family of this type, if it’s not your own. These parents are concerned with how things appear to others on the surface, and not much else. As long as they look like the ideal family, equilibrium can be maintained even if there’s significant turmoil in the household. But if the veneer of perfection is broken — especially for the purpose of working out family dysfunction — chaos can ensue. This in itself is a textbook self-destructive behavior, trading off social appearances for emotional health.

The overriding result of growing up in this kind of family is pervasive shame. The idea of owning up to a humanity with natural flaws seems outlandish, so the person feels there’s no option but to smother their own imperfect emotions and pain. If addiction comes into the picture, this can translate into increasing isolation to avoid showing people that something may be wrong. Individuals with this upbringing may go to great lengths to keep their addiction a secret while outwardly “working on it.”

Secret Addictions

4. The Emotionally Neglectful Family. While kids growing up in emotionally neglectful families may have their physical needs met, their emotional development is often troubled. Sensitivity is frowned upon and expressions of pain, fear, or sadness are treated as worthless, insubstantial, or even nonexistent.

Emotions are both biologically and psychologically embedded in a person, and being taught to deny or diminish them can lead to a host of issues. Emotions of the self and others are murky and confusing, leading to extreme frustration with self-examination and interpersonal relationships. The concept of “going with your gut” is generally foreign, since trusting your own emotions is something you’ve been taught not to do.

This can make therapy in addiction treatment a higher hurdle to jump — but it makes it all the more important. Part of a successful recovery is learning to identify the emotions that cause cravings for drugs or alcohol, and starting with a blank slate can help.

Unfortunately, many — if not most — families operate on dynamics with at least some of the dysfunction listed above. But if you can identify which parenting types affect you or a person you care about, you can begin to understand the causes of self-destructive behavior.

Family dynamics operate with some dysfunction

Self-Destructive Behavior & Addiction

Of all the self-destructive behaviors to choose from, addiction is one of the worst. Substance abuse is a one-stop shop for a short-term solution that leads to a hard-to-quit cycle. If a person is dealing with the stress of overwhelming negative emotions over a long period, they may find that shutting their emotions off doesn’t help anymore, so they look for other ways to numb the pain. Unfortunately, a significant portion of people choose to do this by taking drugs or drinking. More than 23.5 million people in America meet the criteria for drug and alcohol addiction, but only 2.6 million received real treatment.

Why don’t more people take advantage of addiction treatment? Addiction, like other self-destructive behaviors, takes advantage of the brain’s reward and reinforcement pathways. Even though negative consequences like hangovers or drops in work performance are obvious, the brain still manages to be convinced that these substances are good and necessary. How does this happen?

Temporary High

People engage in self-destructive behaviors for the temporary high. Even direct, physical self-harm can produce a temporary rush of endorphins. Drugs and alcohol work directly on your brain’s reward pathway, by directly stimulating or mimicking neurotransmitters that trigger dopamine release — leading to feelings of euphoria and sometimes a decrease in pain.

The brain’s motivation system is used to make small spikes in dopamine, from things like a hug, eating, or sleeping. It registers the cause and effect link between the action and the dopamine it releases, and it stores that behavior as a good one that should be repeated. However, the artificial dopamine flood triggered by drugs and alcohol is so much more potent that it essentially shorts out the circuit over time.

Your brain doesn’t have a concept of quality over quantity about things that trigger its reward system, so repeated drug use jumps to the top of your priority list. Addiction happens because the brain is trained to lose motivation for nearly everything else. Although most people eventually realize their chronic substance abuse is a self-destructive behavior, it’s nearly impossible to break the cycle without addiction treatment.

Tips for Stopping Self-Sabotage

The psychological reasons for self-destructive behavior are many — but so are the methods you can use to help yourself or a loved one recover. If you’re not sure how to help a self-destructive person, perhaps that person being yourself, these pointers will be useful. They are appropriate for any type of self-destructive behavior, but can help you form an especially strong foundation for addiction recovery in particular:

1. Define Your Behaviors. Addiction to drugs and alcohol is a large behavior to define, so it’s helpful to break it down and consider all the negative behaviors associated with it. For instance, you may find that when drunk you have a tendency to create emotionally-fraught situations with one or more of your family members. Or maybe you prioritize using drugs over things like personal hygiene and nutrition.

Self-destructive behaviors can be small things, like talking to yourself in a defeatist manner, or telling yourself you don’t deserve certain things. They can also be the absence of action, such as electing not to feed yourself enough, or not paying a bill in order to afford substances.

Write down as many of these behaviors as you can, so you can begin to tackle them one at a time. You can ask friends or family to help you flesh out your list, which can make you aware of some new behaviors.

2. Identify Triggers. What makes you self-sabotage? It’s a big question, but you can start by identifying people, places, situations, or things that cause a spike in stress. Aside from boredom or general irritation, stress and anxiety are the biggest triggers for addiction cravings and other self-destructive behavior. If drugs and alcohol are a way to shut down unpleasant feelings, it’s vital to know what feelings you’re trying to turn off.

Stress and Anxiety are triggers for addiction

Identifying situations that cause cravings also gives you the option to avoid them altogether. For instance, if you know that seeing others drinking brings on powerful cravings, it’s not a great idea to go to a bar, or hang out with that friend who’s always doling out beers.

Identifying triggers also gives you the opportunity to set up healthy coping strategies in case you find yourself in a difficult situation.

3. Track Your Behaviors. Keeping a journal of your actions and reactions is critical to changing self-destructive behavior. All you have to do is keep a log of any self-destructive behaviors you engage in, and create a short pro and con list for each. This will help you prioritize which behaviors to work on first, as well as uncover patterns of thinking that underlie your actions.

For example, if you’re struggling with alcohol abuse, you’ll probably experience thoughts such as “One drink won’t hurt,” “I need/deserve this drink,” “What’s the worst that could happen?” or “No one has to find out.”

These thoughts are intrusive, unhelpful, and irrational, but they’re a natural reaction of a brain convinced that alcohol will solve its problems. Keeping track of these thoughts can give you a more objective and tangible perspective and stop you from engaging in the behavior.

4. Practice Mindfulness. Self-destructive behaviors, substance abuse included, often arise from our inability to process what is happening to us at a given time. A person might feel fear about a meeting with their boss the next day, and try to shut it off by drinking rather than giving the situation the time and consideration it needs to be resolved.

Mindfulness in the Present Moment

Mindfulness is the practice of fully experiencing, engaging with, and processing the present moment. This includes the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations of the moment. By taking the time to connect to your situation and truly experience the moment, you can rob cravings of their immediacy.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, and you can do most of them in a few minutes per day. These exercises often include close observation of your surroundings, physical movements, and thoughts. They can be a great way to halt cravings in their tracks, and create a powerful arsenal of anti-addiction coping mechanisms.

Mental health disorders and mindfulness skills

Medical professionals endorse the power of mindfulness, too: 72% of general practitioners believe it would be helpful for patients with mental health disorders to learn mindfulness skills.

Seeking Help for Addiction & Self-Destructive Behavior

It’s possible to maintain a lifestyle free of self-destructive behavior using the tips above, but the problem takes work and it won’t suddenly change overnight. In order to disrupt the cycle of addiction and start a strong foundation on which to build these skills, formal treatment at a rehab center is needed.

Effective addiction treatment at a facility like 12 Keys Rehab provides five key services that make recovery possible:

1. Medically-Assisted Detox. The place where most people fail trying to achieve sobriety alone is detox. Before the work of recovery can even begin, your body must be free of drugs and alcohol. Depending on the length and severity of your addiction, the process of detoxification can be incredibly painful.

Medically-assisted detox is aimed at making sure you are as comfortable as possible while your body eliminates the addictive toxins it has accumulated. You may be administered medication to ease physical pain, and nutritionally monitored to make sure your body emerges in good health.

2. Individual Therapy. Recovering from addiction is a highly personal process. The bulk of your work in treatment will involve uncovering the roots of addiction and other negative behaviors. You’ll work with qualified therapists to formulate effective coping strategies for when cravings hit and times get tough.

Most addiction recovery therapy is based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which focuses on changing negative and irrational patterns of thought, and their subsequent actions.

3. Group Therapy. Most people find it hard to open up about addiction, even though it’s a key element to recovery. That’s why it’s important to engage in group-based therapy during treatment. It allows participants to create a safe, supportive space to share stories, strategies, and make new friends that share your positive goals.

Engage in group-based therapy

4. 12 Steps. There’s a reason why the 12-step program has survived so long: it works. The key tenets of the program involve:

  • Accepting that addiction is something you are powerless over
  • Accepting the help you need to stay sober
  • Integrating the 12 steps into everyday life for continued sobriety

By engaging in the 12-step program, you give yourself a recovery roadmap that can help guide you in daily life, and the long term.

5. Aftercare. Recovery doesn’t end with rehab. Addiction is something that has to be continuously managed, and it can seem intimidating in the early days after completing treatment. That’s why 12 Keys invests a large degree of time and effort into structureing an aftercare program that’s geared toward helping you re-enter your regular life with as seamless a transition as possible.

Counselors and therapists evaluate clients’ needs after treatment with a thorough plan for the first days and weeks after leaving treatment. This can include ongoing therapy, finding a sponsor, and building a support network for you and your family.

If someone you know is struggling with the self-destructive behavior of addiction, don’t wait another moment. Call 12 Keys Rehab today, and learn more about the sober life you deserve.

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