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Self-Destructive Behavior Is Inherently Human

What makes people do things they know are bad for them?

Illustration: Jon Han

SSelf-destructive behavior is wholly human and very normal. Even though it’s most associated with a lurid montage of extreme acts (drug abuse, risky sexual behavior, intentional self-injury), mental health experts say that’s not quite the case. At some point, most people have done something they knew wasn’t going to be good for them. Whether it’s driving too fast (or driving drunk), eating something they’ll later regret, smoking, taking drugs, or, yes, engaging in self-harm, the underlying psychology behind self-destructive behavior is fundamentally the same.

Most of the time, when people engage in self-destructive behavior, “there’s some sort of [feeling] that is difficult or unpleasant to deal with,” says Peggilee Wupperman, a psychologist and associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Yale Medical School. It may be anxiety, sadness, anger, shame, confusion, or even numbness, but whatever the feeling in question, it’s something uncomfortable. Self-destructive behavior can feel like a way to avoid that feeling or at least momentarily transform it into something more manageable.

Someone might pick a fight with a loved one because anger feels more tolerable than anxiety, or they might snort cocaine to transform sadness into exhilaration. Whatever the coping mechanism, it’s always rooted in a desire for avoidance.

How that dynamic works can vary from person to person or even instance to instance. Sometimes, Wupperman explains, the self-destructive behavior might just be something someone’s accustomed to — a drink or cigarette after dinner, for instance, or sweets as an afternoon snack. Attempting to break that habit and rehabituate ourselves can cause distress; falling back into the habit, even knowing it isn’t good for us, brings with it a reassuring feeling of familiarity.

Not all self-destructive behaviors are habitual, however. According to Wupperman, another common reason people engage in self-destructive behavior is that, at least in the short term, it can feel good. “I’m not as happy as I want to be, but I know that when I go out and drink, I know that when I eat cake, I feel happy for a while,” she explains. Same goes for risky sexual behavior, smoking, or other things people willingly do, knowing they might regret that decision later. In the long run, alcohol and cake won’t solve dissatisfaction and may even make it worse, but that feels like a price worth paying for the momentary satisfaction they provide.

Pleasure isn’t the only extreme sensation people seek out. Sometimes it’s a different sort of intense emotion that can distract from whatever the person is struggling with. “I remember talking to someone once who, when they were really feeling flat, depressed, and disconnected, would go out and pick a fight with somebody that was bigger than them. And they’d get their ass kicked,” says Jenn Brandel, LICSW. “What it did was that it generated something: They felt a rush of adrenaline, they felt afraid, they felt ashamed… But they felt something that helped them feel less disconnected from the world.”

Brandel has also seen instances where the behavior is, perhaps surprisingly, intended to elicit feelings of shame and disgust. “If we feel like we are worthless and shameful, and somebody in the world is praising us, that can create real discomfort,” she says. Engaging in a behavior that brings up feelings of disgust or shame might not feel good per se, but it does reinforce our original belief about ourselves, realigning our worldview in a way that many people find reassuring and comforting.

There are also cases where the point is less the experience of self-destruction than the process of care that occurs in the aftermath — the way, for instance, some couples might pick fights with one another because the process of making up allows them to engage in affection that otherwise feels inaccessible.

In one session with a client who engaged in self-injury, Brandel noticed that “when I had them walk me through the process so we could try to understand a little more how it worked for them, they kind of rushed through the story about feeling the impulse to self-harm and then cutting themselves.” But when it came to describing the aftermath, “they slowed down, and with this beautiful amount of detail, described tending to their wounds, taking care of it, putting ointment on it, and wrapping it up.”

ItIt may feel tempting to classify someone’s ritualistic process of self-injury as a wholly separate matter from, say, eating too many slices of cake, but Wupperman and Brandel both caution against pathologizing more extreme forms of self-destruction. “Is there a significant difference [between different forms of self-destructive behavior]?” Wupperman muses. “There’s a difference in that some of the behavior is much more harmful than others, but I think the underlying processes are the same.”

People living with a psychiatric condition like borderline personality disorder, which can amp up impulsive behavior, are cases where these processes are “turned up to 99,” compared to the “level 20” that the rest of us remain at, Wupperman explains.

Seeing the commonalities across the spectrum, rather than the differences, is important, because focusing too much on the extremes of other people’s behaviors can be a way of ignoring your own harmful habits. “It’s a way for people who don’t struggle with the more extreme-seeming behaviors to feel a bit better about ourselves — it’s us versus them,” Wupperman says. “There are things we do that we wish we wouldn’t later, but they’re the ones that have problems, and we don’t have problems. They’re very different from us.”

To the contrary, Brandel says, “we should all be able to relate in a way” to self-destructive behaviors, even ones that are far outside our own realm of experience. Other people’s behaviors might reflect a greater tolerance for risk or a different way of managing emotions than our own behaviors. But the underlying struggle to cope with a bad feeling in a healthy, positive way is universal.

Seeing the commonalities across the spectrum… is important, because focusing too much on the extremes of other people’s behaviors can be a way of ignoring our own harmful habits.

WWhen it comes to managing your own self-destructive habits, the solution comes back to learning how to tolerate that initial feeling that you work so hard to get away from. It means resisting the urge to run away from discomfort and allowing time to process and better understand what it is that you’re feeling.

Working through that and intentionally refraining from self-destructive coping mechanisms may feel incredibly difficult in the moment. Taking those feelings head on often “feels counterintuitive,” Wupperman acknowledges. “What people will often do is try not to feel the discomfort,” assuming, incorrectly, that a lack of feeling will tamp down the urge to do something you’ll later regret.

It’s not an easy process; for many people, a therapist is an important component. “Find a therapist who doesn’t seem judgmental,” Wupperman says, since criticism or judgment are far more likely to lead to poor treatment outcomes than help shame you out of your bad habits. She also recommends against therapists who are overly passive. The ideal therapist will be an active participant in the process, coming equipped with strategies and coping mechanisms that the patient can use as they work to overcome their unwanted behaviors.

“Over time, if you learn to tolerate the discomfort [of avoiding an urge], the discomfort and the urges will actually decrease,” Wupperman says. “And you’re going to feel less controlled by the behavior.”

OneZero columnist, Peabody-nominated producer, and the author of Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal.

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