Self-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…