By: Marilyn L. Davis


What are Self-defeating Behaviors? 

Any behavior that moves us away from our goals, distracts us, or is self-sabotaging is self-defeating. For instance, you’ve decided to make friends at your recovery support meetings to expand your social world. Instead of asking people out for coffee after the meeting, you mention that the previous comments were dumb when it was your turn to share. Probably not going to win you, friends. 

When you reflected on the responses your comments got, you realized that you’d spoken impulsively one more time and didn’t think about the outcomes of your comments. 

 Self-defeating Patterns and How to Change Them  from addict 2 advocate marilyn l davis

Why Do Self-defeating Behaviors Hurt You? 

 It can be embarrassing to look for your self-defeating patterns, but when you see them, you can determine if you liked the outcomes you got when you used them. These behaviors are a temporary solution to problems and can be harmful if continued in the long run. If you didn’t like the results or consequences, then here’s an opportunity to make changes to help your recovery grow.

You are not only harmed when you use self-defeating behaviors, but it harms others, too. Using these behaviors may feel comfortable, but they tend to get negative results. If you want to change these behaviors, you have to identify them first and then have alternative behaviors in mind next time you have a situation. 

Identify Your Self-defeating Patterns

If you want to eliminate these behaviors and habits, recognizing and identifying them is the first step. Once you see them, write them down along with the pros and cons of each one. It is essential to think about each behavior’s long-term and short-term effects.

It’s challenging to label ourselves with some of the self-defeating behaviors, so I found that if I said, “I tend to, and then filled in the blank, I didn’t feel so ashamed or guilty. 

Next, I isolated the areas of my life that were impacted by my self-defeating behaviors. 

Five Categories of Life

We all operate in several specific areas: 

  1. Social: our interactions with others
  2. Emotional: how we feel about particular things, people, activities, etc.
  3. Mental: what we think about specific things, people, activities, etc. 
  4. Physical: our health and well-being
  5. Spiritual: our beliefs in something greater than ourselves – both religious and secular

Our self-defeating behaviors have influenced and, in some cases, adversely affected each of these categories. 

What are the Most Common Self-defeating Behaviors? 


We got very good at avoiding when we were active in our addictions, whether it was family, the law, the dope dealer we owed, or our bosses at work when we had a hangover. Avoiding meant we didn’t have to deal with unpleasant conversations or confrontations. 

Because we’re used to leaving before a situation gets uncomfortable, that carries over into our recovery by showing up five minutes before the meeting starts and going as soon as it’s over. No, you’re not making rude comments on someone’s sharing, but you don’t give yourself a chance to have social conversations and maybe meet some new friends, either. 

Fear fuels any avoiding behaviors. While walking in the woods, it’s appropriate to avoid the snake, which could harm you, but it’s self-defeating to avoid other group members who are there to help you in your recovery. 


This behavior puts the spotlight on you every chance you get. Although it is the opposite of avoiding, it’s rooted in fear, also. Fear that people will not notice you, which may be a carry-over from childhood where you didn’t measure up to a sibling and felt ignored.

We’ve all met the drama queens and kings. Every situation is catastrophic. They are convinced that they are the only ones to experience something, or their experience is more extreme than everyone else. Unfortunately, it’s like the little boy who cried, “Wolf”; eventually, people quit listening, and when there was a wolf, no one was available to help. 

Sometimes people make something a big deal because they need to know they matter. It’s better to say, “I need a hug, a shoulder to cry on, or some comforting words today. I’m feeling down.” It’s honest, and people will respond to that. 

Aggressive Behavior

In our drug worlds, we couldn’t present as frail or weak, or we’d be taken advantage of by others in our life. We get into recovery and think we still have to show the badass. We don’t. 

While not everyone is trustworthy in meetings, the majority are, and they aren’t looking to fight, get something from you besides friendship, or want to harm you in any way. Drop that façade. 

Being Perfect

Again, fear controls this behavior. “I’ll do it – whatever that is – when I know how to do it perfectly. Until then, I won’t do anything.” You miss a lot of opportunities to make progress waiting on perfection.  


Most of us come into recovery with a lot of guilt for all the harm we’ve caused our loved ones and friends. Even when they forgive us, we have a hard time forgiving ourselves. It’s time that you gave yourself credit for your changes, starting with giving up drugs and alcohol. It’s the beginning of all your changes. We don’t get arrogant because we’re not using, but we acknowledge it as one of the many changes we can make in our recovery. 


Sometimes, we procrastinate because we don’t know what to do. We may want to accomplish something but lack the knowledge to carry it out. Now’s the time to ask your recovery support network if they know how to do something – and not just about recovery. 

I wasn’t sure about a tax question but knew we had an accountant in my group. He gave me the answer and wouldn’t let me pay him for the information. He laughed and said, “That’s just another example of one addict helping another.” 

Learning and Unlearning Self-defeating Behaviors 

Psychologists use the term “learning” to refer to any change in behavior that results from experience (Hergenhahn, 1982).  To a certain degree, some of our actions are influenced by genes. Still, most of our behavior has been learned from experience.  

For instance, a baby learns that crying can produce a response in others; sometimes, it is to change a wet diaper; other times, it is to be fed. While the baby does not correlate all aspects of this action/reaction, the baby learns that crying can change feelings of distress. 

It is certainly appropriate for the baby to cry to have something done about their uncomfortable situation. However, crying to get what you want at age 43 is inappropriate, yet many people still use crying as a manipulative ploy to get others to do something for them. 

Start with One Self-defeating Behavior 

After you've identified the most glaring self-defeating behavior, changes involve finding new ways to process the thoughts and feelings that prompt you to act from self-defeating behaviors. Click To Tweet

Here you’ll look at the underlying reasons for this action or behavior. Without knowing what’s driving your behavior, it’s hard to change it. 

For instance, people steal, but for different reasons. Some because they are jealous of what someone has, others feel entitled to have what everyone else has, or a few want to inconvenience others. Each of those is a different motive for the same action – theft. 

When you examine the source of your self-defeating behaviors, you open up the possibility of genuine change. Here you’ll use a spiritual principle – willingness, to analyze your underlying motives. 

When Self-defeating Behaviors No Longer Serve You


It’s easier to change when you accept that the behaviors do not help you grow in your recovery. One way to realize the destructive nature of self-defeating behaviors is to analyze the cost and payoff of the action. Ask yourself, “What do I get out of this behavior, and what does it cost me?” 

And the cost is not just monetary. Remember the person who avoids, the drama queen and king, or the aggressive persons? Their costs are friendships, help, and guidance. And when it comes to recovery, we need all of those more than the benefits of the original behavior. 

A Game Plan for Change

I know you want your recovery to be as fulfilling as possible, and changing your self-defeating behaviors will enhance it. Here are some simple steps for accomplishing that. 

  1. Get honest about how the behaviors negatively impact your social, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual worlds. 
  2. Don’t get down on yourself when you see the damage; make changes to nullify the outcomes of the self-defeating behaviors. 
  3. Ask yourself if the action you’re about to take will predictably have a positive or negative outcome. It helps you act responsibly, not impulsively when you ask and answer this question. 
  4. Continue with your self-reflection. Each night, review your day and ask if you operated from self-defeating behaviors or spiritual principles. If you’re a member of a 12-Step program, this is the 10th Step. 
  5. If you find that you are not making progress in changing on your own, with the help of a sponsor or accountability partner, or your group members, then it may be time to seek professional help. There is no shame in this. Therapy or a counselor can help you in ways that others can’t and provide you with guidance and support to change and replace your self-defeating behaviors with healthier options. 

Recommended Books 

Two books have helped me identify and eliminate some of my self-defeating behaviors, including some I wasn’t aware of at the time. 

  1. Self-Defeating Behaviors: Free Yourself from the Habits, Compulsions, Feelings, and Attitudes That Hold You.
  2. Your Own Worst Enemy: Understanding the Paradox of Self-defeating Behavior 



Marilyn L. Davis is the Editor-in-Chief at From Addict 2 Advocate and Two Drops of Ink. She is also the author of Finding North: A Journey from Addict to Advocate and Memories into Memoir: The Mindsets and Mechanics Workbook, available on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble, Indie Books, and Books A Million.  


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 Self-defeating Patterns and How to Change Them  from addict 2 advocate marilyn l davis

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