Self destructive behavior is often hard to fathom. A person who habitually cuts him/herself, a person who has risky sex with a stranger in a park at night, a person who eats to the point of being sick; such behaviors make no sense to the average person.
Such behavior can be seen psychologically as an escape, a coping strategy, a survival skill, or a way to restore emotional equilibrium.
But it is not usually seen by most people as rational. After all it causes, or risks, harming oneself.
It is clearly non rational in the sense that it is usually done without consideration of the likely negative consequences, that it is often done in an impulsive or compulsive way that circumvents logic, and is often done in response to situations that do not seem to in any way provoke it.
Yet self destructive behavior always has its own logic as well. Even behavior involving self-deprivation and self harm are there because they are being used to solve a problem. This problem solving aspect of the behavior is occurring largely on an unconscious level and it is a learned response.
Making sense of the behavior
Much of therapy with sex addicts and with addicts generally, involves identifying what the “problem” is that the behavior attempts to solve and unraveling why it is that the person has acquired this particular way of responding.
Most often, self destructive addictive behaviors can be seen as coping skills that were learned early in life. For example, the person who masturbates compulsively to pornography may have learned that behavior as a child in a family situation that was highly stressful. Often people who later turn out to be sex addicts began coping with stress and anxiety as children by using masturbation to soothe themselves.
Often the sexually addictive behavior, or other self-destructive behavior was learned in childhood as a way to get acceptance or approval from parents or caregivers. Many sex addicts see themselves as sex objects and believe that sex is the way to relate to others and to be seen as worthy. Addiction prone people have often been victimized in some way in childhood or took on the role of the “black sheep” in the family. Then in adulthood they will find ways to get in trouble and get punished in order to fulfill these negative expectations.
Some self destructive behavior is a reenactment of childhood trauma, the playing out, either as perpetrator or victim, of what is a familiar scenario or way of interacting. This kind of re-enactment serves as a defense mechanism which helps to normalize and thus suppress the original pain associated with the event.
There is an aspect of “conditioned response” in much self destructive and additive behavior. When the person is put in a certain situation that “triggers” the behavior it is a Pavlovian response that happens on an automatic level as well as being a physical action.
Self destructive behavior can be a learned way of regulating emotions. A person who has poor ability to modulate emotion may feel flooded and unable to cope with feelings any other way than by reaching for relief in the form of a drug, including an addictive behavior. Self destructive behavior that involves self inflicted pain such as cutting, tattooing and over-exercising can increase the flow of endorphins in the brain and thus relieve the feelings of distress. Compulsive sexual behavior also involves internally generated brain chemicals that are called upon to deal with an emotion.
- Awareness of emotions and regulating of emotional responses can be learned in therapy one aspect of working with these self destructive impulses is that of attempting to put some space i.e. some time between the perception of the stimulus and the response.
- Systematic desensitization or de-conditioning as mentioned above is another technique in which people can be helped to uncouple the triggering situation from the specific behavior, much the way a person can gradually be desensitized to a phobia.
- Negative behaviors that were used as survival skills in childhood can be seen for what they are when the person is able to understand the dysfunctional patterns in their family of origin.
- Becoming aware of and experiencing the repressed emotions associated with traumatic experiences can remove the need to re-enact the experience. Once the pain is fully felt and expelled there is no longer a need to defend against it with old behavior patterns.
Understanding that the behavior is learned, and is a logical but archaic response to a situation can help the person to begin to explore their ways of dealing with everyday feelings of anxiety and stress as well. In therapy they can learn to identify the feelings as they happen and begin to practice new ways of dealing with them.