Dodging Emotions: The Help That Harms

We often get into trouble trying to escape intense negative feelings.

By Edward A. Selby, published on September 6, 2011 - last reviewed on February 17, 2012

Everyone does it sometimes. Some do it regularly-shoot themselves in the foot or put obstacles in their own chosen path. Behavior is self-sabotaging when in attempting to solve or cope with a problem, it instigates new problems, interferes with long-term goals, and unsettles relationships.

Comfort eating is a common form of self-sabotage, especially when a person has weight concerns; self-medicating with drugs or alcohol is another common form, although procrastination may be the most common of all. Less common is self-injury/cutting to escape painful emotions, or going on shopping sprees when one can't afford the merchandise.

What all self-defeating behaviors have in common is that they are false friends-they seem helpful at the time but are actually harmful to us, especially when repeated.

It's paradoxical that people try to help themselves with hurtful behaviors. My colleagues and I believe that people experience emotional cascades: In response to an upsetting event they become so focused on it that they work themselves into an intense, painful state of negative emotion.

They then deploy self-sabotaging behaviors to short-circuit the emotional cascade, in the hope that physical sensations from the destructive behaviors-the taste of food, pain from self-injury, or the high from a drug-will distract them from the upsetting thoughts. Stopping the emotional cascade and reducing emotional pain feel good in the moment, but the negative consequences of the behavior persist.

It's not clear who self-sabotages more-men or women. But specific types of self-treachery are more common to one gender than the other. Men, for example, are more likely to develop problems with physical aggression and drug and alcohol use; women more frequently get caught up in problem eating or self-injury.

Some forms of self-defeating behavior may be on the rise-especially self-injury/cutting among adolescents. Self-injury is becoming so common that my colleagues and I, as well as an independent DSM-5 work group, have recently proposed the inclusion of a Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (or NSSI) Disorder in the new diagnostic manual. But many forms of self-sabotage have been around for centuries (including substance use and physical aggression), and it just may be that we are getting better at identifying such behavior.

People don't always realize they are sabotaging themselves. This is in part because the consequences of many actions are not immediate, which makes it hard to connect behavior X to bad outcome Y.

One way to know whether a behavior is self-defeating is to examine it in the context of your long-term goals or desires and determine whether it is consistent with them.

Take the case of excessive reassurance-seeking. It occurs when people experience self-doubt and desire strong relationships but, in order to feel more confident and connected to others, ask friends and family for signs of love and acceptance ("You still like me, right?"). There's nothing wrong with asking for reassurance now and then, and most people are happy to provide it.

But many people go overboard and ask over and over again. They wind up pushing people away or aggravating them, and the reassurance stops, which creates even more self-doubt.

Excessive reassurance-seeking can potentially cause depression and relationship problems, and it often works in a cyclic fashion: Once doubt sets in, people seek more reassurance more often, alienating others, compounding relationship problems, and exacerbating depression.

Connecting a behavior to problematic consequences does not guarantee the ability to disengage from the behavior. Think of self-sabotage as a pattern developed over time, rather than one instance here or there.

Comfort eating, for example, might not be too problematic if it happens only once every few weeks. It becomes self-defeating, however, when it occurs frequently and causes weight gain, health consequences, or body dissatisfaction. Comfort eating after every stressful day of work (say, two or three times a week) may become a person's go-to response; she might not know another way of coping with pressure.

People also self-sabotage due to mistaken beliefs about a behavior. It's common knowledge that when you're angry you should scream into a pillow or punch a punching bag and "get the emotion out," right? But studies find that venting anger actually makes people angrier!

Hitting a punching bag makes you more likely to scream at or even attack someone. As researcher Brad Bushman puts it, venting anger is like "using gasoline to put out a fire-it only feeds the flame."

Sometimes people undermine themselves because a behavior feels right. We humans are programmed to behave in ways that feel right: Feel hungry, eat; feel thirsty, drink. With basic survival functions, that's fine; such responses help to keep us alive.

But emotions are different. Sadness, for example, often leads people to withdraw from others and to stop engaging in activities they enjoy. Such a response feels correct, but it is actually hurtful because the things that make life satisfying often involve other people and pleasurable activities.

By withholding such healthy things from ourselves when we are sad, we only intensify the sadness, potentially turning it into depression. Some of the most severe forms of self-sabotage (such as self-injury and physical aggression) often feel right because they help us escape intense and uncomfortable negative emotions.

Breaking Free

Keep a record of how you handle stressful situations: Each time you are stressed, write down the source of the stress, what behaviors you engage in, and their consequences, good or bad. You may need to keep such a record over many days, as patterns can be difficult to identify.

From there try to determine whether your behaviors match the reasons people tend to self-sabotage-holding mistaken beliefs about the behavior or because a behavior feels right.

Then train yourself to act in a new way. Don't just stop the self-sabotage behavior; replace it with something new and healthy-something that doesn't add more problems to an already difficult situation.

I recommend activities that distract people from thinking about their problems-getting physically active, developing a new hobby, engaging in conversation with others (about things other than personal problems).

The final step is ensuring consistency. Trying a recommended fix (getting social or active when sad, doing something distracting when angry) once or twice doesn't work. Well, going to the gym a couple of times doesn't make you fit, either. Self-sabotage is a learned pattern; you have to take corrective action again and again if you want the changes to stick.