Laura Weis with permission
Source: Laura Weis with permission

Self-Defeating Personality Disorder has a strange history. It appeared first in DSM-III in 1987 labelled “Self-Defeating Personality Disorder” but was relegated to the Appendix meaning we are “not yet sure” and “requires more research”. It was changed to “Negativistic Personality Disorder” in DSM-IV but stayed in the Appendix. Later it was “collapsed” back into “Dependent Personality Disorder”.

Widiger et al. (1988) described the early story of the disorders also called “Masochistic Personality Disorder”. They noted how similar ideas had appeared in many early psychiatric and psycho-analytic writers such as the Need for Abasement, Negative Self-Referential Cognitive Style leading to beliefs about being undesirable and unworthy and to expect failure and rejection.

However they noted considerable objection to the inclusion of this disorder. These included that it was harmful to women and victims of abuse; it was an affective not personality disorder; it overlapped too much with Dependent and Passive-Aggressive Disorder; and anyway there was little empirical for its existence.

Despite the taxonomic debates this type is easily recognised in the workplace. So how do you recognise the Self-Defeating person?

These are the self-sacrificing altruists of the personality disordered world.  They achieve meaning in life and satisfaction through serving others and sacrificing for them.  They may feel undeserving of attention and pleasure and unworthy of love therefore they have to earn it.  They work long and hard for others and give their all in relationships.  But they do not want thanks or attention and feel discomfort with positive compliments or praise.  They seem guilty but they can be seriously neglected and under recognised which does cause pain and confusion.  They tend not to have their own needs met.  They see life as tough, unfair and uncompromising and their job is to help those less fortunate than themselves.  They are good under stress but can get resentful if consistently ignored.

To a large extent the Self-Defeating personality is ideal at work.  Hard-working, respectful, adaptable, they are, however, very concerned about the value and meaning of the work.  They make reliable, loyal, undemanding, non-assertive workers.  However, they rarely realise their potential: they turn down promotion for others.

Self-Defeatists rarely end up as a manager or leader.  But their dedication and loyalty may mean they end up in middle management positions.  But inevitably they have problems with delegation and discipline and take on too much themselves.  They may feel, quite rightly, that their staff are ungrateful and under-perform.  Some, but a minority, may demand that staff expect their subordinates to adopt similar self-sacrificial behaviour as themselves.

Because they have problems with success they may suffer the imposter's syndrome and consciously or unconsciously self-destruct.  And, of course, they are immensely vulnerable to exploitation by others.  Their generosity makes them masochists, which was the term previously used for this disorder.

Oldham and Morris (2000) note the eight diagnostic criteria as:

"A pervasive pattern of self-defeating behaviour, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.  The person may often avoid or undermine pleasurable experiences, be drawn to situations or relationships in which he or she will suffer, and prevent others from helping him or her, as indicated by at least five of the following:

(1) chooses people and situations that lead to disappointment, failure, or mistreatment even when better options are clearly available

(2) rejects or renders ineffective the attempts of others to help him or her

(3) following positive personal events (e.g., new achievement), responds with depression, guilt, or a behaviour that produces pain (e.g., an accident)

(4) incites angry or rejecting responses from others and then feels hurt, defeated, or humiliated (e.g., makes fun of spouse in public, provoking an angry retort, then feels devastated)

(5) rejects opportunities for pleasure, or is reluctant to acknowledge enjoying himself or herself (despite having adequate social skills and the capacity for pleasure)

(6) fails to accomplish tasks crucial to his or her personal objectives despite demonstrated ability to do so, e.g., helps fellow students write papers, but is unable to write his or her own

(7) is uninterested in or rejects people who consistently treat him or her well, e.g., is unattracted to caring sexual partners

(8) engages in excessive self-sacrifice that is unsolicited by the intended recipients of the sacrifice." (p. 331)

Oldham and Morris (2000) specify seven characteristics in everyday language of the Self-Sacrificing type:"The following seven traits and behaviours are clues to the presence of the Self-Sacrificing personality style.  A person who reveals a strong Self-Sacrificing tendency will demonstrate more of these behaviours more intensely than someone with less of this style in his or her personality profile.

Generosity.Individuals with the Self-Sacrificing personality style will give you the shirts off their back if you need them.  They not wait to be asked.

Service. Their "prime directive" is to be helpful to others.  Out of deference to others, they are non-competitive and unambitious, comfortable coming second, even last.

Consideration. Self-Sacrificing people are always considerate in their dealings with others.  They are ethical, honest, and trustworthy.

Acceptance. They are non-judgemental, tolerant of others' foibles, and never harshly reproving.  They'll stick with you through thick and thin.

Humility. They are neither boastful nor proud, and they're uncomfortable being fussed over.  Self-Sacrificing men and women do not like being the centre of attention; they are uneasy in the limelight.

Endurance. They are long-suffering.  They prefer to shoulder their own burdens in life.  They have much patience and a high tolerance for discomfort.

Artlessness. Self-Sacrificing individuals are rather naive and innocent.  They are unaware of the often deep impact they make on other people's lives, and they tend never to suspect deviousness or underhanded motives in the people to whom they give so much of themselves." (p.  308-309)

They also offer seven tips in dealing with them:

1.  Remember to recognise and acknowledge this person's efforts no matter how frequently he or she insists "it's nothing".  Your Self-Sacrificer may be embarrassed by compliments but inwardly needs to know that you notice and appreciate.

2.  Try to find a comfortable give-and-take formula.  Self-Sacrificing people must keep giving, helping, and doing, but they could use a little help from you in being able to relax and enjoy themselves... 

3.  Learn how to translate " Self-Sacrificing language." "Heavens, don't thank me" may mean, "I don't feel right taking the credit, but thanks for the compliment."... 

4.  Try not to reject what this person has to give, and don't be embarrassed by the constant attention.  Self-Sacrificers think of you first.  They love it.  So relax and enjoy being of well looked after... 

5.  Be careful not to take advantage.  Some extreme Self-Sacrificers may give away too much or go too far out of their way to please you.  If the Self-Sacrificer won't draw the line, you do it.  But when you refuse a favour, always explain why.

6.  Insist on being more helpful.  This will help you to establish balance in your relationship and make it difficult to take advantage of this person's willingness to do everything.

7.  Talk about it.  Try to convey to the Self-Sacrificing person in that the way he or she can do something really nice for you is to share your leisure time with them.  Unless you provide this feedback, this person may be truly unaware that you want something other than what he or she is giving to you." (p.  319-320).

The self-defeating person is frankly unlikely to make it to senior management positions… ever. But they may easily to taken advantage of by senior manager.


Furnham, A. (2010). The elephant in the boardroom: The psychology of leadership derailment. Bracknell: Palgrave MacMillan.

Oldham, J., & Morris, L. (2000). Personality Self-Portrait. New York: Bantam

Widiger, T., Frances, A., Spitzer, R., & Williams, J. (1988). The DSM-III-R Personality Disorders: An overview. American Journal of Psychiatry, 145, 786-795.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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