Jennifer Rollin MSW, LCSW-C

Mindful Musings

Changing The Way You View Self-Destructive Behaviors

What if you looked at them differently?

Posted Dec 02, 2018

Source: Common Use: Pixabay

What if you viewed behaviors such as restricting, bingeing, purging, cutting, and/or using, as resilient attempts to try to regulate emotions, for some to cope with past trauma-as well as a way that you might be trying to communicate deeper messages.
Of course, these behaviors may seem helpful in the short-term, but in the long term they do not actually solve the underlying problems, make you dependent on them, and often make you feel increasingly anxious and unhappy.

However, when you shame yourself for struggling you typically only make things worse.
What if instead, you practiced applying compassion and a mindful curiosity to the behaviors that you are struggling with?
You are not ‘crazy,’ or broken, or screwed up, rather you are in pain and trying desperately to cope.
I created the acronym ASPIRE as one skill that you can use when you have urges to engage in restricting, bingeing, purging, self-harming, and/or using.
It’s important to practice using this skill when you are not feeling triggered, so that it is easier to access in those moments. Just like learning how to ride a bike or play an instrument, it will take practice in order for this skill to start to feel more natural and eventually even automatic.
Also, it’s important to note that even if you engage in a behavior after-the ‘win’ can simply be creating space (i.e. pausing) and using this skill beforehand.
Telling yourself that you are going to do this skill in place of the behavior will likely be a set-up. So, start by telling yourself that you will practice using this skill before using the behavior.
1.  Alternate ways to communicate.

Write a journal entry or poem about how you are feeling.

Draw to express your emotions.

Create a collage (smash book or alter book).

Draw on your body, where you would like to self-harm.

Write a song.

Talk to a friend, therapist, treatment team member, or support person.

2.  Self-soothe.

Listen to meditation, music, or ASMR.

Drink tea or another warm beverage.

Light a candle, or put scented lotion on.

Wrap yourself in a fuzzy (or a weighted) blanket.

Watch a nature video, or one of a beach scene.

Play with a pet.

Sit outside in a relaxing place.

3. Practice self-compassion.  

Instead of beating yourself up for having urges, think about what you’d tell a friend who was struggling.

I know it might feel very unnatural at first, but practice speaking kindly to yourself.

Remind yourself that you are not alone and that others struggle with this too and that you are doing the best you can in this moment.

4. Invite curiosity.  

Rather than judgment, practice some mindful curiosity.

Was there an internal or external trigger?

What are you looking to feel or to not feel through using this behavior?

What might you be attempting to communicate?

5. Respond effectively.  

Think of a more values-aligning and compassionate way that you can respond to these thoughts/feelings/urges.

Could you respond by doing what they call in DBT an ‘opposite action’ i.e. if you are feeling an urge to restrict-having a nourishing meal, or if you are feeling the urge to self-harm putting lotion or drawing where you’d like to cut?

Think about what you are looking to feel or not feel through using this behavior and other more adaptive ways that you can get your needs met. For ex: are you self-harming to try to ‘feel something’ because you feel numb? Other ideas to get that same feeling might be holding ice, eating something spicy, etc.

6. Enlist support.  

Reach out to people who can support you (either by distracting you, listening to how you are feeling, or helping you to come up with ideas for more values-aligning behavioral responses).

I.e. can you text/message/email/or call a friend, family member, therapist, treatment team member, reach out to a crisis chat line etc.


1. Make a list of the behaviors that you are currently struggling with and next to each one write the functions or ‘what it does for you.’
2. Get curious about what the messages behind these behaviors might be-what do you think that you may be trying to communicate (to yourself and/or to others). Reflect on the details of your behaviors to see if you can find any meaning there (ie location that you are self-harming, foods you eating during a binge and ask yourself is physical or emotional restriction of those foods happening etc).
4. Next to each function, list at least one other more values-congruent way that you might be able to get that need met (if it’s not a self destructive desire).
5. Share this assignment with a therapist (if you are looking for support virtually or in Maryland fill out the contact formto schedule a free 20 min consult with a member of my team). 

You can get your life back and you don't have to continue to feel so trapped. 

​Ultimately, you can find more life-affirming ways to get your needs met, gradually putting your eating disorder (or addiction, self harm, etc) out of a job.