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Adolescence and the Psychology of Self-Defeat

Helping your teenagers encounter and correct behaviors that do them harm.

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Self-defeating behavior occurs either when the immediate strategy chosen for coping makes one's life situation worse, or when, in yielding to some temptation, a harmful practice is perpetuated.

“I thought I could freely charge my way around debt, but I only ended up owing more," confesses a sadder but wiser young credit-card holder.

Another young person chose to ignore legal infractions because of their cost: “I kept trashing parking tickets and now there’s a warrant out for my arrest.”

Sooner or later, the costs of self-defeating choices, tempting as they may be at the time, have a way of coming painfully due.

Self-defeating behavior is not to be confused with the way most major life decisions turn out to have mixed outcomes—the great job has some challenging relationships, the perfect romance comes with some incompatibilities, the passionate interest can be stressful to pursue.

At any age, recognizing self-defeating behavior requires a painful confrontation most aptly worded by cartoonist Walt Kelly's Pogo: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." With ownership, responsibility can empower change.

And now, the person is at a fork in the road—between choosing to continue self-defeating behaviors or to construct self-enhancing alternatives instead. The young person may use this encounter to confront and correct their harmful conduct: “I’m going to find a way to stop doing this to myself!” And perhaps she or he starts on a path of purpose independent of the one that partying friends are still heedlessly playing on.

Common self-defeating behaviors

To appreciate how many and varied they can be, consider skimming the following sample of self-defeating expressions that can afflict young people in adolescence.

  1. Rebellion: “I won’t do what I'm told even if I get in trouble.”
  2. Conformity: “I’ll do wrong to belong.”
  3. Denial: “Just one time can’t hurt me.”
  4. Daring: “Whatever happens is worth the adventure.”
  5. Escape: “I’ll play to avoid engaging with work.”
  6. Revenge: “I’ll get even no matter what it costs.”
  7. Dishonesty: “I’ll lie when I get caught lying.”
  8. Alcohol: "When I drink, I don't care how I act."
  9. Attachment: "I'll take any treatment to keep being loved."
  10. Social media: "My online image hides my offline life."
  11. Cutting: “I’ll hurt myself to control my pain.”
  12. Jealousy: “I won’t trust anyone to love me best.”
  13. Abuse: “Mistreatment is the treatment I deserve.”
  14. Procrastination: “What I put off just piles up later on.”
  15. Willfulness: “I’ll get my way no matter what.”
  16. Concealment: “I won’t tell others how unhappy I am.”
  17. Cheating: “I'll make others think I know more than I really do.”
  18. Winning: “I’d rather lose a friend than a competition.”
  19. Craving: “I must do or have what is bad for me.”
  20. Bullying: “I’d rather be feared than liked.”
  21. Punishment: “I’ll make me pay for my mistakes.”
  22. Shyness: “The more I shut up, the harder it feels to talk.”
  23. Help: "Rescued from consequences, I'll repeat wrongdoing."
  24. Boredom: “Not knowing what to do with myself, I won’t do anything.”
  25. Sabotage: "To please others, I'll make commitments I know I can't keep."
  26. Addiction: "The euphoria is worth the harm."
  27. Hurt: "I won't forgive and let hard feelings go."
  28. Depression: “The more despondent I feel, the more I give up trying.”
  29. Fear: “The more I worry about danger, the more scared I become.”
  30. Anger: “The more I dwell on being wronged, the madder I get.”
  31. Pessimism: "Things never work out for me, so I don't expect them to."
  32. Inferiority: "I'm not good at that so I won't try."
  33. Helplessness: "There's nothing I can do, so I don't."
  34. Habit: "I keep doing what's familiar when it injures me."
  35. Temptation: "I know what's right, but can't resist doing wrong."
  36. Deception: "The more I deceive others, the less they believe me."
  37. Blame: "The more I fault others, the more victimized I feel."
  38. Excess: "Only too much ever feels enough."
  39. Distrust: "I push people away before they leave me."

Correcting self-defeat

The opportunity to resort to self-defeating beliefs and behavior is everywhere. In each example suggested, the young person can become complicit in their own unhappiness by thinking and acting to make it worse. And this complicity continues until and unless the teenager takes multiple responsibilities. This usually requires:

  • confronting harm they are doing to themselves
  • identifying the motivations for acting that way
  • reckoning the personal costs
  • admitting loss that comes with change
  • deciding to correct the error of their ways
  • coming up with a positive action plan for doing so
  • putting this constructive alternative into consistent practice
  • recognizing good efforts made and improved outcomes achieved
  • being patient with oneself for not correcting all the way, right away.

The good thing about complicity in self-defeat is that the person does retain some power of choice over consequences. So the 12-year-old who has been socially uprooted by parental divorce and starting a new school goes on angry strike against her two single parents. “I’ll show you! I’ll do the work, but I won’t like any of my teachers, I won’t make any friends, I won’t join any activities, and I’ll be really unhappy!” Rebelling against her own self-interest, she is bent on punishing her parents by punishing herself.

With compassion, her parents close ranks and declare: “This is your angry choice, and we respect that. It is up to you. But should you ever change your mind and want to make your new school a fun school, please know we are here to help you do that. In the meantime, we will listen to any unhappiness you want to share.”

Why the choice for change is hard

However, choice for change can be insufficient to change behavior. Good intentions are not enough. Once installed by repetition, self-defeating behavior can become difficult to dislodge. "I know I shouldn't eat so much junk food when I'm tired, and I wish I could stop, but I've grown used to taking care of myself this way at the end of the day. What I want to do differently is no match for what I'm accustomed to doing when I feel like it."

Yes. Growing up, young people often confront this harsh reality: They keep doing what they don't want because the power of familiarity overcomes the resolution to change. Why? Consider habits, those repetitive patterns of decision-making that can feel automatic, seeming to bypass conscious or deliberate thought when they occur. "I just act this way without thinking about it."

Creatures of habits, people can easily become captives of their habits, some for the good, others not. Course correction in these self-defeating cases takes consistent effort committed to changed behavior over time. Giving up the old must be tied to practicing the new. There is no other, easy way.

So, don’t underestimate the power of self-defeating behavior.

By way of brief example, consider two adolescent patterns of self-defeating behavior, the first easier to correct than the second — social shyness and substance addiction — and how self-enhancing conduct might be restored.

Social shyness

Over the years, I’ve presided over a few “shy conversions” of high-school freshmen who were determined to forsake awkward, solitary, and withdrawn social ways that discouraged social association and friendship in middle school. The declaration to overcome this self-defeating behavior is often a defiant one: “I’m done just keeping to myself; I’m NOT going to do a lonely high school!”

Now the resolution becomes: “I know this: Acting shy makes feeling shy worse. I want to act more outgoing and I will!” And with a little patient coaching and encouragement, and with a lot of practice, a more social and satisfying high school experience is created.

Substance addiction

One of the most powerful self-defeating behaviors is addiction—a physical and psychological state where young people become desperately dependent on a self-destructive substance to survive. Denial, habituation, craving, compulsion, and withdrawal can all make quitting very hard to do. Understand: Adolescents grow up in a drug-filled world, so exposure, experimentation, and addictive entrapment can occur.

Now the costs of self-defeat become increasingly apparent: Engagement with school work diminishes, dishonest communication corrupts the relationship with parents, social misbehavior increases, and health can become compromised. In most cases, parents have to blow the whistle and encounter youthful addiction because it is too powerful for the young person to admit and reverse alone.

To extricate oneself from an entrenched self-defeating behavior like addiction, help is usually required. Sometimes this is in the form of a therapeutic treatment time-out to painfully evaluate what is going on, sometimes enrolling in assisted abstinence support of the 12-step kind to recover and maintain sober living, and sometimes a combination of the two.

One of the great costs of protracted self-defeating behavior can be a lowering of self-esteem: “I hate the way I keep doing this to myself!” It’s easy for self-defeating behavior to lead to self-blame, beating up oneself for continuing a practice that does more harm than good. “To feel better I just end up making other things worse!” And now self-blame can become another act of self-defeat because it has no encouraging constructive alternative to offer.

Attention must be paid

Parents need to pay attention when their teenager appears to be engaged in significant self-defeating behavior because it can injure and arrest adolescent growth. If they see it, they need to talk about it – not with criticism, but with concern. "We think you may be hurting yourself, and we would like to share what we see for you to consider."

And if the young person feels or appears stuck, parents might consider getting some counseling help because, left unattended, self-defeating behavior can do a lot of harm.