The fact that we cheated on our partner so we could feel alive again…
Not speaking up and pushing back when the cool girls made fun of our elastic-waisted jeans in grade school…
Compromising our boundaries and integrity just to be friends with those girls…
Using edibles each night just to find enough peace to sleep…
Having a bottle of wine after a long day of work and watching the clock for the minute it turns five because you’re craving it…
Weekends spent isolating at home, compulsively watching Netflix and scouring for more 10-season-plus shows to get lost in…
The heft and girth of our bodies, considered overweight by nonsensical BMI standards and the result of comfort eating through hard decades…
The mountainous credit card debt, accumulated from online shopping and a lack of financial sobriety…
This list could go on and on.
I’m sure you have your own habits and behaviors you don’t feel great about.
The kind of habit or behavior, if you were in my therapy office, you might share with me but still feel embarrassed or even guilty about.
And there’s something I would tell you if you did choose to open up to me about this.
Something important which you really need to hear:
Remember, it’s always an attempt to help yourself.
To learn what this means and what else I would say to you (believe me, it’s important), keep reading.
Self-Destructive Habits Always Start As Attempts To Self-Support.
“What is addiction, really? It is a sign, a signal, a symptom of distress. It is a language that tells us about a plight that must be understood.” ― Alice Miller, Ph.D.
When we’re younger, and I don’t just mean child young, but teens, twenties, even in our thirties, and we’re in emotional pain (whether this is because of neglect, abuse, rejection, isolation, or being socially cut off), we cope as best we can.
For example, a child may turn to food and compulsive eating, binging, and purging because that’s one of the few sources of “nourishment” she can access, because she feels less when her stomach is full, and she feels numb and emotionally disconnected after she purges.
She is and was attempting to care for herself in whatever way she could with the probably limited set of options and resources she had at the time.
And maybe this worked.
In fact, it could have worked very well. Occupying her nights, letting her survive an emotionally painful and brittle homelife.
But then her coping mechanism stops working so well.
This same girl gets caught stealing food to binge and purge on. Her body starts accumulating the effects of her coping.
The enamel on her teeth wears off. The blood vessels in her eyes might burst because of the force of vomiting, the stomach acid may damage her vocal chords, ruining her dreams of landing the lead in her high school musical.
What worked well at one point stops working so well anymore.
But still, she keeps doing it because she doesn’t know what else to do instead and it’s taken the form of a compulsion for her, an addictive behavior.
It’s a vicious cycle.
You can apply this hypothetical to any of the above points in the intro or to whatever habit/behavior of your own in the present or in your past that you feel embarrassed about: food additions, bad romantic choices, financial irresponsibility, compromising your boundaries, compromising your relationships, even, perhaps, compromising your life.
What’s important here is not that you personally identify with having had a history of binging and purging yourself but rather to recognize that the root of almost any addictive/compulsive/self-destructive behaviors are attempts to take care of ourselves in whatever way we thought was possible or that we had access to.
Remember: what seems harmful now was once an adaptation – a strategic and probably effective adaptation!) – to challenging circumstances at some point earlier.
When we can hold this lens of compassion for the parts of our past (or the behaviors we presently hold!) that we have shame and regret around, we can, believe it or not, allow for the possibility of change to occur.
According to the paradoxical theory of change, a contribution to the field of psychology by Fritz Perls, the paradoxical theory of change states that the more you try to be something you’re not, the more you’ll stay right where you are.
So in our attempts to move forward, to grow, and to create something different for ourselves we are ironically called upon to accept and even have compassion for the self-destructive (and other-destructive) behaviors and habits that we may have had in the past.
Because of this, I invite you to reframe how you have thought about those shameful, painful habits and actions of yours in the past, not only because it will likely feel better for you to have more grace and compassion for yourself, but also because you won’t grow as much or as well unless you can actually accept those parts of you.
“The longing for sweets is really a yearning for love or “sweetness.” ― Marion Woodman, Ph.D.
Freedom: Cultivating Choice Around Our Self-Destructive Habits.
“It is impossible to understand addiction without asking what relief the addict finds, or hopes to find, in the drug or the addictive behavior.” ― Gabor Maté, M.D.
When we can recognize that every behavior and habit of ours that we had or currently have was actually an attempt that was designed to support ourselves but also recognize that it was a maladaptive attempt – meaning an attempt that is dysfunctional and actually doesn’t produce the outcomes that you actually want – we can then address the question of what else is possible instead.
That same young woman, trapped in the vicious cycle of bulimia to cope with her chaotic and abusive family – is now grown.
She’s an adult with distance from them and more agency in the world, and while she still binges and purges, she has more options and resources than she likely did back then.
We can begin to explore what more adaptive, supportive choices might look like for her when she feels the relentless despair and anxiety at night that’s so lifelong familiar to her.
We can book her therapy for times in the evening.
We can build social gatherings and opportunities into her calendar to help her decrease her sense of isolation and to connect with others.
We can work in our counseling sessions to help her expand her abilities to tolerate those challenging feelings.
We can remove the trigger foods from her house.
We can practice something different because circumstances and her capacities are now different.
We can create choice for how she responds to challenging feelings when before there felt like there was no choice, there was only a default option.
And this – cultivating choice – is what the work of therapy is all about to me.
When we are acting compulsively – and I don’t just mean in actions such as daily bulimia, but I also mean with repeated, compulsive thoughts and beliefs – “I married the wrong guy.” “I’ll never make enough money.” “I’m too fat to find love.” etc, we aren’t that free.
Again, we come by those thoughts/habits/behaviors honestly, but if they are the only ways we imagine we can respond to a situation or view ourselves, we’re not that choiceful.
Doing the emotional work to expand your abilities to choose different behaviors/thoughts/beliefs will allow you to be responsive to life, rather than reactive.
It will help us cultivate more adaptive behaviors and habits for you versus perpetuating maladaptive ones.
This work can take some time – remember, it took a while to form the other habit/behaviors – but it is worth it.
And through this process of cultivating different choices and taking steps to tolerate more emotional discomfort, it’s critical we recall, again and again, that those former habits, the ones we’d prefer no one ever knew about, were always attempts to take care of ourselves.
I actually do think we’re naturally driven to feel good and to try and take care of ourselves, it’s just that sometimes we do so in ways that aren’t quite that effective.
But that’s okay! It simply says you’re driven to take care of yourself and now we just have to find other ways you can do this.
“For me, vulnerability led to anxiety, which led to shame, which led to disconnection, which led to Bud Light.” – Brené Brown, Ph.D.
Inquiries To Reflect On Your Own Self-Destructive Habits:
“When clients self-harm, for example, these days, we understand their actions to be instinctive, rather than thought out—an effort to regulate or relieve, rather than punish.” ― Janina Fisher, Ph.D.
- Taking inspiration from the list in the intro and reflecting on your own life, what would you say is one habit of yours that you’ve had (or still have) that you don’t feel so great about?
- In what ways can you see that this habit was an attempt to support yourself?
- What options did you at that age (when the habit started) feel like you had?
- In what ways was this habit actually a really clever and effective way of taking care of yourself back then?
- What did it give you when you did this habit/behavior? (think: relief, numbness, a sense of connection, fitting in, etc.)
- At what point did this habit/behavior stop working quite so well for you?
- In what ways did this habit/behavior actually get (or still gets) in the way of a life that feels connected and good?
- What other options do you see for yourself instead if you were to stop doing this behavior/habit?
- What supports might you need to even see those other options and/or pursue them? (think: therapy, AA meetings, etc).
- What’s the cost to you if you keep doing the maladaptive behavior?
- What’s the potential benefit to you if you can create more choice around how you respond to difficult emotional times?
- Can you have grace and compassion for your past self (and even your present self) for making the choices that you did?
- Can you acknowledge that you did the best with what you had at the time and does it feel supportive (even a little bit) to have just a little more self-compassion when we hold this reframe?
“Self-compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy.” – Brené Brown, Ph.D.
Wrapping This Up…
I’d love to hear from you in the comments here on the blog:
Does this reframe – that any self-destructive behavior and habit you’ve had/have was always, at some level, an attempt to support yourself – feel helpful to bear in mind? Can you understand how, when you accept this part of you and this part of your past, it will actually allow for change to take place in your life? What comes up for you as I share this with you?
Leave me a message in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.
If you would like additional support with this and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together. You can also book a complimentary consult call to explore therapy with one of my fantastic clinicians at my trauma-informed therapy center, Evergreen Counseling.
Or if you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in the waitlist for the Relational Trauma Recovery School – or my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and create a beautiful adulthood for yourself, no matter where you started out in life.
And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.