How many times have most of us vowed “I’m done [insert your favorite unhealthy behavior], and I’m never doing it again,” only to find yourself doing it again? How frustrating. Yet this is the experience most of us have when attempting to replace addictive, self-destructive behaviors.
Why are we so drawn to these self-destructive behaviors and what makes them so difficult to let go of even when our heart longs to do just that?
People engage in self-destructive behaviors to deal with anxiety, self-doubt and shame.
This cycle often starts in adolescence when we possess few skills to manage stress and negative emotions. We begin to feel anxious, like we don’t fit in. We become overwhelmed with the expectations of others. We might even be ashamed of ourselves. Because we have few skills to calm these emotions, we frantically search for something to help us feel better. Self-destructive behaviors such as drinking alcohol, taking drugs, binge eating, perfectionism and engaging in sexual activities produce chemical changes within the body which override anxiety and soothe us.
These coping strategies quickly become our “go to” because they are effective. Fast forward to adulthood and these “quick fix” self-destructive behaviors are now well entrenched patterns of managing anxiety and poor self-esteem. Self-destructive behaviors are very hard to let go of – both because they have an addictive nature and because we don’t have anything to replace them with.
What’s more, we tend to excuse our negative self-soothing behaviors while pointing to someone else’s and saying, “How can they do something so destructive to their marriage …their family … their spiritual life?” One negative coping strategy is no better than another, but it is easy to see the self-destructive nature of others’ behavior while minimizing our own destructive patterns.
For example, many of us have a hard time imagining why people would use arousing images and videos found on the internet when this creates such pain within a marriage. At the same time, we will excuse the Christian romance novels we read as “no big deal” even though both behaviors create unrealistic pictures of what a marital relationship is supposed to be and can cause our spouses to feel they can “never measure up.”
How do we HALT self-destructive behaviors?
Most of us have a difficult time taking care of ourselves, and this is a large part of the problem. The events and expectations of our lives pick up speed, and we struggle to keep our head above water. We don’t want to let down someone whose opinion matters to us. In the process, we become more anxious, feel more like a failure and become less aware of what we are feeling. This, in turn, increases our vulnerability to engage in unhealthy, self-destructive behaviors.
One way to slow this process down is to routinely monitor and take care of four aspects of our lives – Hunger/Hurt, Angry, Lonely, Tired – which can be remembered using the acronym H.A.L.T.:
HUNGRY & HURT
While coordinating multiple schedules and attempting to meet the real and perceived expectations of others, it is easy to neglect our bodies’ physical hunger for food and emotional hunger for love and acceptance. We also tend to excuse hurts we experience as “no big deal” and push them aside without dealing with them, because we don’t feel we have time.
Many of us were raised in families where anger was not allowed. This causes us to avoid acknowledging we are angry, much less deal with our anger. We push the anger down and go on as though nothing has happened.
The busier we are, the greater our tendency to live isolated and alone. This leaves us feeling lonely and alone in the midst of our struggles.
We wake each day with more on our agenda than any one person could realistically accomplish. We get up earlier and stay up later in an attempt to meet the expectations we feel as a spouse, parent, employee and church member. The average American is chronically sleep deprived. The result? Our decision-making capacity is impaired to a level that is similar to having consumed several alcoholic beverages.
Feel like engaging in a self-destructive behavior? Try taking a H.A.L.T. in life instead of just acting on the urge.
The first step in overcoming self-destructive coping strategies is attending to these four areas of our lives on a daily basis. When we are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, we need to feel better. This makes us more vulnerable to utilizing our “quick fix” unhealthy coping behaviors. Slowing down and attending to these four areas of our lives throughout the day minimizes the risk we will become overwhelmed and turn to self-destructive behavior patterns to handle our needs.
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.