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In human context, self-destructive behaviour is a widely used phrase that conceptualises certain kinds of destructive acts as belonging to the self. It also has the property that it characterises certain kinds of self-inflicted acts as destructive. The term comes from objective psychology, wherein all apparent self-inflicted harm or abuse toward oneself is treated as a collection of actions, and therefore as a pattern of behaviour.
Acts of "self-destruction" may be merely metaphorical ("social suicide") or literal (suicide). Generally speaking, self-destructive actions may be deliberate, born of impulse, or developed as a habit. The term however tends to be applied toward self-destructions that are potentially habit-forming or addictive, and are thus potentially fatal.
Self-destructive behaviour is often considered to be synonymous with self-harm, but this is not accurate. Self-harm is an extreme form of self-destructive behaviour, but it may appear in many other guises.
Self-destructive behaviour may be used as a coping mechanism, when things get 'too much'. For example, faced with a pressing scholastic assessment, someone may choose to sabotage their work rather than cope with the stress. This would make submission of (or passing) the assessment impossible, but remove the worry associated with it.
Self-destructive behaviour may also manifest itself in an active attempt to drive away other people. It may be used to end a romantic relationship in this way. Often, the person so acting feels that for whatever reason they are incapable of, or undeserving of, a relationship with the person they seek to drive away. They often hold this person in particularly high esteem, and do not wish to 'harm' them by creating or maintaining a connection with them.
An important aspect of self-destructive behaviour is the inability to handle the stress stemming from an individual's lack of self-confidence- for example in a relationship, whether the other person is truly faithful ("how can they love someone like me?"); at work or school, whether the realisation of assignments and deadlines is possible ("there is no way I can complete all my work on time").
Successful individuals may self-destructively sabotage their own achievements; this may stem from a feeling of unworthiness or from a desire to repeat the "climb to the top."
More obvious forms of self-destruction are eating disorders, alcohol abuse, drug addictions, sex addiction, self-injury, and suicide attempts.
It is a common misconception that self-destructive behaviour is inherently attention seeking, or at least that attention is a primary motive. While this is undoubtedly true in some cases, normally the motivation runs much deeper than that.
As might be expected, it is more common in those afflicted with clinical depression.
Alternatively, in some cases it could be explained by a person having learned dysfunctional patterns earlier in life. Separation from parents and attachment disorders have been linked with self-destructive behaviour, and with failure to engage in self-care behaviour.
- Childhood origins of self-destructive behavior. van der Kolk BA, Perry JC, Herman JL, Am J Psychiatry 1991 Dec; 148(12):1665-71