The root causes of self-destructive behavior can vary from person to person, according to licensed drug and alcohol counselor Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho LSW, LCADC, CCS, CCTP. Some of the most common causes include a lack of positive coping skills, unresolved issues from childhood or adolescence, and poor mental health.
Lorz describes self-destructive behaviors as being the product of either misguided attempts at self-protection or moments of dissociation. They’re often shaped by beliefs you have about yourself, what you deserve, and how you have taken in the messages of the world and those around you, she says, making them essentially a response to personal circumstances that have had a traumatic impact on you. They may have even worked (or you believed that they have worked) in the past to protect you from feeling stressed, overwhelmed, hurt, exhausted, scared, or in danger, she adds, but ultimately these coping mechanisms are now causing more harm than protection.
Osibodu-Onyali adds that when people have experienced multiple negative events or even traumas, it changes the way they view themselves, others, and the world. “They begin to expect bad things to happen, and when good things come their way, they introduce self-destructive behaviors so that things return to the negative pattern they are used to. It’s not that they enjoy negativity; it’s just that it’s familiar,” she says.
Additionally, self-destructive behaviors can be symptoms of many mental health issues, according to Manly. For example, a person who is suffering from depression may engage in self-protective behaviors, like not going to work due to a lack of energy or to avoid stress, that are ultimately self-destructive. Those who suffer from substance use disorders may resort to self-destructive behaviors, including stealing to maintain the addiction or driving while under the influence, with little or no ability to genuinely appreciate the long-term impact; the cumulative effects of these behaviors are often tragic.
“A variety of mental health disorders such as BPD often leave the sufferer stuck in a cycle of self-destructive behaviors that leave the individual feeling angry, isolated, and misunderstood,” she adds.