Self-Defeating Behaviors Lead to Depression

The term ‘Self-Defeating behaviors’ sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?

Why would anyone want to defeat themselves?

What’s in it for someone to go against their interests?

Who wants to feel like a failure by engaging in self-defeating behaviors?

What could possibly be worth feeling sucked dry of energy, motivation and self-esteem with the repetition of self-defeating behaviors?

The repetitive cycle  of self-defeating behaviors is like going up the ladders in the game of ‘Snakes and Ladders’ only to be eaten by a snake and having to start all over again! Your efforts boomerang, flattening your mood – putting you into a place of depression.

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Isn’t depression a bad thing?

Not in this case! If you have lost interest and motivation then you are less likely to engage in self-defeating behaviors. So depression is kind of like a set of brakes that stops you from damaging yourself with more self-defeating behaviors. Depression gives you a breathing space to explore the self-defeating behaviors – why they are so powerful and what purpose they serve.

Self-defeating behaviors reflect a place of ‘stuckness’ in your development

Unresolved emotional trauma at a critical time in childhood is usually the source of stuckness later in life.

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 Self-defeating behaviors – early emotional trauma leading to ‘stuckness’

  1. Irreversible change in mother and child relationship

Thirty-nine year old Mimi was constantly feeling stuck, complaining that nothing good never happened to her. If anything positive appeared she feared it would be destroyed, or evaporate – she just wasn’t meant to have what other normal people had in her eyes – a guarantee of protection, being number one to all those in her family and friends and constant proof of loyalty and commitment.

Up until she was three years old, Mimi had been an only child getting all the attention of her parents. Then suddenly she was presented with a baby brother, with no preparation and no help to transition to this massive life change. Mimi’s life was turned upside down. She had lost her place in the family, and her parents were mesmerized by the new infant. It was as if the baby was now the attractive object while Mimi was like an old pet who had to be fed and watered, but no longer worthy of their time.

She worked like crazy to be a good girl, the best girl in the world to get her parents attention, but she experienced being banished, unable to reclaim and restore that special exclusive place in her parent’s lives. That was the place Mimi got stuck! In all her other relationships from then on she expected and silently demanded that she be the priority, and exclusively so. Her three year old traumatized mind organized her experience of other people as if they were all her betraying parents who had to atone and put her back into the special place that was duly hers.

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Self-defeating behavior involves believing a failed strategy will work because you think it should – evidence be damned!

Mimi expected that her conscientiousness, diligence and dutiful acts would be seen, acknowledged and rewarded by her loved ones making a fuss over her. She kept doing things for her girls, helping her unemployed brother and took on much of her business partner’s roles to ease the burden. She never got the recognition she wanted. Nor did she feel the warmth and gratitude of her girls who didn’t want to include her in their activities and were unresponsive to her attempts to engage with them. Mimi longed for them to ask her how her day went and to spoil her, choose her over their own social lives, and put her first in their thoughts. She was continually disappointed but still engaged in these self-defeating thoughts and actions.

Giving up that wish means accepting reality while acknowledging a deep and irreversible loss. Engaging in the good girl stuff and hoping to be returned to her special spot is the work of the little girl that hasn’t processed the trauma of having to share her parent’s attention and love.


Self-defeating behaviors replay the initial trauma with no pathway to resolution, producing chronic stress and depression.

A study reported in Scientific Reports Sept 2018 found that depressed people who had suffered childhood trauma did not respond to antidepressant medication such as SSRI’s. Their brain regions had lots of connectivity between them, making the effects of the trauma pervasive.

So someone with Mimi’s childhood trauma induced depression and stuckness is more likely to respond to psychotherapy – a psychodynamic approach which facilitates an awareness on Mimi’s part regarding her young wish to return to the life before her brother came along.


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Self-defeating behavior – psychodynamic psychotherapy resolves the early trauma

Mimi’s therapy involved several phases that helped her absorb the initial trauma, and feel the feelings as they echoed in all her other relationships.

The first step was making it safe to bear the enormous feelings of disbelief, rage, helplessness and despair with me to help her hold them– remember her parents ignored the impact of having a sibling on her and so she locked up her emotions in a box labelled ‘danger.’ Now she had me to hold her and understand her – so she didn’t feel selfish or cruel in her wish to get rid of competition.

Second Mimi was able to accept her own feelings of envy and vengeance because I didn’t judge or disapprove of those parts of her – so that she didn’t dissolve in shame and curl up in depression.

Third Mimi was able to get in touch with the little traumatized girl part of her who had a magic wish – that she could turn the clock back by being a good girl who tried to please her loved ones – deserving of her wish to be fulfilled.

Mimi rejected relationships where the other person had a past – she wanted to be cared for in a place uncontaminated by any history (just as it was when she was the 1st born) – engaging in perpetual self-defeating behaviors. Empathizing with the little girl part of her helped her feel cared for; while showing her how it wasn’t working in her adult life provided her with permission to alter her rigid wish, without betraying the 3 year old inside her.

The fourth phase was also the overarching theme of the entire individual counseling- enabling Mimi to accept reality – that anyone she met and related to in her adult world all had a history and a past and that she would (just as she had to adjust when her brother was born) have to share that world with whomever she related to. It was hard for her to come to terms with the fact that living in that shared world didn’t mean there was less love for her, or that the love was used up on others, OR that others had first dibs on it!

Fifth was mourning the loss of her ability to make her deep and determined wish into a reality in the real world. Mimi is still working on this last step – but as she does, she is allowing herself to have experiences of enjoying family despite not being the sole object of their love and create opportunities for herself where she can be the author of her own happiness, rather than insisting it must come from others in the form of proof that she is a cherished and vital person in the world.

Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2018


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