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Breaking The Cycle of Self-Defeating Behaviors

By Ken Singer, LCSW

Survivors of sexual abuse (and others who have had an abusive childhood or grew up in dysfunctional families) often find themselves in repetitive situations where they engage in self-damaging or defeating behaviors. Sometimes this involves addictive behaviors, or patterns of unproductive or activities which are harmful to themselves or others.

Usually the behaviors or situations they find themselves in seem to come out of nowhere or they "just happen." Over time, these patterns have a cyclical quality to them. Without taking a "blaming the victim" stance, it is suggested here that a person can become empowered to prevent these situations if he recognizes them as they develop.

For example, say a person tends to binge on food as a means of coping with stress or other negative feeling states. As long as he is unaware of the emotional "triggers" that lead to the over-eating behavior, he may feel defeated in his efforts to watch his consumption. If he is able to recognize that certain feelings, such as lonely, bored, unappreciated, for example, trigger his over-eating, he can anticipate the unwanted activity. With that knowledge, he can take measures to reduce or eliminate the behavior.

Everyone experiences negative feelings from time to time. These feelings may be accompanied by negative thoughts which may or may not be true, but feel true at the time. Say a friend promised he would call at a certain time but failed to do so. It might lead to feelings of hurt, abandonment, betrayal or insecurity. These feelings could be accompanied by thoughts such as, "I can't depend on people," "Maybe there's something wrong with me," or "He's not my friend after all." While the thoughts and feelings seem to make sense at the time, in looking at them later when in a better frame of mind, the person may understand that he was over-reacting or being too self-critical.

Negative thoughts and feelings which lead to behaviors that are not in a person's best interest can be termed "compensatory behaviors." These behaviors compensate or replace the unwanted feelings or thoughts. Compensatory behaviors may be directed towards others or property. This is termed "acting out." The familiar experience of taking out a bad day on people by verbally or physically abusing them or destroying property, is one way people "act out" their negative emotions. If you act out on someone else, you may temporarily feel more powerful or discharge some frustration, but usually you regret it afterwards.

The trigger feelings or thoughts might be turned against yourself- "acting in." This can include mentally beating up on yourself, physically hurting yourself by punching a wall, cutting, or other self-injurious behaviors. It can also involve self-defeating behaviors such as "forgetting" to pay a bill on time and getting charged a late fee or interest. (Many survivors report procrastination as a frequent problem that leads to personal and financial setbacks.)

Another way that people compensate for unwanted feelings and thoughts is to "numb out". This is a way to block feelings or forget about problems through the use of drugs, alcohol, excessive tv watching or playing video games, over-eating or other activity that is used to numb. Compulsive sexual activities can also be a way to numb feelings and thoughts.

There is a fourth choice a person can make when experiencing trigger thoughts or feelings. It is called "intervention" and it empowers rather than disempowers as acting out, acting in or numbing out usually do.

Think about a recent negative behavior of yours. Did it lead to regrets or guilty feelings afterwards? Was it a behavior that you told yourself in the past you were not going to do anymore? Did it temporarily make you feel better, but you later paid a price for doing it? If you look back to the minutes, hours or even days prior, can you now see where you "should have known" it was coming?

The Cycle

The idea here is that there is a cycle that many people go through which can be predictable, if you know what to look for. If you are aware of your trigger feelings, recognize that the accompanying thoughts are not necessarily accurate or valid, and that the behaviors you chose to do again and again are not empowering or productive, you can choose to intervene at any stage and get out of the cycle.

This concept is based on work with substance abuse, anger management, domestic violence and sexual offending. This is not to say that being a survivor of sexual abuse puts you in the same category as substance abusers, batterers or sexual offenders. What it means is that when "shit happens" or you experience unpleasant/unwanted feelings, you have choices on how to deal with them. You can take it out on others, yourself, numb out or use interventions which empower rather than disempower you.

In general, the cycle concept notes four phases. They are termed "build up," "withdrawal," "pre-(behavior)" and "post-(behavior)."

Let's say that you are working on a project that you have put in considerable efforts. You get an unenthusiastic response from your supervisor and experience feelings of rejection, inadequacy or other negative emotions. In the build up phase, unpleasant feelings often are triggered by old negative tapes or messages. If you have old messages from childhood that you are incompetent, worthless, or inadequate, for example, a current situation can bring up the old triggers to make the present feelings more significant than they deserve. These unpleasant feelings may be accompanied by negative thoughts or self-statements, such as, "I never get anything right," "Who am I fooling? I can't do this work," "My boss hates me," or "Nobody appreciates my efforts."

These feelings and thoughts often move you into the next phase, "withdrawal." This stage is one where you feel victimized by others, might feel sorry for yourself and pull away from people. You can only stay in this phase for a short time without doing something to get away from the unpleasant feelings and thoughts.

This leads to the "pre-(behavior)" phase. Here, thoughts or fantasies of getting revenge, drinking or food bingeing, hurting yourself, or some other compensatory behavior, give some sense of power or control to overcome the negative thoughts and feelings. Unless you take some kind of intervention to break out of the cycle, you may very well do the behavior you know you should not be doing.

Say the behavior is over-eating. As you are probably aware, food can be like a drug when it is used to numb out feelings. Over-eating, such as bingeing on ice cream, will temporarily make you feel better, but you later pay the price in feeling guilty.

After doing the behavior, you move into the "post-(behavior)" phase, where you might experience remorse, guilt or shame. Often, you make promises to yourself to avoid such behavior in the future. This completes the cycle and helps you feel a little better until the next round of build up where the cycle continues unless you make changes in the pattern.

The First Step

You need to recognize your trigger feelings. Take a look at the attached list of feelings. You can print out the page or copy them down. Some of these negative feelings may be inconsequential for you. While unpleasant, they do not lead to negative behaviors. You might mark them with one check. There are other feelings that seem to be stronger triggers for you. Give them two checks to distinguish them from the really strong feelings (three checks).

Make a list of five to ten trigger feelings. Try to avoid feelings which probably have other feelings under them. For example, if "angry" or "depressed" are triggers for you, think about the underlying feelings which might lead to anger or depression, such as "hurt", "rejection", "embarrassment" or "manipulated".

Then, write the thoughts you often have when experiencing these feelings. Stay general in your focus, so if you are thinking of a recent situation which led to a particular trigger feeling, try to keep the thoughts that come with the feeling as general self-statements. For example, using the situation above concerning the supervisor being unenthusiastic about your work, the negative self-statement, "I never get anything right", is a generalization rather than a statement like, "My supervisor is picking on me because he's angry at his wife."

With each trigger feeling and thought(s) that typically accompany them, you can write the negative behavior you often do. A list might look something like this:

  • Feeling: rejected
  • Thought: Nobody cares about me. I can't depend on people.
  • Behavior: Isolate, over-eat.
The more trigger feelings you identify, the easier it is to see a pattern emerging.

Pay attention to the thoughts. You may very well see thoughts which are over-generalizations. Broad statements using words like "nobody," "everybody," "never," "always," "nothing," "everything," "every time," and others are part of "all or nothing" thinking. This kind of thinking is sometimes referred to as "distorted thinking", It doesn't mean that you are distorted or that there is something wrong with you, it just means that the thoughts are not truly accurate. When you are in a better frame of mind and things are going well, you probably look at yourself, the world and your relationships with people in a different light.

When you are in the cycle, the thoughts may be triggered by negative emotions. Sometimes, the thoughts can trigger feelings. For example, the situation mentioned earlier where a person was waiting for a friend who said he would call, caused feelings of abandonment or rejection. It is probable that thoughts of "I can't depend on people" or "He doesn't really care about me" preceded the feelings of rejection or abandonment. So, thoughts can trigger feelings or feelings can trigger thoughts.

Frequently, this point in the cycle incorporates what is known as a "victim stance." This is where you may feel victimized, used, abused, or perhaps feeling sorry for yourself. (NOTE: "Victim stance" is a term used generically, not specific to sexual abuse survivors. It is a common response by everyone at times to perceived unfair treatment or consequences.)

The negative thoughts and feelings may swirl around and the impulse may be strong to do something like a compensatory behavior to feel better. It is not important to know whether the thoughts or feelings come first. When they influence or facilitate unwanted behaviors, you can "bail out" with an intervention that empowers you instead of taking a familiar, but disempowering, compensatory behavior.


Interventions, as noted earlier, are positive behaviors which empower rather than disempower a person. Think about behaviors you do or can do to feel better when you are having disturbing thoughts or feelings. These behaviors may be things you can do by yourself, such as reading, journaling, taking a hot bath, writing poetry, meditating, listening to music, or other activities.

There are interventions which involve others. These include, talking to a support person, playing games or sports, going to a meeting such as Alcoholics Anonymous, if appropriate, or just being around someone you trust.

Interventions also include physical activities. Taking a walk, going for a run, shooting baskets, working out at a gym (or on the exercise equipment you may be using for a clothes rack), can be both invigorating as well as soothing. Men often find it is easier to unwind from stress through physical activity rather than talking. If you currently tend to rely on only one of these three types of interventions, consider trying the other types to give yourself more options

It is difficult to create interventions while you are struggling in your cycle. If you have a list prepared ahead of time, you can refer to it when you need it. A good way to do this is to use the headings, "by myself," "with others," and "physical" so you have them written in advance of needing them. The larger your list of interventions, the greater number of resources you will have at your disposal. Make sure the list includes interventions that you are familiar with or have the ability to use. If your only physical outlet is going for a walk, this may not be practical if the weather is bad or you need to do something at 2 a.m. and you live in a high crime neighborhood.

There are no "correct" interventions. The only rule is that the intervention needs to be a behavior that reduces the negative feelings and thoughts you have without disempowering you. Remember, the intervention will not be a permanent solution for the unwanted triggers. It will be temporary, but it will lead to a more permanent resolution in your recovery.

Recovery is a process that includes many tools and resources. Your interest in the NOMSV web page can provide you with some of the tools and resources you can use on your journey.

Our best wishes for your success in healing. If you have questions or comments about this article, please address them to: Ken Singer, LCSW

List of 264 Feelings

(9/11/99 retype of rev. 4/96 ks)

abandoned disparaged hopeful powerless uncertain
afraid down hyper preoccupied upset
accepted down and out hysterical pressured up
aimless dread included proper uptight
aggravated dumb indecisive proud used
alert defensive ignored provoked unsure
angry deformed inspired reasonable weak
alive doubtful inept rejected unprepared
ambivalent decadent inferior relaxed vulnerable
amused distressed innocent relieved wanted
annoyed devalued interested restless weird
anxious disconnected insignificant sad worthless
appreciated embarrassed insecure safe wounded
crabby glad mistrustful scapegoated unfit
antsy energetic intimidated scared worried
alone excluded inadequate secure violated
ashamed despondent inconsolable self-righteous aroused
argumentative enraged irritated selfish rude
antagonistic envious incapable sexy wild
bad erotic jealous shaky livid
bored exasperated joyful shameful despair
betrayed excited jubilant shocked subdued
blue explosive kindly shy disgraced
courageous generous mischievous singled-out
broken-hearted euphoric lethargic slighted dejected
bullied fantastic lonely smart rotten
calm fearful lost sneaky grieved
choked-up flattered love sorry forlorn
cool furious misplaced special awkward
clueless friendly loved stoned anguished
comfortable frightened lovesick stressed demoralized
concerned frustrated loving stupid tearful
confused frisky mad suckered useless
confident frustrated manic suicidal impotent
content foolish miserable superior defeated
curious gross naive terrified timid
crushed happy neglected threatened tense
decent helpful nervous tired disorganized
cranky good mellow trapped unimportant
challenged guilty mixed up tricked grim
demented helpless obnoxious triumphant troubled
crazy goofy modest trusted inhibited
cuddly greedy moody truthful jittery
devious honored obsessed ugly belittled
disturbed hurt picked on unappreciated ridiculed
discouraged hurtful playful uncertain degraded
distracted homesick out of control uncomfortable agitated
depressed homoerotic overwhelmed uneasy flustered
deranged homophobic out of it unhappy torn
disappointed humiliated peaceful unloved discredited
desperate horny paranoid unreal uneasy
detached humble pathetic unwanted isolated