Self-Destructive Behavior: Signs, Causes & Effects

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Self-destructive behavior is an intentional action that hurts the mind or body. Explore the signs and causes of self-destructive behavior and learn about the impacts on the body, mind, relationships, and economic status. Updated: 11/20/2021

Self-Destructive Behavior

Imagine the following scenario. Mark notices that Janet, his new employee, seems to be spending a lot of time in the restroom and that she always appears to be a little 'out of it' when she returns to her desk. One day, while looking for a stapler, he instead finds a bottle of pills.

Self-destructive behavior is any deliberate action that has a negative impact on your mind or body. It can come in many forms, and sufferers are often unaware of how much damage their self-destructive behavior is causing themselves or others.

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  • 0:04 Self-Destructive Behavior
  • 0:38 Signs
  • 3:29 Causes
  • 4:09 Effects & Impact
  • 6:30 Lesson Summary
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Identifying self-destructive behavior in yourself and others is a matter of keeping an objective point of view when it comes to what's really going on in a person's mind.

Let's go over some of the more common signs of self-destructive behavior, beginning with depression or pessimism.

Depression or Pessimism

The belief that life is bad, and will continue to go badly, is a sign of a self-destructive mentality. It is based on a deep belief that the person is not worthy of good things. At school, a student may only see the 'down' side of situations. At work, an employee, like Janet, may not believe anything positive will come of her efforts or try to push others away when they try to help.

Avoiding Responsibility

Another sign of destructive behavior is avoiding responsibility. Self-destructive people tend to avoid opportunities and responsibilities. They have little faith in their abilities and try to take the easiest route when approaching a situation or task. Because self-destructive behavior involves excessive attention on the self, they tend to forget or be emotionally unable to do things, eventually becoming unreliable.

Hypersensitivity or Emotional Numbness

Hypersensitivity or emotional numbness is also a sign of self-destructive behavior. When people are prone to blow ups or seem indifferent, they are in a self-destructive mode. They may be trying to push others away, or they may be so involved in their own pain that they have no interest in what is happening around them. In either case, the behavior leads to negative results. This intensifies their feelings of unworthiness.

Compulsion or Addictive Behavior

Self-destructive people exhibit compulsive or addictive behaviors. When people feel a compulsion to act in a certain way, such as driving past the cemetery every day at exactly five o'clock, the cause is usually an internal sense of failure or loss. Addictions, such as alcohol, nicotine, and substance abuse, gambling, sexual activity, and self-mutilation are typically signs of inward pain and insecurity, which must somehow be alleviated.

Neediness, Constant Desire for Recognition or Approval

Some other signs include neediness, and a constant desire for recognition or approval. Self-destructive individuals may try to fill the emptiness within by seeking the approval or recognition of others, often through damaging behaviors, like overt sexual advances or loud and inappropriate laughter at a weak joke.

Physical Damage

Finally, signs of physical damage may include:

  • scars and bruises from self-inflicted injuries
  • changes in skin color due to chemical abuse
  • smells related to chemicals abuse, lack of hygiene, and/or poor nutrition
  • slashes or needle marks

Generally speaking, anything that seems 'wrong' or out of the ordinary in a person's appearance may be the result of self-destructive behavior.


Generally speaking, self-destructive behavior is a response to something that struck at a person's self-worth, often at a very young age, such as the loss of a parent or other key figure, a traumatic experience or failure accompanied by rejection. Any experience that affected a person's psychological foundation can produce a negative self-image that results in destructive behavior.

Self-destructive behavior is self-reinforcing and can easily become a 'death spiral', in which subsequent self-loathing leads to more self-destructive behavior. If you feel like you deserve to feel bad, why wouldn't you deserve to feel worse?

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