Self Destructive Behaviors In Women

By:  Michaele P. Dunlap, Psy.D,  Clinical Psychologist

If someone told you that she had been strung out on cocaine six days last week, or that she has been binge eating and vomiting three times a day, you'd know she was caught in self destructive behavior. Could you recognize your own self destructive behavior as easily?

As women we are self destructive when we eat poorly trying to keep our bodies too thin; when we overeat to obesity; when we gain weight and diet in endless cycles of self deception and self blame about our eating and our weight.

We are self destructive when we try to "drink like a man." We are at risk when we drink more than an ounce or two of alcohol on any regular basis, because our bodies are much more reactive to the toxicity of alcohol than men's. Excessive use of alcohol costs any drinker both tissue damage and emotional pain. For women the physical and emotional costs of alcohol mis-use are higher; the threshold of mis-use is lower.

We are self destructive when we use drugs in an attempt to control our emotions. There is no mind-altering drug which does not have some harmful physical effect.

Eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse are easily recognizable self destructive behaviors. But self destructive patterns are not always so obvious, nor are their causes always easy to understand.

We are self destructive when we spend beyond our means; when we are sexual in ways that cause us to lose self respect; when we keep ourselves in personal relationships that cause us to feel inferior, abused, or taken advantage of.

We are self destructive when we neglect our bodies and do not give them rest and exercise; we are self destructive when we drive ourselves, overworking or over exercising to please others or to make ourselves feel okay.

We are self destructive when we stifle our legitimate angers; when we turn our disappointments into contempt for ourselves; when we avoid attempting our ambitions because we will not accomplish them perfectly.

We are self destructive when we make others responsible for our lives,

  • by blaming "them"
  • by an attitude of helplessness
  • by believing and behaving as if we have no capacity to change or to manage our own lives effectively and pleasurably.

As women we are especially vulnerable to self destructive behavior which has its roots in the sense of shame. Because we are sometimes ashamed of the simple fact of being women!

We can feel shame about our bodies

"I'm not pretty enough, or thin enough." "My body is dirty because of my sexuality."

Shame of competence

"I'm stupid." "If I try I'll mess it up." "Some things I'll never be good at; I'm just a female."

Shame in relationships

"How can I expect anybody to like me, I'm such a witch!" "People think I'm foolish when I try to say anything." "Who could love me, I'm so awful?"

Shame about our own character

"Why try? " "I'm flawed." "I'm disgusting." "I'm worthless." I'm powerless."

Addictions, compulsions, all the forms of self destructive behavior have the perverse function to numb shame. When we are caught in self destructive tangles, we forget to feel badly about ourselves -- for the moment.

If you find yourself caught in the tangle of self destructive behavior there are many avenues to recovery and growth.

Quit blaming yourself

Begin by taking a clear-eyed look at your life, right now. What's working? What's making you happy? What's not?

Define what needs to change

Recognize that change takes time. Give yourself both emotional space and sufficient time to make the changes that will be useful to you.

Find help

(Thinking we should be able to do everything by ourselves is another self destructive behavior!) Choose friends, helpers, teachers, groups, mentors, therapists, who offer you honest feedback, new information, and useful support for becoming the best of your own kind of person.


The process of recovery from addictive, compulsive, self destructive behaviors can be overwhelming. You may be confronted by new emotions and flooded by memories. You may find yourself replacing one set of self destructive behaviors with another.

Be aware

Women seeking recovery from self destructive behaviors frequently find their progress blocked by the previously unrecognized impact of psychological trauma, loss, childhood neglect, abuse, abandonment, sexual assault, and patterns of emotional or physical abuse as well as self neglect in adult relationships.

Too often the woman trying to recover from self destructive behavior finds herself in a revolving door of treatment / self-help / relapse because the core processes of her psychological and emotional development have not been attended to.

The key elements for moving beyond self destructive behavior are self awareness, self responsibility, and a well developed process of personal choice.


Self destructive behaviors are rigid, unhealthy patterns of responding to feelings of shame and powerlessness.

Change away from self destructive behavior proceeds by gathering the skills and self awareness to move in the world with self assurance and self determination.