Are you your own worst enemy?

Martha is afraid of rejection, so she withdraws from other people and adopts a scornful attitude. As a result, people avoid her and she spends most of her time alone.
Todd is afraid of not being able to live up to his boss’ standards. It takes him weeks to get a simple report done because he agonizes over every word. His anxiety often causes him to miss deadlines or to turn in substandard work because he had to rush to complete it.
Taylor wants a relationship badly. She goes out several nights a week to parties and bars and constantly asks friends to set her up with dates, but nothing ever seems to work out. Her air of desperation turns off most men.
While their situations are very different Martha, Todd and Taylor have one thing in common – they are sabotaging themselves.
Self-defeating behaviors are actions designed to ward off emotional threats such as rejection, failure or loneliness.
Ironically, however, such actions often backfire, bringing about the very thing you fear. In Martha’s case, her attempts to protect herself from rejection instead guaranteed that it would happen. No one intended to reject her, but her withdrawal pushed people away, saying nonverbally “Don’t bother me”.
Once it is developed and integrated into your personality, self-defeating behavior becomes difficult to identify. You’re unaware of what you’re doing, so you don’t make the connection between your behavior and the things that are wrong in your life. Instead, you blame other people or circumstances, or just attribute your unhappiness to bad luck.
Self-defeating behavior is costly to both mind and body. Repeatedly sabotaging your personal and/or career goals can result in:
· Buried anger
· Frustration/bitterness
· A sense of worthlessness
· Loneliness and isolation
· Hopelessness and depression
· Feelings of guilt or shame
· Health problems
And you don’t pay the price alone. Your family, friends and even strangers pay as well. They are the victims of your rage or depression; they must watch you smoke yourself to death; or they are the “other driver” in your drunk-driving accident.


Self-defeating behavior can be very difficult to recognize in yourself. Therapy can help you identify the ways in which you defeat yourself, and understand the reasons why you use self-sabotage.

Many self-defeating behaviors are developed to cope with fears. For example, if you fear rejection, you may push others away with criticism or indifference, rejecting them before they can reject you. If you are afraid of success, you may repeatedly set yourself up to fail at work. Because fears and self-defeating behaviors are so closely linked, therapy often focuses on uncovering the fears underneath self-sabotage.

If fears are the source of your self-sabotage, therapy can help you overcome them by confronting them while learning new coping behaviors that are constructive.

Self-defeating behavior can also be caused by a negative image. Because its consequences are negative, self-defeating behavior confirms or reinforces a faulty self-image. Therapy can help you replace your poor self-image with a more positive one, so that you believe you deserve better treatment and stop sabotaging yourself.

This process proceeds much more quickly with the help of a good therapist.


There are many bright, capable people who never reach their career goals or live up to their full potential.  Perfectionists and other people who fear failure (or success sabotage their careers by …Procrastinating.  By not giving themselves enough time to do a job, procrastinators guarantee substandard work and eventual career failure).  They avoid taking responsibility for their failure by telling themselves they could have done better if

 they had more time.

Ignoring criticism/feedback. Following constructive criticism from a superior can be the way out of trouble spots in your career. Self-saboteurs, however, stubbornly refuse to accept advice or heed warnings from their bosses. They continue doing things their way, and are often genuinely surprised and even indignant when they are eventually fired.

Refusing to work as a part of a team.  The tem concept is an integral part of most businesses.  One of the quickest ways to sabotage success is the failure to work as part of a team.  Refusing to delegate work, not sharing important information, and going outside the usual chain of command to get things done will make you standout – as an uncooperative loner who can’t get along with others.

A good mentor may be able to help you by pointing out the ways you’re hurting your career. If you can’t find someone at work you trust, or if you keep bouncing from job to job without knowing why, you may want to consult a therapist to learn why and how you’re sabotaging your career.


“It’s happened again”, your best friend wails to you. “I thought s/he was really different, but s/he wasn’t. I guess all men (or women) are alike-bad news.”

In relationships, self-defeating behavior often takes the form of….
Idealizing Your Partner.  Some people doom their relationships before they even start by choosing partners that are unsuitable or even dangerous.  Propelled by loneliness that they think a relationship will cure, they look at their mate through rose colored glasses that block out or minimize negative traits such as need for control, whining,

Eventually, the glasses come off, and they see the person as s/he really is. At that point, they pity themselves for yet another relationship gone bad, and ask “Why does this keep happening to me?”, oblivious to the fact that they set themselves up to fail with their unrealistic view of their partner.

Looking for Perfection. Some people do choose good partners. However, their fear of the dependency that intimacy brings causes them to sabotage good relationships. Focusing on the normal faults and foibles of their partner, they blow them out of proportion until they can no longer stand their partner (or their partner can no longer stand them!).

They then wonder why they have such bad luck choosing partners, and why they didn’t see these flaws before.

Both idealizers and perfection-seekers can have successful relationships if they learn to recognize and break their self-defeating patterns.

Idealizers need to develop supportive and nurturing friendships so that they are not so desperate for a relationship and can look at the prospective partners more realistically. Perfectionists need to overcome their fear of dependency and realize that their partners’ flaws are not a reflection of their self-worth.


The roots of self-defeating behavior are often found in childhood.   Because they’re inexperienced, children are especially prone to coping with fears or bad experiences by using behavior that‘s harmful in the long run.

Some of the things that can trigger self-defeating behavior in children are:  Constant criticism.   If a child is told that she “can never do anything right” she may begin to think of herself as incompetent, and to engage in self-defeating behavior that reinforces her poor self-image.  Fear of disappointing parents.  Parents are the most important people in a child’s world, and if he thinks he can’t meet their standards, he may never attempt a task at all.  Excessive competition.  No one likes to lose.  If children are exposed to repeated, intense competition (especially if they are not skilled at the task) they may freeze up or sabotage themselves when under pressure later in life.

To protect your child ….  Build his self-esteem:  Strong self-esteem increases a child’s confidence and wards off negative self-perceptions.  Be Realistic:  Know your child’s capabilities.  Praise her efforts, not just the results, and make it difficult for her to disappoint you.  De-emphasize competition, Encourage cooperative or non-competitive activities, fostering competition only in activities your child has mastered. 

A role model with good coping skills is also important.  Having a positive attitude toward challenges and failures yourself can help your child to do the same.


Self-defeating behaviors can be changed.  To break your negative patterns of behavior and replace them with winning ways, you must: Admit that there’s a problem.  A strong component of self-defeating behavior is denial that it exists.  Because you’ve been practicing the patterns for so long, it’s easy to rationalize self-sabotage as “normal responses” that are not related to your problems.  Stop blaming others.  It’s easy to be helpless and play the victim.  Even if your mother was a relentless perfectionist whose criticism made you afraid to try anything new because you might fail, it’s your behavior that’s the problem now, and it’s up to you to change it. 

Define the problem.  Once you admit there’s a problem and accept responsibility for correcting it, you need to focus on what your specific self-defeating behaviors are and what people or situations trigger them.  For example, you may use procrastination to sabotage your career success, but do not do so in your personal relationships.  Keeping a diary or journal may help you identify just how you sabotage yourself.

Identify and implement replacement strategies.  Find positive alternatives to your self-defeating behaviors and use them!  It may help to make a list of your self-defeating behaviors, and next to each one, write a healthy alternate choice.  If you usually respond to a co-worker’s morning greeting with silence, for example, your healthy option might be to say a simple “Good morning” in return.

Anticipate setbacks.  Like any other habits, self-defeating patterns can be hard to break, especially if you’ve been practicing them for many years.  Recognize that you may return to old behavior patterns when you’re under pressure, and don’t let it discourage you or become an excuse for giving up.

Get feedback from others.  Friends, family, and trusted coworkers can all be sources of support as well as constructive feedback on your new behaviors.  It may be hard at first to ask for help, but many people will respond if given the opportunity.  If it’s impossible to confide in friends or coworkers, or they don’t seem to be helping, you may need professional help to eliminate your self-defeating behavior.


Self-defeating behaviors can carry a physical as well as an emotional price tag.
Smokers pay the price in lung and respiratory disease; excessive drinkers, through cirrhosis or drunk driving injuries. Self-saboteurs who use eating behaviors to defeat themselves suffer from obesity, malnutrition, or a host of other physical problems generated by bulimia or anorexia.
In addition, self-defeatists may also suffer from migraines or stomach ailments caused by chronic anxiety; heart disease, physical exhaustion, hypertension or stroke from chronic stress; or sexually transmitted diseases/physical injuries from promiscuity, that only temporarily boosts low self-esteem.

Don’t victimize yourself

Most self-defeatists see themselves as victims because it frees them from taking responsibility for their behavior, .The Helpless Victim denies her self-sabotage and waits for others to rescue her from its consequences. She really believes that others are causing her problems. By continuing to deny the contribution that her own behavior makes, she also denies herself any chance of breaking out of her self-defeating patterns. Until a Helpless Victim assumes responsibility for her actions, nothing can change.

The Angry Victim acknowledges his self-defeating patterns, but still blames others for “making” him behave the way he does. Instead of trying to change, he may spend his time blaming his father for being overly critical and causing his paralyzing fear of failure. To break free, Angry Victims must realize that regardless of how they developed their self-defeating behavior, they’re the only ones who can now change it and must take responsibility for doing so.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t real victims who suffer the consequences of others’ actions, which they are powerless to control. However, self-defeatists avoid personal responsibility by staying in the victim role even when they do have control over the situation.


Who’s Blue?  Jack moves and talks slowly, sighing frequently.  He has no complaints about his life other than a few marital spats, but neither does he have any enthusiasm for his work or home life.  When asked if he’s happy, he says “I guess so; I’m getting by.”

Lauren cries easily and often, feels anxious and scared, and has trouble sleeping.  She’s confused and frustrated with her boyfriend; she hates his criticism of her but feels intimidated and won’t leave him because she’s afraid of being alone.

Harry’s wife left him suddenly.  He feels abandoned and alternates between rage and hopelessness.  He continues to go to work but withdraws from friends and family and at times thinks of “ending it all”.

Jack, Lauren and Harry are among the 4 to 8 million Americans who are treated for depression every year.  Their numbers are increasing, especially among people born since 1940;in a recent poll, 52% of the adults questioned admitted that they felt “lonely and depressed”.

What is it?  In practice, clinical depression tends to be defined by its symptoms, which include:

  • Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness and anxiety
  • Poor concentration, confusion, forgetfulness or indecisiveness
  • Decreased ability to enjoy life
  • Sleeplessness or constant fatigue
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Unusually slow or rapid speech and physical movements.

Depressed people are pessimists. Expecting the worst from life, they magnify failures and minimize successes.  They tend to blame themselves for anything that goes wrong, even events over which they have no control.

Many factors may contribute to depression, among them personality characteristics; chemical imbalances; genetic factors; learned patterns of behavior; stressful life events; social or economic class; age and gender.

Learned helplessness, stemming from a lack of control over life, creates chronic, low-level depression.  When we believe we can’t control what happens to us and our actions repeatedly fail to produce desired results, we feel helpless and become depressed.

Repressed anger can become depression. Chronically depressed people are dependent upon love, approval, and reassurance from others because they lack self-esteem.  Fearing that expressing their anger will drive away those they love, they often deny angry feelings, resulting in depression. Reactive depressions occur in response to a loss of some kind.  Job loss, divorce, retirement, empty nest or completion of a major life goal can trigger reactive depression.  Depression may recur on the anniversary date of these events.



Long recognized as a symptom of depression, an attitude of helplessness can also cause depression.

Experimental animals placed in boxes where they received inescapable electric shock soon gave up trying to escape.   This helplessness persisted even when they were later placed in boxes where they could escape the shock.  In contrast, animals who could control shocks did not become helpless.

Tests with humans revealed dramatic parallels between experimentally-induced learned helplessness and major depressive symptoms.   From these studies, researchers concluded that when our actions make no impact and produce no results, and when we attribute our failure to lack of ability, we feel depressed and perform poorly.

Vulnerability to helplessness is influenced by-          

  • Success or failure of previous attempts to control life.
  • Passivity. People who consistently “let life happen to them” are at greater risk for feeling helpless than those who believe that they control their own destiny.
  • Sex role.  Research shows clear parallels between the way girls are raised and training for helplessness.  One recent study suggests that strongly stereotyped sex roles in either sex increases susceptibility to learned helplessness.
  • Low self-confidence.  Seeing yourself as a “loser” and a failure fosters development of helplessness.



It is estimated that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men will experience a serious bout with  depression at some point in their lives.  Theories on why women experience more depression include:

Women experience depression differently than men.  Depressed women report feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and despondency, and want external reassurance.   Men report more depression due to self-criticism and the failure to live up to expectations.  Mild depression in women is correlated with the number of visits to physicians; for men, it correlates with absenteeism from work.

Marriage seems to protect men against depression, but more married women are depressed than single women.  Research consistently finds that married women are more depressed than married men, but widowed and never-married men are more depressed than their female counterparts.

Loss of an emotional attachment is the single most frequent cause of depression in women.  Women tend to judge themselves by the quality of their relationships with others and hold themselves responsible when relationships do not go well.  Too often, the failure of a relationship is equated with being a failure, and depression is the result.

Men and women may have different expectations about life.  Men seem to expect that if all goes well, they won’t experience major unhappiness; women expect to be happy, leaving them open to greater disappointment and more vulnerable to depression.



80% of those suffering from depression can be helped. Psychotherapy (plus anti-depressant medication when appropriate) relieves depressive symptoms, keeps them from coming back, and helps clients function normally

Therapy for depression includes—

  • Recognition of the negative and self-destructive thoughts and attitudes that both accompany and perpetuate depression.
  • Replacement with more positive, optimistic attitudes.
  • A positive relationship with a therapist who will not “ give up”, no matter how depressed the client becomes
  •  Support and encouragement for taking control over your life..

Group therapy offers the added advantages of feedback and encouragement from other group members; a forum for learning and practicing interpersonal skills, and the nucleus of a support group that can be carried into clients’ daily lives.


If someone close to you is depressed…..

  • Listen without being judgmental
  • Offer alternatives for dealing with practical problems
  • Tell them you care about them’
  • Share daily activities such as meals, shopping or work tasks.

Avoid advising a depressed person to “cheer up” or “snap out of it”, these statements may be interpreted to mean that you think their depression is invalid, or a burden to you.

You can lend moral support by accompanying a depressed friend or family member on their first visit to the therapist.  Your presence may be the extra push needed to take that important first step toward getting help.



10%of children under the age of 12 suffer from depression.  Because they can’t talk about their feelings as well as adults do, it can be more difficult to diagnose childhood depression.

Signs of depression in children include:

  • Changes in sleeping/eating patterns
  • School problems or refusal to go to school
  • Unhappiness or talk of self-hatred
  • Sadness lasting a week or longer       
  • Lack of enthusiasm for usual activity
  • Any significant change in the child’s usual behavior.
  • Preoccupation with death, or
  • Talk of suicide.


Don’t panic if your child is a little moody.  While depression occurs more frequently in children than was once believed, it is not epidemic.

To help your child avoid depression or weather it successfully—

  • Help your child like himself.  Praise successes and provide extra help when needed.
  • Be alert to changes in your child’s usual disposition, especially if they last more than a week.
  • Don’t hide your feelings about family problems like divorce or illness.
  • Encourage your child to talk about what bothers him.  Ask specific questions and don’t tease if the cause seems trivial to you.
  • Take any mention of suicide seriously.  Get professional help for any child who talks about suicide.

Children imitate parents; depressed parents raise depressed children.  If you yourself are suffering from depression, protect your child by promptly seeking professional help for yourself.


The quiet. Self-sufficient individual who tends not to ask for help, has a higher risk for suicide from depression than those who reach out for support. Men who believe they should be emotionally self-sufficient are particularly at risk for successfully concealing their depression until suicide seems to be the only way out.

You don’t have to fight depression alone; willingness to seek outside help shows emotional maturity.  Depressed people often start to feel better just from having taken action rather than remaining helpless.  If you find yourself thinking about suicide, psychotherapy is imperative.

Depression can make even routine things seem enormous.  If the task at hand seems overwhelming, break it into smaller steps that are easier to handle.  Instead of looking at the task of getting a job for example, set a goal of making one phone call or typing one page of your resume.

Depression tends to isolate its victims.  Push yourself to get involved in activities that include other people, even if it’s just going to a movie.  You don’t have to be the life of the party; just get a little human contact.

If you’re depressed in reaction to a loss of any kind, respect your need to grieve and give yourself adequate time to do so.  Don’t berate yourself, saying “I should be over that by now.”  Trying to cut short your time of mourning will only add to the length of time it takes to recover.

Regular aerobic exercise that raises the heart rate for 20 minutes or more has anti-depressant effects.  Walking, jogging, tennis, weight lifting, and other active exercise lift low spirits and also increase self-confidence.

Clinical depression can be brought about by certain physical illnesses and is associated with others.  Illnesses known to cause depression include thyroid disorders, diabetes, some neurological disorders, multiple sclerosis and certain vitamin deficiencies.  Other, such as hepatitis, influenza, anemia, endocrine problems, asthma, and many infectious diseases, are often associated with depression.



Depression affects job performance and career advancement as well as personal lives.  Signs of on-the-job depression include lack of enthusiasm and initiative, dependency on others for direction, and lack of ambition.

The work environment itself can be depressing.  Restrictive unsupportive job situations that offer little chance for advancement increase vulnerability of depression.  Lack of recognition and rewards increase feelings of powerlessness and resentment that feed depression.

Smart employers actively support employees who seek help for depression.  They know that the time and money spent on treatment will result in increased productivity and morale, and decreased employee turnover.


The National Association for Mental Health defines depression as “an emotional state of dejection and sadness, ranging from mild discouragement and  downheartedness to feelings of utter hopelessness and despair.”  Normal low moods are separated from clinical depression by intensity, severity, and duration of these symptoms:


Mild depressions are a normal reaction to disappointment.  They can be triggered by business crises, problems at home, holidays, anniversaries of unhappy events, or even by the letdown that follows an exciting event.  Episodes of the blues are usually brief and subside spontaneously.


When feeling low becomes a lifestyle, we lose our zest for life and have difficulty doing daily tasks.  A depressed mood that lasts longer than 2 weeks, interferes with daily living, or seems out of proportion to the situation indicates a need for therapy.


Symptoms of extreme depression may include emotional and physical withdrawal, insomnia, agitation, or brooding.  We may distort what others say or do, feel rejected or unloved despite reassurance, or think or talk about suicide.  Therapy is imperative in these situations.

Who We Are

About Kim K. Shirin, Ph.D

Kim K. Shirin, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who has his doctorate in Clinical Psychology and Neuropsychological assessment. Dr. Kim K. Shirin specializes in Forensic Evaluations and Child Custody Evaluations. Dr. Shirin practices in Los Angeles County, Riverside County, San Bernardino County, Kern County, San Diego County, Ventura County, Fresno County and Orange County.


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