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Mini Workbook for Eliminating Self-Defeating Behaviors

Robert E. Hardy, Ed.D., L.P.
Based on the book Self-Defeating Behaviors, Cudney and Hardy (Harper/Collins, 1991)


What is it that is keeping you from living life to the fullest? A troubled marriage, perhaps? Anxiety? Depression? A drinking or weight problem? A dead-end job? Feelings of inferiority, memories of an unhappy childhood or guilt over past mistakes that you can't seem to shake? If you contemplate this question, you may discover a dozen scenarios—all of which probably seem out of your control.

But in most cases, you probably have more control than you realize. Much of what we experience in life is the result of our own choices. And if the things that happen to you aren't of your own choosing, the way you respond to them certainly is.

But why do we respond to life's challenges the way that we do? Why do we choose attitudes and behaviors like smoking, overeating, drinking to excess, shyness, putting ourselves or others down, that we know are not in our best interest? In other words, why do we practice self-defeating behaviors (SDBs)?

Section One: Identifying Your SDBs

In Section One, we'll begin our search for the answer to "why?" with an explanation of SDBs-what they are, and how they start.

In the most general sense an SDB is any attitude or action that interferes with your ability to perform at your highest level. This means that an SDB inevitably distorts, curtails and weakens your best response to a new situation. But the key aspect of any SDB is this:

A true self-defeating behavior is an attitude or action that once worked to help you cope with stressful experiences, but now works to keep you from responding to new situations in a productive way.

You may already be painfully aware of some of your SBDs, but others seem so automatic and natural to you that you probably don't realize you do them. But you should, because recognizing the behavior is the first important step to eliminating it.

Once you have identified your SDBs, we'll take a look back at some of the stressful situations in your life where SDBs may have begun as a protective mechanism and then examine some of the negative patterns that may have arisen from the choices you made in those situations. Finally, we'll have you choose a single SDB you would like to change and identify the trigger patterns (what I call the Three Ws)—that set your SDBs in motion: WHEN, WHERE and with WHOM we do them.

By uncovering your own trigger patterns and observing them, you'll be able to "catch" yourself as you are repeating an SDB in a new moment of life. This will slow your reaction time so you can start to respond with different choices, because contrary to the way it may feel at times, SDBs are not automatic—they are a choice you make. By catching yourself when you are about to make an SDB choice, you have the opportunity to replace it with a healthy positive choice.

Following are some of the most common SDBs I see in my clients. Do any of these ring true for you? Are you ready to change?


AngerUnreal ExpectationsProcrastination

Being CriticalInferiorityShyness


Being DefensiveInactivityWorry

Section Two: Analyzing Your SDBs

SDB patterns are formed and/or repeated when faulty conclusions are used as guidelines for subsequent thoughts and actions. These conclusions can be expressed in an if/then statement. See if any of these sound familiar:

  • If I do everything perfectly (SDB: perfectionism), then I can escape others' criticism.

  • If I am angry and hostile (SDB: anger, hostility), then people can't hurt me.

  • If I put off difficult tasks (SDB: procrastination), then I won't fail.

Such conclusions are the basis for all self-defeating behaviors. Historically, the conclusions were not faulty, but accurate and based on real experiences. Experiences + Behaviors = Conclusions. Remember SDBs started out protecting us, then began to work against us—what worked for the child does not work for the adult.

When our conclusions are faulty, they give rise to mythical fears of what will happen if we do not practice our SDBs. For example:

  • If I don't do everything perfectly, then people will criticize me.

  • If I don't put up a hostile front, then people will hurt me.

  • If I don't put off difficult tasks, then I will likely fail.

What are the conclusions and mythical fears that drive your SDBs? And how do you know your fears are mythical? After all, a little fear is healthy—otherwise, we'd have no hesitation about driving while intoxicated or walking on ledges.

As you bring the conclusions and fears into consciousness, you can begin to understand your SDBs and the prices—in terms of ongoing, negative results—you pay for practicing them. You'll also begin to understand—and overcome—the mental games we go through to hold fast to our SDBs (blaming others, telling ourselves they're not that bad) despite the prices. As you acknowledge the prices and take ownership of them, you can begin to replace your counterproductive behaviors with life-giving behaviors.


My Story

For years, I struggled with one of my own SDBs—weighing 280 pounds. At my weight, and lecturing on eliminating SDBs became a marketing nightmare. The reaction of a certain percentage of the audience was, Is this guy a Psychologist or a Comedian?

The SDB model of change states that first you learn the material then apply the material, and the result will be a positive, permanent, behavioral change. A little voice in my head would say to me, "Why don't you practice what you preach?" Finally, I did. At times I view the eliminating SDBs model as a three layer cake.

First, is the behavioral level. These are the behaviors you observe in yourself, and in other people. Mine were: Not exercising, excessive eating, eating the wrong foods, etc. Many people try to change their negative behaviors at this level. And, various approaches are attempted: therapy, programs, will power, diets, medication, etc. The success rate is questionable, and relapse is common. This is the "Classic Box." People know they are doing behaviors they should not do, yet they continue to repeat the behaviors. This is due to the paradox that Individuals are afraid not to repeat behaviors that hurt them!

Second, is the mythical fears inside of a person. The SDB mythical fears are the driving force for SDBs: If you stop these behaviors something bad will happen to you! People are Prisoners of their mythical fears.

Third, is the SDB Conclusions which generates the SDB fears: I am your insurance policy—keep these behaviors, and you will be safe. These conclusions are often referred to as feelings. People are Slaves to their SDB conclusions. The SDB conclusions and mythical fears are the engines that force the SDBs to be repeated. The SDBs are the caboose, they are being pulled along. We need to correct the engines.

As with most people, I spent a lot of my time attacking the first level with no positive results. I turned my attention to levels two and three. One of the problems here is that people are only partially aware or unaware of what is going on at these levels. As I applied the model to myself: observing the trigger patterns, analyzing my fears, and conclusions, etc. More and more awareness (power) came to me. Here is what I found:

Mythical Fear: If I lead a carefree, undisciplined life, then life will be fun and exciting.

SDB Conclusion: If I lead a disciplined life, then I will be bored.

Paradoxically, SDB conclusions today often create the exact opposite of what you want. As was the case in My Story. I'll tell you what's boring—lecturing on eliminating self-defeating behaviors, and weighing 280 pounds! Once you move the SDB conclusion into the conscious part of your mind, the conclusions look stupid, and they are! When we become aware of these conclusions and understand how counter-productive they are change is easy. What's hard is living with the ongoing consequences of our SDBs.

When my weight was 280 pounds, my professional career suffered, and I had continuous attacks of gout (a form of arthritis), high blood pressure and other health concerns. Currently, I weigh 190 pounds, and I have maintained that weight loss for a number of years. My career, especially my lectures, has significantly improved. Also, my physical health is excellent—gout attacks are rare and my blood pressure is normal. Change is easy and life is better—much better!

Section Three: Replacing SDBs with Life-Giving Behaviors

By now, I hope you have made the decision to work on eliminating your SDBs. But simply eliminating them is not enough, because doing so can leave you with a void. The key is to replace SDBs with life-giving behaviors. Like SDBs, life-giving behaviors are based on an interplay between conclusions and fears. In the case of life-giving behaviors, however, the triggering conclusion is valid, and the fear is real.

In virtually all situations, there are two general alternatives to practicing an SDB. You must either substitute another SDB for your old SDB or make a healthy choice that will improve your life. Your reality-based conclusion will tell you that the first of the alternatives is both illogical and counter-productive. Your only alternative, then, is to put a life-giving behavior into practice. Following are some of the most obvious life-giving behaviors to combat SDBs:

  • Improving your lifestyle: quitting smoking, eating more healthfully, beginning—and sticking with—a workout routine.

  • Taking risks to meet your goals.

  • Asking friends for help—and being willing to help them when they need it.

Once you're identified the potential life-giving behaviors available to you, your next step is to identify the specific methods you will use to put a particular behavior into practice. The life-giving behavior "I am going to manage my weight," for example, is too general to be implemented as a specific replacement for an old SDB. For this reason, you need to describe specifically what you will do the next time a trigger pattern steers you towards a cycle of self-defeat.

Here are some specific methods you might want to employ for the following SDBs:

BEHAVIOR: Poor eating

ACTION: Next time I'm tempted to eat a food filled with empty-calories, I will have a glass of skim milk and an apple instead.

BEHAVIOR: Depression

ACTION: When I start to feeling depressed, I'm going to take a brisk walk.

Now, select an SDB you have identified, and list life-giving alternative:

My SDB is:

My life-giving alternatives to my SDB are:




Once you've replaced your SDB with an appropriate life-giving behavior, you can expect the new behavior to yield certain benefits. List some anticipated benefits:




Now that you have begun to identify life-giving alternatives to your SDBs, use them in situations—such as a new relationship, a confrontation with your family, or a day of worse-than-usual hassles—when you have historically have fallen back on negative behavior patterns. Over time, life-giving behaviors will become a natural response and you will have created a successful positive change.

I wish you the best!

Bob Hardy, Ed.D., L.P.

Click here to download a pdf copy of this free Mini-Workbook for Eliminating Self-Defeating Behaviors.


©2014 Robert E. Hardy