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How to identify and avoid self-destructive behavior


By Meri Althauser

I recently made the switch from practicing family law to handling admissions at Montana’s law school.  Along with this change of pace came quite a bit of traveling to visit with undergraduate students across the country, spreading the good news about learning the law in beautiful Montana. Hopping from event to event, I’ve been to more towns and airports in the last two months than I’d been in the last 10 years! This new routine has challenged me to eat healthy and continue to exercise while on the road, so I made it my goal to eat fresh food for every dinner and work out at least once in every hotel gym (even the tiny weird ones). I am happy to report that I did crush this goal… for the most part.

In early fall, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting Los Angeles. Apologies in advance to any L.A. lovers out there but truth be told, I hated it. At 11 p.m. when I arrived, and even at 3 a.m. two days later when I left, there were bumper to bumper cars, horns blaring, people yelling, garbage piles everywhere, and fender benders at almost every highway exit. A breath of fresh air was completely out of the question.  I’ve never felt lonelier despite being surrounded by so many people.  My hotel room smelled so weird I immediately wanted to go home.

So how did I cope with my hatred of the City of Angels? I said a big “forget you, L.A.” and to show L.A. a piece of my mind I decided I would NOT exercise in the hotel gym (even though I selected the hotel for the nicest looking gym). I’d have a nice plate of fries and a burger for dinner, and I’d eat some candy in bed. Haha, THAT’LL show you, L.A.
I’m pretty sure L.A. got the message. I have no doubt she’s feeling pretty bad about being such a concrete jungle. Traffic is clearing up, I hear.

It was only days later when my rage and overwhelm wore off that reality sunk in.  I let all of that unchangeable city life get to me and to fix it I only hurt myself, ruining the workout streak I was proud of. It sounds totally silly now, but in the moment I felt I was genuinely sending the city a piece of my mind and that I deserved the fries-burger-bed-candy treatment.

So with that whoopsie in mind, here are some tips on identifying and remedying self-destructive behaviors. First, what do I mean by a self-destructive behavior? Anything you do that you realize only punishes yourself, that you didn’t mean or want to do in hindsight, and that doesn’t do anything to solve the problem. So, while eating a brownie in general is not a self-destructive behavior, eating a brownie because you received a negative email when you meant to eat healthy and go to the gym is a self-destructive behavior.  Other examples include isolating from relationships and engagement, escaping through TV, phone, food, or alcohol, indulging in impulsive behavior, engaging in poor self-care, and negative ruminating self-talk.

Identify common triggers. Look for predictable patterns where you know you usually get frustrated, and you usually destruct. Was I likely to get frustrated with congestion in L.A.? Yes- I probably could have seen that coming. Do you always get overwhelmed in traffic? After meetings? On Thursdays? When the dog doesn’t get walked? Identify the trigger so you can plan a better response.

Evaluate the trigger for a solution. Minimize the impact of the trigger by doing your best to fix or avoid it. Is this trigger something that is unavoidable and unchangeable like L.A. traffic? Or, is the trigger something you can do something about? If the trigger is fixable, then make a plan to fix it in some way. Perhaps if meetings are stressful, come up with a way to use icebreakers at the beginning to set a cordial tone. Maybe the trigger is totally avoidable. It will be easy to avoid L.A. 51 weeks out of the year! But if the trigger is unavoidable, your solution should have more to do with taking care of yourself after it passes, such as being sure to schedule time for a walk, listen to a revenge playlist, or treat yourself to a non-destructive date with friends. Even better, use a mindfulness meditation routine to experience less stress when confronted with unavoidable stressful events.

Find an outlet for the frustration. Now that you know what the trigger is, you can find an outlet for the emotion it causes without engaging in the negative behavior.  The rage I felt in L.A. was real, so do you think that dutifully eating a salad would have made me feel any better? No, the rage would still be there and I would just be stuffing it down with my kale and goat cheese.  It’s important to identify the emotion and find a way to let it breathe … appropriately. My new go-to rage outlet is to gleefully dishevel the extra bed in the hotel room… so satisfying. You could watch a revenge movie, listen to a rage playlist, chop some wood, clean (rage clean, anyone?) or journal. It’s OK to be frustrated or angry, so let it out!

Identify your go-to destructors. When you’re feeling your crummiest do you tend to crack a beer open too early? Skip the gym? Eat? Scroll? Yell? Knowing what feels the most tempting will help you with the next step, identifying the best replacement.

Replace the self-destructive behavior. If you’re engaging in a self-destructive behavior, it obviously feels good and necessary to DO something after the negative trigger. So, find a better thing to do! Maybe the thing you do is also the outlet for the negative emotion (like ripping off the tidy sheets or listening to a rage playlist on a run), or maybe the replacement behavior is unrelated, like going for a walk, writing a thank-you note to someone else, or doing a craft. The point is to find a new less-destructive pairing. It might help if the new behavior is incompatible with the behavior you’re trying to avoid or helps redirect you from the behavior. I can’t yell at my kids if I’ve left the house to go to the gym. I probably won’t want to drink a beer if I’m hiking with the dog or drinking a nice big cup of milky tea instead (that’s too much liquid!).

Plan. Last, make a plan! If you know something is coming up that will lead you down a path you don’t want to take, put these together ahead of time so you can stick to your better angels.