Ceasing Self-Defeating Habits

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Ceasing Self-Defeating Habits

Written by Fatin Najihah

From time to time, I will hear my friends complaining to me about my use of words. Be it the choice or the lack of it. 

Putting aside the lack of words, my obsession with using precise words in my sentences sometimes annoys others. This fixation may have come from my debating and research writing background where precise descriptions, without unnecessary embellishments, are the foundation for communication. In such analytical and rational settings, wrong use of words can exaggerate, create weakness, be manipulated, cause misunderstandings, or mislead to false conclusions. All of which can be detrimental in the pursuit of truth and clarity.

In those settings, the power and influence of words are very apparent. But of course, in daily life, such obsession with precision will only annoy others if it’s practiced in between banters and chit-chats. 

But words aren’t only shared with others, but also just in the privacy of ourselves daily. What we said, what we thought, those words that only we ourselves know. 

And more often, in such privacy, humanity engages in the peculiar interest of self-deception. We are conditioned to think that words are not important, harmless. However, when we find ourselves repeating self-defeating behaviors and self-destructive thoughts, that’s when we know there’s a need to recondition ourselves for the better

For example:

Have you ever conversed in your mind about how amazing and great you are, but suddenly there’s a voice, in bold, capital letters, eye-rolling at you saying “YEAH RIGHT“? 

Have you ever thought to yourself that you should do it, you must do it, and you certainly can do it, but never taking any of those actions? 

And do you often get paralyzed by self-doubt, over your appearance, over your skills, over anything basically, that you dare not even try for fear of making a fool of yourself?

Do you also pity yourself? Do you compare yourself with others that seem more blissful? That you are not as happy, nor are you as gifted as others. Your parents aren’t as wealthy, and you aren’t as free to do whatever you want. You aren’t pretty, so you won’t even look good if you try. You are so lacking, so you can’t be as confident. So, why bother, right?

And after thinking all those, you scorn yourself, regretting never taking any of those actions. The bitterness, the clenched teeth, the tightening in your chest, they are all real. However, you simply smile amid the feelings and turn yourself away from the origin of it, thinking it’s fine, you are OK, you are content.

Content, but not satisfied. 

Sound familiar to you? Yup, some of them apply to me too. 

When working to change ourselves, the importance of the words we use in describing ourselves is often dismissed. We are unaware that the perception of ourselves is molded by our thoughts and beliefs. And while thoughts are randomly popping up and uncontrollable, the good news is that beliefs, however, are made of thoughts that we focus our attention on, and in the conscious focusing of our attention lies control, and with it, tremendous freedom. 

But, if we focus our attention on self-defeating thoughts and habits, we become active participants in the deceit of our own brilliance. The limits in our minds translate into limits in our everyday lives. It shapes the themes and tones of our lives, and luckily, the pen is in our hands. By putting the pen to paper, we are the author in defining our lives. We just need to realize that.

So, now that you understand that self-defeating thoughts and behaviors are not beyond your control, how do you tackle them through the power of words? 


Oftentimes, negative thoughts are learned behaviors that have been used as a way of coping and protecting oneself from disappointment, heartbreak, and maybe even embarrassment as a result of fearing failure. However, at the same time, they delude and distract us from the actual message.

So, realizing you are being self-defeating is the first step to breaking the mental downward spiral. 

Some of the more common self-defeating behaviors are:

  • Negative self-talk
  • Procrastination
  • Pleasing people at the cost of your own happiness or health
  • Perfectionism
  • Refusing to ask for help
  • Fear of taking healthy risks
  • Self-pity
  • Avoiding difficult conversation


In the cycle of self defeating behaviors, you now need to identify what emotion is actually the trigger, take a moment to put names on it. Do note the intensity of your emotions also. Often, we describe ourselves as ‘stressed’ or ‘angry’ when the actual feelings are usually less extreme. 

By identifying and naming your emotions, you are progressively putting ‘distance’ with your raw emotions and positioning yourself as an ‘observer’ instead. In this way, you will have the chance to step back and consider your choices.

For example, if you procrastinate, is it because you feel insecure, dreadful or apathetic towards the task? If you are talking ourselves down,  do you do it because you are anxious, bothered, or just helpless? Or in cases where you found yourself consumed by anger, wait a minute, are  you actually feeling betrayed, frustrated, or simply peeved? 

As different words evoke different concepts and ideas in our minds, the need for precision needs to be highlighted.

And as is common to humans, we usually are not feeling just one type of emotion. So, don’t stop there and try to identify at least two or three more words to describe what you are feeling.

Below is a table I found that can help in finding the emotional vocabulary. There are much more, of course, on google.



And a tip that I practice myself when things get overwhelming is to write all those messes going on in my head out. By writing, I can slow down, consider my thoughts and feelings more objectively; and start to develop insights into what my feelings meant (and didn’t mean). The writing process allows us to reflect and consider new perspectives and new possibilities that are available to us.

Writing works for me, but you can consider other options like taking a walk, doing exercise, going to sleep, meditate and so on. The critical part here is to not act impulsively under the influence of emotions by taking the chance to slow down. 

Engage empathically with your emotions

Making our emotions less intense and all is great, but it’s not really our end goal. Instead, the lowered intensity allows us to take it a step further and ask ourselves, “Why am I feeling this way?”, “Should I feel this way?”, “What are these emotions trying to tell me?”, “What is their context?”

Below, I listed some emotions I believed to be more relevant to us and the insights into what they are and what we can do when we experience them.



It is a survival mechanism that responds to immediate or anticipated danger.

Fear wants you to give attention to any physical or emotional threat. It helps you to assess how prepared you are in facing a recognized threat.

“Be careful, be cautious.”

What you can do:

Identify what that threat is. Assess your readiness to face it.

What are you lacking? How prepared are you? Are you vulnerable? What should be changed to counter that threat?


Anger happened when one of our boundaries had been disrespected.

For example, when we feel threatened, invalidated, wronged, etc. When boundaries are broken, anger comes forth to give you the strength to restore and protect those boundaries.

Also, note that anger only arises in relation to things, people, and issues you care very deeply about. You don’t get angry about things that are not important to you.

In this way, anger helps to identify the values and principles you hold dear to you.

What you can do:

Taking Ms. McLaren’s definition, if apathy is repressed anger, then you should deal with it similarly to anger.

In addition to that, it will also help to identify what’s making you feel hopeless? What’s stopping you from protecting those boundaries?


Sadness arises when it’s time to let go of something that isn’t working for you.

It happens and lingers when you try to stubbornly hold on to stuff that doesn’t apply to you anymore.

What you can do :

If you can truly let go, recovery and rejuvenation will soon follow. What must be released? And what must be rejuvenated?



Hatred is the focused attack arising from intense disgust and anger. It’s feeling hostility and desire to remove the object of your hatred.

Unlike anger, where you get angry at someone due to what they did, hatred is hating someone because of what they are.

In typical cases, we have appropriate boundaries to treat people with respect. But, in expressing hatred, we fool ourselves into thinking that we’re totally separate from our hate targets – that we’re nothing like them, that we’re stronger, better, and more righteous.

What you can do:

Hatred generates energy. And adequately directed, it can be a good source of motivation.

As long as you can catch yourself before projecting that hatred outwards, and you fully understand that we are all things human–each of us carrying greed and kindness, grace and bitterness; hatred is still an emotion you can learn from.

Why do I think I am better? Why can’t I just move on with my life? Why the attachment? 


Shame and Guilt

If anger happens when someone crosses your boundaries, shame and guilt are what occurs when you yourself travel outside the bounds of your values and ethics—broken from the inside.

Shames protect you from your own incorrect or ill-conceived behaviors. If you welcome an appropriate level of shame or guilt, you can stop yourself before you do something foolish or before you say the wrong thing.

What you can do:

Just like anger, identify what it is that you value and what needs to be protected and restored.



Apathy is described as the lack of motivation to do anything or just not caring about what’s going on around you. You shrug off emotions, having feelings of indifference towards everything.

However, there is another perspective on apathy that I favor more, one which Ms. Karla McLaren provides.

To her, Apathy/Boredom stems from anger repression. It is the mask of anger.

I can’t find a way to say it better, so here, copy pasted from the source:


“When you don’t have the time, energy, or ability to work with your anger properly – when you aren’t able to protect your boundaries or the boundaries of others, when you feel unable to speak out against the injustices you see, and when you feel incapable of affecting your surroundings – the masking state of apathy will often arise.

In a masking state, you cover yourself with a protective attitude that can distance you from uncomfortable situations. Apathy protects your other emotions by affecting an “I don’t care, I can’t be bothered, whatever” attitude. Apathy sets a boundary, but it also shuts things down.”

What you can do:

Taking Ms. McLaren’s definition, if apathy is repressed anger, then you should deal with it similarly to anger.

In addition to that, it will also help to identify what’s making you feel hopeless? What’s stopping you from protecting those boundaries?

These are only some out of the many emotions we experienced. There’s still joy, disappointment, dread, frustration, and so on.  So, when you have identified your emotions, show them some empathy by trying to understand the insights they hold. In fact, by understanding the purposes of your emotions and pinpointing their triggers, you will gain a better understanding of yourself as a whole. Try to avoid thinking in terms of negative and positive emotions as by labeling them so, you are unconsciously putting a barrier between yourself and the emotions. 

Lastly, taking action for change

You have identified a self-defeating pattern in yourself. You recognized the mental states, as in emotions, that are involved. And you have understood what they are trying to tell you.

Now, based on the information you have, you need to replace your negative habits by trying to build new healthy coping strategies. 

When you feel fear, anxiety, or doubts, they tell us “Be careful, there’s a threat ahead. Prepare yourself!” So,when you identify these emotions, make sure to up your preparation plan, get affirmations from people you trust, and practice till you can be confident enough when needed. 

If you feel anger, rage, or resentment, take a deep breath, be mindful and aware of your surroundings, and proceed to step up to protect your boundaries with grace. Don’t stew the anger and let it fester within. 

And, in the spiral of negative self-thoughts, recognize that you have insecurities and that you need to work on building that confidence. 

But beware, it is also common for people to try to cope with one self-defeating behavior by replacing it with another, for example, in the case of anger. If we try to cope with it by repressing and avoiding addressing it, apathy may soon develop. It’s also possible to avoid anger by planning to steer clear from conflicts and difficult conversations, which is unhealthy for relationships.

So, don’t forget to build that support system. Identify those you can trust to listen without judgment and contact them. Share with them your feelings, your thoughts, and your plans. Try to get their perspective on your coping strategy and ask if they can help you follow through with it. And I hope, your patience and dedication will be rewarded with better mental states than ever before.