Understanding dysfunctional behavior and finding solutions

Reading time 6 minutes
Understanding dysfunctional behavior and finding solutions

When the psyche suffers, people develop coping strategies to alleviate the emotional pressure. However, what is basically important and correct can turn into the negative opposite if dysfunctional - i.e. self-damaging - coping mechanisms are used. The greatest difficulty often lies in identifying dysfunctional behavior as such.

What is meant by dysfunctional behavior?

Thinking or acting dysfunctionally means that a behavior is detrimental to the actual goal. In specific relation to mental health, we speak of dysfunctional behavior when someone uses self-harming coping strategies to alleviate mental suffering.

The tricky thing is that dysfunctional behavior initially actually provides emotional relief and is therefore seen as a positive outlet or even the only option. This is why the identification of self-damaging ways of thinking and behaving plays a central role in therapeutic practice. This is because they are not always recognizable at first glance.

Dysfunctional behavior: A deeper understanding

Dysfunctional behavior does not occur suddenly, but usually has deep-rooted psychological causes. Recurring negative experiences, traumas and deeply rooted Beliefs from childhood that have become ingrained over the years.

If an external trigger is added that touches on the unprocessed suffering, the affected person can react with dysfunctional behavior, as they have never learned to deal with the problem in a constructive way. The result is a vicious circle of external influences that are perceived as negative and the self-harming reaction.

Dysfunctional behavior is often accompanied by a great sense of helplessness. This is especially true if the person affected is aware that their behavior is harming them. The experience of not being able to act differently despite knowing better damages the Self-esteemwhich in turn makes them more susceptible to further negative coping strategies.

Examples of dysfunctional behavior

Dysfunctional behavior can manifest itself in different ways, which ultimately depends on the personality. Below we have summarized the most common self-harming behaviors:

Physical context:

  • Alcohol and tablet consumption
  • Risky sexual behavior (e.g. unprotected sexual intercourse)
  • risky driving
  • Self-harm (cutting, scratching, pulling out hair, burning)
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-neglect (e.g. lack of hygiene)
  • Self-imposed isolation

Social context:

  • Choleric behavior in dealing with other people
  • react indignantly to criticism
  • uncontrolled emotional outbursts in public
  • Assault against third parties
  • Allowing boundaries to be crossed and humiliation to occur
  • emotional dependence
  • consciously accumulate debt

Dysfunctional behavior and personality disorders: The case of Borderline

In therapeutic practice, dysfunctional behavior often occurs in connection with a very specific personality disorder: Borderline. Conversely, however, this does not mean that people who exhibit self-harming behavior are automatically affected by borderline personality disorder. You can find the exact diagnostic criteria here.

So the question should rather be: Why do people with borderline personality disorder in particular use self-harming behaviors so frequently? This has to do with the emotionally unstable personality that characterizes the clinical picture. Self-harm in particular is used to relieve emotional pressure and to be able to feel oneself again.

Another interesting aspect was investigated by the LMU Munich. Since many borderline patients also suffer from depression, it can be assumed that the severity of the depression also has an influence on the type and severity of the dysfunctional behavior. This has been shown in the following scientific elaboration confirmed.

Causes of dysfunctional behavior

One thing should be said in advance: no one engages in dysfunctional behavior because they enjoy it or want to punish those around them. It is always caused by great emotional distress and helplessness. The lack of positive experiences and a low Self-worth lead to those affected seeking outlets for their grief, which they use to harm themselves or others. The most common triggers are

  • Traumas (strokes of fate, experiences of loss)
  • dysfunctional parenting patterns (withdrawal of love as punishment, ignorance or overly compliant behavior)
  • Negative childhood experiences (abuse, neglect, separation)
  • Low self-esteem, self-hatred, negative self-assumptions
  • Repeated humiliation on a specific topic (e.g. in relation to intelligence or appearance)
  • genetic factors

5 tips for overcoming dysfunctional behavior

1. identify dysfunctional behavior

The first and most important step is to recognize dysfunctional behaviour and admit it to yourself. If you listen deeply to yourself, you will know for sure that your behavior is not helping you in the long term, but is making your personal situation worse. Once the emotional pain has subsided, you will regret your behavior. The latter is a good indicator for recognizing self-harming patterns of behaviour.

2. find out the causes

To stop the dysfunctional behavior, you first need to understand why you are acting this way. What unprocessed events or incorrectly memorized Beliefs are they based on? You can find out the latter by observing your behavior and analyzing triggers. In most cases, professional coaching or psychotherapy is also advisable.

3. try out alternatives

The dysfunctional behavior serves the purpose of providing you with quick emotional relief. However, as your methods are self-damaging, you need to find out what healthier alternatives there are. In psychology, we talk about so-called skills.

For example, if you self-harm to relieve frustration, endure emotional pressure or simply to feel yourself again, you could use the following alternatives. These also create a pain stimulus, but without serious physical damage:

  • smell ammonia (e.g. in the form of smelling sticks)
  • Walk with cherry stones in your shoe
  • Eat a chili pepper or suck on chili candy
  • Suck ice cubes
  • lie down on an acupressure mat
  • Chew sour chewing gum or sherbet powder

Alternatives without pain stimulation:

  • Knead stress ball or plasticine
  • hit a cushion or punching bag
  • get creative (painting, writing)
  • go into the forest and shout out your frustration
  • Exercise (not excessively!)
  • talk to familiar people

4. be patient with yourself

It may take a while before you find a working, healthier alternative to replace your dysfunctional behavior. This is perfectly normal. Let setbacks in old behavior patterns Don't be discouraged by these situations, but take them as an opportunity to reflect on yourself: What would you have needed in that particular situation? How can you strengthen yourself mentally next time?

5. do not remain alone with your grief

Dysfunctional behavior is not uncommon, as every person has an individual life story that can result in various problems. No one acts absolutely functionally in every situation! It can therefore be beneficial to confide in trusted people and share your experiences. Outsiders can take a neutral perspective and help you with their own experiences.

The role of coaching in overcoming dysfunctional behavior

As already explained several times, it is a great challenge to identify dysfunctional behavior in the first place. It is even more difficult to break the habit of harmful behavior on your own. A professional Coaching can be a valuable Provide assistance.

Together with you, a coach identifies and analyzes self-defeating beliefs, which in turn lead to self-defeating behavior. The aim is to correct harmful beliefs and give you the Feeling of self-determination and personal responsibility.

Long-term strategies are developed that you can apply in critical situations. It is important to know that a coach helps you to help yourself. They don't tell you what you should and shouldn't do, but give you ideas. Only if you work out your own solution can you master the dysfunctional behavior in the long term.

Understanding and supporting people with dysfunctional behavior

For relatives, the dysfunctional behavior of their loved ones is often hard to bear. This makes it all the more important not to reproach them, but to understand that the person is in emotional distress. Even if it is difficult to accept For something to change, the person affected must recognize their dysfunctional behavior and want to change it themselves.

As a friend, parent or partner, you are most helpful when you describe your observations and use "I" messages:

Instead of: "You're drinking too much. You have to get help immediately or I'll have you committed."

Rather: "I've noticed that you're drinking more alcohol than before. If something is bothering you and you want to talk about it, I'm here."

Offer the person concerned a sympathetic ear and signal your willingness to help without harassing or even threatening them! The latter often only leads to the person completely blocking your offer of help. Don't give the person concerned special treatment. They are still an adult who is responsible for themselves.

Understanding and changing dysfunctional behavior

Dysfunctional behavior can manifest itself in many different ways and ultimately leads to you moving further and further away from your actual goals and desires. It is very important to admit to yourself that your methods are harming you. Most people know this in Subconscious but are not (yet) able to free themselves from their coping mechanisms.

Deal with your behavior and find out the causes so that you can work through them. This is best done with professional help (coach or therapist). You then need to find healthier alternatives so that you don't fall back into old patterns in critical situations. This is a long process, but by no means impossible.


All funny, except me:
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You often feel like the only normal in the room full of strange people? That can sometimes bring us to the brink of despair. Then just try it out!
approx. 60 minutes
Theory & practice
Reviewed by Dr. med. Stefan Frädrich

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