Trauma Talks Series: Managing Unsafe Behavior

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What are Self-Destructive Behaviors in DBT Therapy?

DBT therapy works on targeting unwanted behaviors, prioritizing targets by how unsafe or harmful they are to you and your relationships. The first level targets include suicidial thoughts and actions, as well as self-injury because they pose the greatest potential harm, they are considered safety issues and must be addressed. And they also indicate how much the person is suffering, as no one harms themselves or others without a lot of internal pain and suffering, even when it comes out of anger and hate, underneath that are vulnerable and painful emotions.

The second level targets in DBT are therapy interfering behaviors because they hold back a person from actually making the changes, and letting go of the behaviors, and actually healing. And the third level targets are the most common targets in DBT therapy, which include all other self-destructive and unwanted behaviors. This list could go on and on. However, below we name some of the common targets people might address in our DBT Skills Groups. These behaviors may change, or vary, depending on age group as well.

DBT Helps Regulate Overwhelming Emotions

List of Common Safety & Self-Destructive Behaviors:

Self Injury urges or actions – cutting, burning, scratching, pulling hair or nails

Suicidal thoughts, gestures, or attempts

Avoiding people, places, or situations

Anger outbursts and lashing out at others

Eating issues – restricting, overeating, bingeing, and purging behaviors

Abuse of alcohol, drugs, or prescription medications

Unsafe, risky, shameful, or unwanted sexual behaviors

Overspending or gambling

Chronic panic, overhwelm, and dysregulation

Dishonesty, lying, stealing, or cheating behaviors

Thrill-seeking behaviors

Criticism and sadism towards self or others

Over pleasing or perfectionism

Submitting to emotional or physical pain from another

Seeking toxic, unsafe, or dangerous relationships

Past, or ongoing, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse

Generally, these self-destructive behaviors function as an attempt to regulate or escape painful emotional experiences. And they can work for a split second or longer; however, they create major consequences. This only enables our unconscious patterns and unresolved issues to get stronger. What is being escaped is most often feelings of rejection, abandonment, rage, traumatic memories, or a sense of profound emptiness.

How IFS Therapy Views Unsafe Behaviors

IFS Parts of Self

According to IFS therapy and other trauma therapies, parts of our psyche are shadowed ‘Exiled’ from our awareness, and when our wounded parts, or traumas, are activated, we act out these harmful behaviors in an attempt to communicate painful emotions. Other times parts can come in as protectors, such as defined in IFS (Internal Family Systems therapy) these reactionary parts of self are called ‘Firefighters’. They are internal defenses that come in to put out the internal fires (metaphorically) or inner crisis, so to speak. The fire being the triggered emotions and sensations that feel intolerable to the person. Furthermore, parts of our psyche, which IFS Therapy names ‘Managers’, try to control our emotions by often criticizing, shaming, or coercing stricter actions, in an attempt to proactively ward off unwanted emotions. These inner experiences cause chaos and conflict internally that only feeds the cycle of self-destructive behaviors.

DBT Skills Build a Solid Foundation

DBT therapy helps to reduce this inner conflict and chaos, giving you skills that help to tolerate and effectively regulate these experiences. DBT gives us a solid foundation that is empowering, that helps us replace unsafe and destructive behaviors, with more adaptive and less consequential, ways to cope and regulate our emotions. DBT skills also lay the groundwork for deeper trauma work, such as our favorite evidence-based trauma therapies, EMDR and IFS.

Ready to join one of our DBT Skills Group, or learn more about EMDR, IFS, and other counseling services that we offer?

Self-Injury & Self-Destructive Behaviors May Stem from Trauma

Ironically to some, self-injury and self-destructive behaviors are often an attempt to problem-solve. The body becomes the target and outlet for shame, rage, and/or disgust. Child-like parts of self engage in self-destructive behaviors as an attempt to express what cannot be said in words and DBT provides skills to be able to be with, name, and move through these experiences that often stemmed originally in childhood when there were no words. These behaviors have underpinnings in early trauma and attachment deficits that need to be addressed in the present to be resolved, or we repeat them over and over.

Trauma May Be Underlying Cause of Dysregulation

Greatest Risk Unconscious Patterns

Possibly the greatest risk is how unconscious these patterns are, easily gaining power over the individual. It is key to bring these parts and the defenses, into awareness. To begin to deeply understand the functions, and then to slowly heal what happened that led to the behaviors in the first place. Unburdening the parts that hold the pain, and softening the roles of the protective defenses that may have been needed at the time of injury, but are no longer helpful. In doing this work, we tap back into, or we find, our core sense of SELF. The ‘Self’ becomes the compassionate leader we need internally, having qualities of compassion, calmness, curiosity, and centeredness, we are no longer blindly led by our unwanted and extreme ego defenses.