Self Defeating Behaviours in College

Advising the Defeated toward Achievement: A Guide to Helping Students with Self-Defeating Behavior

Danny Bounds, University of South Carolina

Editor's note: This is the tenth in a series of articles written by graduate students enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's student affairs administration course at the University of South Carolina for the fall 2009 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publication for consideration.

Campus mental health centers are experiencing a surge in the number of students requesting psychological services (Franklin, 2009). For example, in the United States, the number of college students diagnosed with depression has risen from 10 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2007 (Franklin). Given that academic advisers meet with a broad array of students and they are often some of the few people on campus who work individually with students on a consistent basis, it is important for advisers to be aware of some of the common signs shown by students experiencing mental health issues. One mental health issue that advisers may encounter is the self-defeating behavior occasionally demonstrated by students. The purpose of this article is to help to make advisers aware of self-defeating behavior indicators in students and provide tips for effectively referring students to counseling resources for more help.

What is Self-Defeating Behavior?
Berglas and Baumeister (1993) defined self-defeating behavior as bringing harm, loss, failure, or suffering to oneself through one’s own actions or inactions. It is the opposite of behaving to further one’s interests (p. 18). Further, Self-Defeating Personality Disorder is a character pattern in which a person turns aggression against the self (Skodol, Oldham, Gallaher, & Bezirganian, 1994, p. 560). Students with self-defeating behaviors frequently doubt their ability to perform. Russell Haber, director of the University of South Carolina’s counseling center, explained self-defeating behavior as a series of negative traits that tend to affect a student’s performance (personal communication, October 21, 2009). Haber states that examples of common self-defeating behavior traits include poor time management, lack of motivation, and willingness to settle for mediocrity. Statistics show that of the 2,200 students who visited the University of South Carolina counseling center last year, 50 percent demonstrated some or all of these traits in school (R. Haber, personal communication, October 21, 2009). Dr. Haber stressed that self-defeating behavior is a very important and common issue that needs to be better addressed on college campuses.

Most students who suffer from self-defeating behaviors are able to recognize that their behaviors hamper their ability to succeed, but the challenge is that students are seemingly unable to do anything to fix the negative situation. Dr. Haber noted that therapists can always provide solutions to the problems, but his concern is that only two out of ten students actually follow the advice given to them by therapists (R. Haber, personal communication, October 21, 2009). So the main issue is that these students recognize their failures but do not do anything to promote their own success, which leads to self-defeat.

Specific Signs of Self-Defeating Behaviors
Advisers need to know what signs to watch for, so they can effectively refer students with self-defeating behaviors to resources that can help as soon as possible. Typical self-defeating behaviors include procrastination, forgetfulness, feelings of being overwhelmed, overly stressed reactions to events, failure to complete goals for no reason, and passive/aggressive behaviors (Haber, personal communication, October 21 2009). DuBrin (1992) provided additional self-defeating behavior characteristics:

  • Power Obsession
  • Negative self-talk
  • Fear of Success
  • Excuse making
  • Being controlled by primitive thinking patterns
  • Revenge through poor performance
  • Staying in a downward spiral

DuBrin (1992) addressed the subtle characteristics of a person suffering from self-defeating behavior:

Some of the most adroit self-saboteurs bring failure upon themselves with subtlety and finesse. The process is similar to how day turns into night and blond hair turns white. Many of their self-sabotaging actions and attitudes seem positive at first, but gradually they assume a downward drift. The person moves one step at a time from high performance through mediocrity to substandard performance. (p. 77)

Tips for Referring Students to the Counseling Center
Although advisers are not trained to provide mental health therapy to students who exhibit self-defeating behaviors, they can refer students to campus or community-based resources. Dr. Haber spoke about using the 4 Hs (technique created by a colleague), which stands for HEAR them, HOOK them, HOPE, and HOLD (personal communication, October 21, 2009).

The first step, HEAR, involves listening carefully to students as they share issues they encounter in college. Dr. Haber (personal communication, October 21, 2009) said that while listening to a student, an adviser should make the student feel as comfortable as possible. Second, the HOOK step involves the adviser letting the student know that the adviser cares about him or her before suggesting counseling services, in order to remove the stigma from the student’s mind. Some students believe going to an on-campus therapist means that the adviser will think they are crazy, but the adviser can address that concern up front by assuring the student that everyone needs help dealing with issues every now and then. It can be particularly effective if the adviser shares a positive personal story about meeting with a counselor or shares the story of another student who successfully utilized counseling resources. The adviser should volunteer to walk to the counseling center with the student, call the center to set up an appointment for the students, or give the student the correct contact information for the counseling center.

The next stage is HOPE, during which the adviser should demonstrate his or her hope for and belief in the student and should try to make sure that the student sees that hope in the adviser’s spirit. The last stage is HOLD, which does not mean literally holding students but rather allowing them to feel safe in sharing their experiences with the adviser.

These four techniques can help advisers effectively refer students to the counseling center and help students begin to address their issues. It is also important for advisers to follow up with any students they have referred to the counseling center to ensure that they made appointments as well as to show students they truly care about them.

Advisers play many important roles, but one of their most important jobs is to appropriately refer students with mental health issues to the proper campus resources. This article highlights some of the characteristics of students exhibiting self-defeating behaviors and provides a formula for referring these students to the counseling center. Following the steps in this article will help advisers work with students to transform their self-defeating behaviors into self-achieving behaviors. 


Danny Bounds, University of South Carolina