written by: Amy Clare Macdonald
• edited by: Paul Arnold
• updated: 4/14/2011
Self-defeating personality disorder is also referred to as masochistic personality disorder. It refers to a pervasive pattern of behaviour which defeats a person's ability to experience enjoyable relationships and situations.
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A person with self-defeating behavior displays a consistent pattern that is detrimental to him or her. This pattern of detrimental behavior includes being drawn into problematic situations and relationships and failing to accomplish important life goals.
A self-defeating personality is drawn to such situations and relationships which will ultimately lead to disappointment or failure, even if a better, less detrimental option is available. Situations and relationships revolving around anger, guilt and fear are familiar territory for the self-defeating person. He or she tends to distrust or are even repulsed by people who treat them well.
A person with this disorder may be overly self-sacrificing, rejecting of those who treat them well, unable to finish important tasks, rejecting of opportunities that they may find pleasurable, inclined to incite rejection from others, unable to make choices which are good for him or her. Specific emotions related to the disorder are fear, guilt and shame. A person with this disorder is commonly referred to as a 'martyr' by those around them.
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Self-regulation and Self-defeating behavior
According to Briones, Tabernero and Arenas (2007) a person engaging in self-defeating behavior is actually seeking positive results from their actions. However, the goal is pursued in such a way that it does not generate the desired positive outcome, and instead generates a negative outcome. This negative result is usually manifested through counter-productive behavior. Briones et al (2007) say that such behaviour implies errors in self-regulation, due to either underregulation or misregulation.
Baumeister (1997) defines underregulation as the choice to make short-term goals that have high long-term costs. For example, a person that chooses to smoke or drink alcohol because of the short-term pleasurable effects is not thinking about the long-term health consequences. Baumeister (1997) defines misregulation as choosing a counter-productive strategy. For example, eating or drinking alcohol in order to deal with emotional issues will ultimately end up causing another set of problems, thus being counter-productive.
Both of these errors in self-regulation will lead to self-defeating behavior.
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Self-defeating Personality Criteria
The DSM-III TR includes the disorder in a supplemental section and is classified as a 'personality disorder not otherwise specified'. Although self-defeating personality does not have an official place in the DSM, there are still valid diagnostic criteria for it.
A diagnosis of self-defeating personality disorder is based on the presence of at least five of the following criteria:
chooses people and situations that lead to disappointment, failure, or mistreatment even when better options are clearly available
rejects or renders ineffective the attempts of others to help him or her
following positive personal events, reponds with depression, guilt, or a behavior that produces pain
incites angry or rejecting responses from others and then feels hurt, defeated and humiliated
rejects opportunities for pleasure, or is reluctant to acknowledge enjoying himself or herself
fails to accomplish tasks crucial to his or her personal objectives despite demonstrated ability to do so
is uninterested in or rejects people who consistently treat him or her well
engages in excessive self-sacrifice that is unsolicited by the intended recipients of the sacrifice
The diagnosis of self-defeating personality disorder is only valid if the person is seen to have long-standing personality styles and traits involving the above criteria. A diagnosis is not given if the person is seen to react with the above criteria in reaction or anticipation to a physically, emotionally or sexually abusive relationship. Many people in such situations are still able to meet personal goals, do not incite anger in others and have many close friends. Thus the self-defeating behavior is not a part of their personality, but the reaction to a situation (DSM-III TR, 1987).
Although the disorders last appearance in the DSM was in 1987, clinicians still find it a useful and valid way to describe and diagnose behavior.
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American Psychiatric Association (1987). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition, Revised. Washington: Author.
Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Esteem threat, self-regulatory breakdown, and emotional distress as factors in self-defeating behavior. Review of General Psychology, 1, 145–17
Briones, Elena; Tabernero, Carmen; Arenas, Alicia. The Journal of Social Psychology, December 2007, Vol. 147 Issue: Number 6 p657-680