What Is Self-Defeating Personality Disorder?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Although it first appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980, self-defeating personality disorder has changed names and definitions and is not listed in the DSM-5, the most recent version of the DSM. 

Learn about self-defeating personality disorder

With similarities to cluster B personality disorders in the DSM-5, the APA hasn't seen it as a clinically valuable diagnosis. Instead, "other specified personality disorder" or "unspecified personality disorder" may be used if one doesn't fit the criteria of a current personality disorder from the DSM-5. 

What is self-defeating personality disorder?

While self-defeating personality disorder is no longer used clinically, characteristics and symptoms related to this prior diagnosis could resonate with some people. Characteristics included in the original publishing of this condition were listed as negative self-references, feeling the need to humiliate oneself, cognitive patterns of finding oneself undesirable, and over-expectation of rejection or failure.

Some people believe the symptoms of this condition could be better explained by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as many survivors of abuse may feel self-loathing due to their experiences of being harmed. Continued patterns of self-loathing, people-pleasing, or expectation of harm after a traumatic event are often associated with PTSD. 

Self-defeating personality disorder traits

Those who exhibit the criteria for self-defeating personality traits may be described as "self-sacrificing altruists." They may find satisfaction in serving others, viewing life as unfair, yet perceiving that they are tasked with helping others, even if the disparity is contrived. They might give their all in the workplace while struggling to have the confidence to be personable or receive promotions. 

Those with these personality traits might see themselves as worthy only when it means serving others. Whether this behavior is learned because of abuse or any other reason, these individuals often disregard their boundaries to give their all to others. They might offer support and kindness regardless of whether it is seen or appreciated. They may sacrifice their time, money, and energy to get validation from the support they offer. Often, they can struggle to say "no" to a request. 

For someone with a self-defeating personality style, saying "no" might seem impossible, regardless of its impact on health or well-being. Due to difficulties setting boundaries, their coworkers, bosses, friends, teachers, family, and partners might take advantage of them. For someone experiencing these behaviors, relationships can be challenging. Someone with these patterns may experience maltreatment by trying to please partners who are not kind to them, offering their emotional openness, vulnerability, and support despite their hurt.  

Engaging in excessive or unsolicited self-sacrifice does not occur exclusively in people who have been sexually, physically, and psychologically abused. Anyone can experience these traits, which may be common in those identifying as neurodivergent, due to "masking." If you think you might be experiencing symptoms of this collection of personality traits, you might benefit from speaking to a professional to better understand it.

How can you help a friend with self-defeating traits?

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If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 988 to talk to a crisis provider over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support. 988 also provides an online chat for those with an internet connection.

If you know someone with self-defeating traits, encourage them to seek professional support. It may not seem harmful to notice that someone you love is expending their energy to support others. However, if they're going against their boundaries, never saying "no," and feeling extreme self-loathing, they might be at risk for other mental health challenges, like depression. Left untreated, this condition can lead to suicidal thoughts or ideation.

In addition, try to ask the individual if supporting you or another person is what they actually want to do. You can prompt them to consider their boundaries and try not to ask too much of them, even if they offer. If you notice them struggling to say "no" to someone else, you might redirect the conversation to remove the pressure from the situation. 

Strategies for individuals with self-defeating personality disorder

If you are experiencing self-defeating personality traits, try adding self-care techniques into your routine. Implementing more physical exercise, sticking to a healthier diet, and working toward a stable sleep schedule are a few ways you can start. 

Try to connect with others who do not ask too much of you, and start to practice boundaries at home. You can practice saying "no" in the mirror or with a close friend to get used to how it feels. If you're not ready to say "no," try to avoid situations where you might be coerced into a situation. In addition, avoid people who do not take "no" for an answer and routinely pressure you, even when you show signs of being uncomfortable. 

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Learn about self-defeating personality disorder

Speaking with a professional

If these symptoms or behavior patterns sound familiar, recognizing them may be the first step to seeking support. You're not alone if you feel ashamed or embarrassed about receiving therapy. Online platforms like BetterHelp can allow you to receive professional care from the comfort of your own home.

Online, you can be matched with a therapist with experience assisting those living with personality disorders, PTSD, neurodivergence, or another concern. Although self-defeating personality disorder is not an official diagnosis, you can explain how you relate to the condition's criteria previously listed in the DSM-3. Your therapist can guide you in a treatment plan unique to your symptoms and experiences. 

Suppose you're unsure whether online therapy is for you. In that case, you can also review studies that have found that internet-based interventions are highly effective for those who have previously experienced trauma or abuse. Other studies have found that it is more cost-effective than in-person therapy, which may be beneficial if you face financial barriers. 

Takeaway

If you have concerns about self-defeating personality traits, you don't have to face them alone. Consider reaching out to a therapist to discuss your relationship with people-pleasing, self-loathing, and difficulty setting boundaries. You can meet with a provider online or in your area to get started.
Work through personality disorder symptoms
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