What Is Self-Defeating Personality Disorder?

Updated January 9, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Since first appearing in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1987, self-defeating personality disorder has changed names and definitions several times. While some criteria have been altered over time, there are common concepts regarding the forms of the disorder. Characteristics central to self-defeating personality disorder tend to include negative self-references, a need for abasement, cognitive patterns of finding oneself undesirable, and over-expectation of rejection or failure.

Critics of self-defeating personality disorder claim that it shouldn't in all cases be labeled as a disorder, as it is often found in disproportionate numbers in victims of abuse. This is an indicator that these symptoms may arise from individuals who are conditioning their behavior, which has left them trained to subordinate themselves for the needs of others.

Many believe that this is simply a symptom of the abuse and that it shouldn't be considered anything separate. However, the symptoms can last for a long time and can greatly impact various areas of life, whether a person has been the victim of abuse or not. This may underscore the need to characterize the disorder appropriately and make sure that help is available at all times. For those who live with self-defeating personality disorder, it can affect many kinds of relationships, including with friends, coworkers, families, and partners.

Learn About Self-Defeating Personality Disorder.

Symptoms Of Self-Defeating Personality Disorder

Those that fit the criteria for this personality pattern may be appropriately described as "self-sacrificing altruists." They may find satisfaction in serving others, viewing life as unfair yet feeling that they are tasked with helping those less fortunate than them, even if the disparity is contrived. It isn't uncommon for them to give their all in the workplace while failing to climb higher than a middle-management position.

What this means is that those with this disorder tend to see themselves as only worth serving others. Whether this behavior is learned as a result of abuse or any other reason, these individuals tend to give everything that they have to anything they do. They are likely to give and give to their friends and family, whether those individuals deserve the help or are appreciative of it or not. They may sacrifice their time, their money, and everything they can to help others without expecting anything for themselves. The difference between these individuals and a volunteer, however, may be that they feel there is no other choice and sacrifice beyond what they should.

For someone with a self-defeating personality style, it may be nearly impossible to say no even when it's necessary for their own health or well-being. They may even give at their job to an extent that they are often described as workaholics and may even be taken advantage of by their co-workers, bosses, and more. 

For someone experiencing this disorder, however, relationships, whether intimate or otherwise, can have serious implications. Someone with this type of disorder is often taken advantage of whether by those who are well-meaning or those who are not. An individual with this disorder may feel unable to stop themselves from doing things for others.

Individuals with self-defeating personality disorder may expect that their peers adopt the same work ethic as they do. Engaging in excessive or unsolicited self-sacrifice does not occur exclusively in people who have been sexually, physically, and psychologically abused. Anyone can experience this disorder and to varying degrees. If an individual has been a victim of abuse, this behavior can carry on to other relationships, even if a future partner is not abusive. It can be challenging for anyone to overcome these feelings, especially without professional help.

Helping A Friend With Self-Defeating Personality Disorder

If you know someone with self-defeating personality disorder, it may help to encourage them to get professional help. The disorder may not seem like it's harmful at first. However, it can be debilitating and affect relationships in many areas of life. The individual may know they are giving too much to others but feel unable to stop doing it. This means that they may encounter depression, anxiety, and other conditions alongside this disorder. Left untreated, this can lead to suicidal thoughts* or ideation.

  • If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be reached at 988 and is available 24/7.

If you think someone that you know has this disorder and you encourage them to seek help, you could be helping them to change harmful patterns. They may be able to become stronger and more confident and say no when they need to. This does not necessarily mean that they won't be willing to help others, but they may be able to do so in a way that is healthy for all involved.

Strategies For Individuals With Self-Defeating Personality Disorder

If you are the one experiencing self-defeating personality disorder, one way to begin breaking out of this cognitive pattern may be to implement small 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 basic ways to start toward a stronger you. 

Also, you might try to break current patterns and connect with people who do things for you. This may be challenging at first, but in time, you may start to feel validated as you let people reciprocate and give to you. 

Speaking With A Professional

If these symptoms or behavior patterns sound familiar to you, recognizing this can be an important step toward living a more satisfying and functional life. Talking with a therapist can be a good way to identify these behavior patterns and work to establish healthier habits. Online sites like BetterHelp make this possible remotely. You can connect with an online therapist, which research has shown to be just as effective as in-person therapy. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist with experience helping people with personality disorders, and you can contact them via phone, videoconferencing, or in-app messaging. 

A mental health professional may be able to help you better understand the different skills that you can develop to improve tendencies that are characteristic of self-defeating personality disorder. They may also be able to help you differentiate between when you can help others and when you need to put your own needs first. A therapist may also help you recognize and change your thought patterns so that your life can become your own again. 


If you have concerns about self-defeating personality disorder, you don’t have to face them alone. There are licensed therapists with training and experience helping people with symptoms of personality disorders, including self-defeating personality disorder. If going to a therapist’s office seems daunting, you can talk to a therapist completely online via BetterHelp. Take the first step and reach out today. 

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