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Understanding Maladaptive Behavior: Breaking Harmful Patterns

Let’s face it, some people have a harder time living life than others due to painful childhoods or traumatic experiences. This can lead to unhealthy tendencies or coping skills.

As a life coach for entrepreneurs, it is important for me to teach clients how their behavior or actions can harm themselves and prevent themselves from achieving their goals.

In this article, we will discuss maladaptive behavior, which is characterized as tendencies or coping skills that are harmful to everyone, including oneself.

Before we explain maladaptive traits or behaviors, it is important to understand the root cause. Your therapist or I (if you hire me as your coach) will use this knowledge to aid in your healing and recovery program.

When Actions Become Harmful or Maladaptive

Before we begin, I’d like to explain a important idea: 

None of us intends to cause chaos and confusion for ourselves. 

Yes, that’s right, none of us.

Habits or behaviors that once were helpful and keep us emotionally and physically safe in a traumatic and painful environment, made sense back then. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have picked up certain behaviors or traits.

A perfectionist and workaholic

For example, Rachel was raised in an extremely competitive environment with herself and her other siblings. Her mother, Danielle, would reward those who brought home good report cards from school. The unfortunate few who brought home anything less than a B would be stripped down and flogged in front of the whole family. It was a capital offense to not bring home anything but a “good” report card.

As an adult, Rachel became a perfectionist and a workaholic. However, it was almost impossible for her to work well with other professionals. Rachel couldn’t help but sneer, roll her eyes, and, in some cases, yell at team members who didn’t work as hard (or as manically) as she did.

Although Rachel’s behavior was typical and normal in her childhood home, it was destroying her professional and personal relationships.

Workaholism is just one of the many ways that once-good coping skills in an abusive environment can actually hurt us in the future.  

Next, we will dive in deeper how parents unconsciously impact our behavior and emotional maturity as children.

Parental Influence: Origins of Maladaptive Behavior

In this section, I will explain how our parents can encourage maladaptive behavior.

Mothers to Sons

Too many mothers, whether single or married, are guilty of molding their young sons into passive-aggressive monsters. 

How does this happen? 

An emotionally disabled mother may:

  • criticize everything her son does
  • never giving him the freedom to make decisions on his own
  • say that his father is a bastard or other disparaging remarks about this ability to protect, lead or provide

Women who have never dealt with their anger issues regarding their poor selection of a mate unleash their fury onto their sons. Unfortunately, everyone, including mom, suffers.

“Living with a passive aggressive man” by Scott Wexler is an excellent book to learn more about the impact that mothering has on sons.

Fathers to Daughters

Men are the exemplary models of manhood for both girls and boys. If you are interested in learning about this topic, I recommend reading the book “Iron John” by Robert Bly.

If a little girl isn’t cherished consistently by her father by age 8, she will grow up seeking that love from men (who may or may not care about her well-being.)

Below is a response regarding how a child is impacted by a parent’s communication skills.

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Sidebar note: It’s important for parents to be mindful of their communication styles. Engaging in active listening, using clear and concise language, and expressing empathy towards their children are all key components of effective communication. 

By providing their children with the tools necessary for effective communication, parents can help them succeed in all areas of their lives.

In the next section, we will discuss some of the other forms of maladaptive behavior.

6 Types of Maladaptive Behavior 

Maladaptive Sign #1: Addiction to substances, people or other things

To escape or numb emotional pain, some people rely on alcohol, drugs (including prescription or street drugs), or other addictive substances to cope with stress, difficult feelings, or situations. 

Over time, this can lead to dependency or addiction as they rely more and more on these substances to deal with life’s challenges.

Addiction is not limited to substances. People can also become addicted to work, other people (codependency), or even ideas (such as politics or pop culture). 

Maladaptive Sign #2: Covert or Overt Aggression

When we think of aggression, we tend to think of the obvious in your face action. However, aggression comes in two forms: overt (physical or verbal aggression) and covert (passive). The following section will explain each type.
Overt Aggression

Damaging property and hurting people physically or verbally are forms of overt aggression. Depending on the severity or frequency, they can lead to damaged relationships and legal consequences. 

Moreover, overt aggression does not solely include physical or verbal violence. Repeatedly threatening to take away financial support or critical areas of assistance from someone in a vulnerable position is also a form of overt aggression.

Covert Aggression

Just because you or someone you know is not hurting anyone physically or verbally doesn’t mean their behavior is healthy or normal. Behind the weak smile of a passive-aggressive person sits a cauldron full of bitterness, resentment, and hostility that is ready to be unleashed in the subtlest of situations.

Signs of covert or passively aggressive behavior include:
  • Sarcasm (Saying the opposite of what you really want to say, especially in order to insult someone, or to show irritation, or just to be funny. I call this “barbed humor”)
    • It’s okay if you don’t like me. Not everyone has good taste.”
    • “If had a dollar for every smart thing you say. I’ll be poor.”
  • Backhanded compliments (a remark which seems to be an insult but could also be understood as a compliment)
    • Your haircut makes your nose look smaller.
    • It’s really difficult to underestimate you.
  • Communicates with vague or unclear language
    • Oh yes! Come by sometime next week
    • Talking about dogs makes me feel sad
  • Finds ways to avoid commitments
    • Cancels or no-shows on appointments
    • Fails to deliver on their promises
  • Abruptly leaves conversations 
  • Uses condemning language
    • (Insert group) can’t possibly understand (Insert group)
    • (Insert group) always complain
Some of us have been raised by abusive or absentee parents, and because of the abuse or neglect, we may become overtly or passively aggressive.
I want to share with you a story how what passive aggression and suppressed anger appears in a romantic relationship.
Suppressed anger in a romantic relationship

I have a client named Sue (not her real name) whose father was a womanizing alcoholic. The rare times Sue’s father was at home, he preferred to zone out in front of the television or yell and belittle her mother in bizarre alcohol-fueled rants.

Because Sue never felt connected to her father, she harbored intense negative feelings towards ALL MEN. All men were to be punished for the sins of her neglectful father.

Yes, all men would pay the “Daddy Bill” for the crimes of her father.

As a woman, she married a bipolar, depressed man named “Harry.” Because of Harry’s touch-and-go emotional state, Sue feels okay to blame Harry and threatens to leave whenever he upsets her. Harry takes medication to regulate his mood, but Sue has serious rage issues that she is still working to resolve.

If healthy relationships are not modeled to us as children, it is easy to replicate dysfunction as adults.

Maladaptive Sign #3: Procrastination

You may say, “I’ll do it later,” but in the back of your mind, you wish the task would disappear. That is why you consistently delay important tasks and responsibilities. If this behavior is not arrested or stopped, it will lead to increased stress and decreased productivity.

Maladaptive Sign #4: Emotional Eating

Using food as a coping mechanism for emotions can lead to overeating and potential weight-related health issues. If you haven’t already, please read my client Karina’s story regarding how she used food as an emotional crutch.

Additionally, utilizing diets or self-imposed starvation as a coping strategy must also be addressed. I recommend seeking out resources in the Intuitive Eating community or Overeaters Anonymous for those struggling with eating-related disorders.

Maladaptive Sign #5: Self-isolation

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some people used the opportunity to fulfill their lifelong dream of staying isolated in their homes while the world passed them by. However, this led to withdrawing from social interactions, avoiding relationships, and ultimately, experiencing loneliness and emotional distress. This loneliness can lead to paranoia and anxiety. 

One may wonder how many social media accounts with extreme views suffer from this illness.

Maladaptive Sign #6: Excessive Screen Time

Most of us need to use a computer for work. However, we can use our electronic devices for work, to access information, or to escape from our thoughts or present reality. Not only does computer time distort our perception of reality, but it also has numerous harmful effects on our bodies:

  • Vision problems 
    • Eye redness, itching
    • Dry eyes
    • Sensitivity to light
    • Eye pain
    • Blurry vision
  • Headache
  • Migraine
  • Neck and Back Pain
  • Anxiety
If you need to, get an app or program like freedom which limits screen time, or find an accountability partner to help you wean off from this behavior.
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Final Thoughts

Addressing maladaptive behavior as an adult often requires self-awareness and a willingness to seek help.

Therapy, counseling, support groups, and self-help strategies can be beneficial in understanding the root causes of these behaviors and developing healthier coping mechanisms. Also, don’t hesitate working with me if you need my assistance.

It’s important to remember that change takes time and effort, and seeking professional guidance can be a valuable step in the process of personal growth and positive change.

Dig deeper: Listen to an episode from my entrepreneur podcast where I interviewed Dr. L. Carol Scott about living your best life.