Maladaptive Behaviors

A fist against a grey background, representing maladaptive behaviors
Maladaptive Behaviors. Psychology Fanatic
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Life acts on us. We feel the weight of sorrows, fears, and frustrations and we bend, conforming to the madness to soften the pain.​ I know. I’m well acquainted with pain. I spent a life time trying to find a cure. The thing is, we adapt. No matter what our conditions in life are, we find a way to integrate painful experiences through behavioral adaptions that absorb the circumstances with as little internal pain as possible. Adaptation should inspire awe. Our resilience is on full display as we adapt, enduring and surviving some of the worst dastardly deeds and circumstances humanity has to offer. However, in defiance of logic, we also learn maladaptive behaviors to cope. We sacrifice goals, ruin futures, and hurt those we love.

However, we adapt to more than sever trauma. We constantly learn and modify behavior, largely an unconscious reaction to the world.

Adaptive Behaviors

When we speak of adaptation, we often fail to identify the object causing the adjustment. The roadblock that insists we maneuver from our predicted and intended routes of behavior, often ominously blocks our path while remaining incredibly cloaked from consciousness.

​We adapt to absorb the critical circumstances but remain blind to the process.

Let’s look at how adaptation occurs. For example, every time John discusses finances with his wife, he gets frustrated. Many elements may be at the root of his frustration. He fears a looming personal financial disaster from their accumulating debt. Or, perhaps, they have behavioral spending differences and discussions about money always deteriorate, leading to hurtful words.

John’s intense emotions bind with prospects of future discussions with money. To alleviate the distasteful emotions, John adapts by avoiding discussions with his wife about the finances.

John’s avoidance is adaptive. He is adapting the frustration by regulating his exposure to the triggering stimuli (discussions about money).

Managing exposure to harmful or disrupting stimuli in many situation is effective, benefitting our futures by removing an unnecessary aggravation. However, John’s adaptive solution to his frustration may be maladaptive if the avoidance fuels the financial problem that motivated the discussions which sparked the frustration.

“​While maladaptive coping strategies can develop in childhood, they can also appear later in life in response to life events such as loneliness, abuse, and trauma.”   

~Jeremy Sutton Ph.D. | Positively Positive

If their debt continues to grow, their resentments fester, and his avoidance leads to on-going stress over greater financial strain, then John’s avoidance is maladaptive, failing to resolve the problem creating the stress response.

​What is Adapting Mean in Psychology?

Adapting means to alter, modify, or adjust. Adapting is the healthy, dynamic adjustments to environments, facilitating continued goal fulfillment. Adaptation isn’t a one-and-done event but a continual interaction between environments, the responding actions, evaluating the impact of our response, and adjusting again. We refer to this primary function that allows for these complex calculations as episodic foresight.

​Adaptation is Albert Bandura’s reciprocal determination in action. A constant loop of action, reaction, and feedback, moving through multiple sources of influence.

Key Definition:

The word Maladaptive begins with the prefix ‘mal’ which means “ill” or “bad.” In maladaptive behaviors the adopted behavior is not necessarily bad or ill but maladaptive to securing a particular goal. ‘Maladaptive behavior’ describes modified actions that poorly adjust to circumstances, often exchanging desired long term goals for short term relief.

Definition of Maladaptive Behaviors

In maladaptive behaviors there is a shifting of goals to something less beneficial for an immediate payoff of relief. Often, the adaptations are not obvious. Many maladaptive behaviors seem so ridiculous when consciously examined, we can’t fathom why anyone would do something so foolish.

Sheryl Ankrom explains, “often used to reduce anxiety, maladaptive behaviors result in dysfunctional and non-productive outcomes—in other words, they are more harmful than helpful” (2020).

The only goal motivating maladaptive behaviors maybe the immediate release of tension. “Often they greatly fear that the experience of discomfort is intolerable and believe that failure to rid themselves of it will lead to physical or mental fragmentation or dissolution” (Schore, 2003, Kindle location 1,446).

​The maladaptive act may be a primal mode of emotional expression. Expressing anger to release the building tension, may, in some cases, direct the painful attention away from the mental fragmentation of overwhelming emotion through action.

Some of these behaviors may be exhibited as:

  • A child’s tantrum
  • Road rage
  • Violence or abuse

Many maladaptive destructive actions are performed in the disorganized state of emotional flooding, where intense sensations have hijacked the brain, demanding immediate action.

Because maladaptive behaviors can be outspoken and far-reaching, these types of behaviors can interfere with school, can get you into trouble at work, and could even wind up on the wrong side of the law if certain behaviors are not treated early enough.

~Corrina Horne | Better Help​

Three Characteristics of Maladaptive Behaviors

Theodor Millon explains that “when an individual displays an ability to cope with the environment in a flexible manner, and when his or her typical perceptions and behaviors foster increments of personal satisfaction, then the person may be said to possess a normal or healthy personality.” Millon continues, “conversely, when average or everyday responsibilities are responded to inflexibly or defectively, or when the individual’s perceptions and behaviors result in increments in personal discomfort or curtail opportunities to learn and to grow, then we may speak of a pathological or maladaptive pattern” (2016).

Millon identified three defining features that serve as differentiating criteria:

  • adaptive inflexibility
  • vicious or self-defeating circles
  • tenuous emotional stability under conditions of stress

Adaptive Inflexibility

T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “there is an inherent problem with rigid definitions, exact plans, and security enhancing rules—life does not follow along. We think we have it figured out and bam life hits us on our noggin, knocks us down and makes us cry. That’s the problem with the wellness industry. There is no one-size-fits-all solution” (2021). 

Millon explains that when an individual’s alternative strategies they employ “for relating to others, for achieving goals, and for coping with stress are not only few in number but appear to be practiced rigidly; that is, they are imposed upon conditions for which they are ill-suited.” Millon continues to explain that “the individual not only is unable to adapt effectively to the circumstances of his or her life but arranges the environment to avoid objectively neutral events that are perceived as stressful” (2016).

Because of the inflexible, maladaptive responses, the individual limits new opportunities for learning, narrowing experiences, and stagnating growth.

  • fear to learn new skills
  • apply for new employment
  • abandon abusive relationships
  • expand social circles

The individual’s inflexible clinging to sameness, limits the gracious gifts awarded to those willing to try something new, experience moderate discomfort, and leave those deceitfully destructive comfort zones.

Vicious Circles

Maladaptive behaviors have a tendency to feed upon themselves, creating a self-supporting cycle. Millon says maladaptive patterns foster these vicious circles. He says this means is that “the person’s habitual perceptions, needs, and behaviors perpetuate and intensify preexisting difficulties” (2016).

An example of a vicious cycle is the person who avoids social circumstances because they experience social anxiety. Their isolation then fosters deteriorating social skills, which makes social situations more awkward. Their maladaptive response to social anxiety “perpetuates and intensifies the preexisting difficulty.”

Tenuous Stability

​The third feature of maladaptive behaviors identified by Millon is tenuous stability. This characteristic is “a fragility or lack of resilience under conditions of subjective stress.” Those that employ maladaptive behaviors in response to stress, tend to encounter more stress. It is a cruel cycle. Millon explains that “given the ease with which the already troubled are vulnerable to events that reactivate the past, and given their inflexibility and paucity of effective coping mechanisms, they are now extremely susceptible to new difficulties and disruptions” (2016).

Needs Fulfilled by Maladaptive Behaviors

​Functional perspectives of maladaptive behaviors propose that dysfunctional behaviors are maintained because they fulfill some need, presently or historically (Swerdlow, et al. 2020).

Swerdlow and his colleagues point to affect regulation as a potential function underlying many maladaptive behaviors. Maladaptive behaviors often have hedonic goals (focusing on increasing positive affect and decreasing negative affect in the present). 

Many maladaptive behaviors do serve hedonic functions in the short run. The behavior then is rewarded with mood repair and a decrease in negative affect. Implementing maladaptive behaviors to oppose rising negative affect motivates and reinforces future use of the behavior.

The maladaptive behaviors become entrenched and automatic. Even when conditions change, and functionally the maladaptive behavior fails to provide relief, the habit itself, because of its rituality and familiarity may be comforting, providing the hedonic benefits from the habit rather than the behavior (2020).

​Common Maladaptive Coping Behaviors

While maladaptive behaviors can occur in a number of ways, a few coping strategies tend to consistently interfere with long term goals.


Avoidance sometimes is very adaptive. Why waste precious energy resources on situations unnecessary for our growth or survival. However, avoidance often invades other areas of our lives, limiting opportunities, and dodging stress necessary for continued development.

Avoidance behaviors may include:

  • not making eye contact during conversation
  • speaking too softly or not at all
  • not asking questions when you need more information
  • missing functions that may advance one’s career
  • not opening bills
  • fear of enforcing boundary violations


Many successes require ongoing action, demanding both physical and mental resources. We put our souls on the line through our investments of efforts. Sometimes these sacrifices payoff and we succeed. Other times we invest heavily and fail. These failures are costly. They hurt, burning the pain in our memories. We may respond to these hurtful episodes by withdrawing. 

​Severe withdrawing is a form of depression. Sadness at a failure is appropriate, often cleansing as we regain our footing, soak in lessons and put ourselves out there again.

Edward L. Deci and Richard Flaste explain, “depression is not a pure emotion. It is often confused with sadness, but the two are quite different. Sadness is pure, and when one feels it, one is nourished by it. Depression is fraught with self-derogation, anxiety, and doubt. Depression is anything but nourishing; it is bewildering and draining. It is maladaptive” (1996).


Passive-aggressive coping behaviors slyly express displeasure without openly asking for what is needed.

Passive aggressive behavior is considered an immature defense because it fails to effectively solve conflicts. Passive aggressive behaviors contributes to continued suppression of emotion, avoidance of emotional conflicts, and impaired interpersonal problem solving skills (Schanz, et al. 2021).

​Open communication is essential in healthy relationships. When we avoid straight forward expressions, we create confusion and frustration for the listener.

When we thank someone in our words, but add inflections of displeasure and rolling of our eyes, and decorate the communication with barbed side comments, the listener doesn’t know how to react. Especially if when challenged, the passive aggressive artist, reiterates, “I told you I was thankful.” 

Leslie S. Greenberg Ph.D. wrote that “expression of needs and disclosure of hurts often brings better results” (2015, Kindle location 315).​​


Self-harm can diffuse intense negative affect (Klonsky, 2007). 

Some people cope with debilitating stress by physically injuring themselves. These behaviors may include:

  • cutting, scratching, or burning skin
  • picking at scabs or reinjuring healing wounds
  • pulling out hair, eyelashes, or eyebrows
  • self-hitting or banging their head
  • refusal to take needed medications

Self-harm behaviors provide temporary relief, often mitigating the emotional pain through introduction of physical pain. Self-harming behaviors do little to solve the complex issues creating the internal emotional conflicts.

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is an especially toxic form of maladaptive behaviors. Intoxicating substances soothe internal storms of emotion, pull our ruminating mind away from stressful worries, and give the consumer a blissful escape. 

Problems, of course, wait. Addiction than piles on its own collection of stresses to the overburdened life.


Another menacing and maladaptive response is manipulation. Manipulation is a behavioral technique used to confront the emotional challenges of getting needs fulfilled in relationships. However, an adaptive response learns the heathy art of give-and-take. Resourcefully using compromise and adjustment.

The maladaptive response is to use whatever means necessary to fulfill the need, sacrificing future bonds for present needs. manipulating techniques include:

​Manipulating behaviors often take the form of physical and emotional abuse.

​Breaking Maladaptive Coping Habits

​Gratefully we can improve, ditching unhelpful coping for behaviors that stimulate growth and promote flourishing.

We can break maladaptive behavior patterns through professional treatment, mindfulness exercises, cognitive restructuring, self-compassion, and self-soothing techniques.

Professional Therapy

A common goal of most therapeutic treatments is behavior changes. This includes replacing maladaptive behaviors with healthier coping techniques. A few effective treatments are:


Mindfulness Exercises

Substantial research supporting the emotional benefits of a regular mindfulness practice. Mindfulness through meditation and breathing exercises can mitigate emotional stress. As stressful sensory experiences disrupt, we can sooth the emotion through mindful practices instead of relying on habitual maladaptive responses. Once calm, we can reengage in healthy goal achieving behaviors.

​Michael A. Tompkins, PhD, co-director of the San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy, suggests a mindfulness technique is calls watch and wait. He teaches that “when you watch and wait—mindfully—you step out of the cycle of interacting with thoughts, feelings, and actions in order to see things as they really are.” He continues, “as you learn to watch and wait, you develop a skill that helps you resist the urge to avoid, to escape from, or to neutralize—these are the anxious actions… and uncover an alternative to suppressing your anxious response or…other maladaptive ways of responding to anxiety that fuel the problem” (2013, Kindle location 929).

Cognitive Restructuring (Reappraisal)

Emotions emerge from the stories we create to explain feeling affect. Our introspective examinations reveal the changing environments of our inner worlds. Basically, we name and assign cause to the inner movements of energy.

​Our narratives wield a powerful sword, often magnifying emotional response. Greenberg explains that “emotion and memory are highly linked. Emotion is both evoked by memory and is important in restructuring emotion memories and the narratives that are built on them” (2015).

Cognitive reappraisals switch from narrative exuberating emotions to kinder gentler stories that promote healing. T. Franklin Murphy wrote that “personal narratives invite wellbeing, meaning, and joy or conversely, depravity, chaos, and sorrow” (2019).

How we interpret feeling significantly impacts the intensity and valence of the arousal. If our emotions overwhelm, then, perhaps, we should create kinder narratives, cognitively reconstructing our interpretations.


Increasing self-compassion can mitigate harsh emotional judgements, softening the need for lashing out in protective self-protecting maladaptive behaviors. Murphy explains, “harsh and critical attacks on our worth, especially when living inside of our mind, hurt. Instead of whipping the self into correction from these thoughts, the self cowers from the mean judgment and begins to defensively deny reality” (2018). Accordingly, self compassion and kindness softens the environment, removing the need for protective defenses.

Other Self-Soothing Techniques

Successful regulation of emotion requires several tools and techniques available. We need several options in our toolbox to help down regulate emotions without returning to maladaptive choices. As we widen our self knowledge, experiencing success and failure in our emotional regulation attempts, we familiarize ourselves with which technique serves which moment best.

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Ankrom, Sheryl (2020). Common Maladaptive Behaviors Related to Panic Disorder. Verywellmind. Published 9-26-2020. Accessed 3-10-2022.

Deci, Edward; Flaste, Richard (1996). Why We Do What We Do. Penguin Books; Reprint edition.

Greenberg, Leslie S. (2015). Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings. American Psychological Association; Second edition.

Klonsky, E. D. (2007) The functions of deliberate self-injury: A review of the evidence. Clinical Psychology Review, 27, 226-239.

Millon, Theodore (2016) What Is a Personality Disorder?. Journal of Personality Disorders 30.3 (2016): 289-306.​

Murphy, T. Franklin (2019) Narrative Identity. Psychology Fanatic. Published 7-25-2019. Accessed 3-10-2022.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2018) Self-Kindness. Psychology Fanatic. Published 7-2018. Accessed 3-10-2022.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Psychological Flexibility. Psychology Fanatic. Published 6-23-2021. Accessed 9-19-2022.

Schanz, C., Equit, M., Schäfer, S., Käfer, M., Mattheus, H., & Michael, T. (2021). Development and Psychometric Properties of the Test of Passive Aggression. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.

Shore, Allan, N. (2003). Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology).  ‎ W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition.

Swerdlow, B., Pearlstein, J., Sandel, D., Mauss, I., & Johnson, S. (2020). Maladaptive Behavior and Affect Regulation: A Functionalist Perspective . Emotion, 20(1), 75-79.

Tompkins, Michael A. (2013). Anxiety and Avoidance: A Universal Treatment for Anxiety, Panic, and Fear. New Harbinger Publications; 1st edition.

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