All forms of behavioral adaptations are thought to control the way we carry our bodies and our facial expressions. This is called affect regulation. The functional purpose of affect regulation in dangerous situations is to hide or conceal parts of ourselves that make us vulnerable (Swerdlow, 2020). 

As children, some of us needed to use affect regulation as a survival strategy. This may have been to help navigate a dangerous or neglectful parent, to withstand living conditions that didn't meet basic needs, or to hide parts of self that offended those in power. When these affect regulating strategies are used on a daily basis, sometimes for years at a time, they can develop into personality traits that shape the experiences of our adult life. 

Maladaptives is a general term used here to describe deep-rooted thinking patterns, habitual coping mechanisms, and the associated behavior that we use to control our affect. These tools served us well in the unsafe environments we endured as children with little power. Yet, as adults interacting with peers who are more confident, more stable and more positive, these maladaptives can prevent us from navigating social and work situations effectively.

If these survival tools from the past are used reflexively in present day non-survival settings, they interfere with us meeting our needs and can create challenges that prevent us from reaching our full potential.

It is important to acknowledge that the world we live is not always reasonable, supportive or healthy. In unsafe times, and with unsafe people, maladaptives may still serve a function of keeping us safe. 

How Maladaptives Develop

Thought creation, coping strategies and behavior are learned when children engage their environment and interact with others, starting in our earliest life stages (King, 2012). When children, even infants, find that their world is not safe, they alter how they engage their environment in an effort to stay safe (Wadsworth, 2015). 

Maladaptives can develop in response to overwhelming stress within the family unit, maltreatment and neglect, or emotional invalidation from authority figures. When placed in these situations, children develop skills aimed at managing the emotions of others (sometimes at the expense of learning self-regulation) and solving problems for others (which can manifest as bids for control or excessive responsibility taking) (Wadsworth, 2015).

Children who are focused on managing the emotions and problems of adults have few examples of healthy adaptation and little time to learn. This leaves such children vulnerable to a disruption or delay of their own emotional development, which can leave them with only a primitive approach to coping. One that carries over into adulthood. Primitive approaches to conflict resolution include maladaptives like avoidance, denial, escape or anger (Wadsworth, 2015). 

It is also possible to develop maladaptives as an adult, which may occur after a major loss, a traumatic event, or an illness (Pietrangelo, 2020).

Maladaptive Thinking

Research into maladaptive thinking shows that these mindsets are negatively biased (causing us to presume the worst in ourselves and others), inaccurate (meaning that the way we evaluate situations is rooted in unhelpful preconceptions) and rigid (Boden, 2012). This rigidity stems from our over-investment in a small number of affect regulation strategies during our formative years, in combination with having few examples of alternative strategies and even fewer places to practice them (Swerdlow, 2020).

Maladaptive thinking not only causes us to overestimate the likelihood of negative things happening, it encourages us to overestimate the negative outcomes that may occur. In social situations, this can manifest as us taking harmless social cues and transforming them into serious threats to our social standing, then reacting as if we were threatened. Numerous studies have shown that maladaptive thinking can actually cause worsening symptoms for those of us with mood or anxiety disorders (Boden, 2012).

Unhelpful thinking is a phrase used to describe maladaptive thought processes that we use consistently to categorize ourselves, our situation and our future experiences. It is a sort of lens through which we interpret, process and react to others and our environments. A lens that we use so repetitively that it becomes habitual. This habitualization causes unhelpful thinking to feel natural and correct, but that does not stop these thoughts from causing us severe emotional distress (Williams, 2018).

Common patterns of unhelpful thinking include (Williams, 2018):

  • Ignoring positive aspects of ourselves and denying our personal strengths.
  • Being self-critical and thinking of ourselves as incapable of overcoming problems.
  • Excessively worrying with a fixation on past, present or future problems.
  • Imagining problems are larger and more difficult than they truly are.
  • Use of a negative mental filter that focuses on failures and challenges.
  • Predicting that things will go wrong or work out poorly.
  • A tendency to catastrophise events by prioritizing and focusing on the worse potential outcome.
  • Mind-reading others and ascribing ill intent to their actions.
  • Second-guessing the intentions of others, assuming others are critical of us.
  • Taking on responsibility for things outside of our control.
  • Taking things that others say and do personally, as if caused by our actions.
  • Impossibly high standards of how we ‘should be’, ‘must behave, or ‘ought to act’.
  • Rule following to the extent that a minor infraction is perceived as a character flaw.
  • Thinking in extremes, where small social conflicts are perceived as irredeemable.

Additional patterns of thinking that are unhelpful include (Rosselló, 2007):

  • All or nothing approaches where we view people as entirely good or entirely evil.
  • Oversimplification of situations or events as good or bad, or right or wrong.
  • Minimizing successes to the extent that even truly incredible accomplishments to not generate a positive emotion.
  • Imagining that because we are bad, anyone who is kind to us must have something wrong with them.
  • Assuming people are lying to us when they say something kind or positive.
  • Feeling as if we are imposters who will found out to be bad eventually.
  • Imagining that our feelings are reality, so that if we feel bad - it is because we are bad.
  • Focusing on being perfect in the eyes of self and others.
  • Placing unrealistic expectations of perfection on ourselves and others, and getting hurt or frustrated when the expectation are inevitably not met.

Another form of maladaptive thinking takes the shape of intrusive thoughts, where repetitive memories, ideas or emotions suddenly present themselves in the mind as if placed there (Thompson, 2016). This could be an internally verbalized phrase, an image or series of images, or an impulse to take some action that creates a feeling of discomfort or anxiety. Intrusive thoughts are experienced as unwanted, and are generally inconsistent with the self-image, beliefs, values and behaviors of the person experiencing them (Weiner, 2010). 

Intrusive thoughts are further understood based on their content, their functional characteristics and the structure they take. Intrusions are known to recur seemingly at random, however external environmental factors often serve as a trigger. The severity of each thought is determined by how intense or distressing it is and also by our ability to dismiss it from the mind (Parkinson, 1981).

In order to dismiss these thoughts from mind, the thought must first be neutralized. Some neutralization strategies include mental rituals, attempts at suppression and avoidance behaviors. Unfortunately, attempts to neutralize the thought can sometimes serve to increase the frequency of the thought occurring (Weiner, 2010).

Another form of maladaptive thinking takes the shape of rumination, which is characterized by a self-focused, repetitive train of thought about injustices suffered in the past. Often, rumination leads to passive comparisons between our current situation (which resulted from a past negative event) and alternatives that could have been. Rumination is known to complicate the process of grief (Eisma, 2014) and is often a major contributor to depression (Thompson, 2010).

Because of their similar nature, intrusive thoughts and rumination often co-occur and act to reinforce each other (Weiner, 2010).

Maladaptive Coping

Coping refers to our evaluation of, and response to, the stressors of life. Coping strategies refers to the techniques we use when responding to those stressors (Potter, 2020). Coping is critical to our ability to impact our environment as well as self-regulate our emotional state, thought patterns, physical response to stress, and behaviors (Compas, 2001).

When confronted with a stressor in life, first we must assess the challenge’s real and tangible impact on our own well being. Second, we consider what can be done about the challenge, and we evaluate our personal coping resources and pick the technique(s) that will most effectively address the threat or harm taking place (Potter, 2020). We then attempt to alter the conditions of the stressful situation, attempt to adjust ourselves to the new situation, or elect not to try to cope at all (Thompson, 2010). 

Unhealthy coping may occur when we evaluate the stressor’s real impact on our own personal well being. This can take the form of:

  • Catastrophizing - seeing the problem as much larger than it is (Thompson, 2010).
  • Rumination - focused, repetitive review of the problem without improvement in mood or circumstance (Thompson, 2010).
  • Avoidance - unwillingness to address the stressor (Thompson, 2010).
  • Daydreaming - loss of focus on the stressor (Wadsworth, 2015).
  • Blame - diverting focus of coping to something we feel is more manageable (Wadsworth, 2015).
  • Sensitization - becoming hyper vigilant of the situation surrounding the stressor (Wadsworth, 2015).

We may also use maladaptive coping strategies when we attempt to address the stressor itself. This can present as:

  • Substance Use - distraction from the stressor (Thompson, 2010).
  • Self Harm or Binge Eating - immediate self-soothing actions with long term health implications (Thompson, 2010).
  • Intrusive Thoughts - difficult or unmanageable thoughts related to the stressor or our capacity to impact it (Thompson, 2010). 
  • Emotional or Behavioral Shut Down - disengagement from the stressor in an effort to protect the self (Wadsworth, 2015).
  • Denial - pretending a problem isn’t one (Wadsworth, 2015). 
  • Escape - changing our own behavior to avoid the impact of the stressor (Wadsworth, 2015).

While certain strategies like the ones listed above are considered maladaptive, even healthy coping strategies may be maladaptive or unhealthy when someone relies too heavily on one strategy, either using it too often or applying it too rigidly (Wadsworth, 2015). 

Maladaptive Behavior 

Maladaptive behaviors are patterns of engaging with others or the environment that are harmful, are self-defeating or self-sabotaging, or are otherwise interfering with successful coping or successful interactions (Miller, 2018). 

Maladaptive behaviors include overt acts of self harm, taking unnecessary health risks, substance use and abuse, problem avoidance and social withdrawal, as well as aggressive behaviors. Additionally, maladaptive daydreaming occurs when we favor our imaginative spaces over social interactions, at the expense of real life participation and relationship building (Pietrangelo, 2020). 

Although it makes sense to label certain behaviors as entirely maladaptive, there is a subjective nature to deciding if a behavior is unhealthy. What was adaptive for one generation may be maladaptive for younger generations, staying with one employer long term as an example. What is maladaptive in one environment may be adaptive in another, for example being quiet in class vs being quiet in a meeting (Miller, 2018).

A maladaptive behavior may be closely associated with another, adaptive behavior and co-occur. Taking a break from stress, then choosing to smoke for example. Additionally, a maladaptive behavior may simply be labeled as maladaptive by others, while it in fact provides mutual benefit. For example, direct, assertive communication may be seen by others as an aggressive attempt to dominate (Miller, 2018). 

Consider altruism, the act of providing for others at the expense of the self. This behavior is adaptive and beneficial within a healthy, reciprocating family unit. However, if someone were to give without limits, at their own expense, to a group that did not reciprocate, that would be maladaptive (Miller, 2018).

Maladaptive Defense Mechanisms

Defensive mechanisms involve the use of memory networks with a goal of regulating intense emotions and preventing them from reaching our conscious mind. These defenses provide us with a way to distance ourselves from our anxiety in order to survive painful experiences that we are not, at the time they occur, able to cope with in a healthy manner. Three categories of such defenses have been identified - immature, neurotic and mature. Throughout our lives, we will incorporate different defense mechanisms as we face, and attempt to overcome, new challenges (Wheeler, 2022).

Immature defense mechanisms are our more primitive strategies, learned as children and maintained into adulthood through habit. Those who use these mechanisms often tend to have the most trouble with interpersonal relationships and experience more intense anxiety. Such defenses include (Wheeler, 2022):

  • Denial - avoiding, ignoring or refusing to acknowledge reality.
  • Projection - perceiving difficult feelings and impulses as being caused by others and not coming from the self.
  • Introjection - taking the thoughts or actions of another and perceiving them as coming from the self.
  • Acting out - using impulsive action to avoid experiencing intense emotions.
  • Regression - returning to an earlier developmental stage to avoid pain.
  • Splitting - an inability to integrate positive and negative parts of self into a whole and complete person, and seeing others as 100% good or 100% bad.
  • Somatization - feeling intense emotions as physical symptoms.
  • Hypochondria - experiencing difficult emotions as an exaggerated physical illness.

Additional immature defenses include (Granieri, 2017):

  • Passive Aggression - indirectly expressing difficult emotions through annoyance or anger without communicating specific needs.
  • Isolation - avoidance of the situations or people who remind us of our intense emotions.
  • Devaluation - perceiving the impact of intense emotions as less than they are through reduction, minimization or underestimation.
  • Retreating into Fantasy - indulging in complex daydreaming and fantasy creation in an effort to avoid direct problem solving.

Neurotic defense mechanisms function similarly to our immature defenses, yet are distinct in that they use higher level cognitive processes to redirect difficult emotions onto safer, less threatening people or objects (Granieri, 2017). Such defenses include (Wheeler, 2022):

  • Displacement - shifting emotions from a person or object onto one that is less distressing.
  • Dissociation - subconsciously alteration of our level of consciousness to avoid emotional distress.
  • Intellectualization - using intelligence to create distance between ourselves and intimacy or difficult emotions.
  • Rationalization - using logic or reason to create explanations for challenging thoughts and emotions.
  • Reaction Formation - combating an unpleasant impulse by engaging in the opposite behavior.
  • Repression - withholding feelings or thoughts deemed unacceptable from the conscious mind.

Mature defense mechanisms are described in detail on the adaptives page, available by clicking here.

Impact of Maladaptives on the Self 

When maladaptives are used as the primary tool for how we interact with our environments, it endangers our emotional, social and physical health (Pietrangelo, 2020)

By using maladaptives, we are opting to cope with stressors in ways that increase our discomfort and anxiety, are not congruent with our own personal values and beliefs, and that may not resolve the stressor in a tangible manner (Weiner, 2010). Our coping may be primitive or harsh, which can harm relationships and diminish positive self evaluation (Wadsworth, 2015). The act of expressing our negative feelings and beliefs to others in maladaptive ways can serve to amplify negative emotion and its adverse effects (Brown, 2005).

Socially, we may elect to withdraw from others through daydreaming or avoidance, which prevents us from building healthy, reciprocal relationships that will make us resilient to stressors in the future (Miller, 2018). Maladaptives may lead us to engage in risky behaviors that endanger our physical health, or may lead to episodes of anger or anxiety that overload our fight/flight/freeze/fawn response (Weiner, 2010). This frequent state of physical expenditure can lead to fatigue and exhaustion (Potter, 2020).

There is a strong correlation between maladaptives like rumination and the state of depression, which comes with its own challenging physical and emotional symptoms (Thompson, 2010). Maladaptives like avoidance are associated with poorer social functioning and a reduction in quality of life. When maladaptives are favored over adaptive strategies, there is little room for resilience and an increased likelihood that future stressors will become overwhelming (Tate, 2004). Those who use maladaptives are also at an increased risk of substance abuse and other self harm behaviors (Metzger, 2017). 

Impact of Maladaptives on Others

When we engage in maladaptive behaviors, we limit our ability to overcome problems in life and reduce our ability to influence the environment around us (Compas, 2001). This prevents us from acting as a social support for others, and prevents us from fully resolving the stressors we encounter, increasing the burden placed on others who are impacted by those stressors. The families of those who use maladaptives experience reduced physical health over time and are also at an increased risk of depression (Moore, 2011).

Strategies to Overcome Maladaptives

It is absolutely possible to identify maladaptive behaviors and replace them with more productive behaviors (Pietrangelo, 2020).

Approaching maladaptives can start with a self-assessment. First, we can look at the behavior we used in the past to address major stressors in life and ask ourselves, without passing judgment:

  • What motivated my behavior?
  • Was my emotional response proportionate to the stressor?
  • Was my behavior successful in addressing the problem?
  • How did I feel after I used this behavior?
  • How did I make others feel?

Second, we assess our day-to-day interactions with others and our environment and ask ourselves, again without passing judgment:

  • Who am I interacting with and how do they make me feel?
  • What are my sources of stress?
  • What are my preferred coping strategies?
  • What do I do for others, and is that effort reciprocated?
  • What are my challenges right now?
  • What are my desired outcomes?
  • What are my needs and are my needs being met?

With a strong idea of what is working and what isn't, consider making the most of that self-reflection by engaging in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a series of interventions aimed at identifying thoughts, values, images of self and others, and personally held beliefs that are maladaptive and influence the way we see the world and behave within it. For access to CBT techniques, click here.

Another proven strategy for altering maladaptive behavior is learning socially desirable, active, adaptive and accommodative coping skills (Wadsworth, 2015). For more information on adaptive coping, click here.

We may also consider focusing some of our time and energy on increasing our capacity for emotional regulation and self-control in an effort to build resilience to future stressors (Boals, 2011). For more information on emotional regulation, click here. For more information on resiliency, click here.

Humor that is affiliative (bond-building) and self-enhancing (as opposed to self-deprecating) has been found to improve outcomes for those who use maladaptives (Thompson, 2010). For more information on humor, click here.

When considering how to manage maladaptives long term, the use of a progress journal may aid in identifying what triggers maladaptives as well as the thoughts and feelings that come up during those events. This type of experience tracking enhances the effectiveness of CBT by establishing unhelpful thinking patterns and the impact those patterns have on daily life. 

Because maladaptive behavior is deeply rooted in the pain of the past, and heavily impacts our day to day experiences, please consider reaching out to a qualified therapist with experience in the area who can help work through a self-assessment and CBT. 

Supporting Someone Who Uses Maladaptives

Because there is a broad range of behaviors that are included in the discussion of maladaptives, there is not a one size fits all approach to supporting a loved one who engages in this type of behavior. Consider returning to the challenges page of this website to see if the advice given on other pages, for example the anger and aggression page or the substance abuse page, has more specific information.

Unlearning behaviors that were harshly conditioned into someone can be an incredibly difficult challenge. There is a need for love and compassion when we undergo the task of unlearning and relearning new skills. We may consider setting aside a specific, set amount of time for our loved one where we create a safe, judgment free environment for self-reflection and new skills practice. More information on therapeutic communication is available by clicking here.

Verbalized love, support through the logistics of behavioral therapy, and encouragement when learning new skills are beautiful gifts that we can give those we care about. Yet no matter what actions we do or don't do, there are some times when we must let those dear to us make their own choices and accept their own consequences. Setting boundaries and limits on how we will interact with the person in question will preserve our emotional reserves. To learn more about boundaries, click here.