How to change self-destructive behaviors using the Three Circles exercise

Self-destructive behaviors can be anything from addiction to biting your nails, negative thoughts or procrastinating.

These damaging behaviors can be small or they can take on a life of their own and limit you in so many ways.

They can hold you back from reaching your goals, having fulfilling relationships, career growth, and simple life happiness.

If you want to make lasting change in your life, you need to work hard to rid your life of these self-destructive behaviors.

What are Self-destructive behaviors?

Self-destructive behaviors are usually a dysfunctional coping mechanism. Subconsciously or consciously, it is a person’s way of dealing with the burden and emotions of psychological or physical trauma.

It’s not easy, in fact, it’s probably the hardest thing for any human being to deal with and overcome but the rewards for doing so can be huge.

Types of self-destructive/bad behaviors

Bad behaviors are not always just the big ones like substance abuse, addiction, cruelty or cheating. They can be small behaviors that sabotage your day, your goals and dreams or your relationships in small ways. They can also be big ugly behaviors that put you and your health in harm’s way.

Here are some examples of self-destructive behaviors from some of the most damaging to smaller behaviors that don’t serve you.

  • Drinking alcohol
  • Overeating
  • Cutting yourself
  • Becoming violent toward others
  • Avoiding other people or isolating yourself
  • Substance abuse
  • Engaging in disordered eating (for example, fasting or purging)
  • Gambling
  • Throwing things
  • Engaging in dangerous sexual practices (for instance, having unprotected sex or having sex with someone you just met)
  • Using sleep to escape
  • Threatening or Attempting suicide
  • Threatening others
  • Pulling out your hair
  • Repetitive negative thoughts
  • Anxiety and inner conflict
  • Anger and bitterness
  • Self-hatred or hatred towards others
  • Self-pity or shame
  • Smoking
  • Cheating
  • Guilt tripping
  • An attitude of moral superiority
  • Pouting
  • Eating fast food
  • Fidgeting
  • Overworking
  • Emotional eating
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Passive aggressiveness
  • Manipulation
  • Conflict avoidance
  • Procrastination
  • Lying

There are many other habits and behaviors that don’t serve us but I think this list above gives you a good idea of some of the most common ones.

If you want more, check out the Big List of Bad Habits. I found this list helped me identify other habits and behaviors I may want to focus on changing.

The effects and impacts of Self-destructive behaviors

Self-destructive behaviors can have massive ongoing and lasting effects on your life.

Here are just some of the impacts bad behaviors can have.

Self-destructive behavior draws you to other people with the same or similar behaviors.

Like attracts like. If you want to have relationships with mature, emotionally healthy, authentic people, you need to consistently be one yourself.

You’ve probably heard of the saying; “Misery loves company“.

This simple phrase means that people who are in a bad mood, angry, complaining about something, or have some negative emotion in their consciousness, want to share what they are feeling with others so that they can relate to and associate with people who feel the same way.

It’s very counterproductive since sharing the “misery” doesn’t alleviate it but tends to reinforce and escalate it.

Self-destructive behaviors lead to poor self-esteem.

The shame cycle that can come with bad behaviors that don’t serve you can be very hard to cope with.

Repetitive thoughts like comparing yourself to others, negative self-talk, identifying as a victim and holding grudges against yourself all feed into having poor self-esteem.

Low self-esteem can make you sabotage your ideas, your decisions, and your relationships. It can influence you to settle for relationships in which you’re treated in a way that matches your beliefs about yourself.

Left unchecked, poor self-esteem can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression so it’s important to work on stopping self-destructive behaviors that affect your self-worth.

“You are worth it!”

Self-destructive behaviors push people away.

If your behaviors are pushing people away, this can lead to isolation and depression. It has been proven that relationships are the key to lifelong happiness.

For close to 80 years, Harvard University researchers have studied the lives of the same group of men and found that “those who were happiest and healthier reported strong interpersonal relationships, while those who were isolated had declines in mental and physical health as they aged.”

So if you have behaviors that push people away, it’s important you start focusing on changing this.

My experience with self-destructive behaviors.

I was sexually abused before I was 10 years old and this traumatic experience set me on a very self-destructive path of alcohol and drug addiction for over a decade.

It wasn’t until my late 20s that I had had enough. I was struggling with addiction, depressed, frustrated with my relationships and where my life was at and the direction I was headed. I needed a change and with the help of my partner and some great counselors and therapists, I finally started to get the help I needed to set my life in a more healthy and productive direction.

One of the best tools I learned about when I was doing this work was the Three Circles Exercise.

It’s a simple tool that helped me start to identify self-destructive behaviors and set in motion the change I needed to stop and focus more on behaviors and habits that were going to help me recover and become a better version of myself.

What is the Three Circles Exercise?

The Three Circles is an exercise used by recovering addicts to describe and define behaviors that lead either to a relapse into or recovery from addictive behaviors.

Various recovery programs encourage recovering addicts to complete the three circle exercise to help them identify behaviors that promote or endanger their sobriety.

Here is an example of what the Three Circles diagram looks like for someone struggling with a gambling addiction.


A tool for addiction or any habit changes

It’s a great tool for addiction recovery but it’s also a great tool for helping anyone identify and change any self-damaging behavior.

How to change your self-damaging behaviors

Any behavioral change takes discipline, patience, and practice.

The key to any lasting behavioral change requires four things. Observation, Analysis, strategizing and taking action.

Praxis is the ancient Greek word to describe; “the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realized.

Praxis is a four-stage process that includes;

  1. Observing your own actions and their effects
  2. Analyzing what you observe
  3. Strategizing an action plan
  4. Taking action on your plan

You can use the Three Circles exercise to help with this process.

How do use the Three Circles to help you change your self-destructive behaviors

Before we jump in, print off this free Three Circles template so you can do your own exercise. (Right-click on the image to save it and print it out)

The Three Circles Exercise

What is the meaning of each of the Three Circles?

Inner Circle

The Inner Circle is where you list the behaviors that you want to stop engaging in. These are the bad behavior and or habits you want to stop. For addicts, engaging in any of these “inner circle” behaviors would result in a loss of sobriety.

If addiction isn’t your self-destructive behavior, engaging in any of these inner circle behavior simply means you are not moving in the right direction.

Middle Circle

The Middle Circle is where you list “boundary behaviors” or as I like to call them “Gateway habits”. These include behaviors that may lead you to the inner circle behaviors. These are behaviors, habits, situations or other triggers that might make you engage in Inner Circle behaviors.

Examples of middle-circle behaviors include not getting enough sleep, overwork, procrastination, etc.

Outer Circle

The Outer Circle is where you list healthy behaviors that lead you away from the bad behaviors listed in the inner circle. Examples include taking care of yourself, doing activities that help you, spiritual reading, writing, sports etc.

The things in your Outer circle are the habits and behaviors you want to do and do more of.

Getting Started

With your Three Circles Template in front of you, start with the inner circle.

Using the Praxis process described above, you need to go into the Observe activity. The core skills you are using here are self-awareness and self-monitoring. The only way to get the answers you need to make the changes you want is through the brutal honesty of yourself and your behaviours through self-monitoring.

If you want this to work, do the work.

Step1 Inner Circle

The inner circle should answer this question.

What self-destructive behaviors do I want to stop or reduce significantly?

Deciding what goes in this circle is about the self-destructive behaviors we talked about above. You can use the Big List of Bad Habits. to to help you think about yourself and see what habits/behaviors you have that you want to break.

Just start writing. Don’t try to make a perfect list. Just get out of your head what you can and get it on to the diagram.

Step 2 Middle-Circle

The middle circle should answer this question.

What behaviors may lead me to the inner circle behaviors?

These are behaviors that I call gateway behaviors. For example, if you want to stop drinking alcohol, a middle-circle behavior might be going to the pub. These are behaviors that are much less destructive and weaker in intensity. They cause you much less of a problem but tend to lead you back to the inner circle behaviors.

You can also put behaviors about which you are unsure in this category.

Step 3 Outer-Circle

The outer circle should answer this question.

What healthy behaviors lead me away from the self-destructive behaviors in my inner circle and the gateway behaviors in my middle circle?

Write down the things you do that enhance your life and help you move towards your goal of eliminating the behavior or habit. Write down activities that support you and your goals for a healthy and happy life.

These are the activities you should do more of and spend more of your time focused on these things. Examples include working out, reading, learning new things, relationships with positive people, reading and more. Focus on things that make you a better person and contribute to your goals.

In Summary

Remember, your circles can and will change as you learn more about your behaviors and as you make a meaningful change in your life.

Keep your completed Three Circles worksheet close by so that you can re-read it daily to help remind you of what you are trying to do. Change takes time and repetition so the more you keep this information top of mind, the quicker and more likely it is the change will happen and last for you.

You may want to add reviewing your three circles as part of your morning routine as this is the fastest and easiest way to get the changes to stick.

The Three Circles Exercise has helped many people suffering from Self-destructive behaviors, especially addiction which in my opinion is the hardest of all behaviors to overcome.

I hope this has helped you in some way and if you have any question, leave me a comment or reach me on Twitter.


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