Are you someone who gets in your own way? Someone who wants things in your life to be better? You have big goals. Big dreams. Yet something always stops you from getting the ball rolling. Perhaps you want to leave a bad relationship but can’t will yourself to do it. It’s not THAT bad, you may tell yourself as you roll over in bed praying your partner doesn’t touch you. Maybe you want to lose those last 20 lbs but can’t keep yourself from rummaging through the fridge once the kids are in bed. I work hard, I deserve to treat myself, you think to yourself as you make yourself an enormous ice cream sundae. Or maybe you have been putting off looking for a new job for months now even though you know you are in a dead-end situation. I don’t want to write this cover letter or get back on LinkedIn. It is so boring looking for a job and so much work, you may mutter to yourself. That side hustle you want to start? Every weekend you tell yourself, next weekend I will start, I am exhausted-it’s been a long week, where’s the remote? Comfort eating, procrastination, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, self-injurious behaviors…these are all the common forms of self-sabotage we may recognize in ourselves and others.
But what about the less obvious forms of self-sabotage? Talking yourself out of something before you even TRY. Comparing yourself to others. Being NEGATIVE. Ignoring problems. Being arrogant. Lying (to yourself AND others). Gossiping. Chasing away healthy relationships. Doing what feels good NOW instead of what would be best for later. Being stuck in fear. Keeping unhealthy, toxic relationships in your life. Being addicted to your phone. Being too modest. And the list goes on and on.
There are a multitude of reasons why people self-sabotage. But for many people who grew up in a less than perfect family or experienced a less than ideal childhood, the answer may lie there in how and why you self-sabotage.
During childhood, many of us experience pain of different kinds. I am not talking about the falling off your bike pain or getting hit in the head by a ball in gym class type pain. I am talking about emotional and psychological pain. Even if we grew up in a relatively healthy and functioning family, we may have went to school and experienced criticism from our peers ie the bullies at school. No one escapes being emotionally hurt. It is a part of growing up and is a part of life.
I am not a big believer of blaming your parents or your childhood for problems in your adult life. Of course once you are an adult it is on YOU to take 100% responsibility for your life and the results you achieve. Yet many of us DO experience psychological pain during childhood–including from our parents who shape so much of our early worlds. And many of us are still being effected by their words and actions. While we may get picked on at school (which leaves its own type of scars)–it doesn’t resonate quite the same as when you get picked on in your own home. Perhaps you had a perfectionist mom or a sharp-tongued father. They may have meant well and had your best intentions at heart–but their words still HURT.
It is likely you can still reflect back to the criticizing, the shaming, the way the words they said made you feel like you were not good enough. A mom who told you, “Do you really need ANOTHER piece of cake?” A dad who in passing let you know, “This won’t cut it, son–our family doesn’t GET B’s–you better smarten up.” They meant well. Most parents do. Mom wanted you to be mindful of your weight–maybe she saw you were gaining a few pounds and didn’t want you getting picked on at school. Dad wanted you to excel in school because he knew how competitive it would be to get into a good college and believed B’s just wouldn’t get you there. Their reasons and intentions may have been good–but that doesn’t matter. Because when you experienced their words the underlying message was who you were was not measuring up to THEIR standards. As you grew up you began to internalize all those comments that didn’t quite sit right with you.
Or maybe your parents’ words were NOT directed at you. But they directed negativity at themselves and you overheard and absorbed it. Maybe you had a self-loathing mother. Perhaps mom often spoke of how fat she was, how she COULD have been this, or COULD have done that. Her words depicted she felt weak or like a failure. The message from her still resonates. Mom was not happy with herself and did not feel like she was ENOUGH. Children are like sponges and it is easy to internalize this type of caustic self-talk. If a kid hears their parent speaking of him or herself in a self-deprecating way, giving the message that they themselves are not good enough, how could they possible feel like they are good enough? If mom or dad aren’t good enough, no way I can be.
You may find as an adult, you are now your own worst critic. Telling yourself similar messages to which you heard from your parents as a child. You shame yourself when you eat just a LITTLE too much because mom always let you know girls aren’t supposed to eat a lot (which by the way ladies, we all know isn’t true because food is GREAT). Or maybe you never were quite able to get those A’s in school–no matter how hard you tried. Doing well academically was just not in the cards for you (which is fine–school is not the only indicator of intelligence). Or perhaps you, like your mom, find yourself nowadays feeling not quite enough (a message that is sadly perpetuated in our society). Worse, you may find that you are doing to your own children, what your parents did to you. Maybe you, like your father, find yourself getting on your son’s back about his grades not being “good enough.” You don’t want to model this behavior for your kids. But you can’t help yourself.
Why do we engage in this type of self-destructive behavior? It does have its payoffs. Self-sabotage is a form of control. Even if the outcome is not what we desire, when we self-sabotage we are ensuring the outcome, albeit a negative one. It may not be the outcome we want, but nevertheless, we are in control of it. We may find ourselves not only sabotaging ourselves but our relationships with others. For those of us who fear change, this can bring about a comfort of some sorts (better the devil you know, right). Change can be scary even positive change. Happiness can feel unsettling for those of us who are use to sabotaging ourselves. If you become happy, something can happen and it can be taken away. Maybe you don’t want to deal with the disappointment or loss of that feeling. Better to never have it than to have it and lose it, right? Success can seem threatening–once you achieve a goal then the struggle is on to maintain that level of success. This can be intimidating. On some level, you may even believe you deserve to fail.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.
How can we overcome self-sabotage?
1)Become aware. Figure out the ways you are screwing yourself over. Reflect back on your life up to now including the way your family of origin is still impacting your day-to-day psychology. Human nature has a way of repeating the familiar even if it is negative and unhealthy. Becoming aware of the way your life history is repeating itself is a good first step to changing. Next, you need to stop the excuses and rationalizations. Stop telling yourself you don’t have the time. Often I hear people say they are too “busy” for something–but we are never too busy for what is important to us. Stop telling yourself it is “too hard.” Too often we psych ourselves out before we even start. We think to ourselves if we keep our expectations low, we can’t be disappointed, we can’t fail. This type of mindset tends to stem from childhood. Self-awareness is key if you want to end self-sabotage.
2)Become okay with not being accepted. It is a strong need for many of us to be accepted by others and “fit in.” Having a desire to be accepted can come at the expense of being successful in the pursuit of your goals. Maybe you had parents who weren’t very successful. Maybe most of your family and friends are struggling with making ends meet. Becoming successful may feel like a betrayal to them. Perhaps you feel if they witness your success, they may feel inadequate and reject you. Remember these fears may not be conscious but subconsciously driving your behavior. The sad truth is the flip side of acceptance is rejection. It is easier for people to reject you or try to bring you down rather than work on building themselves up. On some level you may fear losing valued relationships in your life if you were able to successfully reach your goals and bring your life to the next level.
3)Become comfortable with uncertainty. We live in an increasingly fast paced world. If you want to thrive, you need to become comfortable with change, and things changing rapidly. If you resist change, you will only create suffering for yourself. The need for certainty is going to limit your ability to progress in life and guarantee you fail at reaching your goals. Why? Because in order to have “certainty” things need to be predictable and stay the same. Self-sabotage is a form of certainty–you know you will fail but you won’t have to deal with the stress of changing. You also don’t have to worry about the reactions you may receive from those closest to you as you become more accomplished. Even a spouse can become threatened when their partner starts making big moves. These are sad truths we may not want to admit. Certainty over success can be a driving force for many of us. The need to be certain all but ensures you will sabotage yourself. Avoiding uncertainty means trying to create an environment you can control, trying to control other people, and struggling to stay in control of yourself. Control is an illusion. We all like to think we can influence our environment and those around us but the fact of the matter is you can only control yourself. Thinking otherwise is a form of self-sabotage. Let go of your illusion of control if you want to put an end to your self-destructive ways.
4)Lose your self-importance. A prime psychological need is significance. Who amongst us doesn’t want to be important or feel significant? We achieve significance in different ways and what significance means is largely subjective. But if you want to be important and significant, at the expense of all else, you have a recipe for disaster. Why? Because to be the most important, you are inherently comparing yourself to others. To be the most important you either need to surround yourself with people with less ability than yourself (which is self-sabotaging in and of itself) OR pretend you have more capability than you do. Neither of these components lay the groundwork for bettering yourself.
4)Challenge your thoughts. We are creatures of habits. We think something for long enough, we are going to resist changing our perspective on it. Humans are lazy. We often don’t want to think (or work) too hard. Challenging your viewpoints can seem daunting. To overcome self-sabotage, you need to begin to look at the ways your self-talk has become negative. Are you a cynic? Do you write yourself and others off before even giving it a chance? Figure out if your goals are obtainable–and if the way you look at things are grounded in reality. Listen, we all look at people who are Pollyannas as not living in quote, “reality,” seeing their over the top optimism as dooming them to failure. But someone who is a negative curmudgeon is not necessarily grounded in reality either. A lot of things in life are neutral and whether we deem it as good or bad is largely based on our perceptions. If pessimism is what is driving you, you may want to reevaluate. Pessimism is a form of psychological self-sabotage. Try to find that happy middle ground between hoping for the best and expecting the worst.
5)Recognize your negative patterns and what drives your behavior. What are you triggers? Stress at work? Conflict with your spouse? Your kid not getting his homework done? What is the catalyst for you sabotaging your goals? It is different for all of us. I know when I have a really stressful work day, I come home and want to dive into the Ben and Jerry’s (with rainbow sprinkles and a cherry, of course, because that is LIVING). Yet I needed to learn a new way to deal with my stress to replace that negative behavior of coming home to pig out. For me, I found listening to podcasts on a topic I ENJOY on my drive home, breaks me away from whatever it was stressing me out that day. What used to happen was after a stressful work day, I would drive home ruminating over what was upsetting me. All that did was amp up my stress level (and make me hungrier, of course). Figuring out your patterns of behavior is a must if you want to stop tripping yourself up. Finding new ways to cope with stress can also help to drop your baseline level of stress. It is interesting to me, as a psychotherapist, to see how many of us are struggling with our coping skills as adults.
6)Stop worrying about what isn’t yours to manage. Let other people manage their lives. Your friend who always calls with a crisis that lasts in a two-hour phone call? Let her work it out on her own this time. Your sister who is always asking you to help with her kids? Let her hire a baby sitter or ask someone else this time. Your coworker who asks you to help them last-minute with their proposals? Let them know you don’t have the time this week. Your kid who has a project due tomorrow that he hasn’t even STARTED? Let him deal with the consequences for once instead of stepping in to get it done. Try staying in your lane and you will begin to feel a sense of balance in your life. We cannot continue to be everything to everyone.
7)Be selective in who you keep in your inner circle. The sad fact is there are people in our lives who don’t want us to succeed. Whether it is from their own insecurity, self-hatred, or just the simple fact if they see you do better, somehow that makes them feel “less than” and they will go down a notch on their perceived hierarchy. Or perhaps there are people in your life who have you boxed into a certain role and they do not want to remove you from that box because of how it would make THEM feel. Whatever the root cause may be, it doesn’t matter. It is a nasty truth about human nature. People feel envy and jealousy towards people–even people they claim to love. Think about the “friend” who knows your on a diet, yet offers you candy and chips every chance she gets. Or maybe she asks you to go to happy hour afer work when you JUST told her you are hitting up the gym. It is even possible you start to see the pounds drop off and this “friend” is telling anyone who will listen that you are on diet pills or had liposuction to lose the weight. Anything she can to take away from your hard work and belittle your accomplishments. The reality is some people will always try to tear down others to elevate themselves. This is not good for the mind OR the soul. Keeping those people in your life is not going to support you being the best version of yourself.
Self-sabotage is preventable. It often stems from our fears and patterns in our life that can be traced back to our early beginnings. Looking back at our childhood and the way it is still playing out in our lives TODAY can be a game changer. Looking at the people we surround ourselves with and if they are lifting us up or bringing up down is a must. Reflecting on what is driving us and a reevaluation to see if we have our priorities right. It is time to end your self-sabotage by getting out of your own way.