Have you ever tried to reach a goal like losing weight, getting a new job, curbing overspending, or finding a satisfying relationship, only to be disappointed when your efforts didn’t bring you any closer to your dreams? Have you ever avoided getting close to people, or wanted to connect with someone so badly that your insecurity and neediness scared them off? Have you ever gotten in trouble for poor money management, or found it hard to do what it takes to move your career to the next level? Have you ever stopped and thought, “Why did I do that?” after you reached for the cookies instead of something healthy, or when a break from a work project turned into a binge-watching session that left you bleary-eyed and behind on deadlines?
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re stuck in a cycle of self-sabotage. Simply defined, self-sabotage shows up as thoughts and/or behaviors that undermine our best interests and conscious intentions. It’s a phrase many of us throw around in casual conversation, and a phenomenon we easily identify in the lives of our friends and loved ones. Even so, many of us invite the harmful, inhibiting, defeating effects of self-sabotage into our own lives without even realizing it. Because self-sabotage often works behind the scenes, in the moment, we are oblivious to what we’re doing and how we’ve gotten in our own way. And, these self-defeating patterns tend to rear their ugly heads just when you are at your most stressed, or feeling crappy, or stretched too thin. Even the most successful people may engage in self-sabotage in one or more areas of their life—maybe you have a rewarding career and solid marriage, but can’t seem to keep up an exercise routine, or maybe you’re a social butterfly and keep great company except when it comes to romantic partners.
Over time, self-sabotage saps our motivation and drive. When we fail time and again to achieve our goals, but can’t identify why, we become frustrated, defeated, and stop trying. But there is a way out, and you can do something to stop these behaviors today.
First, realize that self-sabotage is common. We all do it from time to time, and the impetus to self-sabotage is rooted in our biology, because as humans we have to achieve rewards and avoid threat. When these two main drives are in balance, all is good. But, sometimes, we start to prioritizing avoiding threat (not just physical, but in the present day, these threats are more psychological or emotional). For example, we might fear rejection from a loved one, being embarrassed during public speaking, or failing at a new job. And this causes us to hit that self-sabotage trigger and do things that take us away from our goals.
Second, understand what your particular brand of self-sabotage is. I’ve come up with an acronym, LIFE, to help identify the factors that impact you the most. L is for Low or shaky self-esteem, I is for Internalized beliefs from childhood, F is for Fear of the unknown, and E is for Excessive need for control. Some people find themselves in one of these factors, or a mixture of the four.
Once you’ve identified your LIFE factor(s), it’s time to pay attention to your thoughts. After all, every behavior is preceded by a thought, even if you didn’t notice that thought to begin with. So, take stock in what you’re thinking. When you are about to reach for that second serving of cake, stop and ask, “What was I thinking just before this?”
Knowing your thoughts that drive you to self-sabotage will lead to the next step, which is to replace the unhelpful behavior with a more productive one. Once you know the kind of thoughts that trigger you to do self-sabotaging behaviors, you can try to change that thought to a more helpful one (instead of thinking “One more slice of cake won’t matter,” perhaps ask yourself instead “Do I really want or need this second piece of cake?”). You can then pick an alternate action that will bring you closer to your goals. For example, instead of reaching for that piece of cake, go for a quick walk around the block instead. The key is to select an alternate behavior that gets in the way of the original, problematic behavior. So watching TV wouldn’t be a good example for this scenario, because that’s when most people eat mindlessly—while they’re watching a show on their couch.
Finally, always approach your decisions from a values-driven place. Values are what you want your life to stand for and what you want to be remembered by. Unlike goals, they can’t be checked off a list, but are things you believe are core to who you are. For example, a goal is to run a marathon, whereas values include integrity, adventurousness, and continuous learning. So, when in doubt and when you recognize that a potential self-sabotaging act is lurking, ask yourself, “Would this action honor my values?” If not, don’t proceed, and choose another action instead that is consistent with who you want to be and how you want to be remembered.
I hope these quick tips have given you a start to stopping self-sabotage in your life! Good luck, and I would love to hear your stories of overcoming this pattern in whatever area you are struggling in.