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  • Teresa McKee

Avoiding the Spiral of Self-Sabotage

Are you your own worst enemy? Do you ever start to feel like there is one common theme in your shortcomings, or your failures? Can that common denominator perhaps be you?

I do think that sometimes fate truly has things covered. Then there are other times I know that things could have gone differently if I had made a better choice, or gone down a different path. We have a lot of control over our human experience, from our daily doings, our behavior, our choices, and our ultimate outcomes.

Didn’t get that last client? Or maybe you were passed over for a promotion? Maybe there’s a long-term goal you have that just keeps getting pushed to the back burner. Have you ever stopped to question: WHY?

If you can be honest with yourself, and look at some of your short-term and long-term goals that are not being accomplished, and even your everyday behaviors, can you see that some of them are not helping you? They may not necessarily be harming you, but they certainly aren’t moving you along the path to your ultimate desired outcome.

The most common self-sabotaging behaviors include procrastination, making excuses for shortcomings, self-medication with drugs or alcohol, comfort eating, and even worse, behaviors that indicate self-destruction. These can range from substance abuse to self harm. We aren’t always aware when we are sabotaging ourselves, but the biggest indicator is identifying patterns that somehow seem to lead to stagnation, disappointment, and failure, even if they aren’t obviously doing so. So what is the cause?

Why do we continue to do this to ourselves, even if we know it isn’t going to help us in the long run? Why wouldn’t we want to do the very best for ourselves?!

The reasons can be vast, but here are a few common causes.

Fear of failure: Think about it. If you never try something, even if you really want to accomplish it, you can’t technically fail. No one will see that you weren’t capable. No one can reject you if they don’t even have the opportunity. That way, you won’t have to deal with the emotions that come with failure.

Low self-esteem: Even though it might seem ridiculous on the surface, we can feel unworthy or undeserving of success. “Of course I deserve success” might be what you tell yourself on the surface, but deep down, there could be some underlying and unresolved issue that is telling your ego that you don’t, in fact, deserve success or happiness. Self-sabotage is a way of reinforcing these negative beliefs.

Fear of success: This kind of lies in the “comfort-zone” periphery. Success, if we haven’t experienced it before, is a new territory. What does it look like? What change is it going to bring into my life? You may say to yourself “Things are fine right now…why do I want to rock the boat?” Fear of the unknown in terms of success can be crippling, preventing us from taking the steps in order to achieve it.

Lack of confidence: Tying into the fear of success, if we lack confidence in our abilities, we may self-sabotage in order to avoid having to do something we haven’t tried yet, or test a skill we have yet to use. It requires stepping out of the comfort zone and many of us really love our little comfort bubble.

There are obviously other contributing factors to self-sabotage.

The way we talk to ourselves is a big one. If we are constantly telling ourselves that we are not good enough or that we will never succeed, we may start to pave the way to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also, if we lean toward perfectionism we may have a high occurrence of self-sabotage because we have a fear of not meeting our own impossibly high standards.

So, let’s talk about some solutions. Before I give you some tips on overcoming self-sabotaging behaviors, I want to point out that it's important to seek help from a mental health professional if you or someone you know is struggling with self-destructive behavior. This can range from serious depression to self harm and even suicidal tendencies. A trained therapist can work with you to develop a treatment plan that meets your specific needs and help you achieve your goals. If you or someone you know is suffering from self-destruction, help is out there. Here are some resources for you.

Suicide Prevention Hotline or dial 988

National Mental Health Resource Hotline and

Online Mental Health Support and Therapy

If your issues don’t tend to lean toward self-destruction, but you still tend to get in your own way a lot of the time, it’s a good idea to explore the root of the issue. Taking some time for self-reflection and preparing yourself for some real truths, as hard as that may be, is very important. If we can’t be honest with ourselves, we are certainly not capable quite yet of moving forward toward growth.

I’m sure you guessed it, but practicing mindfulness can help you start to support yourself, by increasing your awareness of your thoughts and emotions, which can minimize those impulsive behaviors. So, instead of automatically reacting to the distressing thoughts, feelings, maybe the pressure of what’s looming, and say, picking up the bag of Cheetos to self-soothe, we can learn to pause and observe what’s going on within us before we act.

So what else can mindfulness do to help us stop the self-sabotage train?

Mindfulness can help us develop greater emotional regulation skills, because we are allowing ourselves to observe and understand our emotions without getting overwhelmed by them. It can help us tolerate uncomfortable emotions without acting on them or engaging in these self sabotaging or self-destructive behaviors.

One thing lacking in a lot of us is the ability to go easy on ourselves. In our society, it is drilled into us that “failure is not an option” or “show no weakness,” and is even furthered now with this “girl boss” or “hustler” mentality. But if we can’t fail, and we can’t show weakness, when do we learn, grow, and heal? We must fail. It is part of life, and part of the growth process. Mindfulness helps us build self-compassion, so instead of judging ourselves every time we make mistakes or struggle, we can learn to treat ourselves with kindness and understanding. And we can start to forgive ourselves a little easier.

Self-awareness is the key to mindfulness, and is when we start to notice patterns in our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. For example, when you know you are engaging in something that isn’t really going to be helpful to your success/happiness/goals, pause and examine what prompted you to start that ‘thing?’ Say to yourself “what feeling just ran through my body that caused me to go grab those Cheetos or that glass of wine, or binge-watch a show instead of writing my thesis?” Like, what was I actually thinking or feeling at that exact moment? By observing your patterns, you can become more aware of the internal events that lead to your self-sabotaging behavior and this is where we learn to intervene before engaging in harmful or unhelpful behaviors.

Self-regulation is closely tied to self-sabotage. If we don’t know how to regulate our emotions, we frequently turn to something outside ourselves to soothe. There are many studies on the topic, and they show that self-awareness and mindfulness are keys to adequate self-regulation.

Try to step back and take a look at your life as a neutral observer. Is it what you pictured as a child? What changed? Why? Most of us had unrealistic views of adulthood, but I am sure many of us also had dreams and visions of what we wanted. If we aren’t where we thought we would be, have we gotten in our own way?

You can accept that you are very likely doing the best you can in the moment, even if you tend to fall into self-sabotaging patterns. The key is to recognize you might be repeating a pattern that isn’t going to help you achieve what you want. And on that note, when was the last time you really asked yourself “What do I want out of my life?” You can take the easier route and be angry with yourself or full of regret for your mistakes. The harder, but more rewarding option is to choose to work on yourself, and go through some self-discovery. A lot of emotions, resistance, and ego may come up, but we are all a work in progress.

I am sure that you are a bit like me, getting so busy with the details of work, being a good parent, being a good partner, being a good friend, that I tend to forget about what I really want out of life. But ‘forgetting about it’ is one of my patterns - it doesn’t fit into my comfort zone. I can’t possibly fit something else into my life right now. Or maybe I can, I just have those fears deep down of failure. Losing sight of my purpose, my goals, is just sabotaging my success, little by little, day by day. My goals are still there, and I am learning that my roadmap for life just has some twists and turns. But the destination remains.

The key is to show yourself compassion, learn to be flexible, and to use the skills that you have in your toolbox to foster growth.

Behavioral self-regulation is the kryptonite of self-sabotage. It is “the ability to act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your deepest values.”

When was the last time you checked in with yourself and revisited those values?

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