Thinking About Self-Sabotage

I barely slept last night. I kept thinking about how a month ago, coming into my birthday, I was in such a great place- emotionally, physically and professionally. However, over the last few weeks I have noticed old patterns emerging. Unhelpful, self-sabotaging patterns. This was extremely confusing for me- on paper, everything seems to be going great. Yet, as I laid in the dark, trying to understand why the patterns were returning- I started to notice a dark and deep feeling of unease.

I had to take some time to reflect on what was going on, and I think I got it. I made some fairly big changes in my life recently. The one biggest one is that I went from being an employee with a relatively secure job with benefits and a pension- to becoming an entrepreneur. Although I love working for myself, it is change, and it is scary. As I reflected and meditated, I noticed my old gremlins in full force. “Who are you to think you can do this? What if you get sick? What if you don’t put enough money aside for taxes? What if… “, and the list goes on. These are valid ‘what ifs’, I mean, I am a single parent, on a single income. If I don’t make it- well, we will suffer. So, it is uncomfortable, and I feel raw with vulnerability- sickened by the thoughts of failure. Having labeled the cause of my unease, I can now address it. I remind myself that there are no guarantees, and that should I fail, I will find another job and we will be okay.

This had me thinking about self-sabotage, which is a theme that comes up often in sessions. Why is it so easy to step back into patterns that we want so desperately to stop? Why do we self-sabotage? When behaviours create problems or interfere with our goals and/or values, they are seen to be self-sabotaging behaviours.  Some of the most common ones include (but are not limited to): procrastination, emotional eating, self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol, shopping and self-injury. When we are in our Wise Mind, we know these behaviours only provide short-term relief, and are usually not in line with our long-term goals. The thing is, they do work, in the moment, and this needs to be acknowledged if we are ever to truly be free of them. If there was no payoff, we would no longer use them.

Many individuals are not aware of their own self-sabotaging behaviours, or at the very least- the extent of the damage they are causing. Self-sabotage can impact more than just ourselves and our self-worth; they often also have negative impacts on careers, relationships, and on our communities. The damage to ourselves is usually deep- like a slow rot taking over our bodies, souls and minds. They serve to reinforce storylines we have- like “I’m not good enough”, “I always mess things up”, or any other story you may have going on. The stories stem from our experiences, all the way from our childhood and the various experiences we have throughout our lives. We start to make connections, and believe, “This is just who I am- there is nothing to be done”. I wholeheartedly disagree- and the research supports this ten-fold!

So how do we go from engaging in automatic responses when stressors are pushing on us? When the various competing priorities become a little too much to effectively navigate? Or when we are faced with loss, fear, sadness, disappointment- or any of the hard and uncomfortable emotions we will inevitably need to face over the course of our lives? The first step is the awareness. Using a beginner’s mind– get curious about your patterns. What are your self-sabotaging behaviours? When do they sneak up? What are the triggers? As you do this, try to do so from a non-judgmental and compassionate lens. This is not an exercise to beat yourself up- this is information gathering. Once you have labeled the problematic behaviour(s) (I have a whole list of them!!), try the Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) tool: the pros and cons of unhelpful coping strategies. I would suggest doing one for each separate behaviour- if you are like me, you have more than one.

Now this is not your usual pros and cons list.  You want to ensure you are in a Wise Mind state. In other words, ensure you are not feeling overly emotional as you complete this exercise. Come up with the benefits (pros) of engaging in the self-sabotaging behaviours. Be as honest as you can be- there are payoffs, what are they?  You should be able to come up with a good size list of pros. Next, you will make a list of the cons of engaging in the self-sabotaging behaviours. Again, take your time and be honest, ensuring you are exploring the many areas of your life where the behaviours are having a negative impact. Once you have these two lists, you will now explore the pros of not giving in to the urges of the problematic behaviour. This list may seem similar to the cons, it is a little different, go with it. What are the pros of NOT GIVING IN- of not using the unhelpful coping mechanism? Next, the cons of not giving in to the behaviour. Again- take your time with these two pros/cons, and ensure you are being honest with yourself. Now you should have pros and cons of using the behaviours at the top of the page, and then the pros and cons of not using the behaviours underneath. Once you have done this, take a few minutes to assess which are short-term impacts/cons/pros and which are long-term impacts/cons/pros.

The benefit of doing this exercise is you now have information: the motivation behind the behaviours, and how they impact you and/or those around you. The next time you notice the urge to self-sabotage, you can look at your list and choose whether or not to do it. To be honest, there are times, once I do my pause and explore, that I may still choose to use the behaviour. However, this is now a choice I am making rather than blindly engaging in it. That is the gift of the ‘pause’- breathing deeply and acknowledging you are at a choice point- you get to choose how to respond to the discomfort rather than simply reacting to it. Having the list and seeing what you wrote, and how they might impact your long-term goals- is a game changer.

My favourite mindfulness quote is:

Mindfulness gives you time. Time gives you choices. Choices, skillfully made, lead to freedom. You don’t have to be swept away by your feelings.

~ Bhante H Gunaratana~

I invite you try and see if you can break free from automatic self-sabotaging behaviours that are no longer in line with who you are, and the life you want to live.