The other day, a dear friend and I were having a very meaningful conversation about facing our traumas, what it’s like to hit rock bottom and how to rebuild from it. We talked about our personal goals and the amount of effort and hard work it has already taken and/or will take to meet them. Something about that conversation really stuck with me, and got me reflecting quite a bit about my past setbacks and failures and how my own behavior had contributed to that outcome.
How many times had I promised myself to not procrastinate but gave into a Netflix binge instead? How often had I told myself to eat healthier, exercise more but gave into that Mcdonald’s craving? How many times did I vow to finally get started on that home renovation project but went and hung out with friends instead? Countless times had I steeled my resolve, but life got busy and those goals became a distant memory. If any of that sounded familiar to you, you’re not alone. It’s easy to let our intentions slide when we all have so much to juggle, but it’s also important to realize that these are what psychologists call “self-sabotaging behaviors”.
What exactly is self-sabotage? It sounds destructive and extreme, but it’s simply when we undermine our own goals and values. It’s when there’s something out there in the world that you genuinely want to achieve and believe is good for you (such as career advancement), but then you do things that directly conflict with attaining that goal (e.g. slack off at work). It’s really common, and we are all prone to it, either consciously or unconsciously. Conscious self-sabotage is when you KNOW what you’re doing is undermining your goals but you still do it; unconscious self-sabotage is when you only realize until after.
Like I mentioned earlier, everybody engages in self-sabotaging behaviors, but what exactly does it look like? The seriousness of the self-sabotage varies in degrees from person to person. For some, it’s an occasional act, for others, it could be affecting their lives. Common forms include:
- Procrastination. The most universal form of self-sabotage, we often give into instant gratification and end up delaying something we know we should be doing.
- Substance Abuse. Alcohol or drug abuse is another common form whereby we pick the short term release it offers, despite its interference with long-term goals.
- Chronic Lateness. Look out for people that are always showing up late, it could be a sign they are self-sabotaging as it can lead to strained relationships or potentially get them in trouble in the professional field.
- Stress Eating. Many people eat as a way to deal with stress and anxiety, despite knowing it doesn’t serve their purpose of having a healthy diet.
- Intimacy and Commitment Issues. People struggling with emotional vulnerability will try to intentionally abandon or ruin healthy relationships for fear of getting hurt again.
All of these behaviors are completely normal. It should only be a cause for concern when it becomes a consistent pattern with detrimental effects, that’s when you need to dive deeper.
So, why do we self-sabotage when we know it’s bad for us? Well, we’re all unique and complicated as hell, so there’s no universal reason why self-sabotage happens. Our journey and our struggles all differ, but the self-sabotage act ultimately serves a function – there’s an underlying need it’s filling – and in order to cut this unhealthy behavior for good, the key is to understand why and what it is. The only way to find out that answer, is to be compassionate with yourself.
Step 1: Pinpoint the underlying issue.
Most of us who are trying to change a habit adopt a strict “get my shit together” attitude. But being “tough” on yourself is yet another form of self-sabotage (well, shit) because it leaves no room for mistakes and setbacks. We are only human, so when we have setbacks, our disappointment triggers a cycle of more self-sabotaging behaviors. Therefore, the key to identifying the underlying reason is to be self-compassionate and understanding, dig deep! For example, if you want to stop abusing alcohol, you need to compassionately understand that alcohol “serves” to alleviate work stress. If you want to stop procrastinating, you need to compassionately understand that it “serves” to help you avoid fear of failure. Once you understand the real issue, you can come up with new behaviors to replace it.
Step 2: Find new (healthy) behaviors as a replacement.
With a clear understanding of what the real issue is, find a healthy behavior to replace the self-sabotage with. For example, instead of drinking alcohol to alleviate stress, go for a walk instead. It provides stimulation, you can listen to music, and there’s an extra element of exercise involved. If a new idea doesn’t instinctively come to you, do a little research, or ask your friends and family for advice.
Step 3: Consider potential obstacles and have a contingency plan.
Life is dotted with unknowns, and things don’t always go according to plan, so you need to anticipate obstacles and create a backup plan when you begin to adopt those new behaviors. Prepare for different scenarios.
Step 4: Build up your tolerance for uncomfortable feelings.
The true test in changing self-sabotage behaviors is your emotional tolerance. You need to be comfortable with discomfort. Identify the negative emotion that arises when you don’t give in to your old self-sabotage, such as: frustration, restlessness, sadness, fear, etc. Look for other places in your life where that emotion comes up, and practice tolerating it. For example, practice doing nothing and letting yourself feel frustrated for 10, 20, or 30 seconds. Gradually build up your tolerance.
Step 5: Add value to your new behavior.
In order to help the new healthy behavior take root, it needs to be convincing, and that’s why adding value to the behavior is an important last step. Make sure you’re clarifying your values and goals so that they paint a clear picture of what truly matters most to you and connect it with the behavior.
Lastly, there’s a funny saying that I think really applies to this situation: the saying goes, “taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster; it’s a cha-cha.” So be compassionate to yourself when you give in to bad habits after having been on a good streak, it’s part of being human. “Progress is never a straight line, but an upward zigzag.” As long as you continue to practice self-compassion and be understanding, you’ll quickly find your way towards a healthier and more productive life.