Self Sabotage – we might be our worst enemies

I told myself “This is going to be the summer of life. This year I want my sixpack!” And just a few days later I find myself with a big spoon of Nutella in my hand. I feel guilty and bad about myself. Now, you might be nothing like me and always succeed right away in the things you want to achieve – you might be having your sixpack for years and you may never give in to cravings. You might wake up every morning at 5 am, no excuses. If that’s the case; I salute you! That is amazing work and I admire your discipline.

But chances are, you are also sabotaging yourself here and there. You may be like me, and purposefully (or possibly unconsciously) be placing some rocks within the path you are about to walk.

Studies show that by the beginning of February, about 80 % of New Years goals have been abandoned.

How come, that, despite all the good intentions, people sabotage themselves?

Self Sabotage

Self Sabotage is physical, mental or emotional self destructive behavior. It deliberately hinders our success and wellbeing by undermining personal goals and values (Your self-sabotage survival guide: How to go from why me? to why not? Career Press.).

The clinical term for self sabotage is “behavioral dysregulation” and like any behavior, the intention of our psyche is to protect us. 

It sounds counterintuitive – because at the end of the day we are hurting ourselves with behavior that hinders our growth instead of allowing for us to succeed. 

But think about this: Our psyche is a highly complex system, working to protect us at all times. If,  in the past, our destructive behavior helped us adapt to situations, if they soothed and calmed us, our psyche returns to this behavior. We are not programmed to push through, we need to work for it. We need to make a consistent effort to adapt new patterns and learn to be okay to be uncomfortable. Because our mind does not think in long term rewards – like the sixpack in 2-3 months, but it thinks of the instant gratification of the Nutella in ten seconds. Every thread to it – in this case disciplining oneself and restraining the urge – is seen as a punishment and a thread to our wellbeing.

Giving in soothes us (short term) – but destroys our self-image and motivation in the long term. We need to let go of it.

Other reasons for Self Sabotage include

The fear of failure 

it manifests in perfectionism and unrealistic expectations of ourselves. It is quite common that we are consciously or unconsciously scared to succeed. We may not even really believe that we will. Possibly the goal is so ambitious that we think we could not achieve it, so we do not take the needed actions. We procrastinate and over-think instead of taking the actions towards achieving our goals. “If we do not try, we will not fail”. 

The need for control

It is very much connected to the fear of failure. When we postpone the preparation for an assignment, like a presentation, until last minute, we at least can “reason” that the outcome was not great because we did not prepare ourselves well enough. 

Procrastination and distraction soothes our psyche. It gives us the short term signal that we are “safe”. The long term effects are harmful though. We loose respect of ourselves and reinforce the feeling of “learned helpless-ness”. We start to believe that we are not in control, that we will not succeed anyway. It becomes a spiral of negative self-thought and talk. 

A quote that stuck with me is:

“Discipline is the ultimate form of self-love. It is ignoring current pleasures for bigger rewards to come. It is loving myself enough to give myself anything I ever wanted.” 

I find this inspiring. It is my new mantra. It had been in the past, when I lost 12 kg after summers of wild indulgence. It helped me to stay on track and was a post-it on our “evil drawer” – the drawer where all the sweets were hidden.

I learned that I can be in control, so it is important to know that I can always return to it. 

And I remember it was hard. Some books and some coaches want to give us an “easy” solution – but change is hard. Evolving is hard. Growing is hard. We need to let go of the thought that everything comes to us easy, because some things just don’t.

We need to befriend ourselves with the thought that it can be hard, challenging and difficult. We got to learn to delay instant gratifications. 

We got to realize that we choose this path – and that is why it is worth the effort. 

You would, for example, never hear a vegan say that they hate not eating milk and dairies – because they chose this path. The same applies to anything that we set our minds on to.

One time I asked my mother how she endured her fasting (she used to fast on a regular basis, from one day fasting up to prolonged fasting times of many weeks). I told her I would like to do it too, but when I tried it I found it so challenging. It was hard. She replied “It can be hard. You are restraining yourself from eating. It IS difficult. It can be and it should be. Just allow to feel it”. Those words are still with me.

How to break the cycle of self sabotage

  • Admit it. 

We are all doing it at times. Even the greatest accomplishers of history had self sabotaging episodes. Own it. And realize that even though you have shown that behavior, your are not defined by it. Let go of feeling guilty for it reinforces a vicious cycle of further self destructive behavior. Simply realize that you are now doing something that is not in alignment with your overall goals and vision for your future. When we become aware of it, we stand in our power. We are in control and able to interrupt patterns that do not suit us – and reinforce those that are in alignment with our long term goals.

  • Find out your triggers

Is the self sabotage related to a certain trigger (place, person or emotion)?

There is a chance we crave something sweet while on a diet when we feel stressed or bored. For me, my worst trigger is being in front of the TV. As soon as I sit in front of it, I feel an overwhelming desire to eat. Like, really eat. Until the point of satiety has been far exceeded. My cravings are also always in the afternoon, when my energy levels are lower.

But maybe your self sabotage does not manifest in cravings; what if you are sabotaging your projects, like a deadline for a paper? Are you, out of a sudden, more concerned with the laundry that needs to be washed and a bunch of emails that need to be written? Remember that we want to lean away from the “pain” of achieving our goal (the paper), because we are afraid of it. We are afraid we may fail. Turning to do something else helps us regain control. But it is not in alignment with what we really and truly wish, so we need to learn to lean into that feeling of discomfort that comes from doing what is good for us.

Write down any triggers you notice along your path – where did it happen, when, why, what did you feel? There might be some important clues that will teach you what to stay away from while working on your long term goals. 

  • Get Comfortable being uncomfortable

Things that we really want rarely come easy. But when is anything truly rewarding ever effortless? 

Nowadays it sometimes seems as if there were quick fixes for anything: “Easy and effective workout routine” “the easy way to success” Easy this, easy that. Reading or hearing about an “easy path” is misleading and demotivating. When it is apparently so easy for others, why would it not be for us? Because it simply is not.

We need to learn to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Think about the Marines; They get up in the morning, run, do their drills, no matter if it pours hard, if it is cold and dark. They embrace the uncomfortable – because they know their why. They chose this path.

A super motivational book I have read this year was by Dave Goggins. In his autobiography “Can’t hurt me” he takes us on his journey from an overweight, lazy undergraduate who can not swim to a top fit ultra Marathon runner and Navy Seal. 

He suggests total accountability and pushing through the pain. 

Now if that is not contrary to nowadays mindsets.

But what to do when we “slipped up”?

Back to the big spoon in the Nutella glass. I slipped up, I feel guilty and bad about myself. I had this plan of having my summer sixpack and now I am here, spooning that Nutella I know is not good for me. I failed.

First step: Accountability. It happened. Shit happens. I need to understand that I am no superhuman and behavioral changes take time. I can not reverse the time, but I can analyze the situation. 

I can take steps accordingly to prevent this to happen in the future. I can write it all out and see how to prevent the situation at hand.

One solution is to simply not have Nutella or any other sweets in the house. My husband will not like it. He will hide sweets. Which is okay, as long as they are hidden well. Then to have the urge arise and sit with it while meditating. Or drawing, reading.

Second step is to define the triggers. For me these cravings are often related to times.

Now here is the thing; I wake up early in the mornings, I start my day with a proper and nurturing morning routine, I walk the dogs, I go for a run and work out. From Morning to the afternoon I am disciplined and I push through. It is the late afternoons and evenings that take a toll on my willpower and make me sabotage my long term goals.

I need to find a way to make changes in my habits;

In “The Craving Mind” Judson A. Brewer suggests that we sit through our cravings. Instead of fighting our cravings and behaviors with other substitutes and distractions, he offers the mindful way. In a previous article I mentioned the RAIN technique. We acknowledge what is there and feel into it. This, according to the author, allows for the craving patterns to interrupt.

We may also replace the craving; instead of giving in to the urge, going for a walk, for example. This is the “If,…then…” technique and often used to replace old habits with new ones. The pattern itself will not be interrupted this way, but can be changed with a more suitable habit.

Both work – and both take time. Be prepared for slip ups along the way and find ways to prevent the slip-ups to happen in the future. Negative self talk is a bad idea. 

But so is, at least to me, soothing my “inner child” (I have tried that and it did not work well for me in this situation. It is not the inner child that needs soothing here. It is learning to lean into the pain).

As Goggins suggests: Full accountability. Learn. Make it better. Grow.

Sounds easy? But surely is not. It is a learning. It takes time and dedication. And resilience. There is no easy way. We need to learn new behaviors and be prepared to fail and get up again.

“There is no shortcut to success. There is no elevator to success – you need to learn to take the stairs”.

Closing Thoughts

My example, my biggest obstacle along my personal journey are sweets. 

I love working out, going the gym, reading. I learned to wake up early, shower cold, take care of my tasks and plan for my future. I consider myself a disciplined person. But cravings, they have always been a hot topic for me.

Now we are obviously all different and your biggest struggle might be completely different. No matter what it is you are self-sabotaging – it is learned behavior. It can be unlearned. But not with a “quick fix”. Changes take time and dedication. Be prepared, hold yourself accountable and do not be scared of failure. It happens and you want to learn to put yourself back on track. Do it, again and again.

You got this!

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