"Judy" was typical of many women who came for counselling. She was intelligent and well established in her chosen career, but she also wanted to develop a satisfying social life and, ultimately, a meaningful long-term relationship. Whenever she had the opportunity to make new friends or try new activities, however, she kept putting herself down and downplaying her strengths and abilities to such an extent, that those around her took her at her own negative assessment and moved on to find other friends. The truth was that "Judy" was not stupid, unlikeable, or even lacking confidence: she was simply trapped by the pattern of self sabotage, which caused her to repeatedly adopt a behaviour which was unconsciously designed to protect her from her own fears and anxieties.
We are all capable of making similar choices when we are facing uncomfortable, challenging feelings. Our instinct is to avoid them, ignore them or shut them down. Self sabotage is one unhelpful way in which we seek to do this.
- Hiding from our true feelings. An example of this would be a person who has weight challenges who turns to comfort eating to deal with negative emotions.
- Self-medicating. This most commonly involves the use of drugs and alcohol to numb unwelcome feelings.
- Procrastination. This becomes an issue when it develops into a pattern of following our feelings at the expense of logic. We find ourselves pursuing immediate comfort at the expense of longer term success.
- Self-harm. This may involve cutting, burning, picking or hair pulling. Because it generates pain, it is not always easy to recognise that it is also a means of relieving emotional pain, by transferring the focus from feelings which may seem impossible to control, to physical pain, which can be addressed.
- Excessive modesty. This is more common among women, especially those who are intellectually gifted. By minimising abilities and downplaying strengths, they seek to shut down their anxiety that they will not be accepted for who they are, but only for what they can do.
- Addictions. These can take many forms, but can be clearly identified by the endless excuses and justifications which the individual finds for their choices. Their purpose is to help suppress anxiety that we will not be good enough, will not be accepted or will not fit in.
Choosing any of the above forms of self-sabotage does not provide a real solution to our problems; it just feels better for a moment.
- We create a whole range of new problems by not addressing the original issue in a meaningful way.
- We interfere with achieving both our long and short term goals.
- We undermine our ability to be confident and trust ourselves, since self sabotage relies on faulty reasoning and judgement.
- We generate anger, either at the demanding circumstances, but more commonly at ourselves, because of our failure to find an effective resolution.
- We can find ourselves avoiding new challenges.
- We decrease our ability to negotiate conflict in any setting.
- We learn to ignore evidence and logic in order to accommodate the increasing demands of our emotions.
- We develop poor impulse control.
- We struggle with a constant sense that we have failed to take personal responsibility.
All of these consequences feed the intrusive feelings which led us to self-sabotage in the first place and help to keep us caught in the cycle.
The good news is that we don't have to stay stuck. As with any counselling issue, change isn't easy, but it is possible.
- Accept that self sabotage has its own rewards, which is why we choose it.
- Adopt the stance that you are not a passive victim at the mercy of your emotions.
- Refuse to accept that you are too weak or helpless to change. You have overcome challenges before and can do it again.
- Cultivate awareness of conflicting desires. This positions you to choose.
- Prioritise goals on the basis of whether you want immediate gratification or longer term satisfaction. (You can't have both).
- Clarify which specific behaviours you want to change.
- Resist the invitation to choose self-sabotage by keeping a record of exactly what you are feeling when the temptation comes.
- Write down exactly how you want your changed behaviour to look.
- Identify your unfulfilled desires. After choosing (or resisting) self-sabotage, explore what still feels empty and what feels met.
- Examine the pros and cons of continuing the self-sabotaging behaviour as opposed to not giving in to it.
As with many life issues, self-sabotage is a pattern which will take time to break. Working with a counsellor can help you to be supported as you work through the process, can provide encouragement and clarification and can keep you accountable.
For help in dealing with self-sabotage, contact Alli at Point Of Change Counselling Ararat and make an appointment.