- Washington Post
Do You Self-Sabotage? Here’s How to Stop.
14:50 JST, February 9, 2024
Many of us can recall a time when we have self-sabotaged – behaved in a way that runs counter to our interests. But some people do so repeatedly.
People procrastinate, for instance, in filing tax returns, expense accounts or other important paperwork. Others take on too many projects. Still others cannot commit to their romantic partner.
Self-sabotaging behaviors often lead to stagnancy, poor outcomes and damaged relationships. But with awareness and conscious effort, it’s possible to end the cycle of self-sabotage, experts say.
Self-sabotage can be a product of many things, including low self-esteem, internalized beliefs, fear of change or the unknown, or an excessive need for control, experts say. But underneath those reasons is the human drive for self-preservation.
We are wired to avoid threats and be motivated by rewards. Self-sabotage comes from an imbalance of our threat and reward drives, said Judy Ho, psychologist and author of “Stop Self-Sabotage: Six Steps to Unlock Your True Motivation, Harness Your Willpower and Get Out of Your Own Way.”
“To protect ourselves from potential emotional and psychological stresses, we stall or stop moving forward in the way we really want,” she said.
Procrastination, for instance, may not be because of laziness or irresponsibility. Research has shown that when a task is hard or less rewarding, we are more likely to avoid it.
Ann Peck, 57, who was adopted as an infant, avoided looking for her birth family based on deep-rooted trauma of feeling unwanted. Peck finally met her birth mother two months after the mother had been diagnosed with frontal lobe dementia. They enjoyed less than three years together before the mother died.
“I was able to get to know her and some of my story,” Peck, of White Bear Lake, Minn., said, “but not as much as I could have learned had I not sabotaged the idea of finding my family.”
Shruti Mutalik, a licensed psychiatrist, has seen self-sabotage in her patients but also in herself – mostly, she said, because of feelings of unworthiness and a fear of success. Mutalik once delayed applying for her full medical license and another time delayed renewing it.
Self-sabotage is not only detrimental to achieving the level of success or the result we want, but it can also harm our mental health. “It can cause self-deprecation and lower self-concept,” which in turn makes it less likely that you will behave in ways to achieve what you want, Ho said.
Self-sabotage is also associated with heightened anxiety, an increased risk of depression and coping in unhealthy ways such as using escapist strategies, including alcohol and drug use.
How to prevent self-sabotaging behaviors
Many of us recognize that our self-sabotaging actions or inactions are harmful, yet still find it difficult to stop doing them. But there is hope for what seems insurmountable, experts say.
-Treat your struggle with compassion. Many self-sabotaging behaviors may have helped you at one time, but they don’t anymore. Treat yourself and your struggles with compassion.
Our negative actions often have a positive side, said Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. For example, a person considered gullible by others may view themselves as trusting, and may find it difficult to change the negative behavior because they value the positive side of it, she said.
“Everything people do, every behavior, makes sense from the actor’s perspective or else the actor wouldn’t do it,” Langer said.
-Notice unhelpful thought patterns. “Next time you notice a negative emotion or an action you wish you didn’t do, ask yourself, ‘What was I thinking just before I noticed this feeling or action?’” Ho suggested. Once you notice your thought patterns, you can work to question, modify or change your relationship with them.
-Label your negative thoughts. Start by saying, “I’m having the thought that…,” Ho said. For instance, you may think, “I’m having the thought that I’ll end up all alone.” This reminds you that a thought is just that and “you don’t have to buy into your thought or believe it’s the truth,” she said.
-Challenge self-sabotaging behaviors. Mutalik, who was delaying getting her medical license, said her therapist asked her, “What does becoming board-certified or applying for a license mean to you?” Mutalik realized she was worried about her professional identity as a doctor taking over her personal identity. In time, she came to see them as complementary. That, along with therapy and other changes, led her to “place action over avoidance.”
-Take responsibility. We need to recognize the role we play in our lives, said Ryan Sultán, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and director of mental health informatics and integrative psych at Columbia University.
“We have to be open to the idea that sometimes we make mistakes. I think that’s a prerequisite to understanding one’s self-sabotage,” he said. “And some of us struggle to acknowledge and take ownership in any way of our own actions.”
To change, Sultán, said, identify what you want instead of what you think you want, and then move forward. This is not easy, he said. “You need to find the motivation to make change in your life, and change is very hard,” he said.
-Start small and build on it. Sari Ingram, 40, a chess teacher in Tennessee, has battled addiction and other forms of self-sabotage. Sober for four years, she said working on things for short periods and breaking up tasks into chunks helped her.
When she was first sober and had to work on a project, her 12-step sponsor said, “Just do it for five minutes.” That helped, she said, because “I can say to my brain, ‘Look, this doesn’t have to be like a 13-hour ordeal. Right. You’re just sitting there for five minutes.’”
Choose to do things that are manageable, she said: “Like what can I cross out?”
-Be patient. Self-improvement takes time, Ho said. “You’ll notice small changes in the first few days, but it may not feel like your new automatic drive until a few weeks in and that’s to be expected,” she said. “Give yourself some grace.”
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