February 24, 2023
In our series, From Dr. Frock’s Desk, we sit down with Dr. Frock to gain a psychiatrist’s perspective, anecdotes, and tools on a variety of topics. This month, we are talking about why it can be so hard to do the things we know are good for us, and how to overcome self-sabotage.
Can you explain what self-sabotage is?
It’s important to understand that self-sabotage is something we all do. It’s not inherently pathological, or representative of a specific personality issue. The best way to think about self-sabotage is as any behavior or action, conscious or unconscious, we engage in that is directly in opposition to a stated goal.
There are some more dramatic cases that we all might be familiar with. For example, someone is in a loving and healthy relationship but then engages in behavior that might abruptly end the relationship. It can also be something comparatively minor like procrastination or perfectionism. There’s a wide range of self-sabotage – so you can think about it as a broad term that describes a behavior that takes us down a path that seems to conflict with our goals.
Procrastination is such a common example. We know it’s not helping us, so why do we do it?
Procrastination is often perceived safety. We are consciously or unconsciously thinking, “I’ve never really done this before, so why try so hard just to fail?” It might seem appealing to just not try and avoid the failure up front. Perhaps in the past, not reaching a goal led us to disappointment, pain, or embarrassment, so we self-sabotage as a form of short-term relief from the anticipated failure. “If I don’t try, I can’t fail.” The payoff of procrastination is short-term, but ultimately it is quite limited and doesn’t get us anywhere.
If we’ve learned the hard way in the past, should we listen to our brains?
It depends on the issue. There was a point in time when it really benefited us to be trained to be afraid. If you imagine living in 4000 B.C. and you were attacked by a tiger after walking past a specific tree, it would be very advantageous for you to think about the tiger attack every time you walk by a similar looking tree, and even avoid those trees altogether.
The legacy of that primal fear response has carried over to the present, but in our day-to-day lives in a modern and much different society, our brain tends to treat things as a threat that simply aren’t life threatening. For example, just because your last four relationships have gone badly, doesn’t inherently mean that the fifth one always will. In this way, “protecting” ourselves by ending the relationship prematurely, isn’t actually helpful even though our brain may see it this way overall.
Could you explain how to overcome self-sabotage?
The opposite of self-sabotage is self-care. However I don’t mean the kind of self care that people often think of – the consumerist driven idea of self-nurturing (like bubble baths and candles, spa day, etc), but rather being honest with yourself and caring for yourself with tough love. We want to be careful to not engage in “self-care” that is actually just further avoidance.
An example might be, if you’re struggling financially, yet continue to live paycheck-to-paycheck. Instead of wondering where all your money goes every month, sit down and make a spreadsheet of all your debts and spending so that you can address the root of the problem. Another example, for folks who struggle with deadlines or assignments, would be to actually buy a calendar, take some time to map everything out in a highly detailed way. Self-care is not an inherently pleasant thing and is more so an investment in your future self.
In order to overcome self-sabotage, we need to assess the situation and what we truly want, and then look in the mirror and say, “I don’t want this. I’m not going to settle for less. I’m going to change it.”
There is a radical difference between offering ourselves self-care through tough love and self-care through nurturing. Both have their place, but the tough love is the one that will see you address the elephant in the room, break through any self-imposed boundaries, and take action to feel better about yourself and your situation.
If self-sabotage seems to be a cycle, do you have any tips for combatting it?
Before we really engage in the kind of self-care I mentioned, we actually need to assess what is going on. What is the behavior I am actually doing, and what is it getting in the way of? When we’re doing something that is different from what our stated goal is, there’s definitely something there to explore. We have to identify what is actually underneath the surface and what’s driving this self-sabotage behavior.
First off, we might not actually want to do what we say we want, but it’s rather something we feel like we’re expected to do. However, if we do indeed want to achieve our stated goal, there could be a painful core belief getting in the way of productive behavior. For example: “I’m not very smart, so I’m not going to apply to this program.” or “I am not lovable, so I’m not going to put myself out there.”
Sometimes these behaviors are so ingrained in us that even after we’ve identified them, we’re not sure what the next step is. I think it’s okay to admit that, and to work with a coach or therapist to help jumpstart our behavior change and learn how to not avoid hard and/or scary things.
What if you can’t identify the driving behavior?
It’s very common to identify a pattern of behaviors but not be able to grasp the deeper meaning or root cause. In fact, I would say that almost everyone has difficulty with this when dealing with more complicated aspects of our lives, such as relationships. We are overall just not very proficient at self-assessment in an objective way. I think this is exactly where psychotherapy comes into play as it can help us uncover these triggers and limiting beliefs that might be holding us back from our full potential.
This is actually a common reason, whether they know it or not at the time, why people might seek psychotherapy or coaching.
Without this deeper level of understanding, self-sabotage behaviors lead many of us to thinking “What’s the point?” This then can drive emotions like anxiety, anger or depression, and behaviors like isolation or acting out. This is often a chief issue that can be addressed in therapy with the goal of bringing about positive change.