Ever wondered why you just can’t seem to that new diet, exercise regime or self-care plan? Have you set yourself hundreds of goals for your health and just when you seem to be on the right track you fall off the wagon or do something to mess it up? Do you find yourself falling into the same patterns of destructive behaviour again and again? This is called self-sabotage and it might just be the thing that is getting in the way of you reaching your health goals.
Self-sabotaging patterns include procrastination from healthy habits or or any form of addictive behaviour such as binge eating, substance abuse or over-using social media. It is defined as behaviour that deliberately causes you harm and gets in the way of you reaching your long term goals i.e. preventing you from becoming the person you want to be. I say deliberate meaning that the behaviours are often things you know aren’t good for you but often the thoughts that drive self-sabotage are unconscious meaning we aren’t even aware that we are having them. All we know is that one minute we were enthusiastic and motivated to reach our goals and the next we have given up and are back to square one.
Why do we self-sabotage?
Psychology research says that self-sabotage is a pretty common phenomenon. We all have that critical inner voice that develops during our childhood and for some this voice is harsher and louder than for others. The voice might say that you are lazy, that you are unworthy of success or that you’ll never reach your goals so you might as well give up. Whatever it is for you, we all have a dark, destructive aspect of our psyche that just wants to destroy things, labelled by Freud as the “death drive”. It is that part of us that doesn’t seem to want happiness and seeks to disrupt anything that seems good. You might be thinking why would I ever destroy my own health and happiness?! But so many of us do it.. think of all the times you have stopped doing something that made you feel great or carried on with bad habits that you know don’t make you feel your best.
As humans we like the familiar, things that we know and understand. Our brains are wired to think and act in a certain way in the world. Our neural connections get stronger with repetition like thousands of hikers walking the same pathway across a field until a deep muddy path forms. So when we want to change our habits and develop ourselves, it takes work to form a new pathway! When we start out, it’s very easy to fall back into the groove of our old ways. Most of our actions during the day are done on auto-pilot without us even thinking about it. It takes much more energy to make decisions about our behaviour and take conscious action and our brains are energy conserving machines. So it’s totally understandable that we will slip up more than once when we are trying to change our behaviour.
I recently watched a video by Irene Lyons, a nervous system expert, who explains that procrastination, self-sabotage and “fleeing from health” (i.e. repeating the same unhealthy behaviours again and again) is even more common in those who have had a traumatic or stressful childhood. Because this feeling of stress or lack of safety has become a normal state of mind, anything else feels alien and the unconscious mind acts quickly to disrupt things. She says that the origin of self-sabotage is stored trauma or trapped survival stress in the body which needs to be processed and released.
How to eliminate self-sabotage and reach your health goals
I don’t think it’s possible to fully eliminate self-sabotage. We aren’t robots and we can’t expect ourselves to behave logically and rationally 24/7 according to the rules we set for ourselves. But there are ways we can try to minimise self-sabotage and make it easier for us to work towards our goals.
1. Have self-awareness. Being aware of your destructive thought patterns and self-sabotaging behaviour is the first step to overcoming them. Depending on how severe a problem this is for you, you might need the support of a therapist. But you can always start by spending some time in silence and solitude each day, without the distraction of technology, to tune into your inner world. Listen to the repetitive thoughts and observe the feelings that come up and reflect on how these could be contributing to your self-sabotaging behaviour.
2. Start small. Rather than setting yourself a massive goal to go from couch to marathon in 6 months, try setting smaller more manageable goals. If there is a huge gap between your current self and your goal, it can feel intimidating and overwhelming and you are much more likely to give up and sabotage any progress you have made. It’s better to focus on the actions rather than the end goal i.e. “meditate for 5 minutes a day” rather than “be able to meditate for an hour” and over time gradually increase the time that you practice. Make your goals achievable so that you can be boosted by your success rather than falling into patterns of critisising yourself for not reaching the high standards you have set for yourself.
3. Plan for failure. Once we accept that self-sabotage is a normal part of behaviour change, we can start to plan for those occasions when we are likely to fall into the unconscious self destruct trap. Think of this as the “if, then” approach. You can think of situations which are likely to trip you up or common scenarios that occur when you are trying to create healthy habits. For example, if I binge eat at night then the next morning I will have a healthy breakfast and go for a walk. If I forget my running shoes for my lunchtime jog, I will go for a walk instead. If I skip my morning yoga and meditation practice I will have a gentle stretch before bed instead. Or if I had a stressful day at work and I want to have a takeaway on the way home, I will go for a healthier option like rice and veggies rather than fish and chips or a whole pizza.
4. Have self-compassion. This goes along with planning for failure, by learning to expect ourselves to fall back into old behaviours rather than expecting ourselves to be perfect. When slip ups inevitably do happen we can learn to show ourselves kindness and understanding rather than beating ourselves up over it. This way we can avoid the inner critic running the show and keeping us stuck in negative thought loops and self-sabotaging behaviour. We can see self-sabotage as a normal part of the process and see it as an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and the funny ways our brains work.
5. Relax into health. Stress and living in an anxious, fear based mindset is going to make you more likely to sabotage yourself and fall into unhealthy coping mechanisms. This includes stress from putting pressure on yourself to take certain actions or reach your goals. To reduce self-sabotage, it’s important to try to relax and allow your nervous system to move out of flight or flight mode. This could be through a dedicated meditation practice or by simply taking breaks during the day to focus on your breath and consciously relax tension that has built up in your body. The key is to not make relaxation another task that you have to do but by focusing on the relaxed inner state that you want to feel.
Your challenge for today is to take a few moments to reflect your own behaviours and whether self sabotage is a common pattern for you whenever you are trying to improve your health and maybe you can identify any repetitive thoughts and feelings that could at the root of your self-sabotage.
OVER TO YOU…
I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your experience with self-sabotage and your tips for dealing with it.
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