Do you ever find yourself putting something off, doing something else entirely, making excuses for not doing something? You may even find yourself participating in behaviours to tackle that uncomfortable feeling. For example, overindulging on food or drink, or wasting time away scrolling through social media. If this sounds familiar, you may be consciously, or unconsciously, self-sabotaging yourself to meet your goals and dreams. We chat to Laura Connell, Trauma Expert and author of It’s Not Your Fault to understand self-sabotage and how to distance ourselves from this harmful behaviour.
How would you define self-sabotage and what are some of the negative consequences?
Self-sabotage is characterised by self-defeating habits developed in childhood that hold us back from getting what we want from life. We develop these coping mechanisms in response to our unmet needs. For example, if we were punished or rejected for standing up for ourselves, we would learn to become people pleasers.
If we were not supported through difficult emotions, we’d learn to suppress them or deal with them in unhealthy ways. If we felt we had to be perfect to win acceptance, we become perfectionists who don’t take risks. As we enter adulthood, we may use damaging substances and behaviours to distract us from our pain. For example, alcohol, drugs, shopping, pornography, and watching endless TV.
While some of these coping strategies may have kept us safe as children, they become maladaptive in adulthood. They can hold us back in very real ways, such as creating relationship struggles and lack of upward mobility. For example, if you hide and refuse to speak up at work, you will not be promoted. If you avoid dealing with difficult emotions, you will not gain necessary tools to succeed in relationships which require vulnerability and healthy conflict resolution.
What are some of the main blind spots people face when it comes to self-sabotage?
When it comes to self-sabotage, the biggest blind spot is realising it’s not their fault. These habits began in childhood as survival strategies. Often, people do not realise they have an unhealed inner child running the show. This inner child believes it is protecting them by using these tactics which actually harm them. For example, rejection and abandonment from parents felt like life or death because you were dependent on them. Those same fears are activated as an adult when you face setting boundaries and that’s why it’s so difficult. We must get to the root issue which involves healing the inner child.
What is the role that dysfunctional families play when it comes to self-sabotage?
Dysfunctional families make the child believe she is alone and has no-one to turn to for help or comfort. Therefore, an inner child develops who is tasked with keeping the child safe. Without the tools to handle these grown-up problems effectively, the inner child rushes in to help. This could involve people pleasing (because that won’t get you rejected); hiding (because that won’t get you in trouble); procrastinating (because then no one can say you did it wrong); or isolating (because it’s not safe to ask for help and no one will help you anyway). We take these self-defeating habits and beliefs into adulthood where they wreak havoc on our lives. For example, drastically limiting our success and making us believe we are our own worst enemies. In reality, your inner child is trying to protect you the only way she knows how.
What are some of the key benefits to learning and putting into practice the tools from It’s Not Your Fault?
The key benefit is that you will stop feeling as though you are [working] against yourself through:
- Not being mean to yourself in an effort to eradicate your self-sabotaging behaviours,
- Stopping putting plasters over deep wounds by trying to change your habits,
- Ceasing to use positive mantras to talk yourself out of how you really feel.
Willpower and habit formation are oft-advised solutions to self-sabotage but they do not work in the long-term. Changing habits and positive self-talk force us to police ourselves in ways that are not sustainable. That approach promotes the idea we are our own worst enemies when, in fact, we are on our own side. We just have to teach the inner child healthier ways to cope. This requires parenting ourselves in a way we weren’t parented as children.
Healing the inner child
Through healing the inner child and re-parenting yourself you will learn to process difficult emotions instead of running from them. You will benefit from the information emotions are designed to give, using it to become more authentic.
By setting healthy boundaries you can begin to assert yourself in ways that invite respect from yourself and others. Assuring your inner child you are acceptable (not perfect), helps you let go of perfectionism and put yourself out there. For example, you will stop procrastinating to avoid criticism or visibility because you know that hiding is no longer serving you. You’ll realise that you won’t die if someone is not pleased with you. Now, you have access to resources to help you take care of yourself that you didn’t have as a child.
Mindful Self-Compassion is a therapeutic modality I recommend to recover from self-sabotage. Based on the research of Dr. Kristin Neff, it has three components:
- Self-kindness: Treating yourself as you would someone else who’s going through something hard i.e., comfort and sympathy instead of berating yourself.
- Common humanity: You are not alone in your struggle. Many others are going through the same thing and suffering itself is inevitable and makes us human.
- Mindfulness: Accepting your thoughts and feelings as they are in the present moment without judgment or shame. Comforting yourself through difficult feelings instead of pushing them away. Not minimizing or blowing your feelings out of proportion and not overidentifying with them. Taking an observer status with your feelings instead of becoming flooded by them. Getting curious about what you’re feeling instead of pushing it down.
Thank you to Laura Connell for this insightful guide to self-sabotage and how to recognise its characteristics. It’s Not Your Fault will be published by Health Communications Inc. on the 9th November 2023. The book is available for pre-order. ISBN: 978-0757324734