How to stop self sabotage and get what you’ve always wanted
Trigger warning: this piece references physical abuse.
I once read the true story of a hard-working man who could never ask for a pay rise from his boss, despite an excellent appraisal from his superiors. Every time he walked towards his boss’ office to discuss the matter, his legs would go jelly, he would feel butterflies in his stomach and anxiety would take his breath away. He would then turn back into his office and resign to remain a low-paid worker while everyone else seemed to advance regularly.
Eventually, this good man went to see a therapist and during his session, it emerged that as a child, he had acquired a habit. Whenever his violent, angry father would return home, this little boy had learned that if he just stayed quietly in the corner, without being heard or seen, perhaps his dad would not beat him.
Of course, this behaviour had brought great success and protection from pain to the young boy when he lived with his dad, but now this belief of ‘staying low’ was so deeply ingrained in his subconscious mind that it paralysed him. So he would self sabotage his own success. He would work very hard, but he would not ask for recognition of his work because this could bring pain.
In this man’s mind, speaking up was painful. With appropriate therapy, he learned to dissociate with his previous beliefs and reportedly acquired a promotion and a pay rise.
Perhaps when you read his story you thought, ‘That’s me. I can never ask to be paid for my work. I have to please others. That’s my life.’
Or perhaps you are just all too familiar with self-sabotage, and just haven't put a label on it.
What is self-sabotage?
Self-sabotage happens when you are hindering your own growth and success, even if you aren’t completely aware of it. You become your own worst enemy. You have stopped doing that one thing that makes you feel great, and you fear taking the next step to success, in case you fail and experience pain.
Therefore, self-sabotage is really pain avoidance at its finest.
Where does self-sabotage come from?
Self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviours are perpetuated by a critical inner voice that says negative things about our character and possibilities. Our critical inner voice is formed from our early life experiences, as in the boy who feared his dad. We make ours the attitudes and words that our parents and caregiver had about us. "You are lazy! You will never get anywhere!" Or maybe we mirror a parent who hates himself and is self-critical or submissive.
The subconscious mind records everything you have done or experienced and plays it back to you, by using the information you have entered and forming beliefs. All our actions are based on our beliefs because the human mind cannot go against those beliefs without feeling extremely stressed and uncomfortable. So when you feel uncomfortable about doing something, it’s usually because it does not align with your own beliefs.
It’s important to note that those important memories hold the strongest meaning if the event has happened before the age of six.
Until this age, a child is programmed to believe that everything the parent says is true and it is also his own belief. Unless the child (as he grows up) challenges those beliefs he will keep them forever as the basis for his actions. You will notice, for example, that cultural beliefs in different ethnic groups and nations are retained across generations if taught to young children.
So if you felt empowered by the beliefs of your parents you are more likely to grow up as a happy, successful and confident person. This is more difficult if your parents displayed destructive behaviours. Therefore the more positive experiences you have, (especially as a young person) the more beneficial beliefs you will have as a basis for your actions.
As we become adults we tend to accept all the information that agrees with our core beliefs and reject what goes against what we think is true. Sometimes this can cause self-sabotage.
When we subconsciously foresee that the success or happiness we could reach is above the level that we believe we are worthy of, we start self-sabotaging.
This can be often seen in two phases of our life:
- When we have reached a plateau and we seem to be unable to get any further even if we are working hard.
- Whatever success we achieve we always lose it quickly (for example winning the lottery, and then losing all the money).
The funny thing is that when we talk we say we want to have success, we want to be happy, but our mind is deeply attached to a past belief that we are not deserving of it. Therefore we do not achieve what we want, or we destroy what we have achieved in a short time.
What can I do about this?
To control what happens in your life, you must first control what happens in your mind. Consciously choose what ideas and thoughts you will keep in your mind just like you might choose which food to eat for optimum health or performance.
Of course, when you try to change habitual behaviours you might feel anxious because they are deeply ingrained habits, they are old and familiar. For example, if you felt abandoned as a child, you may feel insecure in your relationships, and hear yourself thinking, “How can I trust this person? He is going to leave me, I’d better not get close." Or, "He is too needy, I am better off alone, I can’t get too close."
You might even choose partners who repeat the same patterns of the past to maintain the same negative identity you are used to having. You will notice this in abuse victims who tend to marry abusive partners.
What brings self-sabotage behaviours?
Here is a list of possibilities which might resonate with you as the root cause of the issue:
- You have a negative perceptionof who you are, and you think you have nothing to offer. Therefore you limit yourself in what you can do, and you influence others in treating you in the same way you treat yourself.
- You fear that if you try, you will fail. So to avoid the pain of failure you don’t even try. You accept that everyone else can fail and start again, but you can’t see that happening to you.
- You have the habit of self-sabotaging your life. It’s not that you are aware of making the decision: ‘I will stop running every morning and buy a lot of sweets because I will then gain 25 pounds.’ Instead, you start thinking that the art class, the gym, the therapist, those healthy foods as too expensive for you and you quit trying to be healthy, mindful, successful. It’s so familiar, right? You are always on the bottom of the list. But you care deeply for your loved ones and make sure that they get success, health and rest. Maybe you even think that this will earn you something and make you such a good person and people will like you more.
- You have a low sense of self-worth. If you are worth very little, why should you try to achieve success and happiness? "Nobody will ever pay me for my work. No man will ever look at a woman like me."
- Your self-confidence is what tells you what you can and can’t do. Before you try to do anything, your mind puts up all sorts of boundaries. You simply don’t have time to rest, or to take care of a health issue you have, or to develop a hobby. But you have plenty of time to work for free for myriads of people who have been using you for years. And you love it because they all praise your generosity. There is nothing wrong in being generous, but if you always come last, ask yourself who is putting you there.
- You overestimate your capacity to catch up with work. "I can easily write that report the day before". Therefore you find yourself under pressure but you keep avoiding the work (procrastination.).
- You blame others for what is going on in your life. You are not responsible and therefore you don’t feel like you need to take any action. You failed school because teachers were horrible, you suck at relationships because your peers were nasty, you got sacked at work because your boss prefers another person. Let’s say it: there are nasty people, but it’s how we react to negative events that counts, not just what our environment is like.
- You associate failure with pleasure. Maybe as a child, you failed at school and your parents kept saying you had done nothing wrong, took you out for a treat to make you feel better, and gave you lots of attention. Or you were very sick and had plenty of people checking up on you, so now you need to stay sick to keep that level of attention and a pat on the back. Your subconscious mind has a perfect memory of those soothing emotions and wants to recreate them.
- You associate any changes with pain. If you find it difficult to move, change career, even move furniture from where it’s been for years, start something new, get married etc it could be the results of negative changes in our past. For example, you moved house often and lost your dear friends. Your parents changed jobs and you no longer saw them or they became distant and angry. A person you loved hurt you badly, so you don’t want to commit to anyone anymore. You say that you want to, but your mind is terrified of moving into uncharted territory. You tried exercise or art, and it was a disaster, and since then you remember the mocking expression of those doing much better than you, so you don’t want to ever feel like that. It’s all about the feeling, isn’t it?
- You don’t do things unless the result will be perfect. You are not going to a work party because you don’t have the right dress, so you miss the opportunity of meeting new people. You don’t drive in high traffic because 20 years ago you had a small car accident on a busy road. You fell from your bike at age 15 and broke an arm so you don’t cycle anymore. You can only invite people over if the house is spotless, so you invite no-one and keep it a mess.
- You let others decide how you will use your time. When you are working, you allow anyone to call or text you, pop into your office for a chat or to show you a quick Tik Tok video. At home, your loved ones give you lists of things to do for them, and you end up with no time to pursue rest, hobbies or personal interests. You don’t plan your time, others do and your calendar is pretty much designed by anyone but you. You are the last person to know where you will be on a certain date, now you are turning 40 and you wonder why you have never managed to do that lake trip or learn to play the guitar or go back to the theatre. If you don’t guard your time, no one else will do it for you.
- Your day is spent endlessly checking emails, Facebook feed and new shows on TV. Then you wonder why you have not passed your test and why your boyfriend has become distant. You lack mental focus and concentration. You don’t know how to turn off your notifications. Maybe it’s time to do something about this. But you procrastinate.
How to build up new beliefs
While we all agree that 2020 has been a tough year and has brought challenges for all, this should not undermine your own self-worth.
The first thing you need to do is to question your current negative beliefs about your possibilities because many of them are simply not true. Let’s choose an area of your life you want to improve. For example, improving your relationships, or earning more money than you currently do.
Try this exercise
Write down what you believe about your situation. It could be, "I am not young/smart/wealthy/handsome, how can others like me?" Or, "I am not very good at this job, how can I be paid the same as the others for it?"
Now ask yourself if your statements are true and if they have high or low expectations. Sure enough, your mind is only accepting the low ones as achievable. Therefore this is what you will achieve.
Be careful of how you are talking to yourself. The words you say to yourself are the most important you will hear because you believe them. Phrases like, "I don’t deserve this, I am not good enough, I won’t find more clients, I won’t be able to charge my fees," are telling you something that is not true. It’s just your past playing back. Learn to separate from the critical inner voice that has been created deep inside after painful experiences. The mind will always try to protect you from pain.
Change the phrase in your mind into a positive one. "Although this goal looks complex, I am sure I can find a way to achieve it, I know I can do this. I am worth it."
Create a new habit or thought based on new, realistic and positive beliefs. These will be built on higher expectations and connected to planned strategic and regular work. As you work towards a higher level of possibility you are changing the status quo that was fixed at a limited number of possibilities. You will also change your mindset, your energy and what some people call your ‘vibrations’. Your enthusiasm and self-belief will become tangible.
Whatever negative character/action/belief your parents, friends and teachers had which has influenced you, you want to take a step away from them instead of modelling from them or reacting to them for the rest of your life. If any of your peers, or social media, or loved ones are putting you down now, understand that you don’t have to take in any criticism or let it in.
Of course, if you are taking actions that are harmful, self-destructive, or negative, good friends will let you know, but there are constructive ways of doing that. The issue is more feasting on media and assuming we must look and feel like those slim, fit, happy and wealthy people for whom everything seems to be so easy.
You ditched the negatives, now embrace the positives
Actively surround yourself with positive people and messages (i.e. media, movies, songs, books, articles) who influence you towards good things and place high expectations in you - because they trust you can rise to them. They have a vision for you - now build your own vision at a higher level than the one that has been buried in your mind for years.
Challenge the defensive barrier to success you have built when a painful experience made you form a limiting belief. That defence is no longer useful. The fact that you were bullied or rejected as a child, so now you don’t want to get hurt and avoid others, is in the past.
You cannot change the past but you can change your future. You want to learn how to engage with others, trust them and get close to them even if someone else in the past has hurt you. You also need to learn that it is okay to try to have success in building up a business, to enjoy a past time or hobby, to find time for yourself and to be in charge of your own life.
If after all is said and done you are still stuck to your limiting beliefs, reach out to a therapist to remove these beliefs using bespoke techniques and expert guidance. Investing in your own well-being will pay off in the long term.
As you create a new set of positive ideas, beliefs and values that resonate to you, you will discover that you are of infinite worth.
You will realise that you can do amazing things if you set your mind to it. Your actions will reflect your inner passions and talents and you will radiate more energy and joy than ever before.
You will understand that when you change your thoughts, you change how you perceive the world around you, you change your actions because they are based on infinite possibilities and in turn you will also change the world.