Self-sabotage: getting un-stuck, and how hypnosis can help

'Self-sabotage': Opposing forces within the psyche.

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Have you ever watched yourself doing things you didn't want to do? Or have you found yourself perplexed at your own lack of action towards a goal? We often set goals that we struggle to find the motivation to pursue, sometimes even sabotaging our own success. 

Let us unpack psychological dynamics that can lead to behaviour which is incongruent with an ambition or goal, often called self-sabotage. 


Why might we experience self-sabotaging behaviour? 

Our brains are developed for survival

Our minds are complex systems, and our brain model has evolved over millennia to help us adapt and survive (DeFelipe 2011, Peters 2012). This survival adaptation resulted in safety-seeking strategies learnt and executed largely below conscious awareness. 

Neuroscience has observed that we use mental shortcuts to promptly process information and respond to the environment. Every time we respond to and interact with the environment, we resort to predefined rules and beliefs, learned from years of experience, to decide the most appropriate response. 

The problem with this adaptation is that what we learn from experience in the past can become hard rules for life, even when they no longer apply. The younger we were, the less likely it was that the learned conditioning was a fair and correct assessment of the situation due to a lack of capacity. 

Developmental limits

In developmental psychology, it is observed that children younger than a certain age are simply incapable of certain logic. Children reach a developmental milestone every time their brains have developed enough to reach each stage. 

For example, a well-known developmental milestone is "object permanence". Children reach this milestone once they understand that an object does not cease to exist just because it has been covered. This logic requires frontal lobe maturation, involving memory and information processing capacity.

Therefore, when we are children, we can only learn and understand as much as we are capable, and it is a different type of learning. It is experiential, felt, and sensed. Being held, nurtured, soothed, and protected – or not – will teach the child how to feel about themselves and the world. This learning will serve as a base for core beliefs such as: Is the world safe? Are people trustworthy? Do my needs matter? 

The earlier the learning, the more deeply the belief feels – and it just feels true. Challenging such deep beliefs feels like a life-or-death situation: How can I trust people if “I know” they are dangerous? 

It is not always about self-esteem

Feeling "undeserving" of success can make it difficult for someone to seek anything beyond what they believe they deserve

However, self-sabotaging behaviour is more active and acute than simply feeling undeserving. It involves an invisible force actively doing the opposite of what the person wants. Two opposing forces within the psyche try to achieve the opposite of each other. One force is conscious (goal-driven), and the other is unconscious (anti-goal). The question is: What does this unconscious force want and why? 


The way of awareness

Emotions take hold of our rational mind if enough danger is sensed – it is a survival strategy. When we do not have the skills, we can easily be led by conditionings and safety-seeking instincts. Becoming aware of our inner processes, conditionings, beliefs, and rules allows us to make conscious decisions based on clarity of thought. 

Strong emotions hijack awareness to seek safety if they possibly can. In other words, our minds can lie to us if it means safety and survival. 

The process of awareness makes the unconscious conscious, and we become more free to make informed decisions and take appropriate action. 

Let us look at the example of an imaginary client, Jean:

“I enjoy my job. I like my colleagues, I am experienced, and I feel confident in the work I do. I have always dreamed of a promotion. I believe I am capable, and I already know what I would do with the extra money. 

However, when I am about to ask for a promotion, I start making silly mistakes. I become nervous, agitated, and irritable and only feel better once I give up. I do not know what comes over me because I really want a promotion; I just don’t know how I will ever achieve it like this.”

When we are unaware of our processes, we feel powerless, unable to see what drives the unwanted behaviour. Bringing the process to consciousness, on the other hand, promotes self-awareness and feelings of mastery. On the way to that, however, lays a river of fear and darkness through which we must swim.

The process in this case can be clarified as follows:

Wanting more money and a career progression is a conscious process. It is clear and logical to Jean that she is capable and experienced, deserves to grow and progress, and deserves the extra money the progression entails. We may call this the primary process.

Making silly mistakes and consistently jeopardising a promotion is a behaviour that Jean cannot control or finds very difficult to control. The drive towards this unusual and inconsistent behaviour is an unconscious process, as Jean does not precisely know why it happens. We may call this the secondary process. 

The secondary process can only hijack Jean’s behaviour because it is safety-assuring. It is important for Jane to understand what this process is keeping her safe from. Just because it is unconscious does not automatically mean it is wrong. Besides, this is a great opportunity to discover what this process is about, and it can be an extremely freeing experience. 

There are many ways to interact with the secondary process, and one option is to imagine, in detail, what would happen if Jean was promoted. How would her friends, partner, and colleagues feel about that? In this case, not being promoted would mean staying as is: happy and safe.

In this imagination exercise, Jean may discover she did not wish to upset her colleagues by becoming superior to them at work – many of whom are now lifelong friends. This fear did not feel unfounded, instead, she recognised it as a real possibility and a real concern, only it had not come to her awareness because she had been so focused on her future and her goals. In addition, this part of Jean, the part who is afraid of losing friends and being disliked, is at odds with the confident part of Jean, who avoids feeling vulnerable. 

For Jean, being disliked is a deep fear rooted in many characteristics of her childhood. Her parents always taught her to be a good person and to be liked, and she understood that being liked was critical for her survival. Therefore, being disliked could potentially mean abandonment and death.

In evolutionary terms, to early humans, being rejected by the tribe meant death, and we still carry this survival instinct with us somewhat. But Jean discovered that when she feels calm and slightly detached from the primary process (a driven and ambitious person), she can be warm and reassuring towards her secondary process (a vulnerable person wanting to be loved) – because she is neither fully one or the other, yet she is both at the same time – and both want the same thing: to be well, alive, and have a fulfilling life.

Jean arrived at a compromise: Look for a promotion at another company. It was true she would feel uncomfortable being superior to her friends and did not want to risk her friendships. Looking for a new job allowed her to keep her friends and progress in her career. This time, it would be unlikely she would make unconscious mistakes because more of her was aligned towards the same goal, reducing anxiety and feelings of powerlessness. 

Self-compassion and patience are essential to this process. Being able to welcome and acknowledge parts of us who are vulnerable, that makes us vulnerable, requires love and kindness. 

And I wish you all the love and kindness in this world.


References

  • DeFelipe, J., 2011. The Evolution of the Brain, the Human Nature of Cortical Circuits, and Intellectual Creativity. Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, 5. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnana.2011.00029/full
  • Peters, S. (2012). The Chimp Paradox: The Acclaimed Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness. Random House.

To support the concept that developmental psychology has observed children are incapable of certain logic until they reach specific developmental milestones, such as object permanence, here are some references that highlight the developmental stages of children's cognitive abilities, including their memory and information processing capacity:

  • Baird, A.A., Kagan, J., Gaudette, T., Walz, K.A., Hershlag, N. and Boas, D.A., 2002. Frontal Lobe Activation during Object Permanence: Data from Near-Infrared Spectroscopy. NeuroImage, 16, pp.1120-1126. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1053811902911705?via%3Dihub
  • Corrigan, R., 1978. Language development as related to stage 6 object permanence development. Journal of Child Language, 5, pp.173-189. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-child-language/article/abs/language-development-as-related-to-stage-6-object-permanence-development/E31F2A36B555A90E202ED2D3D1F7BB23

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Hypnotherapy Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, England, W1S 1HP
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Written by Caroline Silvestre, BSc Psychology, MSc, GMBPsS, MHS, GQHP, Hypno-CBT Dip.
London, England, W1S 1HP

Caroline G. Silvestre (BSc, MSc, GMBPsS, GQHP, MHS) is a cognitive-behavioural hypnotherapist working in Central London. She is a member of the British Psychological Society, the GHR, and the National Hypnotherapy Society. Read more on mayfairhypnotherapy.co.uk

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