Avoiding Self-sabotage: How Your Thoughts Can Work against You
Does this sound familiar? “Monday I am going to start my diet and lose this weight to reach my goal!” Then Tuesday night rolls around and you binge on a pint of ice cream and a bag of chips. What happened there? Even though you know what to do to reach your goals, and have the best intentions, you find a way to sabotage your plans every time. If you've been struggling with self-sabotage, you might be relieved to hear it's not your fault.
Self-sabotage occurs when your logical, conscious mind (the part of you that wants to eat healthily and exercise) is at odds with your subconscious mind (the side of you that stress-eats chocolate).
Why? Because for your brain, it's actually easier to master disappointment than to seek fulfillment.
It's the reason we have destructive habits. It's easier to get really good at having a life that sucks, than it is to suck at a life that is rewarding, even if it's worth the outcome.
So why are we unconsciously mastering disappointment?
The answer comes from a little area in the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is part of your subconscious mind that controls emotions, survival instincts, and memory.
The amygdala controls our subconscious mind so powerfully that it actually makes decisions for us. Even decisions we think we are making.
Most people have no clue that unconscious fear is what is blocking their success. The fear prevents you from taking action; plus it diminishes the actions that you do take, leading to other sabotaging behaviors like procrastination and making bad decisions.
Unfortunately, the result of self-sabotage is that we hold back instead of seizing new challenges. We forgo our dreams and goals.
So how can we stop self-limiting behaviors? Here are some steps you can take immediately to get out of your own way.
1. Understand self-sabotage.
Many of us are engaged in self-destructive behaviors that have become habits. We allow these behaviors to continually undermine our success and happiness, but we may not even recognize that we’re doing it. Self-sabotage is when we do something that gets in the way of our intent, or of our bigger dreams and goals. We want something, but somehow we never accomplish it.
Your subconscious views self-sabotage as self-preservation: Safeguard and defend yourself even if it’s no longer needed. Some of our self-sabotage is so subtle it’s easy to miss. We often don’t recognize how our actions are hurting us. We don’t realize our clutter distracts us, or how constantly overthinking all decisions leaves us paralyzed with inaction.
2. Notice your self-sabotaging habits.
The first step to breaking the cycle of self-sabotage is becoming aware of these behaviors. Try looking at your behaviors as an outsider. What self-destructive habits, patterns, and mindsets are holding you back? Here are a few common self-sabotage habits to be aware of:
Procrastination. Instead of tackling an important project in a timely manner, you allow yourself to wait till the last minute. You don’t give yourself time to fix mistakes or do your best work.
- Remedy: Start setting mini-deadlines to work toward your objective.
Negative self-talk/negative thinking. Your inner dialogue is super critical. Are you berating yourself for past mistakes? Are you always criticizing yourself?
- Remedy: Be compassionate with yourself. Imagine you are talking to a best friend or child. How would you speak to them? Try talking to yourself in the same way.
Perfectionism. You can’t take action until it’s the “right time,” or believe you need to work more on your skills before you can do something. Perfection is a sneaky sabotage that prevents you from moving forward.
- Remedy: Tell yourself it's good enough for now. Nothing will ever be perfect.
3. Identify root causes.
Many of us develop unhealthy ways of coping with stress. We repeatedly drop the ball on commitments, or fail to take adequate care of ourselves, or we take our relationships for granted. Sometimes these things are so subtle that we can’t see how self-sabotage is at the root of many of our problems. Self-destructive habits are usually rooted in our feelings of self-worth. Deep down you don’t feel like you deserve to be successful. You’re tormented with feelings of inadequacy. Work on identifying and acknowledging what is causing you to sabotage yourself, and then start making changes to stop those behaviors.
It requires some major self-reflection to understand why you keep shooting yourself in the foot in the first place. Taking the time to peel back the layers you seem to be inflicting on yourself can lead to a deeper awareness, as well as give you insights into yourself and your underlying motivations and desires.
The most successful people are those who take the time to think through their choices, decisions, and actions. Successful people learn from what worked or failed to work. They then adjust their course of action by taking a different approach. Only through self-reflection will you gain the necessary insight, perspective, and understanding to begin the process of transformation.
5. Become your inner cheerleader.
It’s time to put away those harsh inner voices that say "I can’t" or "I’m a failure." That negative internal dialogue is a pattern of self-limiting thoughts. Start replacing that critical inner voice with positive, encouraging thoughts. Once you start seeing the areas and ways in which you are limiting yourself, you can start effectively countering that behavior. You can choose to not engage in self-sabotaging thoughts. You can start building a positive mindset and create an affirmative, confident inner voice to guide you.
6. Change your patterns.
Changing our negative behaviors is imperative if we are to stop sabotaging ourselves. In every moment, our actions either move us toward or away from the person we want to be and the life we want to have. The behaviors you keep allowing yourself to do are the ones that are preventing you from getting what you desire. Consider how the actions you’re taking and the thoughts you’re thinking conflict with your happiness and hold you back from your true potential. Look for ways to replace old patterns with new ones that are more helpful in achieving your goals. Start by avoiding known triggers like certain people or circumstances that cause us to react in unfavorable ways. If there is a stressful situation that triggers you to react in a bad way, look for ways to avoid or deflect while you learn new ways of handling the situation.
7. Make micro-changes.
Once you’ve identified the changes you want to make, pick just one thing that you want to start on. Don’t try to make drastic changes all at once. That’s not realistic, and those will be hard to maintain and first to be abandoned. Instead, begin with small micro-changes that you’ll slowly build to create larger transformations in your life.
If you realize you’re sabotaging your weight loss by constantly missing workouts, not drinking enough water, or sneaking cheat foods, take a step back and look for one small, meaningful change you can make to keep you on a better path.
If you’re not prepared, take five minutes every morning to pack your gym bag ahead of time and keep it in your car. If you’re eating junk food that others have brought to the office, bring a bag of healthy snacks like carrot sticks or almonds to have instead of that cookie or doughnut.