Understanding self-sabotage

September 6, 2019 BY: LISA

In trying to explain self-sabotage it’s important that you can grasp the concept of wanting to achieve something but not actually letting yourself take the steps required. You may be familiar with the concept of a partner sabotaging their significant others weight loss efforts by bringing home cakes and takeaway, and you may have seen evidence of a client sabotaging themselves by not taking the steps they had agreed to at your previous session. But understanding why this occurs has very little to do with laziness or disorganisation, even though the client may be insisting that it does.

Case study: Val was a client of mine and she always used to tell me she was lazy, that’s why she hadn’t achieved the exercise goals she had set herself. I would remind her that she wasn’t lazy, she ran a household and didn’t sit on the couch all day, so it wasn’t laziness. Val would always disagree, until one day she didn’t. She said to me,” Lisa, I’m not lazy’, and I replied, “I know that Val.” She then said, ‘Why can’t I do this then?’

It’s often the case that you can’t really understand something until you have experienced it yourself. I had done a lot of work around motivation and how to motivate people, however, hadn’t investigated self-sabotage as I didn’t really understand the importance or understanding it, until I started sabotaging myself. Then I was also asking the question that many of my clients have asked, “Why, when I really want this, am I stopping myself taking the steps to achieve it?”

Self-sabotage is wrapped up in a person’s sense of self- who they believe themselves to be, what they feel they deserve and what they feel they are capable of achieving. When goals are set to improve health, change life circumstances or career, this can threaten the understanding the individual has of themselves to a point where it is ‘safer’ not to take any action; that is, to stay in the comfort zone.

Wikipedia defines, a comfort zone as a psychological state in which things feel familiar to a person and they are at ease and (perceive they are) in control of their environment, experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress. There are a few different ways people may feel about their comfort zone, if they thought about it:

  • They may not love it, but it’s comfortable, alternatively 
  • They may be very happy there or 
  • Not that happy but don’t believe there is much else they can do. 

In the model, your comfort zone is depicted by a rigid triangle, putting pressure on the edges is likely to cause the structure to lose its shape which would look and feel awkward and uncomfortable.

No pressure = comfort zone

The model is made up of the central piece of sense of self– this is who I believe myself to be – and encompasses what I feel I deserve, what I feel I am capable of and how I see myself, that is where do I fit in, what am I ‘allowed’ to be.

The pieces that impact your sense of self are:

  • Self-image – Who do I believe I am?
  • Self-worth – Do I deserve this?
  • Self-confidence- Do I trust that I am capable?

When a person is asked to stretch or change it can put pressure on their comfortable structure and starts to rattle their sense of self. This is uncomfortable and can cause ‘fear of the unknown’ and anxiety, these feelings are not pleasant, so it’s easier not to do the action or step required, they can then rest back into their comfort zone. 

EG- not make a phone call, not set the alarm, don’t do the shopping, don’t make their lunch, don’t put yourself on a dating site, don’t lose weight…

jill111 / Pixabay

Getting past self-sabotage:

Awareness-understanding your actions helps with change.

Normalising this behaviour is important as once someone can look at their situation objectively and become aware of what they are doing, they can start to do something differently. Instead of just doing the same thing over and becoming increasingly frustrated.

Reassurance – there is nothing wrong with you and doing this one thing won’t change who you are.

Self-sabotage is about fear and it’s something that needs to be recognised and addressed, not ignored, or be a cause of blame or shame.

Reset Focus– make decisions one step at a time- focus less on the big picture.

What I find works with my clients is encouraging people not to look at the big picture, as that is often the fear inducing picture. If I lose weight, what if I can’t keep it off, what if I don’t like who I become, what if I change who I am because of this? Instead, look at the one thing that has been set as the task to do. For example, one walk won’t change who you are and doesn’t mean you have to do another walk. Planning a meal doesn’t mean there is an expectation that you will plan all meals. Do one thing at a time and make the decision to act, just at that time, without thought of what the implications might be. (‘The Power Of Now’ by Eckhardt Toll is a book that discusses this concept)

I hope that has been helpful- be kind to yourself.

Lisa APD

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