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Understanding Why We Self-Sabotage

Are you your own worst enemy? Why do you get in your own way? Well, here are simple and common examples:

  1. You swear you'll never contact an ex again, yet you text him/her whenever you're lonely.

  2. You decide to exercise, but sleep in instead.

  3. You planned to eat more vegetables, but bought chips on the way home after a long day at work.

  4. You want to be in a relationship, but you're afraid to start one when you meet someone promising, so you push them away.

What is self-sabotage?

At its most basic level, self-sabotage is a pattern of behavior in which we undermine our own goals or success. It consists of various behaviors, such as:

  • refusal to commit to goals

  • setting goals that are so lofty that we will almost certainly fail (and this sets up a feedback loop of negative emotion and low self-efficacy)

  • engaging in self-defeating actions that go against a goal we have set

  • not planning or problem-solving appropriately

  • not fully committing to a goal or plan, OR

  • pre-emptively shying away and withdrawing from a success.

You might be surprised to find that the tendency to self-sabotage is ingrained in our neurobiology and woven into the very fabric of what makes us human. Its roots, in fact, aren't so hideous after all. Self-sabotage is the result of a common ancestral and evolutionary adaptation that has allowed us to survive as a species in the first place!

We need to look at two basic concepts that drive our survival so as to understand how self-sabotage is linked to our human existence: avoiding threats and attaining rewards.

When it comes to self-sabotage especially, the dilemma is that our biochemistry doesn't always distinguish between the good feelings we experience when we achieve our goals and the "feel-good" sensations we have when we avoid something that appears to be threatening.

Avoiding threats and attaining rewards are like two sides of a coin. They aren't separate systems or functions, and the brain is always working to try to bring the two desires into balance.

Everything is great when we find the right balance between attaining rewards and avoiding threats. We feel good about ourselves and preserve our physical and psychological well-being when these two forces are in harmony. However, we are susceptible to self-sabotage when these two desires are out of sync. The pursuit of avoiding threats at the expense of gaining rewards particularly leads us away from our desired results. Self-sabotage occurs when our urge to avoid threats outweighs our desire to attain rewards.

Why do we self-sabotage?

No one intentionally chooses to self-sabotage, despite the temptation of donuts while on a diet. So why, then, do we habitually engage in these detrimental behaviors?

Research offers these five possible reasons:

1. Modeling

Self-sabotaging behaviors can have its roots from childhood models and patterns, such as a parent who lacked confidence in their ability to succeed. The parent who repeatedly warns a child to be careful at the playground may cause the child to perceive the world as harmful and avoid exploration or adventure. Yielding to fear was, hence, modeled.

2. Approach–avoidance conflict

Author of Stop Self-Sabotage (2019), Dr. Judy Ho, describes self-handicapping as a biological response that was once vital for survival. She uses Kurt Lewin’s approach–avoidance conflict in explaining goals that have both positive and negative aspects which create opposing forces.

The "approach dynamic" is triggered by setting goals which releases dopamine, while the "avoidance dynamic" is prompted by threat avoidance, like physical and psychological threats or perceived threats such as change. Self-sabotage occurs when the drive to reduce threats overrides the urge to reach desired goals (Ho, 2019).

3. Trauma

A child who has been abused by any person, especially a trusted adult, may view the world as unsafe and believe that they are undeserving of good things in life, leading to self-sabotage.

4. Rejection or neglect

Low self-esteem and other negative self-image issues can stem from being rejected or neglected by a parent. This can compel one to sabotage personal relationships in an effort to reduce potential vulnerability and rejection.

5. Adaptive to maladaptive behaviors

We develop behaviors that are initially considered adaptive or useful for surviving challenges. But, when these behaviors persist long after the problem has passed, they can become maladaptive and harmful.

It takes effort to self-sabotage. It's a negative behavior that's time consuming and takes a lot of effort. According to recent research, self-handicapping or self-sabotaging eats up a lot of one’s resources. In the same way, stopping this unhealthy behavior also takes work and consistent practice. Therapy is available for you at JarvisHypnotherapy. We offer professional help that can set you on your journey towards healing.

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