Understanding Self-Sabotage: What if your worst enemy is you?
There is this saying that goes “I am my own worst enemy.” Isn’t this often the case? We often are our worst critic and we are twice as mean to ourselves in our minds than we would ever be to another person. This counterintuitive phenomenon of self-sabotage happens to many of my clients. A common scenario occurs when a person is starting to make good decisions and beginning to feel a little bit of success but ultimately does something to mess it all up. It is the situation where a person finally gets sober from alcohol and gets nominated for a promotion at work only to get drunk the night before his interview. So what is self-sabotage? It is when people consciously or often unconsciously do something to derail their own success and there is no one else to blame but themselves. Does this sound familiar? The million-dollar question is “WHY?” Why would any rational, happiness-desiring person stop themselves from experiencing success? Even worse, why would any person be the cause of their own unhappiness and ruining healthy relationships, losing jobs, and forfeiting everything precious to them? Obviously, this is a psychologically complicated question and there is often no simple answer. Through my experience working with numerous clients, I have observed a few trends that may help explain why some people commit self-sabotage.
1. The unconscious fear of success.
Being successful looks great on the surface but it is not without its costs. People say they want to be successful but their behaviors do not always match their thoughts. I like this saying that goes “The grass is greener on the other side AND their water bill is higher too.” Think about what success means to you. For many people, success could mean having more money, having accomplishments or recognition, being accepted by many people, etc. Although success seems to be the stuff of happiness, it often comes with more responsibility, more demands, and more stress. With increased territory comes more potential headaches to manage the increase. Often the fears and insecurities lead to behaviors that will put an end to the success to avoid the distress of gaining success. Or unconsciously, some people do not want what others have defined for them as “success” and this is their way of getting out (which technically would not be genuine success for these individuals).
2. Dysfunction and failure are the experienced normal.
Many people grow up around hurt people who hurt people. This can range from neglect to traumatic abuse which informs your experience of what is “normal.” People get used to this dysfunction and have learned ways to survive and cope with these stressors. There is a strange feeling of control because “I have been there and done that.” When that same person encounters a healthy person or situation, a newfound distress occurs because “it does not feel right or normal” which means the person does not feel in control. Unconsciously, people will date or befriend toxic people while pushing away healthy people to put themselves in a familiar situation again, often to their own demise. Instead of creating opportunities for something better, the fear of the unknown pushes people to return to what they know despite the pain.
3. The lack of self-love and acceptance.
Although this is not always the case, the negative feedback and experiences may lead to self-hatred or feeling “not-good-enough.” There is this inner dialogue and feeling of being devalued which sends the message that “I don’t matter and therefore I don’t deserve good things.” People have a strong need to be congruent and in integrity with themselves. This means the way they feel about themselves needs to match the message about them from the outside. If there is a mismatch, then something has to change. For example, a boy with a healthy sense of self hears a girl say to him “You are a loser.” The boy may feel hurt from the message but is able to tell himself “That is just not true because of these reasons…” and chooses to stop interacting with this girl. On the other hand, if the same boy had poor self-esteem, then the girl who called him a loser may feel extra hurt because she highlighted the insecurity that he already felt about himself. In the same way, people who do not love themselves cannot stand experiencing positive things for an extended period of time because it is out of sync with how they feel about themselves. That leads to the self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors that create the failure that matches their inner world.
There may be other reasons for self-sabotaging behaviors but it all boils down to the need for control at the expense of their own long-term happiness. Counseling can be a crucial resource to break the self-sabotaging cycle. We cannot change these self-destructive patterns until we can identify the pattern, the purpose of the behaviors, and what can be done to replace these behaviors while addressing the real needs. Is it possible? Absolutely. Give yourself permission to experience yourself and life differently. For more entries like this, please visit me on my blog.