We sometime wonder why we keep getting into the same troubles or have problems in changing our behaviors. Self Sabotage happens when we try to come up with solutions using an “incomplete formula”: Our frantic attempts to change our past, how we talk to ourselves, and the childhood roles we unconsciously live by.
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How Self-Sabotage Works
Self-Sabotage is something that happens when we are working hard for something that we want out of life, but our childhood roles are still calling the shots. This unconscious way of handling and reacting to life ends up interfering in our goals in a grand and unexpected way.
We work hard to accomplish all that we can, only to “blow it all up” just as we are about to reach the end. This can be something we’ve been working towards for a long time (e.g., going to college, only to drop out with just one year left) or just beginning to grasp (e.g., starting therapy to change one’s life, only to start forgetting appointments and to ultimately avoid going all-together).
The common theme is that we are “doing well” until we actually gain momentum towards achieving our most important goal. This Success-Fear Syndrome is tightly related to our childhood roles. We either end up fulfilling the ultimate call of our “childhood role”, or we stage a revolt and take a stand against being stuck in our childhood role for so long. Either way, we end up sabotaging the very results we are working so hard to achieve.
Being aware of this pattern is the first step. You can’t change what you don’t recognize. At the same time, you can’t judge it, otherwise you will short-circuit your progress. Notice, identify and label – no more, no less – until you get the hang of it. Change comes later; practice and identification first.
We all have stories that we tell ourselves which help to navigate the future. We develop these stories early in life, modifying them along the way, about how we will live our lives. These stories give us direction and help to guide us through life.
- If our stories are positive and optimistic, we have good feelings about ourselves.
- If our stories are negative and pessimistic, without hope, then we end up feeling depressed.
- If our stories are ones which portray a lack of belief in success, then we end up stopping ourselves from being successful.
Sigmund Freud talked about how we make efforts to solve past unresolved problems. In our efforts to find solutions, we tend to “repeat the past with the same mistake” in hopes that we can solve/resolve it. Others, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, call this “the definition of insanity” – an attempt to do the same thing over and over again, faster and faster, with the same result and no solution.
We get stuck in a cycle that is an attempt to change our personal history, but little progress is made in doing this because we continue to do the same things. Creative attempts to do things differently are avoided in favor of the “tried and true.” This compulsion becomes almost addictive, insuring the continuation of the same cycle and the same behaviors.
Our Childhood Family Roles
Although we do not usually think about it, how we “fit” into our family shaped our approach to life. Each child in a family relates to each other differently even though they may not know it. Some of these role we assumed as children in our family include:
- The responsible child
- The peacemaker
- The lost child
- The family mascot
- The helpless child
- The baby of the family
- The spoiled child
- The parent to the parents
- The servant
- The shy child
Roles are many times “quietly assigned” in the family to each child. At other times the family will “inform” a member of “what they think of him or her” in negative terms. This then becomes “the way one perceives themselves in life.”
These roles shape how we relate to others, to mates, and to peers. They also unconsciously shape our identity about ourselves. We carry these roles with us into the future, even though we are not always conscious of how we have been shaped by our early years.
The Unexpected Cost of Our Priorities
We all have priorities in life. When it comes to our emotions, there are basically four priorities that we tend to choose in life. However, it may surprise you that they all have unexpected consequences. What you end up doing will make others feel things that you cannot control. You’ll also end up paying a price by focusing on what you want out of life, because you can’t have it all. And ironically, you will have an Achilles’ Heel where you are the most vulnerable.
If your number one priority in life is Comfort, it may surprise you that others may feel many things: Irritated, annoyed, resentful, impatient, bored, guilty, peaceful or even reassured. The price you end up paying your priority is reduced productivity, missed emotional contact, and you may be more concerned with yourself. What you’ll want to avoid most in life is stress, both emotional stress and pressure.
What if your number one priority in life is Pleasure? Others may feel accepting of you, guilty, nervous, manipulated, confused or smothered. The price you’ll pay? Stunted personal growth,
your self-concept may be dependent on others, other people may take advantage of you, or you may just feel worn out. You’ll end up avoiding rejection by others at all costs.
Taking charge (Control) ends up making others feel challenged, bossed, put down, overpowered, unappreciated, defensive, rebellious, helpless, shut-out, dependent or (ironically) secure. The price is social distance from other people, reduced spontaneity, feeling personally rigid and not being able to be emotionally free with yourself or others. If choosing this path, avoid unexpected humiliation at all costs, feeling trapped and embarrassment.
The final priority is Superiority. You want to excel and be better. Yet others may feel inadequate, judged, overwhelmed, frustrated, criticized, reassured or inspired. But you’ll feel isolated, never satisfied, overly responsible and over-burdened. You’ll have the “Savior Syndrome” where you say, “I am the best one I know for the job!” A constant fear of not measuring up will stick around, as will being excessively focused on growth and achievement. For Superiority, the thing you’ll find yourself avoiding at all costs is feeling meaningless (an empty void that is never filled).
There’s No Free Lunch
The bottom line is that there’s no free ticket to achieving your emotional goals in life. But knowing that there is no “safe path” forward, regardless of what you choose, is oddly freeing once you recover from the shock of understanding it. This knowledge allows us to be imperfect human beings with contradictory behaviors and emotions, and yet there’s nothing wrong with us! The only alternative? To not have any priorities in life. And certainly, that’s not recommended.
Self Sabotage, the Whiffle Bat & the Raccoon
A few months back, I had an unexpected late-night scare. It was about 3:18 AM, and I was fast asleep. My wife woke me abruptly, concern in her voice. She had done this to me about an hour earlier to ask if I’d given the dog her medicine, so I was already mildly disturbed. But I didn’t expect what she said next:
“THERE’S SOMEONE ON THE ROOF!”
Now, I’m not one for idle speculation. Especially at three in the morning. But I know my role as husband and spouse. I diligently got out of bed and joined her in the kitchen, to listen for a noise I was already convinced was probably just the wind. After 60 seconds, still nothing. I started off back to bed… until I HEARD IT. Footsteps from above. Slow, deliberate, and not all at once.
Alarmed, I ran across the hall and grabbed my flashlight. I grabbed a jacket to brace against the rainstorm and dashed out the door to see what was going on. It was pitch black and the rain was starting to pound on the pavement. The nearby motion lights didn’t help much, but I could hear tearing noises against the roof and the sound of metal scraping. After a few LONG minutes, I could slowly make out the identity of our midnight invader:
I was livid. I did NOT need this right now. But since I could see what looked like torn insulation scattered across the roof, I felt certain that this couldn’t wait until morning. The rain kept pouring and our intruder showed no signs of being in a hurry to leave. This HAD to be dealt with.
Now, in afterthought, this had all the elements of self-sabotage:
- It was dark and 3:00 AM at night
- It was pouring down rain
- I wasn’t thinking straight
Naturally, I did what any impulsive, illogical person would do in these circumstances: Me, in a jacket and soaked in the rain, climbing the roof to chase off a raccoon, armed only with a flashlight and a wiffle bat.
My wife tried to persuade me to wait until morning, but I wasn’t having any of it. I grabbed what turned out to be the wrong ladder and climbed up to the roof. What ensued over the next few minutes is unclear even to the best of my recollection. It involved a lot of running on a wet roof, gesturing wildly with a wiffle bat, and making loud, threatening noises.
When we lead with our emotions, our bodies are often are overwhelmed with chemicals that put us into crisis mode: Adrenaline. Cortisol. Norepinephrine. One of the side-effects of these chemicals is that we start thinking fuzzy. Unfortunately, when our thinking is fuzzy, we don’t REALIZE that our thinking is fuzzy. It’s a catch-22, and it sets us up for impulsive choices. Which is exactly where I ended up.
Our friend the raccoon weighed his options more thoughtfully than I, likely calculating the odds of survival against a human armed with a wiffle bat versus the odds of my slipping off the roof. He promptly scattered to a nearby tree to observe the likely logical outcome while I surveyed the damage, which turned out to be a beehive. Pulled out from under one of the metal vents on our roof and scattered in pieces. My mind began to clear. The roof looked intact, and I couldn’t find any more damage. I headed back to the end of the roof, and…
Little did I realize that not only had I chosen the wrong (short) ladder, in my haste to get up on the roof I had knocked the ladder away. It was cold and wet. And the rain showed no signs of letting up. Ultimately, my wife was able to find the right ladder and I was able to live to tell another day, despite my best intentions.
Self sabotage is like that.
Optimism, Perception and Control
We can use three things to help us prevent our own self-sabotage.
In 1965, Commander James Stockdale was flying over enemy territory when he was forced to eject from his plane. Stockdale was captured, tortured and held as a prisoner of war for seven years before his escape. How he dealt with his situation draws an inescapable conclusion regarding what it takes to survive in life when the odds are against us.
After gaining his freedom, he was interviewed for a book in 2001. At some point during the discussion, his interviewer paused and changed the topic of conversation. “How,” he wanted to know, “did you survive all of those years of capture and torture?”
Commander Stockdale simply said, “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end.” The interviewer was impressed, and thanked him for his candor. As he started to being the interview again, he hesitated for a moment. “What about your prison mates? Those that didn’t end up coping well and had a hard time returning back to their normal lives. Why didn’t they ‘survive’”?
Commander Stockdale never even missed a beat, and replied, “Oh, that’s easy; they were the optimists.”
The interviewer was exasperated. “You just said that you knew that you would get out. That sounds like optimism to me.” Stockdale simply shook his head. “No, you don’t understand. They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. Those of us that survived, and survived well, knew that we would get out sometime.”
He continued to elaborate. “We also had little to no control over our lives in those seven years. But we were going to be damned if we let them control the grains of sand that we placed perfectly aligned around the walls of our cell. We also were required to clean the barracks, but we weren’t allowed to talk with each other. So we choreographed dance moves with each other using the brooms.”
“And finally, since we were in solitary confinement, we used Morse Code to talk with each other. This was difficult, since the enemy knew Morse Code. So we spent six months practicing a new form of Morse Code in order to communicate with each other.”
“The ones who didn’t survive were incredulous and couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They said, ‘You’re playing around with the sand in your cell like it makes some sort of difference? Dancing with brooms? Practicing a new type of Morse Code in order to chit-chat with each other about your day? Are you nuts? This is a terrible situation! It’s a disaster! We need to get out!’”
Stockdale approached adversity with a very different mindset: he accepted the reality of his situation. First, he used optimism in the right way: He believed that, “You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.” AND at the same time… he was brutally honest about his situation: “You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” And sometimes those brutal facts involve the element of control, whether real, or perceived. Combined together, these describe the Stockdale Paradox.
We all need to learn from this. The question before us, then, is: Will we learn from this? How does our response to a situation make things survivable and management, versus self-sabotaging ourselves by catastrophizing and feeling helpless?