Five Common Ways You May Be Sabotaging Yourself

By Andrea Bonior Ph.D.

Five Ways You May Be Self-SabotagingThis article focuses on a few important ways you might be holding yourself back from success.

Most of us have goals, whether big (“Go back to school and get my master’s degree”) or small (“Pare down that pile of junk mail.”) But what keeps us from meeting them? Why are some goals successfully achieved, and others remain on our to-do list, nagging at us for months or even years at a time?

I’ve written before about how to set goals that are more likely to be met. And though a few tweaks to your goal-setting method can have an immense impact on your likelihood of meeting those goals, for many of us the problem lies not just in the goals that we make, but the ways we thwart ourselves in meeting them. We could have the most functional, well-set and realistic goals in the world, but if we engage in self-sabotage, then guess what? Our goal-meeting is over before it even began.

Over and over again with my clients, we see the same behaviors that keep them from taking action. Such methods of self-sabotage can keep them from getting where they want to be, fixing what they need to fix, and becoming the person they would love to become. You may know what you want, and be pretty sure of the path to use to get it, but it’s not uncommon to be stuck in a rut of self-sabotage. Do you recognize any of these behaviors in yourself? Let’s get down to business.

1) Dwelling on “If only….”

We all have regrets, whether they be about something we did (“If only I hadn’t dropped out of college”), or something we didn’t do (“If only I’d stood up for myself more in that relationship.”). Sometimes we play the “If only” game about things that we had nothing to do with happening, but that we wish were different– if we had grown up with different parents, if we were more talented, if our partners were fundamentally changed in some way.

These thoughts can follow us around for decades, but the problem with them is that they don’t lead to any action. Repeatedly revisiting “If only” fantasies, if they involve things that we can’t do anything about, keeps us idling in neutral. Given our lack of a time machine or our lack of ability, ultimately, to overhaul people other than ourselves, then continuing to indulge in these thoughts about things that are unchangeable will bring nothing but further frustration. It doesn’t spur action, inspiration or problem-solving. And worst of all, it keeps the same patterns going (ruminating on how you wasted your 20s socially probably may make you less likely to go out and seek good friendships in your 40s; dwelling on imperfect aspects of your partner builds resentment that will make your relationship even worse.)

Try to turn an “If only” into a different mindset altogether, by accepting what’s done but using it to influence your actions. How about “X is this way, but Y can be that way” or “I can’t undo my past, but I can influence my future” or “I have learned something from X, and that is Y– and here’s how I plan to use it to improve things.” All these are new spins on the “If only” that are much more functional.

2) Being afraid of your thoughts

One of the easiest ways to ensure that a thought will have power over you is to try your hardest to suppress it. Sometimes we do this because our thoughts are terrifying to us (“This is the third argument my fiancee and I have gotten in this week. What if it was the wrong choice to get engaged?”) or because we feel guilty about having them (“My coworker is just not pulling her weight on this project. But she’s a sweet person and a good friend so I shouldn’t rock the boat.”)

When you stuff a thought, though, you have no chance to process it– to understand it, to feel it, and to perhaps eventually decide that it doesn’t make sense. Walking around afraid of what your brain has to say gives your thoughts, ironically, far too much importance. This is a hallmark of people who struggle with obsessional thinking– they are locked in a battle of trying desperately to get a sticky thought to go away, mainly because they’re so overly distressed by having it in the first place. But getting stuck within this battle doesn’t move you forward. Try not to think of a rhinoceros in a bikini, and bam– there she is, and she’s wearing quite a hot number! The more you battle your thoughts, the more you deny yourself the opportunity to work through them, and the more you keep yourself locked in a negative pattern. Try acknowledging your thoughts and facing them, emphasizing that they are just thoughts– and labeling them as such. “I’m having the thought that it was a mistake to get engaged. That’s probably because I’ve been stressed out. I don’t have to be afraid of this thought; it is human. I will get a bit more sleep, get over this bad week at work and see if I feel differently, and if not, think things through further.”

3) Stuffing your feelings

A close cousin to trying to avoid bothersome thoughts is trying to bury or mask feelings that you’ve deemed unacceptable. Many people think that to fully acknowledge feelings would mean yelling obscenities in the grocery store, or hysterically wailing at their next all-staff meeting. But letting yourself feel things is not the same as unleashing emotions onto the world at large. In fact, you’ll be less likely to unleash feelings in inappropriate ways if you’ve actually acknowledged them and worked through them in the first place. Often times we stuff feelings out of guilt (“I’m angry at my sister for making that comment about my weight. But she’s a sweet person and does so much for me. I have no right to nitpick”) or fear (“If I let myself feel sad about my breakup, I’ll get so depressed I won’t even be able to function.”)

But feelings, when stuffed, grow bigger and bigger. And they are prone to corroding us from the inside out. Emotions don’t tend to go away on their own just because we try to keep them in. It’s like if you kept slamming down a lid onto a pot that’s boiling over. Instead, you know that if you let water get a little bit of air– set the lid so that it covers the pot but not completely– then soon you’ll get a calm, smooth boil, rather than a frothy, rattling mess. Acknowledging your feelings doesn’t get the boiling water all over the place– stuffing the lid on does.

4) Habitually starting “tomorrow”

So you’ve eaten a third sleeve of Girl Scout cookies before Noon, or you’re completely frustrated that it’s 3pm and you’ve gotten so little work done all day. Many times, the most natural reaction is to chuck all of today, and visualize the beautiful blank slate of tomorrow. But it’s never tomorrow. Spend so much time saving until tomorrow the habits you want to pick up and the changes you want to make, and by definition they are always beyond your reach, because tomorrow is a constantly moving target.

If you are someone who must use a “clean slate” to get motivated, it need not be tomorrow. Why not have that clean slate start in an hour? Or fifteen minutes? This helps stop the surge of all-or-none thinking that might have led you to write off the rest of the day, getting you farther and farther from your goals. Even better, instead of simply declaring the clean slate arbitrarily because of the calendar flipping over, create a true and meaningful clean slate behaviorally. Take a brisk walk. Do a brief meditation. Have a quick chat with a friend. Do some breathing exercises. Allow yourself five minutes of a video that makes you laugh. All these things can help you reset yourself and your productivity much better than the vague “tomorrow,” which, when you think about it, is never actually here and never really puts you in the driver’s seat.

5) Letting inertia harm you rather than help you

Inertia is fantastic when it’s on your side. If you pick up a healthy habit and maintain it for several weeks in a row– making your own coffee rather than buying, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, sorting your emails as they come in, talking to your partner about your feelings rather than exploding at them after a week’s buildup, using anti-cavity rinse– then it is much easier to continue than when you just began it. But too often, inertia applies to habits we don’t want to have, and activities that make us feel not productive and healthy but down on ourselves and miserable. This is the reason why the psychological clean slate discussed above can be so powerful. We desperately crave the ability to be free from the things we already view as tainted: a busted diet, a soured relationship, or a pattern of motivation-killing habits at work. We don’t want to salvage any of it. We want to start fresh because it’s much more attractive as an option.

But here’s the thing. Just like in the physical world, we are prone to staying in motion– or in place– by this force of inertia, and there is no one to overwrite it except ourselves. The calendar flipping to a new year, feelings of being “fed up,” new workout gear or public promises can all briefly jump-start new behaviors. But they don’t do the underlying re-write of inertia that is truly needed to change behavior for the long-term. You must build the right day-to-day structure for your new habits to take hold, when they no longer have novelty, and when they’ve gotten boring and annoying and inconvenient. Otherwise the inertia of the old habits have never really gone away. Yes, those new workout pants are fabulous, but if your gym is still too far away or too inconvenient with your work hours, then you haven’t done anything to address the inertia of not going. Focus not on the jump-start, but on the overhauling of the battery itself. And get inertia working for you, rather than against you.

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