Overcoming Self-Sabotage

How to understand and regulate destructive behaviors.

A Love-Hate Relationship

How Self Sabotage Can be a False Friend

People hate it when they act in ways that self-sabotage. So why don't they just stop? For example, let's say you are trying to diet. You've had some success and lost a few pounds, but you still have a way to go to be at your ideal weight. Then, you lose control and spend the night eating oodles of forbidden food. Oops, that's not going to help your diet: self-sabotage. So what's the problem here, are you just weak? Do you lack self-control?


When we self sabotage the behavior is never purely negative. If it was 100% negative the choice would be obvious and we would avoid that behavior. But most of the time there are a number of positive factors that play a role in self sabotaging behaviors, in addition to negative factors. Smoking is a particularly vivid example. Most people are aware that smoking is very bad for your health and it can kill you. It can also be socially stigmatizing with people often being told that it's "gross" or "smells." With these negatives it's obvious that we shouldn't smoke, but still people continue. This is because smoking also feels really good. Each time the person smokes, he or she gets a nice little "buzz" that can melt away the stress of daily life. Smoking can also be a good time to talk with friends and meet others with a common interest (smoking!). It can provide a nice break from work and a chance to be outside. When you think about the positive aspects of smoking, it doesn't seem so crazy that people keep smoking despite the negatives.

Back to self sabotage in general; if you're having difficulty with self sabotage and want to overcome that behavior, figuring out the positives and negative of that behavior is a great place to start. It's a little counter-intuitive, how often do you hear that a good way to stop an undesirable behavior is to think about the positive aspects of it? But modern treatments for self sabotage, such as Motivational Interviewing therapy http://motivationalinterview.org/clinical/overview.html, often start with this very basic evaluation. Fully understanding the behavior is the best way to overcome it, primarily by finding good substitutes for those positive aspects of the behavior. I'll talk more about positive substitutions in future posts.


Here is a simple exercise that can be done to help you understand the positives and negatives of your self-sabotaging behavior. Get a clean piece of paper and draw lines dividing the paper into top, bottom, right and left boxes (4 total boxes). In the first of the upper boxes label it "Pros of the behavior" and then label the second upper box "Cons of the behavior." "The behavior" in this case refers to your specific type of self-sabotage. Next, label the bottom two boxes in a similar way, except that they will be Pros and Cons of NOT doing the behavior. It is just as important to consider the consequences of not doing a behavior as it is to think about the specific consequences of the behavior. As you list the pros and cons in the boxes, be sure to give each square equal thought and consideration. Be truthful and list everything you can think of. Next, set the piece of paper in a safe place and leave it there for 24 hours. When you come back to the paper, spend more time filling in the boxes and make sure that you haven't missed any pros or cons. When you have completely covered all 4 boxes and can no longer think of anything to add, then that is the time to compare the boxes. What similarities do they have? Are there any pros or cons that weigh more heavily than others? Are there any overall themes that you notice within the pros and cons?


This exercise may seem simplistic, but I promise that if you take the time to do this exercise thoroughly and completely you will have a much better understanding of your self-sabotaging behavior. You will find that the behavior is positive in various ways. It is these positive qualities that make self-sabotage a "false friend." We've all had those friends that were bad for us. Even though we valued their friendship at times, they betrayed us in some way. Self-sabotage is the same way, even though these behaviors have positive qualities, these qualities are just a mask, and it's only a matter of time till self-sabotage betrays you and interferes with your life in a major way.

Eddie Selby is a NIMH Predoctoral Research Fellow and doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the Florida State University. He specializes in emotional and behavioral dysregulation.

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