Overcoming Self-Sabotage

How to understand and regulate destructive behaviors.

When Desires Collide: Which One to Choose?

You Can't Have the Best of Both Worlds

In life we often experience multiple wants and desires. Frequently these desires are incompatible with each other and even worse sometimes we make a decision that results in fulfilling neither desire! Self-sabotage is often the result of conflicting desires, where an individual usually has two (sometimes more) desires that are incompatible with each other. Fulfilling one of these desires means losing out on the other.

Revenge is a form of self-sabotage which demonstrates conflicting desires well. Most people have had feelings of revenge at some point, particularly when we felt angry about something that someone else did. With revenge we desire to get back at that person in a way that will bring satisfaction to us by upsetting the other person, such as with the "silent treatment." By doing so we hope to make him or her see that they've hurt us. That usually works pretty well, right?

Yet, the problem with revenge is that, if we care enough about the person to be hurt by their actions, we probably also desire a long, healthy relationship with that person. This is where the conflicting desire comes in. Fulfilling the desire for revenge sabotages our desire for a strong relationship. Usually our acts of revenge don't send the message we wanted, and we end up as "the bad guy."

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Thus, self-sabotage often involves two or more conflicting goals, often one being a short term goal (desire for revenge) and the other being a long term goal (wanting a healthy relationship). The short term often wins out, however, because it feels more satisfying in the here and now and the long term goal is more difficult. Yet, in the long run choosing short term goals over long term goals leads us down that path in life of "how did I end up here?" It's not as big of a mystery if you can understand how conflicting desires play a role in your behavior.

Sometimes identifying the conflicting desires in self-sabotage can be a little tricky. We often think that we "just act" in a certain way, without any thought prior to doing so. This is because our minds move very quickly, and without training we're not great at slowing down and analyzing what's going on in our mind. Here are some steps that you can take to help you identify conflicting desires present in your self-sabotaging behavior:

1) Identify your target behavior. Keep your goal behavior concrete. Describe what this behavior would look like to a fly on a wall. If you make your goal behavior too abstract you're going to have a lot of trouble seeing it when it happens.

2) Make sure you have paper and a pen with you. These behaviors often happen when we're not expecting them, so you need to be prepared wherever you are.

3) Right when you are about to succumb to your target behavior pull out your paper and pen, and write down what emotions you are feeling and what you desire to achieve with the behavior. If you forget to do this before self-sabotaging that's ok, but as soon as you can remember try to write down what you desired to achieve with your behavior.

4) After the behavior (i.e. you self-sabotaged), write down which of your desires remain unfulfilled. What about your situation is still making you feel empty? On the other hand, which desires were fulfilled?

5) The final step is to "rinse and repeat," by which I mean do the previous steps again the next time you self-sabotage, and again. I have little doubt that if you engage faithfully in this exercise you will soon get a good idea of what conflicting desires are present in your self-sabotaging behavior.

Interestingly, many times even just taking a moment to think about the conflicting desires present within self-sabotage can provide you a huge advantage to stopping self-sabotage. Practicing these steps will improve your ability to identify your thoughts, feelings and desires when you self-sabotage, and you will start to think about these things on a regular basis. Understanding the conflicting desires in your self-sabotage will also help you make better choices for your long-term goals. In future posts I will discuss things you can do to manage those the short term desires involved in self-sabotage, while continuing to work toward those long term desires.

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.

more...

Subscribe to Overcoming Self-Sabotage

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?