Science and Sensibility

A psychological potpourri

Protect Yourself From Yourself

How to stop sabotaging yourself

From time to time, practically everybody sabotages themselves with needless emotional miseries. You can stop these unnecessary stresses.

Build a happier and sturdier lifestyle on four mutually supporting pillars of psychological strength: resilience, competence, confidence, and tolerance (acceptance).  Use recurring problems as channels for strengthening the pillars.  We’ll use overcoming upset as an example. (You can substitute whatever recurring emotional problem that plagues you.)

Combatting Secondary Disturbances

A problem condition is losing a job and not be able adequately to meet your financial responsibilities. Following a rational understanding of the situation, you accept—not like—the situation. You do what you can to get a new job.

 You may superimpose a primary disturbance over the problem condition. This is where you make a bad situation worse. You think, “This should not have happened. Poor me." “Why does everything go wrong?” You could catastrophize about the loss, demand that what happened should not have happened, and blame yourself because you did not see what was coming. (See Emotions and Depression for how to combat primary disturbance thinking.)

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

A secondary disturbance is another way of layering a problem onto a problem. For example, you upset yourself over feeling upset. You tell yourself, “I can’t stand how rotten I feel.”  When secondary disturbances dominate, you are normally wise to act against them.

How do you start to exercise this control? You interject a perspective-generating question:  “Why can’t I stand what I don’t like?”  Instead of caterwauling about feeling rotten, you just allow yourself to feel rotten. Paradoxically, you may feel less rotten.

Coping statements can substitute for thinking upsetting thoughts. These statements are assertive, persuasive, positive expressions of rational beliefs.  Here is an example:  “I don’t like this situation. Now let me see what I can do to address it.”  By persuasively using coping statements, you are likely to have fewer primary and secondary disturbing thoughts.

Psychological Homework Assignments

You are unlikely to overcome a fixed problem habit, such as easily feeling upset, without vigorously combatting the problem. As you persist in overcoming upset thinking, feelings, and behaviors, you create positive cognitive, emotive, and behavioral consequences. There are many ways to bring about this result. Here’s one. 

REBT is famous for its use of psychological homework assignments. Here’s the gist: Homework assignments are actions that you undertake that are (1) relevant to what you want to accomplish, and (2) are within your capacity to do. They are a problem-solving and competence-building tool. Here’s how to use one: (1) Pick a self-sabotaging activity that you want to stop doing.  (2) Select corrective activity(s) that support your four great pillars. (3) Execute the activities.  participant created a homework assignment for herself. She posted the results on the SMART Recovery Online Message Board. The example illustrates the benefit of taking self-help initiatives.

“Today my homework was to watch the u-tube videos Dee suggested on Procrastination. Well my sleep patterns are still way off and I have been up since 2:30 AM. So, I had plenty of time and watched all of the videos posted. There are some great ones there, and I highly recommend them to everyone. Great, great stuff! 

“Briefly, I learned that my procrastination is a learned habit that gives me the easy way out. The short-term benefits outweighing the long-term benefits. Kinda like drinking. Always after the immediate benefit and ignoring the long-term disaster.  So today, I am setting concrete goals (long-term) to: 1) ...9).

“It is painfully obvious to me after watching these videos, that my brain is programed to take the easy way out. I have been going for the short-term immediate results, instead of focusing on the benefits of long-term goals. The ‘I must feel good now’ attitude. 

“So today, I start to set long-term goals. I will MAKE myself do the tasks whether I like it or not. I will keep moving Forward with a DO IT NOW attitude... Persist, persist, persist, while I tell myself I really do love doing these things, because I love the result.”  

Homework assignments are sometimes challenging to do when you have a strong resistance to making a change and you procrastinate. However, some assignments, such as watching a self-help video, can be simple to do, informational, and motivational.

If you choose to give yourself a homework assignment to get past your procrastination barriers, click on parts 1-3 of the free Combatting Procrastination program. What is Procrastination?  Basic Techniques for Combatting ProcrastinationSeven Principles for Combatting Procrastination.) Use what you learn to take another step.

 Expanding on Original Homework Assignments

In an ongoing change process, it is important to be clear with yourself about what you will you do, and when and how you’ll start executing the changes. Instead of mulling too much over what you'll do, start a basic homework assignment now.  This process also includes making up additional plans as you go. These extensions are a natural part of the homework process.

Now it’s your turn to give yourself an assignment, and to follow through. By approaching your assignments from a rational angle, you engage in pillar building.

This is an Albert Ellis Tribute Series blog. For information on Ellis’ rational emotive behavioral theories and practices, go to his only official website: For more on how to cope with secondary disturbances, see The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety.

Special to this blog is A Pelican at Work PhotoArt thumbnail image by Dale Jarvis, AreaOne Art & Design, Fayetteville, NC.

© Dr. Bill Knaus, Ed.D. and Dr. Nancy Knaus Ph.D., MBA.

Bill Knaus, Ed.D., is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.


Subscribe to Science and Sensibility

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.