Stairs/Free Illustrations on Pixabay
Source: Stairs/Free Illustrations on Pixabay

The Key Determinant of Self-Sabotaging Behavior

Most everything that's psychologically dysfunctional has it origins in outdated childhood programs. These are programs keyed to your child self's perception of how best to adjust to irrational family requirements or demands. I call these adaptations "survival programs," for in growing up it generally feels crucial to do all that's possible to form a secure bond with your parents. After all, regardless of how inept they may have been as caretakers, how could you possibly have survived without them? Whether you were abused or neglected, they were still the only ones that could supply you with food and shelter when you were without the resources to provide them yourself.

Unfortunately, these programs of adaptation, more or less useful as a child, typically become ever less so as you age. And now, probably as unconscious as they are entrenched, these programs may be very hard to recognize--which is absolutely pivotal if you're successfully to confront, and revise, them.

Take, for example, a client I once saw that simply wasn't able to ask for what she wanted. Her passivity caused her endless frustrations--both at work and at home. Before she could overcome her enormous barriers about asserting herself, she first needed to become aware of just where such self-sabotaging/self-defeating behavior originated. And what I helped her recognize was that, as a child, directly requesting what she desired was--parentally speaking--unacceptable.

The message she regularly received when, initially, she approached her parents with her wants and needs was that she was selfish, that she only thought of herself. And when, "adaptively," she began to subordinate her needs to others', her parents showed more approval of her. Logically enough, she concluded that if she were to feel safely attached to her (conditionally accepting) parents, she either had to suppress the expression of her needs or repress them altogether.

It was only when her adult self was able to get into communication with her anxious, insecure child self (the highly influential fragment of her being which still governed her behavior) that this non-nurturing "survival" program could be re-written. But, again, not until she was able to convince her doubting inner child that this self-deprived--and self-depriving--period of her life was forever over . . . and that it was now safe, even essential, for her to explicitly make her wants and needs known to others. Only then could she liberate herself from this antiquated program of self-denial. And, as is typical in such cases, this "relinquishing-the-past" process wasn't all that easy for her. For altering deeply embedded behaviors that have become fused with one's very way of being requires nothing less than a fundamental alteration in one's core sense of self.

Internal conflicts about change are definitely resolvable. But generally it's a gradual process, and involves overcoming deep-seated resistances. Just consider, for instance, how many times you've heard someone say: "That's just who I am," or "That's the way I'm made," or "I've always been this way." It's typical to assume that your habits reflect who you are rather than how you've programmed yourself to adapt to family-of-origin imperatives. Which is perhaps the main reason that you need to grasp the external forces originally contributing to your current-day dysfunctions before you can--deliberately--set about changing them.

Modifying your behavior--or better, reclaiming the behavior you once experienced an urgent need to disown--is inevitably laden with negative expectations. So again, it's "only logical" that however maladaptive that behavior might have become, striving to alter it may feel gravely threatening to your fundamental belief system. But if you're committed to change, eventually you'll succeed. For a while though, your scared or hesitant child part may well protest your adult self's commitment to "correct" the past.

So don't be surprised if, self-protectively, the child residing within you engenders symptoms of anxiety, physiologically pleading with you to avoid carrying out unprecedented behaviors it experiences as mortally threatening to its welfare. Reprogramming old survival tapes may require you to attend, and sympathetically listen, to that "scaredy-cat" part of yourself--even as you seek to reassure that frightened, much younger self. Still, as long as you're committed to change, and refuse to be controlled by outdated programming, you'll eventually triumph over it.

Other Sources of Self-Sabotaging Behavior

Before listing the kinds of core negative beliefs that fuel self-sabotage, I should probably add that such defeating behaviors derive from more than childhood circumstances (including relationships not just with family, but also with peers, relatives, and other authority figures). There are at least three additional sources for self-sabotaging programs.

For one thing, self-defeating patterns can derive from anything you experience as traumatic--experience, that is, as a grave threat to your survival (or at least the survival of your ego). Virtually by definition, trauma "sensitizes" you, or makes you overreact to, any stimuli perceived as sufficiently similar to what's become linked to the event that earlier alarmed or shocked you. Yet because in such instances your reaction is likely to be, say, overly avoidant or aggressive, such exaggerated behavior will frequently end up defeating you. Self-protectively necessary as, inside, it may feel to you, in the present it's distorted, ill-advised.

For example, if you're a veteran afflicted with PTSD, it's understandable that you might dart beneath a desk every time you hear a plane flying overhead. But in the here-and-now it still doesn't make any rational sense. In fact, it might be said that trauma leads to "extreme logic"--a logic that's become absolute and no longer hinges on any particular situation to justify it.

Another cause of self-sabotaging behavior relates to substances, relationships, or activities that in the past have reduced stress or anxiety levels. Most addictions (from chain smoking to excessive drinking, gambling, shopping, or sexing) serve this important function. So it's only reasonable that you could get caught up in behavior that, while in the moment it alleviates distress, also makes it impossible for you to achieve what it is you really want. In fact, any strategy you've come to rely on almost exclusively to reduce stress can wind up being self-defeating.

Lastly, there are certain personality traits that if not overcome (or at least mitigated) can promote self-sabotage. For instance, if you were born shy you probably tried to escape unfamiliar social situations. Timorous by nature, they just felt too scary to you. But unless you eventually prevailed over this innate reticence, you'd end up socially phobic. Controlled by fears of "exposure" (tied to ancient feelings of intolerable vulnerability), you'd remain--well--socially retarded, behind the curve in developing interpersonal skills and confidence. And your passivity and pronounced tendency to avoid new encounters would almost guarantee that, both personally and professionally, you'd never reach your full potential.

Core Negative Beliefs That Foster Self-Sabotage

From a difficult childhood environment to dysfunctional conditioning resulting from unresolved trauma--and from maladaptive behaviors to relieve stress, to factors in one's native constitution or temperament--we've looked at different ways people get programmed to sabotage themselves. Now it's time to pinpoint some of the most common categories of self-beliefs (typically below conscious awareness) that give rise to such self-defeating behaviors.

Within each category, I've listed several specific self-statements that, if reflective of your underlying belief system, may well be preventing you from successfully completing (or even undertaking) what otherwise might be quite possible for you. Another way of saying this is that if, deep down, you feel you can't accomplish something, you really won't let yourself try--or try hard enough--to succeed.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are all about self-sabotage, about acting in ways subliminally contrived to confirm negative beliefs about yourself. It may be failure, not success, that--ironically--enables you to stay securely within your psychological comfort zone. For however self-defeating, your assured defeat may validate your unfavorable bias toward yourself. And, as I mentioned in Part 2 of this post, such self-sabotage can ultimately make you your own worst enemy.

With the qualification that in various ways all negative beliefs can lead to self-sabotage, here are some internal cognitive demons particularly worth considering. General categories of self-dislike are placed in italics. And each is exemplified by an assortment of specific self-allegations:

You see yourself as inadequate. "I'm incompetent (inept, ineffectual)," "I'm incapable," I'm behind the curve," "I'm not good enough," I can't be good enough," "I have to be perfect" (knowing, of course, that you can't be), "I can't take care of myself";

You see yourself as stupid. "I can't do anything right," "I'm slow," "I'm not smart enough," "I can't think for myself," "I can't make my own decisions";

You see yourself as weak. "I can't stand up for myself," "I can't set limits on others," "I have no authority," "I'm helpless," "I'm powerless," I can't control myself," "I can't protect myself," "I can't cope with stress";

You see yourself as shameful. "I'm unacceptable," "I'm unforgivable," "I'm worthless," "I'm defective," "I'm a bad person," "I'm contemptible," "I'm permanently damaged" (which frequently relates to having been molested or to having a congenital defect);

You see yourself as a failure. "I'm a loser," "I will fail," "I'm hopeless," "I can't succeed," "I can't get what I want" "Nothing works out for me";

You see yourself as socially inferior, undesirable, or isolated. "I'm not likeable," "I'm not lovable," "I'm not wanted," "I don't fit in," "I don't belong," "I'm all alone," "I can't be understood";

You see yourself as undeserving. "I don't deserve love," "I don't deserve respect," "I don't deserve to enjoy myself," "I don't deserve to relax," "I don't deserve anything"--or, conversely,

You see yourself as deserving only bad things. "I deserve punishment," "I deserve to be miserable," "I deserve to be left out," "I deserve criticism" (or disapproval), "I deserve to fail," "I deserve to be abandoned," and even (as a self-hating client once shared with me) "I deserve to die";

 • You see yourself as untrustworthy. "I can't be trusted," "I can't trust myself," "I can't trust my perceptions," "I can't trust my judgment," "I can't trust my authority," "I can't trust my emotions";

You see yourself as (overly) responsible for others. "I have to be responsible for others," "I have to defer to others," "I have to live up to others' expectations"; or,

You see yourself as (excessively) vulnerable. "It's not safe to have feelings," "It's not safe to show feelings," "It's not safe to make decisions"--or, simply the abiding, overarching sense: "I'm not safe."

As comprehensive as this list might appear, it's hardly exhaustive. For almost any negatively distorted belief (whether about yourself or others) has the potential to precipitate self-sabotaging behavior. For example, if from a very young age your parents regularly broke their promises or lied to you, inadvertently they may have taught you not to put your faith in others. As an adult, then, you may simply assume that people can't be trusted (i.e., "I can't trust others").

Believing, however, that others will let you down or deceive you if you give them half a chance, may drive you (again, self-protectively) to do everything on your own--even things that require partnering with others if they're to be completed satisfactorily. Born of distrust, such an exaggerated need for autonomy can eventuate in all sorts of self-defeating actions. In effect, your initially logical program of suspiciousness may later in life compel you to repeatedly "contrive" your own defeat.

It's only when you can re-connect with that much earlier part of you--discouraged, pessimistic, wary, and overly cynical--that you can re-write this formerly logical program of defensiveness. Almost literally, you'll need to talk to that prematurely jaded part of you and persuade it that, despite its parents' untrustworthiness, it generally makes sense to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Never forget that it's your past self that holds custody over most of your self-sabotaging programs. So if you're going to re-write them once and for all (and not, frankly, be forever anxious doing so), you'll need to convince that earlier self that now you can be its protector, that now it can safely discard what has become out-of-date-and self-defeating.

NOTE 1: To get additional ideas on how to get in touch with your past self, see my post "'I Feel Like a Child' Syndrome."

NOTE 2: Part 1 of this 5-pt post illustrated the "logical illogic" of dreams, whereas pt 2 focused on the curious logic of self-sabotage. Part 4 will center on the "outer" (vs. "inner") child responsible for such self-defeating behaviors; and finally, pt 5 will address self-sabotage as it "logically" depicts passive-aggression toward the self.

NOTE 3: To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.

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