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How People Sabotage Themselves

Chellenging defenses, and accepting the feelings that emerge.

Key points

  • The adaptations a child makes as a means to feel protected, called defenses, can go on to limit or hurt them as they grow up.
  • It can be difficult for an adult to give up their defenses because they are bonded to the identity they formed in childhood.
  • To break a cycle of self-sabotage, one has to challenge their own defenses and feel the primary emotions that emerge as a result.

Many people struggle with reconciling what they think they want with what they go about getting. What I mean by that is, they don’t fully understand how and why they get in their own way when it comes to their goals. To a certain degree, many of us don’t actually want what we say we want. Because of learned defenses from our past, we sabotage ourselves in ways of which we aren’t aware.

So, what are the defenses that limit us in our lives?

Our defenses form early in life as a response to painful experiences. The adaptations we make as a means to feel protected can go on to limit or hurt us as we grow up. A “fantasy bond” is a core defense that we developed as a way of maintaining an illusion of safety and security at times when we felt overwhelming frustration, hurt, or even terror. It operates as an illusion of connection we feel to a primary caretaker that compensates or substitutes for inadequacies in our early environment.

That sense of being merged or bonded with a parent or caretaker can lead us to feel like the all-powerful parent and the helpless infant all at once. In this process, we absorb many of the parent’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors into our own emerging sense of self. The negative attitudes a parent holds toward their children and themselves get internalized.

As children, it feels threatening for us to see our parent as flawed, rejecting, overwhelmed, angry, or intrusive. Instead, we take on a lot of their shortcomings as our own, seeing ourselves as flawed, unlovable, overwhelming, or irritating in some way. Believing we are the problem gives us an illusion of having power in the situation, i.e., "if only I try harder/ am better behaved, my parent will love me/treat me better."

The fantasy of being connected to the parent gives us an illusion of safety. However, we maintain certain beliefs about ourselves that go on to shape our sense of identity. As we get older, we hold on to behaviors and conceptions about ourselves that reconfirm these early ideas to preserve that original fantasy connection. Taking actions that contradict these early adaptations threatens us on a deeper level of which we aren’t fully aware. We are afraid of awakening the overwhelming feelings that led us to originally develop the defense.

How do our original defenses lead to self-sabotage?

When we hold on to “the parent in our head,” we continue to feel bonded to the identity we formed in that original relationship. If we had a neglectful or misattuned parent, we may continue to believe that we are fundamentally not deserving of attention or being treated thoughtfully. If we had an emotionally hungry parent, we may worry that people will consume or overpower us if we’re not careful. As a result, we try to “stay in line” by engaging in actions and seeking out relationships that reconfirm these ideas. To counter these beliefs would challenge our core defenses and bring up a lot of the original pain the fantasy bond was designed to bury.

If, for example, our goal is to find a lasting relationship, we may think we’re taking actions to meet someone who treats us with love and respect. However, we may find ourselves instead feeling drawn toward potential partners who are more elusive or unresponsive and feeling bored by the people who seem most interested in us. Or, if our goal is to work toward a promotion, we may notice that we keep silencing ourselves in meetings and listening to a voice in our head, telling us to take a backseat at work.

If we pay close attention, we’re likely to catch on to all kinds of subtle and unsubtle behaviors we engage in that don’t align with what we want. We wonder why we snapped at a partner we want to be close to or why we have trouble staying calm when teaching our kid something new. We can’t make sense of why we feel so anxious in a social situation or why we put ourselves down so harshly about how we look. Most of us aren’t aware of how or why we feel so determined to restrict ourselves to a preexisting idea of who we are or what we deserve, and that’s because these ideas source from very early in our lives. Although these ideas may be unpleasant or frustrating, they also feel deeply frightening to challenge.

How do I stop the cycle of self-sabotage?

To break the cycle, we have to be willing to get to know and start to challenge our defenses. We need to look at the actions we take that get in our own way. Maybe we listened to a destructive critic in our heads that told us we’re too out of shape to go for a run or that we’ll never get that job, so why even apply? Maybe we complained or criticized our partner for something small, pushing them away rather than bringing them closer. Recognizing the critical inner voices we listen to and the behaviors we engage in that undermine our goal-directed behaviors is the first step.

The next step is to think about our goals. What do we need or want? What gives our life meaning? Then we can think about how we can go about achieving our goals. It is helpful to look at the small steps that would get us where we want to go. We should check in with ourselves to see if we are taking those steps. If we want to be healthier, did we choose to be active today? If we want to pursue a career, did we look at current job listings? If we want to get closer to our partner, how did we talk to them this morning? If we notice that we aren’t aligning our actions with what we say we want, we can make corrections to our behavior, bringing our actions into line with the things we want to accomplish.

Getting to know our core defenses is an ongoing process, and it’s not always easy. When we try to break down walls, we must also face the reasons we put them up in the first place. Believing negative or restrictive things about ourselves is a way of protecting that parent living in our head and that original bond that made us feel safe.

Our parents didn’t have to be horrible people for us to have internalized their negative attitudes. They simply were human beings with wounds and defenses of their own. The negative adaptations we made to their own limitations have come to serve as barriers that we put up inside ourselves. So, while we may think we want something different, a relationship in which we’re accepted or a job in which we excel, we still feel restricted by these barriers.

As we get to know our internal defenses, we also expose why they exist. It can be painful to remember an absent mother or a harsh father. It can feel scary to imagine giving up the ways we learned to self-critique or self-parent. However, we must allow ourselves to feel the primary emotions of sadness, shame, anger, or fear in order to feel free in our adult lives. These are all feelings that would have been overwhelming to our infant selves, but that we, as adults, can now tolerate. By breaking a destructive sense of identity, we can start to learn new ways of behaving and relating that are more in sync with who we really are and what we really want. We can halt our self-sabotaging behaviors and start to develop new patterns that are not determined by old defenses.

Facebook image: Bricolage/Shutterstock

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