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Why We Self-Sabotage

And what factors cause you to flip the switch.

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We all have things we want in our lives—to lose those pesky 10 pounds, achieve that promotion, go on a second date with someone we’re interested in, or take that fantasy vacation. We set a goal that is near and dear to our hearts, and repeat it to ourselves in our heads and aloud to others more times than we can count. We’ve written this objective on Post-its, to-do lists, calendars, perhaps even carefully selected an image to place on a vision board, bathroom mirror, or refrigerator to inspire us.

We have shared this goal with our friends and family and declared that this is the year we are going to make it happen. Maybe we even asked one of them to hold us accountable to achieve it. So why do we get in our own way? In order to understand where self-sabotage comes from, we need to learn some key concepts about human behavior and raise our awareness of what might be running interference in the background.

You may be surprised to learn that the propensity to commit self-sabotage is built into our neurobiology and woven into the very fabric of what makes us human. In fact, its roots aren’t so hideous after all. The source of self-sabotage is part of a common ancestral and evolutionary adaptation that has allowed us to persevere as a species in the first place! To understand how self-sabotage is tied to our human existence, we need to take a look at the two simple principles that drive our survival: attaining rewards and avoiding threats.

We are essentially programmed to strive for goals because achieving them makes us feel good. That dopamine rush is an incentive to repeat those behaviors. The trick, especially when it comes to self-sabotage, is that our biochemistry doesn’t necessarily discriminate between the kind of feel-good sensations we experience when we are going toward our goals and the “good” feelings we get when we avoid something that seems threatening. In addition, where animals worry only about physical survival, humans also have to preserve their psychological well-being. In fact, an event that is psychologically threatening can trigger similar fight-or-flight responses as events that are physically threatening.

Attaining rewards and avoiding threats are like two sides of a coin. They aren’t independent systems, and there is a constant interplay in the brain to try to bring the two drives to an equilibrium. When we balance attaining rewards and avoiding threats, all is well; we feel good about ourselves, and we ensure our physical and psychological well-being.

However, when these two desires are out of whack, we are primed to self-sabotage. Specifically, the pursuit of avoiding threats at the expense of attaining rewards takes us away from our desired goals. Self-sabotage occurs when your drive to reduce threats is higher than your drive to attain rewards.

So why do we sometimes overestimate a threat and allow it to stop us from continuing on our path toward our goal? The answer is L.I.F.E. happens. In my research and through my experience in working with clients, I’ve found, time and again, that there are four elements that fuel the conflict between going for what you want and being held back by perceived threats that actually won’t harm you:

  • Low or Shaky Self-Concept
  • Internalized Beliefs
  • Fear of Change or the Unknown
  • Excessive Need for Control

These four influences represent aspects of your personality and how you relate to the world. You can think of them like an operating system that runs in the background and drives your beliefs and behavior. We typically acquire these L.I.F.E. elements when we are younger, and because they are with us over time, they tend to be outside of our awareness.

It is very helpful to focus on them, so you can more easily see how they inform your decisions, your ideas about yourself, how you behave, how you feel in certain circumstances, and particularly how they can be a driver of self-sabotage. Learning to identify them will help you assess when L.I.F.E. is causing you to overestimate a threat, and putting you on a path to self-sabotage. And knowledge is the first step to stopping the patterns of behavior that hold you back from living the life you want.

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Ho, J. (2019). Stop Self-Sabotage: Six Steps to Unlock Your True Motivation, Harness Your Willpower, and Get Out of Your Own Way. HarperCollins: New York, NY.

More from Judy Ho Ph.D., ABPP, ABPdN
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