On average, we have tens of thousands of thoughts a day, but we don’t register most of them. We tend to ignore the most repetitive, persistent thoughts, such as the ones that take us through our morning grooming ritual or our daily commute. What we do is so driven by habit that we don’t have to think ourselves through every step. To feel how this works, try brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Odd, right?
However, there is another type of automatic thought that is not so mundane. Yet these self-sabotage triggers become so habitual that our minds hardly notice them—similar to the types of thoughts that take us through our daily routines. We only become aware of their consequences via behaviors that lead to dead-end jobs, chronically poor health, unsatisfactory relationships, and broken dreams.
Self-sabotage doesn’t come out of nowhere, although it may seem as if it does. The way you think about yourself and your situation has a lot to do with how you engage in self-defeating behavior.
Imagine one of those old cartoons where a character who was faced with a decision would have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other shoulder trying to influence them. Try as they might, the character often became influenced by the devil whispering into their ear even if they didn’t want to be swayed in that direction. Our negative thoughts are not necessarily evil, and sometimes the voices are nearly imperceptible, but their influence can be no less widespread and powerful, leading you to act in ways that may not be in your best interest or don’t align with your goals and values.
Another way those negative thoughts are kept under the radar has to do with how our brains function. Our brains are constantly trying to conserve energy and resources, so that there will be enough juice available if and when something really impactful happens that demands our attention and necessitates big-time problem-solving.
New studies have shown that when animals are exposed to a barrage of similar stimuli, inhibitory cells that are more energy efficient take over, leading to a decrease in excitatory cells that are activated when the stimuli are novel or unique. [i] Translation: The processing of old, repetitive information gets automated and the brain prioritizes processing new information with every resource it has.
This brain truth has been used as a life hack by world leaders and business moguls. Some have helped their brains to conserve precious energy by wearing the same outfit or eating the same lunch every day, automating decisions that are less consequential so they don’t suffer decision fatigue when they are faced with major issues that can impact hundreds or thousands of people. [ii] [iii]
Your brain’s tendency to default to routines can be extremely helpful in many circumstances, but the same beneficial mechanism can also suppress the recurrent thoughts that erode our self-concept, behaviors, and how we interact with others. The brain ignores this negative chatter, thinking, "Hey, that’s nothing new," allowing these thoughts to persist and wreak havoc below the surface.
Our minds strive for cognitive consonance. We want to achieve harmony between thoughts and actions, and hate cognitive dissonance, which occurs when we think one way and act another. When we have negative thoughts, our behaviors typically follow suit, and that’s when we can find ourselves acting against our own best interests. [iv] In fact, we experience mental discomfort when we hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values in our minds simultaneously.
We also feel this disconnect when we do things that contradict our beliefs and when we are confronted with new information that challenges any of our deeply held beliefs. Our minds prefer to confirm what we already know, a phenomenon that psychologists call confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias happens when we have a preconceived notion about something and then use that preconceived notion to make determinations about a situation or person. This applies to other people as well as ourselves. For example, if you believe that you are a clumsy person, then your clumsiness, not the uneven pavement, is to blame when you trip.
Confirmation bias also plays out in larger ways. If you hold a belief about a political party, you are much more likely to seek out information and other people who support that belief. You will generally pay less attention to information that contradicts your stance and when you encounter opposition, you are more likely to ignore it or even become defensive.
We often avoid information that causes mental discomfort or dissonance, or we take new information that threatens our existing beliefs and change it so it fits in with our current ideas and behaviors. [v] Research shows that when we experience the unpleasant psychological discomfort of cognitive dissonance, we want to reduce those uncomfortable feelings as quickly as possible. [vi] Once in a while, we might ditch confirmation bias and actually try to change our existing view to adapt to the new information, but that switch is a lot less common because it takes a lot of work and our brains are trying to conserve energy (yes, you will hear this over and over again!). Sometimes, we don’t even notice the confirmation bias process because it has been automatized by our brains. This can drive self-sabotage, especially when new information could actually cause us to take a closer look at our current behaviors and change the ones that aren’t working.
Negative automatic thoughts, or self-sabotage triggers, are like the termites that have invaded a house. They seem so tiny and inconsequential individually, but when there are many of them, they can ultimately devastate the foundation and mess with the structure of the entire building. In the same way that termites undermine the integrity of a building, negative thoughts can wear away at you over time and, because they lurk in the background, you don’t see the effects until you are in the midst of a fraught relationship or health crisis or experiencing job trauma.
You would think that something with so much influence and impact on your life would be glaringly obvious, but these underground, ingrained thoughts are nearly undetectable for a number of reasons that conspire to allow them to fade into the background.
- They are automatic and arise without obvious conscious processing.
- They are habitual, taken for granted, and accepted as normal (and therefore make no demands whatsoever on our attention).
- They are rapid and fleeting, occurring in mere seconds and then disappearing as quickly as they showed up (but they can pop up again and again, and increasingly wreak havoc on your behavior).
- They are condensed, making their debut as cognitive shorthand; they are usually not in complete sentences and sometimes show up as brief images or symbols.
Uncovering these self-sabotage triggers is going to take self-examination. These thoughts have likely lurked beneath the surface for a long time, and because your brain has filed them away, categorized as old, familiar information, it hasn’t paid them much attention in a while. The process of getting to these self-sabotage triggers is a bit like going to the attic or basement of your house and digging through all the old, dusty boxes. Although you may not have looked inside for a while, the items stored inside can bring up memories you hadn’t thought of in years—events that may have had, and continue to have, a profound impact on your life. Uncovering and examining your automatic thoughts can reveal some important ideas that were established in your past that continue to trigger your self-sabotaging behavior in the present.
A great way to get started on this self-examination is to start bringing more conscious awareness to your thoughts. You can do this by setting an alarm on your phone to ring twice a day at pre-specified times (for example, 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.). When the alarm goes off, ask yourself, "what was I thinking just now?" Jot the thought down on a notebook or the notes app on your phone. This gets you into the habit of making contact with your thoughts at least a couple of times a day.
Then, it's time to uncover the patterns of your self-sabotaging thoughts. Next time you feel a distressing or painful emotion, ask yourself, "what was I thinking just before I noticed this emotion?" Emotions are preceded by thoughts, and events don’t take on a specific meaning until you attribute thoughts to them.
The important thing to notice here is how self-sabotage triggers don’t just come out of nowhere. You can trace their origin by starting with how you are feeling, identifying the thoughts that sparked that emotion, and taking note of the circumstances where your thoughts and feelings conspired to bring on a subsequent self-sabotaging behavior or action.
Pretty soon, you'll start to notice certain patterns. Perhaps your thoughts tend to catastrophize what happens to you, and your mind goes straight to the worst-case scenario, no matter how unlikely it is. Or, perhaps you make a lot of rules with your thoughts, a lot of "shoulds," and that has you believing you don't measure up, no matter how hard you try. Or, maybe your thoughts attempt to mind read a situation and other people, where you believe you know what others might be thinking about you, and in doing so, you inadvertently betray some of your deepest insecurities.
Although this exercise may be a bit uncomfortable at first, identifying these persistent themes is the key to developing an antidote against self-sabotaging actions. If you know you are prone to a certain style of thinking, you can then start to implement strategies to lessen the impact those negative thoughts have on your eventual actions. You can take the power back, build self-efficacy, and take control of the process so that these bothersome thoughts don't inevitability lead to self-sabotage.
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[i]B. Haider, M. R. Krause, A. Duque, Y. Yu, J. Touryan, J. A. Mazer, and D. A. McCormick, “Synaptic and Network Mechanisms of Sparse and Reliable Visual Cortical Activity during Nonclassical Receptive Field Stimulation,” Neuron65(2010): 107–121.
[ii]Drake Baer, “The scientific reason why Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg wear the same outfit every day,” Business Insider, April 28, 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/barack-obama-mark-zuckerberg-wear-the-same-outfit-2015-4.
[iii]Roy F. Baumeister, “The Psychology of Irrationality,” in The Psychology of Economic Decisions: Rationality and Well-Being,I. Brocas and J. D. Carrillo(New Yor: Oxford University Press, 2003).
[iv]L. Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance(Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957).
[v]D. O. Case, J. F. Andrews, J. D. Johnson, and S. L. Allard, “Avoiding versus seeking: the relationship of information seeking to avoidance, blunting, coping, dissonance, and related concepts,” Journal of the Medical Library Association93(2005), 353–62.
[vi]A. J. Elliot and P. G. Devine, “On the motivational nature of cognitive dissonance: Dissonance as psychological discomfort,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology67(1994): 382–94.