A lot of people have told me that when they first met me, they assumed I've always had it easy. Compared to many people in the world it's true--I've been fortunate in many ways. What isn't immediately obvious though, is that despite things looking good from the outside, I had an invisible monster on my back from a very young age. That monster's name was Self-Sabotage.
With this monster's help I failed tests, lost jobs, ran up thousands in credit card debt, destroyed supportive relationships, botched amazing career opportunities, put myself in extremely dangerous situations, and drank myself into oblivion...and this is just what happened before I turned 21.
To put it simply, I was doing everything I could to destroy any chance of success and happiness. But why? Self-sabotage seems to defy logic on every level, and yet this is an extremely common experience. Many of us get in our own way in life, and we usually don't understand why we're doing it.
It took me many years of working on this issue to get to a point where I could act as my own best friend, rather than my own worst enemy. The purpose of this article is to help you begin the process of understanding where self-sabotage comes from, and take one step toward getting the monster off of your back for good.
It starts with this foundational principle: no matter how baffling our self-defeating behaviors may seem to us, everything we do has some logic to it. We just have to know where to look for that logic.
In my experience, asking the question "Why am I doing this?" often doesn't help, because our self-sabotage doesn't make sense to our adult consciousness in present time. When we ask "When would doing this have helped me avoid pain?" we might get a much more illuminating answer.
"Self-defeating" or "self-sabotaging" behaviors are usually self-protection or self-preservation strategies that are outdated. As children, those behaviors were the only way we knew how to get love or attention, or avoid mental or physical pain. These strategies worked well at some point, otherwise we wouldn't have kept them around. We're smarter than that!
To give you an example from my recovery, I used to be "sick" all the time. I missed tons of school. I frequently called in sick for work. I even lost jobs in college because of it. I wasn't sick in the traditional sense--I didn't have frequent colds or a sore throat. I just couldn't get out of bed. I would binge watch TV, get food delivered to binge eat, and I wouldn't leave the house for days on end. After a while my grades, finances, health and relationships were in shambles.
Despite wreaking havoc on my life, I wasn't able to change my behavior. I read every self-help book I could find, and watched every motivational speech under the sun, but they didn't help for long. I kept asking myself "why?" and nothing made sense.
When I started asking "when?" things became much clearer.
When I was little, two close family members got extremely sick at the same time, and were in the hospital for a long time. It felt like my mom was always leaving me to go to see them, despite my protests. The reality was, she was in an impossible bind--stay home with the kids and abandon two people in grave need, or leave the kids with a babysitter and be there for the sick.
Ultimately she did what she felt was best, and spent a lot of time at the hospital. In my child logic however, she was still leaving me. Being sick meant getting mom's attention and love, and that is what I needed. So I got "sick." A lot.
This of course wasn't conscious. It was just my survival instincts in play, but it worked. She would sit by my bedside, and bring me food. It helped me get more attention from her. It also protected me from the pain of watching her leave. I felt cared for, and this reinforced the behavior. Over time, it created more and more problems, but because it served me so well at first, it was very difficult to stop.
Seeing what was fueling this pattern jump-started my healing. Instead feeling like I needed the excuse of being "sick" to receive care and attention, I simply asked myself what I needed. Most of the time it was something extremely simple like a hug, encouragement, or some good old fashioned self-care. This approach made it possible to get my needs met in an authentic way, and I get better at asking for what I need all the time.
I won't say healing this has been easy or that it happened overnight. I've really had to stretch myself to learn how to ask for what I need (or even notice that I have unmet needs), and that is an ongoing process.
I still find myself wanting to call in "sick" sometimes. After all, it was my go-to coping strategy for many years. The difference is that now I have a choice. I could still choose to call in sick if that's really what would feel best, but I can also choose to ask for support in healthier ways. Just knowing I have the choice takes some pressure off, and helps me make choices that are better for me long-term.
So if you have a self-defeating behavior that you can't seem to resolve, instead of asking "why?" try asking "when?" You might just get some new answers.
If this resonates, I have a 7 week online program called Bloom that may be a good fit for you. The program is designed to heal self-sabotage at the root, and get you out of your own way with the support of a group. Click here to learn more!