When I know exactly what makes my body feel good and gives my self-esteem a pat on the back, why do I often slump, mired in loathing at the end of the day, disgusted by the bag of sweets that vanished in one sitting or by the ‘civilised’ glass of wine that turned into mindlessly glugging a bottle?
How come I start each day determined to hit deadlines and achieve goals only to find that all I’ve accomplished at the end are countless games of Spider Solitaire? Why do I self-sabotage?
It’s not just me, of course. So many of us aren’t living the lives we’d love because of… ourselves. We shoot ourselves in the foot in a number of ways, from unhealthy self-soothing with alcohol, drugs or food, to procrastination and finding (often subconscious) ways to avoid or scupper relationships and work.
What’s going on?
‘Self-sabotage is an umbrella term for anything we do that’s judged either externally by others or internally by ourselves,’ integrative psychotherapist and counsellor Kathy Osborne says. It’s helpful to think of the ‘self’ as ‘having multiple parts, rather than imagining a continuous and solid self that goes through our entire life’, she adds.
As we experience traumas (either clear-cut, such as death or divorce, or less obvious, such as perceived rejection), parts of our psyche can become fragmented and dissociated. ‘These dissociated parts can sabotage our lives unless we’re able to recognise them, understand them and, ultimately, integrate them,’ she explains.
Psychotherapist Susan Anderson, author of Taming Your Outer Child (New World Library, £12.99) pins a label on these dissociated parts: Outer Child. ‘Outer Child is the self-sabotaging nemesis of your personality,’ she says. ‘The part that gets attracted to all the wrong people and runs up bills on your credit cards.’
While most of us are familiar with the Inner Child, our emotion-led, vulnerable child within; the concept of ‘Outer Child’ is Anderson’s new baby. She says it’s the part that reacts to what the Inner Child feels, and claims that the underlying fear behind most self-sabotage is abandonment in some shape or form.
So, at the slightest hint of our Inner Child feeling unloved, Outer Child rushes in for damage limitation – often in unhelpful or inappropriate ways. Think of it as a stroppy 13-year-old, before the ability to pause and reflect sets in.
The problem is the vast majority of our abandonment triggers are unconscious. They’re stored in the amygdala, part of the primal limbic system in the brain, which can hoard memory of traumas that happened back in childhood, sometimes even at birth or in the womb – way beyond conscious memory.
Unfortunately, the amygdala is primed to react to any perceived threat (physical or emotional) with instantaneous action.
So not only is it why we jump when someone sneaks up on us; it’s also why we lash out verbally, rather than have the calm, reasoned discussion our rational mind would prefer – it’s why our hand will grab the chocolate before our higher consciousness has a chance to reason a healthier response.
But do we really only self-sabotage because we have abandonment issues? Why can’t we just mindlessly binge on some chocolate because we’re feeling sad or exhausted? Surely sometimes we do unhealthy things because we’re distracted by, say, the television or by the frantic pace of life?
‘It’s a fair point,’ says Anderson. ‘But the root of self-sabotage is not just abandonment or perceived abandonment by others but also self-abandonment. When we eat a whole bag of sweets mindlessly, at that moment we’re in an act of self-abandonment – it’s a lapse in our ability to take care of ourselves. So, when the Adult Self is tired and distracted, the Outer Child gains control and gets us to succumb to the need for immediate gratification.’
She points out that the Outer Child gets away with most of its self-indulgences at night when the Adult Self is tired or has had a glass of wine. That sounds familiar – it often feels as though my willpower has an ‘off-switch’ that clicks in at around 7pm.
No wonder willpower alone won’t cut it. We’re fighting against brain chemistry, against the autonomic nervous system, trying to prevent behaviour that stems from primal issues that could have happened before we even had the rational ability to understand them.
Your higher thinking brain can try its hardest, shouting to the amygdala (‘don’t eat that’; ‘you don’t need another glass’ or ‘he’s not going to leave you’) but the amygdala will cheerfully ignore this because it’s already plunging your hand into the biscuit tin, topping up your glass or screaming needily at your partner.
But why does willpower fluctuate so much? Sometimes I have incredible willpower – I can power through work or stick to an exercise regime like Superwoman while, at other times, it all goes to pot.
‘Willpower varies because we are inundated with distractions, emotional triggers, and the pitfalls of having a physical body which gets tired or sick,’ Anderson says. ‘When we give in to our impulses and go for the quick fixes or act out our emotions inappropriately, it means the Outer Child has gained control momentarily.’
This is reassuring. It makes me feel better about what I’ve always perceived as a pitiful lack of self-control. However, understanding alone doesn’t stop self-defeating behaviour. So what does?
Avoiding the emotional hijack
The good news is that it is possible to alter neural pathways. Just as we can encourage new, healthy neural connections, it seems we can also allow unhelpful ones to wither and die. However, it takes time and extreme patience.
‘The cognitive brain (the Adult Self) – needs to get stronger so it can wrest control from the wayward Outer Child,’ says Anderson. ‘So the aim is to strengthen the mediating abilities of the Adult Self, so that the amygdala-driven Outer Child is less able to stage an emotional hijack.’
‘Lasting, sustainable change happens slowly and steadily,’ cautions Osborne. ‘It took a lifetime to be who you are and it will take patience, self-care and a lot of compassion to do things a bit differently.’
Above all, she counsels, try to stop thinking you’re a bad person who does bad things to yourself or an ‘out-of-control person’, and allow yourself space to just ‘be’ in all your glorious imperfection. So, more of the carrot than the stick then. It’s time for a little self-nourishment.