Self-sabotage: how to stop it and do what’s best for you

We take a closer look at what self-sabotage is and why we do it, before exploring the key techniques you can try to stop self-sabotaging...

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why do I self-sabotage self-sabotaging stop

Stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of self-sabotage? Jane Alexander takes a closer look at why we self-sabotage before explaining how put a stop to it and do what’s right for you…

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? In short: why do I self-sabotage?

Why do I self-sabotage?

‘There are a number of reasons why we self-sabotage,’ explains Dr Lisa Orban, clinical psychologist and founder of personal branding consultancy, Golden Notebook. ‘And one of them is that pesky inner critic who assures us that we can’t keep it up or that it’s not worth the effort anyway. We can be subjected to years of these unhelpful messages that end up becoming our default thinking style.’

‘Self-sabotage is an umbrella term for anything we do that’s judged either externally by others or internally by ourselves,’ adds integrative psychotherapist and counsellor Kathy Osborne. 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.

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The relationship between our inner and outer child

Psychotherapist Susan Anderson, author of Taming Your Outer Child: Overcoming Self-Sabotage (£12.99) pins a label on these dissociated parts: the Inner Child and 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, which can make it hard to stop.

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.

Are we aware of our abandonment triggers?

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 also why our hand will grab the chocolate before our higher consciousness has a chance to reason a healthier response.

Self-sabotage verses self-abandonment

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.

The role of willpower in self-sabotage

It’s no wonder that willpower alone won’t cut it when trying to overcome self-sabotage. 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.

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Why our willpower fluctuates

‘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 or self-sabotage. So what does?

8 ways to stop self-sabotaging

Dr Lisa Orban, clinical psychologist and founder of personal branding consultancy, Golden Notebook, shares 8 ways to stop self-sabotage and do what’s best for you…

1. Strengthen your ability to avoid emotionally-charged actions

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.

2. Don’t wait for motivation to take action

It’s common to want to wait around for the feeling that will tell you when you’re ready to start that diet, apply for a new job or take up running, but you may be waiting a long time. Instead, adopt an approach of ‘I’m willing to do it’ and move forward with a willingness to commit to an action, even if ‘wanting to do it’ never shows up.

Remember that while our thoughts can have an influence over us if we let them, they don’t control us, so we can have a thought (‘I don’t want to do it’) and do it anyway. This may feel like a big push, but typically accomplishing our goal (or even a small part of that goal) in the face of not wanting to do it is highly rewarding and self-empowering.

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3. Learn to step back from your thoughts of self-sabotage

Learning to step outside your thinking is a skill, but it’s one that is worth learning. When you find yourself being undermined by negative, self-sabotaging thoughts, notice this and remind yourself that you are not the thoughts running through your head, nor are you controlled by them.

The old adage of ‘don’t believe everything you hear’ can also be applied here in the form of ‘don’t believe everything you think.’ Spend some time developing and practicing mindfulness as a skill to unhook from your unhelpful thoughts of self-sabotage and refocus on moving towards the direction of your values and making committed action steps towards your goals. This will ultimately help you to stop and overcome self-sabotage and do what’s best for you.

4. Avoid ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking to stop self-sabotage

A strict all-or-nothing mentality is often rigid and self-defeating and if self-demands are too unrealistic or inflexible then they will likely set us up for failure. If you’ve fallen off the exercise wagon, given up on your novel in the middle of writing chapter 10 or find yourself forgetting to listen to that Italian language CD, identify small ways you can move ahead instead of labelling such setbacks as a failure.

Try walking more instead of that cardio class, dust off your novel notebook to brainstorm a few bullet points or maybe put some Italian music on and listen to the lyrics. You may find this encourages you to get back up to speed, but even if it doesn’t, you will still be staying the course.

5. Observe what is holding you back

Notice the function behind what your mind is saying to you – rather than blatant self-sabotage, it might just be trying to keep you safe. If you keep hearing that you can’t go for that promotion because your soon-to-be-leaving boss was much better than you’d ever be, realise that your mind is, in fact, working hard to keep you in your comfort zone.

The only way to grow is to deliberately move out of your comfort zone as often as possible and become more accustomed to feelings of discomfort. As you get more and more habituated to this discomfort, you’ll find that your mind learns that it’s not so bad (or dangerous) after all and you will find yourself taking risks more and agonising less.

6. Be aware of your choice points

Choice points are moments when you can choose to move towards your goal or away from it. It’s that moment when you decide you’ll turn on Netflix instead of heading out for a run or cancel a date with a feeble excuse because you’re not in the mood.

When you reach these choice points, notice them, along with any other self-sabotaging inner dialogue, and see if you can mindfully step back and look at your choices. Choosing actions, however small, with full awareness will encourage good habits and momentum and stop self-sabotage.

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7. Avoid the slippery slope of perfectionism

Perfectionism is an illusion that we easily buy into, but even if we did reach 100 per cent we’d only want 110 per cent next time. While the desire to be perfect is common among high achievers, it is often rigid and self-defeating and implies that mistakes are not acceptable.

Procrastination is also a very common way to self-sabotage, due to fear that the task won’t be completed to the necessary high standard. Look towards role models or mentors who have got where you want to get, acknowledging that even with their imperfections, they did it.

Most importantly, give yourself permission to be human – you are entitled to make mistakes and grow from them, like everyone else.

8. Embrace imposter syndrome to stop self-sabotage

A close cousin to perfectionism, imposter syndrome is a common experience among high achievers that can hold them back. The fear of being unmasked as a fraud (the hallmark of imposter syndrome) is often the result of one’s difficulty in accepting their success and contributing it to luck, rather than ability.

Instead of buying into this form of intellectual self-doubt, try to recognize the positives that come with it. For example, when imposter syndrome shows up, it means that we are being challenged, that our comfort zone is growing and that we are self-aware enough to have noticed it. Most people don’t talk about it, but it happens to the best of us, so you are in good company.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy for self-sabotage

Nathalie Hourihan shares what she learned practising Internal Family Systems (IFS), a form of therapy and self-work that focuses on discovering your many different selves, to stop and overcome self-sabotage. Here, she includes a set of disciplines designed to transform the parts of yourself you like the least into your greatest allies

Once, I lied about owning a dog. Not only was this untrue – I have never owned a dog – the statement leapt from my mouth without warning! This event was weird and unsettling. It was also unfortunate, given that I was in the middle of a job interview.

The woman who sat across from me was warm and elusive. I liked her immediately. The trouble was that I both did and did not want the job that was on offer. Or rather, I very much wanted a different version of it – one without all the travel. After too many years of too many hotels, I dreaded the idea of being away for several nights every week.

In response to my declaration of pet ownership, she simply shrugged and carried on talking, oblivious that my imaginary pet meant routine trips were out of the question for me. Meanwhile, I was mortified. What was wrong with me that I could not be honest with her about what I wanted?

The incident would have remained no more than a ridiculous anecdote to laugh off with friends, except a few days later I attended a talk by psychotherapist Richard Schwartz. The approach he described reframed my dilemma and behaviour, and since then it has rescued me whenever I feel overwhelmed by my life.

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Self-sabotaging and the different parts of the mind

Schwartz, who has a PhD in marriage and family therapy from Purdue University in Indiana in the United States, explained to the audience: ‘Though many of us prefer to believe that healthy people possess a single self, understanding that we have many distinct selves gives a far deeper awareness of how we actually work.’

According to his theory, it is normal and natural for the mind to divide into subpersonalities, or what Schwartz refers to as ‘parts’. These drive our everyday thoughts and behaviour. They also trigger knee-jerk reactions that we later come to regret. And parts of us can prove formidable blocks to what we want to achieve in our lives.

But we shouldn’t try to shut up these parts, we should instead ‘listen to the message’. In practical terms, this involves talking to different parts of yourself, noticing how your parts interact and strengthening your ability to heal and self-parent.

How IFS can help to stop self-sabotage

Talk to different parts of yourself to solve inner conflicts

When you wrestle with different problems, it may be that your subpersonalities are in conflict with each other. Learn to engage with them and you can stop your self-sabotaging behaviours…

Psychotherapist Richard Schwartz developed IFS after 40 years of clinical practice. He believes ‘all of us are born with many sub-minds that constantly interact inside us’. He adds: ‘This, in general, is what we call thinking. When you face a dilemma, you will find one part that says “go for it” and another that says “don’t”. Most of the time, we let that debate happen. We don’t pay attention to it.’

But Schwartz argues it is essential that we attend to this inner conflict. He suggests we locate our parts by tuning into our internal chatter, along with our feelings and impulses. When we talk to our parts, we discover what each accomplishes for us and their different talents and roles.

How to meet your different inner parts:

Engage with your inner parts using this meditation.

Prepare: Set aside 15 to 20 minutes. Find a quiet space. Sit or lie down as if you were about to meditate. Take several deep breaths. Shift your attention inward.

Choose one of the following prompts:

  • Invite a part you know well, such as your inner critic, to come to the fore.
  • Recall a trigger where you were unable to control your response to an action from a loved one, colleague or even a stranger. In your mind’s eye, play out the person repeating their action. Notice your response. Allow the person who triggered you to fade away. Turn inwards towards the part of you that got triggered.
  • Daily practice: Simply wait for a signal. Be receptive to thoughts, emotions, sensations or impulses that seem to want your attention.

Locate the part

Where do these thoughts, emotions, sensations or impulses exist in or around your body? These reactions represent apart of you. Can you picture, hear or feel the part?

Notice how you feel towards the part: Do you dislike or fear the part? Jot down any thoughts or emotions you have towards this inner part.

Take a step back

If you feel anything other than calm, other parts have shown up. Ask them to step back, until your attention softens into gentle, open-heartedness. If these parts won’t step back, that’s OK. Never push past a protective part.

Instead, ask why they can’t relax? What do they fear will happen if you engage the part? If other parts do step back and you are able to approach the target with compassion, ask these three key questions (we’ll come back to these later):

What does your part want you to know? Wait for an answer. Ask any ‘thinking parts’ of you to step back. If nothing surfaces, that’s OK. Instead, ask the thinking parts why they can’t rest and step back.

If your part volunteers information, follow up with: What does it fear will happen if it does not perform its role? Often, a part fears that painful feelings will flood the system. If you encounter a traumatised part that feels out of control, seek help from a therapist.

Finally, ask: What does the part need from you in the future? It may or may not know. Ask your part what age it thinks you are. You are more capable than it may know.

Show that you care. If you get answers, you have learned how your part tries to take care of you. Thank it for trying to keep you safe.

Notice how the different parts of your mind interact

The cast of characters in your mind aim to protect you from anguish, but they can result in self-sabotage if you do not recognise them at work, and learn to communicate with them…

IFS borrows logic from family therapy and focuses on the relationships individual parts have with each other. To understand ourselves, and why we self-sabotage, it is not enough to delve into one part in isolation. Parts bicker about the best way to serve us. They collude and gang upon each other.

The characters that make up your inner family are unique to you. The first step is to identify how your parts interact, and it starts with ‘exiles’ and ‘protectors’.

Exiles

Exiles carry our emotional burdens. They store memories of when we were rejected, humiliated, frightened or abandoned, real or perceived. Thanks to early injuries, protective parts fear we will be wounded again, so we exile vulnerable parts to keep them safe.

We present an outward image that hides parts of us that feel needy or unworthy. In exiling our youngest, vulnerable selves, we don’t just push away painful feelings, which are linked to child-like beliefs, we lose tender aspects, such as the ability to be playful, and our readiness to rely on others.

Protectors

In other forms of therapy, these parts are known as defence mechanisms. IFS categorises two types of protectors. We have managers that try to prevent us from getting hurt and firefighters that swoop in when it’s too late.

To avoid painful feelings, protectors manage our behaviour. In this category, we find the most infamous of parts, the inner critic, which bullies us to ‘look good’ or ‘act correctly’.

Other common managers include:

Coach:

If there are inner critics that belittle you to avoid taking risks, there are also those that yell at you to do better. This encouragement is often negative and goads us like a sports coach.

Some people possess more of a cheerleader but, irrespective of tone, the motivational message remains the same: you can and must do it, whether it’s pass a test, give a speech or smile at your ex.

Caretaker

Common in women, this manager puts the needs of others above your own.

Avoider

Some managers push you to do something, others pull you away – either from other people (lest you become dependent) or from uncomfortable emotions. Here lies procrastination and the tendency to live in your head, intellectualising instead of feeling your feelings.

If managers control and tend to be chronic, the second category of protectors are acute and chaotic. Impulsive by nature, Schwarz calls them firefighters. When the preventative measures fail, these more extreme parts leap into action. They might self-harm or binge on food, drugs, work and social media.

Firefighters don’t care about collateral damage. Their job is to douse pain to stop extreme emotions from flooding your system. While they employ different strategies, managers and firefighters share the same goal: to protect us and keep exiles away.

Get to know the different parts of your mind

Try this exercise to deepen your understanding of your subpersonalities. It will help you see how they relate to each other and influence your behaviour…

  • Select a part. For example, one of the parts that needed to step back during the meditation above.
  • Focus on this one part. Spend time with it. Find it in your body.
  • Draw an image of the part. It does not have to be a work of art, just illustrate the part in a way that means something to you.
  • Wait for a shift. Focus inward again on the part you just drew. Another part will emerge. Be patient. Once another part appears, add its image to the page.
  • Repeat these steps: focus on a part, wait for another part to appear, then draw it.
  • Stop when you feel the cluster is done or you have three or more parts illustrated. These are members of your inner family.
  • Examine your piece of paper. Ask yourself the following questions and accept whatever answers come to you:
  • How do these parts relate to each other? Do some protect others? Do some fight? Are there alliances? Make notes on your pictures to capture clues you see.
  • How do you feel about this cluster or internal dynamic?
  • If you were to help this inner system, where might you start? What might this family of parts need from you to become more harmonious?

Learn to self-parent to stop self sabotaging

Ever felt immediately better after allowing yourself to cry freely, without any judgement? What many parts of our mind need is no more demanding than to be heard and comforted, to be valued instead of demonised. And, because parts operate as a family and not in isolation, a small adjustment with one part can benefit the whole system. It does not take years of self-analysis to see positive change.

Finding your larger ‘Self’ with IFS therapy

The secret to making lasting changes to your self-sabotaging behaviors is to make IFS a regular practice. Every time I succeeded in getting parts to step back, I noticed what Schwartz believes is an innate healing presence. I gained access to something larger and wiser than all my selves – what he calls the ‘Self’. Eight qualities that describe our larger Self:

  • Calmness
  • Curiosity
  • Clarity
  • Compassion
  • Confidence
  • Connectedness
  • Creativity
  • Courage

The goal of IFS therapy is not to eliminate parts or cultivate a Self-led state all the time, but to alleviate parts of extreme roles, so we treat ourselves and others fairly. We do this when we talk to our parts with kindness, notice their interactions and ask what they need. We heal and learn to self-parent, unburdening our parts of their child-like beliefs.

The more I talked to my parts and learned to wait for their answers, the faster I became at noticing patterns and dissolving difficult moments. I took solace in the fact that tricky thoughts or feelings were not all of me, just parts. While I have not traced the source of the despair I feared and felt, I can see it is not cured by frenetic activity. I learned that the darkness of self-sabotage would not engulf me. I could sit with it. It was only a part.

No Bad Parts: Healing Trauma And Restoring Wholeness With The Internal Family Systems Model by Richard Schwartz it out now (£12.69).

Fancy finding out more about IFS therapy? Click here to watch our exclusive interview with Richard Schwartz on how we can all heal our inner world…

More inspiration: Be more confident – 10 ways to overcome low self-esteem