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Defeating Self-Sabotaging Behaviours


What a year this has been so far. At no point at the start of 2020, did we think this year would be so intensely turbulent and unprecedented. I can say with some certainty that the main topic on our minds this year has been the coronavirus pandemic. Lockdown, quarantine, social distancing, test and trace, all new terms added to our vocabulary this year. Physical and mental health is front and centre now, we’ve seen an economic downturn, a rise in unemployment and countless have lost their loved ones to COVID-19. Many of us are probably feeling stuck now, especially those prone to self-sabotage. So where do we go from here?

As I reflect and write this post on the 1st of September, I can’t help wonder if today is somehow the official start to what is left of 2020. In the U.K., it’s back to school and work for most of us. Not just online, but physically heading back to school for many pupils this week. And for many to head back into work. So September is a new beginning in a sense – the start of the new school year, new renewals, a new adjustment to life itself and a time to re-check and audit where we are on our long-term goals. We probably had a few goals set for the year and maybe the pause left us demotivated and less productive? So before the year finishes, this would be a good time to check where we are on our goals and perhaps even re-visit them?

Today I want to write about the concept of self-sabotage, what most of us indulge in, sometimes even on an unconscious level, especially when there are too many things going on. Self-sabotage is defined as creating unnecessary problems for one’s self, interfering with our own goals. Self-sabotage is any behaviour, thought, emotion or action that holds us back from getting what we consciously want. It is the conflict that exists between conscious desires and unconscious wants that manifest in self-limiting patterns of behaviour.

The most common ways of self-sabotage is procrastination - putting off activities that bring us closer to our goals, because we are afraid we might fail or we are afraid we won’t get that instant gratification, buffering – indulging in activities like over-eating, over-working, binge drinking, binge Netflixing and not showing up to take massive action towards our goals. Another way we self-sabotage - quitting halfway. So as part of self-sabotage, we procrastinate because we’d rather not work than work. We don’t show up because we’d rather not experience the rejection and we’d rather hide under the covers and buffer away tough emotions. Does this all sound familiar?

Last summer I had a chance to read an interesting book –The Healthy Mind Tool Kit by Alice Boyes and today, I want to share some thoughts with you from her book on how to tackle self-sabotage. To stop self-sabotaging ourselves, we need to figure out our patterns of behaviours and then find creative ways to counteract them and form new habits. There are three particular strategies I found particularly helpful. The following are in her words:

Know your typical thinking patterns

Our personality and life experiences predispose us to dominant modes of thinking, but these can be biased in ways that are unhelpful in the majority of situations. For example, people who are prone to anxiety tend to be hyper-vigilant to signs of threat, and detect threats that aren’t really there. This happens to be one of my personal patterns of self-defeating thinking. The way this manifests for me is that problems always seem bigger than they really are; whenever anyone asks me to do something, I (internally) overreact and perceive whatever is being asked as more onerous than it is.

How do I deal with this? Knowing my thinking bias, I factor it into my judgments. I discount my initial reaction and go back and review requests with fresh eyes. I explicitly say to myself, “My brain is reacting to this as if it’s a threat when most likely it’s actually an opportunity.”

Use strategies to combat avoidance and procrastination

When we procrastinate or avoid, our anxiety about whatever we’re avoiding tends to increase. Many times, people who procrastinate don’t think to use a strategy for getting started—even though many exist (and are outlined in my book). By identifying your six or seven favourite strategies, you’ll always have one that’s relevant and feels achievable in a particular situation. 


Some strategies for getting started include:

  • Use project to-do lists to outline every step involved in a particular project. Save your daily to-do list for things that truly need to be done that day. Project-specific to-do lists help you utilise small scraps of time. If you have five or ten minutes, you can do a tiny step from your project-specific list.

  • Shrink relatively unimportant tasks to the bare minimum required for getting them done. Perfectionists habitually expand the scope of projects to the point that they become unwieldy.

  • Try “last things first.” Sometimes the typical final steps in a task are easier to start with than the typical first steps.

  • Pretend you’re going to outsource a task and write the instructions you’d give someone else. This can help you simplify your expectations if your demands of someone else would be more reasonable than your demands of yourself.

Practice acceptance and self-care

Making changes in your life requires time and energy. You can’t ask this of yourself if your psychological bank account is already in overdraft. Sometimes people get into a trap of thinking, “When I’m being more self-disciplined or more productive, then I’ll do more self-care.” But, if you’ve run yourself to empty, try it the other way around: Allow yourself to have more experiences of pleasure before you think you “deserve” them. Otherwise, you’ll continue to run yourself into the ground and engage in self-sabotage.

These are understandably tough times for all of us. While the pandemic continues to bring huge changes in our lives, and it is understandable that our fight or flight responses are activated most of the time, it is also becoming apparent that we have to live with the threat of the coronavirus for a long period of time and therefore adjust to this new normal. So let’s stop putting our lives on pause and start living again. Let’s look at September with a sense of renewed energy and motivation, re-visit old goals, set new ones and continue to work towards our purpose. My friends, I hope this month is amazing for you all. Stay safe, stay strong and get going with your goals.

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