Self-sabotage: wrestling with the enemy within

Understanding why we self-sabotage goes a long way.

I worked with a talented client who could not stop the reflux that would often bubble up into his throat.  He quickly realised that he was dogged by a phenomenon he called, “NGE”, for “not good enough”.  The NGE engendered the reflux  - a symptom of powerful unexpressed emotions that were literally corroding his throat with their acid. When Morris did express himself, he was a brilliant comedian, but he was afraid to leave his day job of veterinary work. Personally, he was again in a marriage with little chance for success, this time to a  woman 16 years his elder whose incessant chatter he could hardly bear.

Acknowledging inner sabotage
Does anything sound familiar here? Most of us have a powerful inner critic which, despite our best contrary intentions, sabotages our lives in ways large and small. Think about the man who picks a fight just when the relationship is going well; the woman who says she is interested in weight management but creates a chocolate addiction, the business person who comes close to breakthrough and “screws up.” The list goes on.

Definitions of this inner enemy abound, but I prefer the simple notion that cuts to the chase: “self-sabotage is when part of your personality acts in conflict with another part of your personality.” We often act in maladaptive ways because one part of us needs one thing and another part is addressing other, contradictory, needs. Let’s look at how the sabotage begins.

Birth of the saboteur
For most of us, the self-saboteur is formed early in life. It happens:

  • The first time Mum says, “No, not like that! You’ll never get this right!”
  • When Dad thinks we are lazy instead of confused/tired/unwell
  • When a teacher directs recognition and warmth to others, but not (seemingly) to us 

As children, we don’t yet have the developmental capacity to avoid internalising attitudes that influential others direct toward us, so whatever they tell us (or imply through how they treat us) that we are, we generally take on being. Similarly, it is difficult to avoid being affected by caregiver attitudes toward themselves. My mother always said she was a “lousy salesman” so for years I believed – and enacted – that I could not sell anything at all. It wasn’t until later in life that I realised that I am in fact a good salesperson – evidenced by my success selling ideas to others.  

To better understand why we self-sabotage it’s important to note that: (1) we are generally unconscious of our inner critic/saboteur; and (2) we had a psychological need to create the saboteur for a reason that made sense at the time. For example, if Dad thinks we are lazy but we really want him to love and approve of us, what better way (thinks the child’s mind) than to agree with him, and act like Dad is right?  We become chronically unmotivated/low on energy. Thus, in a weird way, the saboteur is acting to protect us (from, say, a life without Dad’s love). The trick is the unconscious bit; it often keeps the critic “under our radar”, so we don’t easily fend off its punches to our self-esteem.

Pinning the saboteur down on the mat
Maybe the saboteur won Round One, as we can’t change the past. But we have some solid resources at our disposal to win the whole wrestling match of inner peace and happiness:

1. First, use your innate skill of disidentification 
Distance yourself mentally from the saboteur, so that you can identify the thoughts, attitudes, and habits which aren’t helping you (and which probably came, early on, from someone else; some may even be traits which belong to significant others that have rubbed off onto you). For instance, let’s say you want to try a new venture, but have not started it because a critical inner voice is insisting, “Don’t bother; you will fail.”  Ask yourself, is this voice really your own?  Or might you have had a mother (or other person) who often warned you that you might fail?  Chances are, such a mother’s underlying fear was that she would fail.  Once you realise that the voice is not yours, it is easier to stop listening to it.”

2. Understand the repercussions of continuing to allow the saboteur to influence you
Are you living an unfullfilling life of lowered expectations because it’s too scary to begin what you really want to do? Our successes may be more limited if we only ever drive them from within our comfort zone.

3. Understand how you created defences to help you cope with an imperfect world – and challenge them
As a child you may have created, in our example, a no-risk-taking persona, one which did not even desire to have adventures, because the ever-present risk of failure would be too damaging to a fragile sense of self. As a child, a safe persona may have worked to protect you from the pain of failure or rejection but as an adult it may now be cramping your style. The challenge is ongoing and you may need to repeat this mantra: “I am likely to succeed; I have had many successes, but even a failure does not define me as a person.”

4. Develop your own unique values/beliefs/interests, and self-parent
Our internal saboteurs have been developed from our need for self-protection but ironically, this protection can end up hurting us even more. On the other hand, your ongoing development is represented by the part of you that wants to move beyond the saboteur to achievements you may have thought impossible. 

The point of growth is that, increasingly, we are able to act from the developing aspects of ourselves, as we express more and more of who we truly are. These parts, usually less well-established, needs you to nurture it towards robustness, self-parenting yourself as you would any cherished child. The saboteur, meanwhile, will no longer be needed and can wither from lack of attention, or be re-deployed in a more appropriate protective role.

Stopping self-sabotage is an ongoing challenge, but wrestling the saboteur to the mat means you get to be the person you want to be: the person you are.

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

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