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Is Self-Sabotage a Myth?

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

It might come as a surprise, but we are not in control of all of our day to day behaviours. The majority of our habits, routines & patterns are done unconsciously. We’ve spent years developing them to the point that they’ve become so ingrained that we don’t even realize they’re happening.

Ever find yourself elbow deep in a bag of chips, feeling around for the crumbs without really remembering how you got there?

Maybe sub out the chips for a sleeve of Oreos, but, we’re hoping you get the picture. Stuff happens unconsciously! Yet, people assume that they’re in control of their behaviours. Most of us believe that all of our decisions are conscious. But in reality, most of our actions are done unconsciously & we’re just along for the ride.

Often we’ll hear people (and we’ve done this too) blame their inconsistency on their lack of motivation, willpower or dedication. And in doing so, they’re assuming that they’re in control of all the choices they make.

Unfortunately, that’s not how our brains work. We function at the unconscious level to give ourselves space to process & move through the world. Can you imagine if everything was conscious? We’d barely make it out of bed with that overwhelm.

So let’s talk about how this mindset manifests when it comes to intentional behaviour change.

First things first. In general, we exist within our comfort zone, at least for the most part. All of our habits, patterns & behaviours are in place to provide us with some level of comfort.

We developed (aka learned them) them as a way to either bring pleasure or alleviate pain… or a combination of the two.

So when we actively seek to change our behaviours, we’re often met with resistance & discomfort. Maybe not at first, but usually over time.

At the beginning of a behaviour change, motivation & willpower are high, because we feel the most tied to the end goal or outcome & derive motivation & momentum from that. Therefore, we can rationalize any discomfort because hey, we’ve got goals & they’re worth it, baby!

In this early stage, we’re engaging in the behaviour at a conscious level. It takes effort. And you bet we’re relying on that willpower to keep us goin’.

Yet after a few weeks, or perhaps under increased stress or emotion, a lot of us find ourselves dropping that new habit & reverting back into the old, familiar patterns.

This pattern of ‘giving in’ to old behaviours is what has come to be known as Self-Sabotage.

I don’t love this term - for many reasons. But mostly because I don’t think it gives an accurate depiction of what’s going on within ourselves mentally or emotionally.

I mentioned that in behaviour change, we are moving away from one thing & towards something else.

For example, we engage in a behaviour that relieves the feeling of pain & moves us towards feelings of comfort or pleasure.

→ Maybe you have a stressful day at work & come home to crush a sleeve of Oreos (bye bye stress, hello dopamine kick from the yummy sugar)

As humans we’re constantly seeking security & pleasure. So it makes sense that we want to reduce the negative emotions (pain, stress, sadness, fear) & experience the positives (pleasure, safety, security, comfort). And the habits & behaviours that occur as a result of that need, happen at the unconscious level. So we might not even realize what we’re doing or why.

If we’re actively trying to change those ingrained habits, let’s remind ourselves that they are in place for a reason - because at one point or another, they served a purpose.

So it’s not really ‘sabotage’ for us to revert back to them in times of stress or pain. It’s really an act of Self- Preservation.

Here’s an example to put this into context.

When Jenny was younger, her mom would take her out for ice cream whenever she came home upset after school. Jenny learned to associate ice cream with the feeling of comfort - not necessarily because of the ice cream itself, but because coming home & knowing she was safe with her mom, made her feel good. Going for ice cream took her out of the painful situation & replaced it with one much more comforting.

But now as an adult, Jenny wants to change her eating habits & increase her energy. The habit of coming home from a stressful day at work & eating ice cream to feel better no longer fits her vision.

So she makes it a goal to come home & eat veggies instead of ice cream. In the first week, she’s super motivated. She does great up until Friday, when a big project is due. She was relying on her motivation all week, but when that wears off & stresses pile on, she comes home & goes right back to the ice cream.

Jenny feels a ton of guilt for ‘giving in’ & doesn’t understand why she ‘self-sabotages’ herself.

Knowing what you do now about behaviour change, does it make sense why the veggies didn’t make her feel good or why she reverted back to the ice cream under stress & emotional fatigue?

  1. Her willpower wore off. Under the stress & emotional fatigue of the week, she couldn’t rely solely on willpower or motivation to keep her going

  2. The new habit (veggies) didn’t help her alleviate the pain or stress the same way ice cream did, nor did it bring her the same pleasure & comfort.

But none of that makes Jenny bad or wrong. Nor does it make her weak. She wasn’t really in control when she came home on Friday. Her unconscious patterns kicked in, & overrode her conscious intention.

Further, by calling this pattern ‘self-sabotage’, she created a dialogue of guilt around the scenario, creating lower self-esteem & increasing her frustration.

When we work with clients the terminology flip is something we talk about early on. Because you are not ‘sabotaging’ yourself. In reality you are acting to ‘preserve’ & comfort yourself.

And we feel that it’s important to note that the reason you are struggling to make changes to your behaviours is NOT because you are weak, unmotivated or lack discipline. It has nothing to do with that. But it has everything to do with your beliefs & emotions.

So what do we do instead?? Are we doomed to keep running through these cycles forever?

Knowing what we do about behaviour change, it’s clear that it’s tricky. But it’s not impossible to change. You’ve changed a lot over your life & you are capable of even more.

When it comes to changing your behaviours, it’s less about changing the decision (which takes a ton of energy/motivation/willpower to maintain) & more about figuring out what caused us to make those decisions in the first place.

Ask yourself:

  1. What core need does that old habit fulfil?

  2. What do you believe about yourself or perceive about others for this habit to fulfil your needs?

For Jenny, eating ice cream is the fastest way to comfort & out of pain. Nothing else relieves the discomfort so quickly.

But it’s not like Jenny consciously thinks about these things. She just ends up with her spoon in the tub of ice cream before she has a chance to think about why.

So to begin to move out of this habitual pattern, we have to find something that brings equal (or more) pleasure and/or removes equal (or more) pain & discomfort. And, somehow associate the old behaviour in a less appealing light.

To help start that process, in the moment we can aim to

  1. Bring more awareness to your actions - When am I engaging in X behaviour?

  2. If/when you notice yourself about to engage in that habit, pause & take some deep breaths to bring yourself into the conscious present.

*this will take time - it took you a long time to learn this habit & it will take a long time to undo it. Be patient with yourself*

And as you continue through this process,

  1. Look at the emotions you have surrounding the habit. How do you feel before & after?

  2. If you cannot “stick” to the new habit, know that there’s a deeper reason why. I promise it’s not just a lack of willpower.

  3. What are your beliefs telling you? What do you believe you’ll gain by stopping the old behaviour?

Behaviour change is complicated. But please know you are not ‘sabotaging’ yourself along the way. You are simply acting in ways that supported your emotional safety, even if those actions no longer make sense for your life or goals.

Working through behaviour change is something we help our clients achieve. If you’re wanting support with any of your habit changes, let us know! We’d be happy to talk things through & offer support.

Xo - Coach Nicola

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