My Own Enemy

The other night I was texting my buddy Jeremey, giving him a hard time about missing our workout, when he mentioned that he’d started smoking again. This caught me by surprise, because he’s an aspiring athlete in the realm of obstacle course racing with big dreams. He’s fast and strong, and with the right training regimen he could be great. He’s also smart enough to know better. He understands the harmful effects of smoking, most specifically on how it will have an almost immediate detrimental impact on his race results.

I told him as much and to stop making excuses. Maybe my “advice” will help and maybe it won’t. I’m not going to trivialize an act like quitting smoking as I recognize how difficult it can be to kick a truly addictive substance that also fills the role of both habit and stress reliever; my Dad was a doctor who quit many many times throughout his adult life.

Like all good catalysts this conversation got me thinking, and rather than judge Jeremey for this “weakness”, it made me ask if I’m doing the same thing. Am I also sabotaging myself on a regular basis? If so, how? And more importantly, why?

Thus opened Pandora’s Box. It didn’t take much introspection to recognize that yep, I am self-sabotaging in a number of different areas. Currently, I’m 20–30 lbs heavier than I should be. More than any aesthetic concerns, I know that this extra weight is multiplying joint problems I’ve been having lately. It would make a big difference on a daily basis to take that extra strain off my bad knees, for instance.

While I have made tons of excuses about this — I’m injured, I don’t want to things worse, I’m busy, and so on — the reality is that I’ve lost larger amounts of weight before, and know exactly what I need to do to correct this. The path is clear, and I’ve taken a few halting steps down it more than once since the holidays, but I’ve allowed myself to be distracted by the pretty flowers along the way, and soon old habits have returned.

Now, I know I’m not alone in this particular struggle; millions of Americans and people around the world have waged years-long battles against their weight. But wait, as the infomercials so often stress, there’s more!

This isn’t the only area in my life where I’m self-sabotaging. I have done it in my relationships, both in fairly major and consistently minor ways — something as simple as watching too much TV rather than doing something with my wife or kids. Getting defensive and reflecting a criticism back on the person giving it rather than acknowledging that there was a problem. Of allowing my emotions to get the better of me in exchanges that we could both benefit from if I hadn’t just lost my temper. Of leaving left unsaid words that absolutely should have been said, even if it lead to further discomfort. Unfortunately I feel like I’m still only scratching the surface here.

I’m not writing as consistently as I know I should in order to make steady improvements over time. I have several projects that I’ve been putting off for awhile now; “I’m ‘too busy’” again rearing it’s ugly head.

My family is planning a major move in a few months, and there are seemingly a million different things that need to be done towards that, yet most days I make little to no progress, but somehow find plenty of time for Facebook.

What I want to focus on here is this act of self-sabotage. Why do so many of us not just settle for less than what we could be, but work actively against our goals on a daily basis?

Is it simply a matter of willpower? After all, real change is difficult. It’s deliberately choosing the steep and rocky path over the paved flat one at the junction. The fact that the steep path almost always leads to better views is sometimes not enough for us to justify the harder journey. This idea that it’s entirely a lack of willpower has been the common wisdom in regards to weight loss or quitting smoking for many years, but biology and psychology both show that to be too simple an answer. Addictions are real, and have profound effects on the chemistry of our brains and bodies.

Maybe we really don’t want our stated goals? This seems ludicrous on the face of things — if I didn’t want it, why would I set it as a goal in the first place? However, I think there’s often a deeper truth here that shouldn’t be ignored. Marianne Williams said (in a quote often misattributed to Nelson Mandela):

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

The fact is that there is a part of me — and a part of you — that fears change. This likely stems from our deep evolution; from the “lizard brain” that controls things at a most primal level and that activates in fight or flight scenarios for example. What you are doing right now hasn’t killed you yet, so the lizard brain uses this as proof that you should keep doing the same thing. It’s the safer choice. New strategies are inherently dangerous, even though they might lead to far better outcomes in the long run. We can understand this on an intellectual level, but our inner lizard protests loudly, and is the source of many of our excuses for inaction. In a similar manner, I suspect that damned lizard curled around the base of my cerebellum is at least partly responsible for the many acts of self-sabotage whose result is that I stay where I am.

Whatever the inherent “why” behind acts of self-sabotage, the first step to resolving them is to simply and clearly recognize when they’re happening. Many of my own subversive behaviors were completely unconscious until this reflection helped me shine a little light in the darkness. Finding areas in your own life where you’ve exhibited similar self-destructive patterns shouldn’t be cause to beat yourself up — after all, what is that but another act of sabotage? Rather it is a call to begin putting in some real work.