“Under conditions of peace, the warlike man attacks himself.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
It’s so easy to get stuck in a loop, right?
Too easy, of you ask me.
It’s easy turning to what’s familiar, chasing what feels oddly comfortable or choosing what habitually numbs us in the moment.
But, it always seems to end the same way.
No, I’m not talking about the relationships we keep, because that would be too easy.
Of course we know if the people we choose in our lives are guides towards a healthy direction…
…or are reflections of a repeated cycle.
The fact is, we know if we’re seeking out relationships based on our unhealed pain.
How can we be so sure?
That’s easy. If you haven’t done the legwork beforehand to heal your unhealed pain, any relationships you engage in will reflect a repeated cycle.
The hard part is taking the first step in actually looking at the reflections…
Listening To An Old Narrative
If inner peace is supposedly one of the most powerful human feelings that we can experience, then why continue chasing chaos?
To say that’s counterintuitive would be an understatement.
So, why chase misery disguised as a good time, while intuitively knowing it will never bring the inner peace you claim to want?
Or, why toss out your happiness for another ride on that familiar, yet nauseating merry-go-round?
Some call it being a glutton for punishment. Yet, simple Behavioral Analysis argues that if we were really punishing ourselves, the chance of that loop continuing would decrease.
So, if we’re still choosing to stay stuck in the loop, then it must be reinforcing to us on some level.
There’s an old psychoanalyst from the 1950’s named Edmund Bergler, whose books covered everything from marriage to midlife crises. One of the things he’s most noted for is his theory on “psychic masochism”, or what we commonly refer to today as self-sabotage.
From a psychoanalytical perspective, unconsciously wanting to watch ourselves unravel is what he coined as the overarching theme of neurosis. His books can be a tough read, but if you have a German-English dictionary on tap and a burning desire to hack your way through them, they’re informative and insightful.
Today’s analyses and theories on self-sabotage aren’t quite as abstract, and are geared more towards behavioral explanations — by examining what isn’t positively serving you, you can become more aware of your patterns and make healthier choices for yourself.
…If you choose to.
Self-sabotage is based on your thoughts and behavior. It’s your inner critic that wants to undermine your success and to devalue your dreams.
It finds pleasure in your misery, and the more attention you give it, the happier it is in watching you squirm. The irony is that you are in control of it — in control of whether you choose to engage in it, in control of why you do it, or when you do it.
At the root of self-sabotaging thoughts and behavior are low self-worth, shaky self-identity and a skewed idea of your own value which feed off of negative emotions. This is the cycle that keeps negative self-talk on a loop.
And, your behavioral habits follow in step.
This cycle is what reinforces you to continue shooting yourself in the foot, along with your happiness.
There are several red flags that you’re choosing what’s easy, over what’s right and that keep you hooked in a cycle of self-defeating thoughts and behavior.
Four of the biggest ones include: self-medicating, a fear of success, boredom, and a need for control.
Self-medicating. Probably the biggest red-flag that you’re sabotaging your happiness is based on self-medicating. Self-medicating isn’t just about substance abuse. Self-medicating is about anything that can emotionally numb you.
For example, if you leave the house when you and your S.O. get in an argument instead of talking and working it out, this is a form of self-medicating — it’s about walking away, avoiding pain or other vulnerable emotions and finding an easy out.
While walking away from a heated argument may be your best bet in the moment, when this behavior becomes habit, it also becomes an issue with avoiding connection and communication, which sabotages the strength of the relationship.
Fear of Success. Yup, you read that right. Most of us know about a “fear of abandonment” or a “fear of failure”, however, a fear of success is equally aversive to many people. The fear is an irrational belief based on an inner narrative that is trying to convince you that you aren’t worthy of success.
The red flags can be overt, such as going out of your way to make an ass out of yourself to your boss, or by deliberately holding up projects past their deadline.
Or, covert red flags may show up in refusing to send your resume in to a company, or “forgetting” to call them back if they called for an interview.
Success isn’t limited to only career.
Sabotaging successes can also include personal progress in life. For example, sabotaging your success may include ruining your chance at happiness in the relationships in your life. Self-sabotage is in the market of finding which relationships you hold in the highest regard and then throwing a wrench in the works.
The reason — the higher the regard, the greater the risk of loss. It’s just easier ruining a relationship instead of risking abandonment.
Or, success may be sabotaged by dropping out of school shortly before you’re supposed to graduate or dropping out of therapy instead of conquering why you started going in the first place .
These sabotaging behaviors keep you stuck feeling unsatisfied and depressed while subliminally reinforcing the narrative that you aren’t worth success or happiness, anyway.
Boredom. If you were raised with dysfunction as the norm, it is often carried with you into adulthood and bleeds into all your relationships in one form or another. This identifies a powerful, but toxic cycle.
If a kid is raised where inconsistency and impulsive (bad) decisions were common, and where survival mode was taught, boredom will set in — unless drama, impulsivity and self-preservation are constantly in effect. A constant need for stimulation operates as the self-sabotage in this situation.
Everything is taught backwards when boredom is in play — dysfunctional geys taught as normal, while functional is shamed, distrusted and taught as boring.
So, in times where friendships hit a lull and are calm, boredom may set in, and along with it, drama.
In career, when things show potential and stability, boredom can rear its head by impulsively quitting your job or getting yourself fired, which reinforces a cruel, sabotaging inner critic that finds pleasure in your pain.
Intimate relationships can take a big hit when boredom sets in because typically what follows boredom is indifference, and then devaluation. And, looking to replace a partner may not be too far behind.
Controlling for Everything. As mentioned earlier, you are in control of whether or not you choose to engage in self-defeating thoughts or behavior. Here, the irony is that some may be trying to control for everything in their lives — career, bills, social, partner, friends or family — that nothing is controlled.
Procrastination can interfere with perfectionism, which is at the root of control. For example, you may feel overwhelmed and like you bit off more than you can chew with a new career, added responsibilities, frequent traveling for work, trying to be the “perfect” partner, or by completing an advanced degree while juggling everything else.
On one hand, you’re poised to look “perfect” by how well you continue juggling too many things at once. And, on the other hand, by trying to control for everything, you wind up setting yourself up to fail.
Digging deeper, this type of self-sabotage may be trying to cover up feelings of inadequacy or that you’re unworthy of added responsibility, success or feeling established. By overdoing things and trying to control for everything, you wind up losing control and kicking your inner critic into high gear.
A New Direction
The easy part is telling you that you’re worthy of so much healthier than listening to an old narrative that’s overstayed its welcome.
We see it and we hear it all the time:
“Recognize your value and your life will improve.”
“Just take the first step in stopping your bad habit.”
It’s not that easy, or everyone would do it except for the select few who actually like watching their happiness go up in smoke.
For the other 98% of us out there who aren’t in the habit of actually liking masochistically sabotaging ourselves, we typically require more solid guidance than simply telling us, …”Just stop that.”
Conquering Your Fears. Again, easier said than done. Fears are why there’s a habit in play. Fears are why an old narrative continues playing its message in new situations.
And, fear is the #1 reason behind..
Every. Self-Defeating. Behavior.
Read that again…
Realistically, facing our fears often means more than writing down a list of what we tend to emotionally, physically or psychologically avoid. Sure, writing down our triggers as they happen definitely helps tap into why they’re there and what their symbolism may be.
But, facing our fears means facing them every time we experience them, which may include emotionally facing what we habitually avoid or run from.
Necessary for growth? Yup.
For example, feeling engulfed or trapped in a relationship is usually triggered by emotional vulnerability.
Too much “togetherness” or intimacy can have some of us running to the hills. Facing this fear doesn’t just mean noticing it’s there. Many of us already have self-awareness that we feel overwhelmed in certain situations.
It means facing it, addressing it, moving through the emotions as the fear is being experienced and being vulnerable (ha!) in telling our S.O. what we’re feeling…and why.
This is why it’s easier to not address our feelings.
But, it’s also what keeps us chained to a toxic narrative.
Rewriting Your Narrative. Once fears are being conquered and managed with consistency, rewriting our narrative can start. By rewriting our narrative, we’re reprogramming new information into our inner voice, to cut our inner critic off at the pass. In turn, we begin making peace with our inner voice….and ourselves.
For example, begin by noticing what messages your critic is trying to tell you. If you hear your inner critic screaming at you that you are never going to be loved, write down that message. Write down where you are, what’s going on in the moment and whether you’re sabotaging yourself, or about to sabotage yourself.
This is how we begin gaining insight into our thoughts/behavior interaction pattern.
After you’ve done this legwork, don’t engage in the self-defeating behavior. If you already did beforehand, use that experience as the lesson for what to become more aware of, so you can start reducing that impulse.
Now, rewrite the message to something that is empowering — if telling your inner critic to go to hell works for you, use it. If flipping the script is empowering to you, by telling your inner critic that you are amazing and loved and it is a liar, then continue flipping everything backwards onto your critic and away from your Self.
Creating A New Direction. Breaking an old narrative and heading into a new direction isn’t for the faint of heart. We get comfortable and complacent with what’s familiar, even when the rational part of our inner voice is telling us otherwise.
But, stopping a cycle of self-sabotage can happen.
With motivation, consistency and the belief that you’re stronger than childhood conditioning, survival mode and anything else that’s overstayed its welcome….you’re learning to conquer your inner peace.
Bergler, E. (1961). Curable and Incurable Neurotics. New York: Liveright Publishing.