We’ve all been there. The late night chocolate binge just as your diet was starting to pay off. The crappy decision that ruins your chances of promotion. The mindless splurge on something completely unnecessary when you’re supposed to be saving money.
People are always talking about the “key to success” or the “formula for optimum functioning”. But those things won’t work if your unconscious is running a failure program in the background.
This article explores the mechanics of self-sabotage.
We all question ourselves from time to time, and that’s a good thing. Without that healthy amount of doubt we’d be sociopathic (or possibly dead). A little uncertainty can keep us in check, it keeps us humble and helps us to strive. Yet sometimes (maybe often) our negative self-beliefs can grow too powerful, too influential.
These beliefs can govern our behaviour in such a negative way that afterwards we feel ashamed; we berate ourselves for doing exactly the wrong thing at just the worst moment.
This can manifest in any number of different ways. It could be something very specific like an athlete’s psychosomatic injury that only bothers him when he reaches the final. Or, it could be more diffuse and therefore less easy to identify.
People sabotage their relationships, their work and their health. Sometimes this self-harming behaviour seems to creep into pretty much every aspect of a person’s life — as though they’re not allowing themselves one ounce of happiness (or success) anywhere.
There is a complex matrix of beliefs in your unconscious, and it’s as unique as your fingerprint. It grows as you accumulate experiences; especially whilst you’re young. Parts of it will be positive (“I’m good at maths/beautiful/lucky” or “Mummy and Daddy are happy”) and other parts will be negative (“I’m untalented/stupid/bad with numbers” or “men are angry and dangerous”).
This belief system acts as a kind of filter through which you view the world. It influences your interpretation of everything you come in contact with, and it guides you in your decision-making (from your selection of A-level subjects to choice of life partner).
Some beliefs can become so bound to your sense of identity that they begin to limit the life you live and the person you become. You battle continuously to disprove the negative ones, and yet maintain the truth of the self-affirming ones.
It may seem extreme, but somewhat exaggerated conclusions are easy to arrive at when we’re young. We think differently when we are children; the world is binary. Things are either good or bad; we win or we lose; we’re loved or we’re unloveable.
In therapy, we call the event that causes a child to come to a negative conclusion about himself the “initial sensitising event” or “significant emotional event”. It doesn’t need to be any more dramatic than tripping over in the school nativity play, or getting told off by Mummy for drawing on the walls (because those things are significant to a child).
Upon receiving the negative injunction, the child has two options. She can either accept that message: “you’re right. I’ll never amount to anything. I may as well just not bother trying”. Or, she can reject it: “No! I’ll show you that I’m not a failure. Just look what I can do!”. The problem is that since the message already exists as a truth, its rejection only causes an inner conflict that completely fails to disprove the negative belief. Rather, it strengthens it by repeatedly referencing it. All this just sets the stage for a life of contradiction and seemingly irrational behaviour.
The child who aggressively rejects a negative injunction like “you’re not good enough” is likely to become an “overachiever”. She’ll strive and succeed in almost everything she does, getting the best grades in school and winning at sports; she might even go platinum or publish a best seller. But anyone who succeeds reactively in this way is only doing so out of fear (belief) that the old injunction is true, so she can’t actually enjoy any of those achievements. No matter what she does, she’ll never really feel like a success.
It’s as if there’s an invisible line, which if crossed would carry her into the unknown territory of really feeling accomplished. By stepping over that line, the negative belief that got her there in the first place would need to be disproved. She’d have to accept that she isn’t a failure; that she is good enough after all.
This sounds good, right? But it’s not easy. Doing so would mean shifting a considerable load of unconscious resistance.
That limiting belief, along with all the others it connects to and feeds, forms the very fabric of this person’s reality. Whats more, her unconscious is quite comfortable in keeping her safe when that thing is true. It’s what she knows. Disproving a belief like that, no matter how unpleasant it might seem to be, would be a great risk. So her unconscious intentionally sabotages any success that might threaten to propel her over that line.
And so, just like landing on a snake in Snakes & Ladders, her sabotaging behaviour causes her to slide right back down into “failure” territory again. The pain of which, of course, will reset the cycle.
A client of mine put it wonderfully just the other day. She said that she feels as if she rides the thrill of motivation to succeed as if surfing a wave, but just when the beach is within touching distance, that same wave drags her back out to sea.
It’s the process at work in a yoyo dieter’s weight fluctuation, and a drug addict’s repeated trips to rehab. It’s the cause of procrastination when you ought to be working, and overspending when you ought to be saving. It’s also the reason we push people away when they could have been The One (“if I’m in a successful relationship, then I must not be unloveable… ”).
Change is scary to the unconscious, full stop. It seems safer to just stick with what you’re accustomed to.
So what happens if you stop reacting to the things you don’t want, and instead begin pursuing the things you do want?
Everyone knows that when you run from something it only get’s scarier. Be it from the monster in your nightmare, or from your little sister as she chases you up the stairs, fleeing is absolutely terrifying. So although moving away from failure will take you in the same direction as moving towards success, the experience of both the journey and end result will be vastly different.
The person whose limiting belief is driving their behaviour is living an away-from life; a life of fear. They’re blind to the positive aspects of their personality (and of the world) because they’re too busy checking over their shoulder to see how close the monster has gotten. Although it might seem risky at first, it’s only by ceasing to check for that monster that you can feel safer, stronger and more successful.
In contrast, the person who lives a “towards” existence can always feel as though he is achieving as long as he is learning. With this mindset, the very concept of failure is negated. Now, any experience which causes you to grow, can be deemed a success, no matter what the outcome.
It all results from a simple, yet powerful, change in your self-image. When driven by fear and limiting beliefs, you operate from a position of “I’m not good enough… but if I could just achieve x, then I’ll be OK”. It might be a certain car, or a dress size or a qualification… Of course it never works because as soon as you achieve x, you’re already thinking about y and z. You always need something before you can feel good about yourself.
On the other hand, when you operate from a position of “I’m good enough and so this next thing can make me even better”, then challenge itself becomes exciting (rather than just another opportunity to potentially fail).
Of course, I’m not saying there won’t be ups and downs, but with a growth-oriented outlook, each bad day provides information about how to be better in the future. The difference is that when progress is your focus, then any lull in your life is unlikely to be as low as the last because you’re always learning.
So how can you make this change in practice? Well, there are lots of ways. For some it’s just a part of growing up, your perspective can change over years of getting to know yourself. For others things can shift in a single moment of insight (I’d hope that this article might help with that).
Gaining an alternative perspective on the memory at the root of your limiting belief (your monster) will change everything. I personally went through a similar transformation to overcome my fear of (being a) failure whilst competing internationally as a kickboxer and boxer. That’s a dangerous platform for a failure formula! You can read how I did this here.
But the answer is really quite simple; it’s just to stop running away. In order to do that, you need to be OK with things not going to plan. You need to embrace the monster (and so realise that it’s not actually that scary).
The truth is, it doesn’t actually matter much if you fail the odd exam, or lose in the final, or say something silly. It doesn’t make you a loser.
People go further when they can disconnect objective failure from their sense of identity, and so consequently allow themselves to enjoy challenge for how it actually makes them better. This enables them to enjoy the journey itself, rather than just fixating on the next requirement for OKness.
The most successful people understand that the opposite of “not good enough” isn’t perfect. Let that sink in for a moment…
Good enough ≠ perfect
Whats more, very often it’s trying to be perfect that simply isn’t good enough.
If you found this article useful, it would mean the world to me if you hit the recommend button.
Big thanks to Cristina Rizzi Guelfi for the diagrams.
Thought Engineering is an online program that takes you on a journey into your own unconscious mind. Master techniques to control negative thinking, minimise self-destructive patterns, and maximise potential.
The Thought Engineering: Memory Work course helps you to analyse your negative thought processes in order to identify and then reframe the negative memories at the root of your self-sabotaging traits. Find out more here.