The postcard in this image is from Corina Dross’s “portable fortitude” deck.
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This month I’m focusing on Changing the Stories We Tell Ourselves, and this week I delve into the rich topic of self-sabotage.
I spent a week learning about self-sabotage and practicing alternatives so I could help you understand what it is and why we do it, and what we can choose to do instead.
What is Self-Sabotage?
When I thought about the word sabotage I pictured an action movie where a group of people devise a secret plan to destroy something so that they can alter the results of what was meant to happen. I imagined that self-sabotaging meant throwing a wrench into our own plans.
I wasn’t far off.
According to Andrea Owen in Episode 60 of her podcast, Your Kick Ass Life, self-sabotage happens “When you want to change really bad. And you know what needs to get done in order to change. But, instead of doing what needs to get done, you do the opposite. Or nothing at all.” Tiff Hall and Cass Dunn tell us in Episode 10 of Crappy to Happy that self-sabotage is “anything that you intentionally do that actually gets in the way of you performing to your optimum levels” and that it’s “almost like building in an excuse if you fail.”
That Sounds Counterintuitive. Why Would I Do That?
It turns out that self-sabotage actually serves a purpose.
Dr. Margaret Paul breaks down one reason why we self-sabotage in her Huffington Post article, “Self-Sabotaging in Work or Relationships? Why?”:
We all have a survival part that is programmed into us — which I call our ego-wounded self. It gets activated by fear and goes into action to try to protect us from getting hurt. This stress response is very helpful, if you are being physically threatened and need to fight or flee.
However, many of us have been programmed to go into the stress response when we fear getting emotionally hurt, as opposed to being threatened with physical harm. You might be operating from a false belief that says, “I can’t handle emotional pain,” so you might find yourself fleeing a work or relationship situation, or engaging in some other self-protective/self-sabotaging behavior, as if there is a real physical threat, when in reality the threat is coming from your false beliefs.
And Tiff and Cass tell us that our desire to self-sabotage may be a result of our unconscious mind’s core beliefs about what we are capable of doing or worthy of having.
So, if you are like me and you are prone to self-sabotage when you’re facing challenges (even the good kinds!), you should recognize that your mind may be attempting to keep you within the boundaries of what it knows is safe or comfortable. And that’s pretty amazing! Thank you, mind! But, as I mentioned in Week 7′s post when I talked about inner mean girls and dissociation practices:
I can acknowledge their intention to keep me safe, but I can also remind them that I truly am safe and I will be okay now. Doing this both respects my past and celebrates the fact that my current situation is much safer, brighter, and hopeful.
So, if you’ve decided that your self-sabotaging is no longer serving you, what should you do instead?
How Do I Stop Self-Sabotaging?
In order to stop self-sabotaging, I first noticed the ways I was self-sabotaging and then I chose alternatives to help me get back on the right track. Here are three options I discovered:
Don’t Pile Your Plate So Damn High
I’m still loving the Todoist app that I mentioned in my Mindful Production post. I set daily 5 tasks for my “good job, Kate!” bar because that will usually give me a full work day and the gym and some errands. But…I usually put more than 5 tasks on a particular day. This should be fine, because I can breeze through some tasks (like “write that email to that person”), and I have the option to reschedule tasks (like “go buy that thing you need for next month” or “do your taxes”). But, being an Obliger, I want to see the “You completed all your tasks!” notification and sometimes I’ll push myself to a point where I feel like I have to complete 10 tasks just because they’re on the list for that day.
When I do that, I’m literally self-sabotaging myself because in raising the stakes for how many tasks I should complete I am fudging with the bar I have for doing “good work.” So, last week I allowed myself to prioritize essential tasks and push unfinished tasks back to the next day or next week, and I even had a day when I was curled up sick on the couch and only accomplished 3 tasks. I really hated not hitting 5 tasks for the first time since I got the app, but the skies didn’t open up to smite me with lightning.
Be Open To Guidance If You Feel Stuck
Sometimes I struggle to make decisions about what to do. I joke that this is because I’m a Libra, but I think it’s more complicated by a trauma-informed false belief that making mistakes or not being “good enough” means scary things might happen to me. I know that I’m no longer in those same situations, but sometimes I still feel paralyzed by indecision.
When my indecision prevents me from choosing any of the equally good choices I have available to me, I sometimes just need inspirational jumper cables. Lucky for me, I found something that works perfectly: mantras. I honestly just pick up Shannon Kaiser’s Find Your Happy Daily Mantras, flip to a page, and trust the Universe to provide me with the exact mantra to help ground me in action. Last week I knew I was excited to read some articles but I was also really sick of standing and I wanted to relax in the bath, and I flipped to a page that encouraged me to re-see how to make my situation more streamlined. Boom: read articles in the bath. That might sound like a silly example, but if you follow The Tending Year’s instagram you saw that Shannon’s mantra for “My Life Is a Courageous, Creative Adventure” really helped me out when I was feeling stuck in vulnerability:
Even though I pulled this mantra to help me deal with vulnerability, there are so many delicious motivators I could easily apply to feeling stuck in indecision. I could do a creative, artistic task; I could choose what task needed the most courage and do that one first; I could imagine my ideal future and do one task that would help get me closer to that. When I’m feeling stuck and I need some inspirational guidance, I can just pull a mantra.
Pull a 180 and Self-Support
I self-identify as a pretty shy, introverted person, but for some reason I’ve felt drawn to reach out to introduce myself to others who are into my two passions: queer historiography and self development. Maybe it’s because I’m in the year of the Chariot tarot card, maybe it’s that I’m starting to feel more confident in what I have to offer these two fields, or maybe I’m just really excited that other people love these things, too. Regardless, I’ve been reaching out and introducing myself to people who run podcasts that I love, archivists who work with texts I’d like to work with, or other historians or scholars of rhetoric. This feels like it’s the opposite of self-sabotage. It feels like self-supporting, because I’m building relationships with people whom I respect, which helps me to feel confident and might help me learn something new or exciting.
Sometimes people write me back and are just as excited as I am that we have a similar interest! Sometimes people write back with a lukewarm “cool, thanks.” Sometimes they don’t respond at all. But still, I feel very proud of myself and it often makes me feel more motivated to keep moving forward.
If you struggle with self-sabotage, remember that your intentions are likely meant to care for you…but, they might be holding you back from success. Thank those self-loving parts, and try to think of self-sabotage as a choice you are making.
Once you’ve said “Thanks, mind! You’re really caring, but I’m going to try this other thing,” try out one or all of my tested tips:
- Set proactive goals for yourself. Write down a list of tasks you need to accomplish that day or that week, then distribute them across your calendar in a way that feels doable to you. If there’s a particular goal you’d like to achieve—say, applying for a fellowship or trying out a new hobby—record it as that day’s or week’s “proactive goal” and work on it during your down time if you’re feeling indecisive or bored. The goal here is not to push yourself too hard, but rather to challenge yourself to try new things and accomplish your goals in doable ways.
- Get a little help from the Universe. If you don’t have Shannon’s book, you can access mantras by searching for any self development sounding hashtag on Instagram (think #personaldevelopment, #amwriting, #inspirationalquotes) or by Google image searching for “inspirational mantras.” You could pull a tarot card and use the image or meaning for inspiration. You could open up a book and choose a word on the page you land on to help jump start you. Any choice you make is a good choice, and it’s okay to let the Universe give you some guidance.
- Self-support through connection. If you’re stuck in a rut of self-sabotage, you can jumpstart momentum by naming your goals to someone else or scheduling a next step. If you’re feeling anxious or down, you might want to reach out to a friend or a loved one instead of introducing yourself to someone new. You could say “Hey, I’m gonna try that new thing that I’m feeling nervous about. Could I send you a picture later or email you the draft? I might feel vulnerable about what I develop, so I’d love your support!” If you have the energy, why not send a message to a podcaster or a scholar whom you really admire and tell them how much their work means to you and why. I assure you that even if they don’t respond, they’d love the message AND you will likely feel a reminder for why you love the particular topic so much, which might help you feel confident to move forward on it. You can even share your self-supportive message as a post on The Tending Year’s Instagram or email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here.