Why we do it and how to stop.
Your worst enemy could be someone you’ve known your entire life.
Consider the aspiring actress who finally gets a callback to an audition, then decides not to pursue the part because if she gets the part, she won’t have time to walk the dog. Or the techie who lands a higher paying job with every intention of slashing his crippling student loan debt...but celebrates by maxing out his credit card on lavish trips, clothes, and digital toys. Or the teacher who copes with her failure to find true love online by chowing down a pint of gelato every night.
We’ve all seen these train wrecks, even when we’re not on board. It’s called self-sabotage. And although it seems irrational, no one is immune, according to New York psychotherapist Susan Anderson.
We sabotage ourselves in response to early feelings of hurt and helplessness, says Anderson, author of Taming Your Outer Child: Overcoming Self-Sabotage—the Aftermath of Abandonment. “We all had to separate from the womb, we all had the experience of Mommy walking away from the crib and being terrified she’s never come back,” she explains. “It’s the human condition.”
The problem starts when our “outer child” (which Anderson equates with the id) desperately compensates for those universal feelings of loss and abandonment by trying to build a protective feel-good shell around them. Most commonly we engineer quick fixes—shopping, drinking and drugging, flings with disastrously unavailable partners—that soothe us at first, but eventually backfire, becoming patterns that just create new problems. Or we shield those “inner child” vulnerabilities by procrastinating or refusing outright to risk failure (and thereby cutting off our chances of success).
The way to break the cycle is to come up with long-term adult strategies for feeling better about ourselves. You don’t need years of Woody Allen-esque analysis of your toilet training in order to tame your outer child, Anderson says—but you do need develop self-awareness that your quick-fixes are sabotaging your real goals.
Another tool for fighting self-sabotage is to have someone who calls out your bull-slinging, says Karen Berg, author of Your Self-Sabotage Survival Guide: How to Go From Why Me? to Why Not?. A life coach who specializes in the entertainment and corporate worlds, Berg says she often hears self-saboteurs “blame everyone but themselves—I have the wrong manager, I was born into the wrong generation—instead of digging into what they bring to the situation and what they have the ability to change.”
In her work with corporate clients (“Sometimes I’m the last resort before being fired”), Berg shadows executives at meetings and even films them to show them what their self-destructive professional behavior looks like from the outside, whether it’s demeaning co-workers or “being too wimpy” to lead.
If you can’t afford to hire a coach or a therapist, says Berg, the next best thing is a “buddy,” preferably not a spouse or someone who competes with you, “to help you stay on track and make realistic choices.”
Sometimes, like another word that begins with “s,” self-sabotage just happens. Even the healthiest among us “don’t always have a very strong adult self if we are under the influence of a glass or two of wine or even if we’re just tired,” Anderson notes. Plus in the modern world “we do so much automatically; we have so many numbing devices, and we’re workaholics. That’s when we find ourselves acting in patterns. We fall back into knee jerk reactions.”
But change is possible. “You have to be persistent,” says Anderson, “and because you’re likely to take two steps forward one step back, you also have to learn to be forgiving of yourself.”