Why Do We Self-Sabotage?

In my 7th grade English class, we learned about the 3 different kinds of conflict within a storyline: man vs man, man vs nature, and man vs self. The latter was the one that always seemed to pull me down. In the grand adventure of life, I felt like my mind was the ultimate antagonist. Fear, self-doubt, rage, and shame ruled with an iron fist while my hopes and dreams were left groveling on the floor.

I thought that my mind was against me: a massive enemy to overcome, a great beast that must be tamed. Every time I stepped on stage, my body would shake and I couldn’t even focus on the music because I was consumed by worry, fear, and self-doubt. And that’s not to mention all of the times I was underprepared for a show because I had procrastinated practicing. Or when all of my great song ideas were chased away by overthinking, or all of the times I talked myself out of auditions and opportunities because I didn’t think I was good enough.

There’s nothing more frustrating than pouring your time and energy into something only to shoot yourself in the foot at the finish line. Moments like these leave me thinking “how could I be so stupid? Why did I do that?” Well, why indeed? Despite popular belief, it’s not because your mind is a diabolical supervillain that has it out for you. When we frequently suffer from self-sabotage, it doesn’t mean that all of our hopes and goals are doomed from the start.

What is self-sabotage exactly?

Ok, it’s a pretty self-explanatory grouping of words. But when we chalk self-sabotage up to bad luck or some mysteriously inherent fault of character, we bypass an important opportunity to learn from our mistakes. When we do this, we never actually fix the root of the problem and it only worsens over time. So what’s really going on here?

Your mind isn’t malfunctioning, and it certainly isn’t against you; in fact, it only wants what’s best for you. The problem is, when we haven’t done much work to consciously train our mind, its efforts can come across as self-sabotaging and destructive. Imagine asking a child to clean up a mess they’d spilled on the carpet; without proper guidance and instruction, the most well-intentioned child will rub the stain deeper into the carpet.

Self-sabotage is how we go about getting things that we don’t consciously want because we’ve told ourselves we can’t have them, don’t deserve them or shouldn’t want them. 

All too often we prioritize what we think we should do and what we should want over what we really want. We think that sacrificing our needs for the desires and expectations of others makes us good people. It doesn’t. It makes us disheartened, dissatisfied and self-sabotaging people.

Self-sabotage is just our mind’s last resort to getting unconscious needs met. One way, but certainly not the most productive or constructive way. When we understand this, we realize that “self-sabotage” isn’t actually the best description of what’s going on here.

Not convinced? Let me show you what I mean!

It’s something we’ve all been guilty of…

Here’s an example for you from my own life… Not too long ago I had the opportunity to set up a vocal audition with a local and very successful cover band. I was speaking with the band’s manager over the phone and he asked that I record a video of myself singing a few songs of his choice. I eagerly spouted off that I would have the recordings ready for him that evening. It wasn’t long after I got off the phone that the excitement faded and panic set in. I was teaching lessons in the evening which only left me with an hour or so to learn, rehearse and record myself singing all of the tunes, not to mention the fact that my voice was in poor shape as I was recovering from a bad cold.

What was I thinking?

I was left with two options. I could either rush to put together a shoddy audition video or email the manager explaining that I wouldn’t have the video ready at the time promised. Either way, I wouldn’t have looked very professional. I opted to get it over with and my stomach churned as I pressed “send” and emailed the file over. Calling the video “less-than-perfect” would be a flattering description.

To my surprise, the manager called me the next day to tell me that he was blown away by my vocal agility and couldn’t wait to see me on stage with the band!

…Hah. Just kidding. I never heard back. It was embarrassing to say the least.

Upon later reflection, I realized that I just didn’t really want the gig. It’s not uncommon for my arrogance to get the best of me; I take pride in my work ethic and motivation and it is very hard for me to admit when I have bitten off more than I can chew. Sometimes I push myself too hard and expect too much from myself. I assume that I should be able to do more. When the opportunity for the audition arose, I already had so much going on and deep down I knew that I wasn’t in a position to be taking on another project. If I had been honest with myself about what I really wanted in the first place, I could have avoided that whole situation.

This kind of self-sabotage presents itself in all kinds of different ways: a bad job interview, an awkward first date, forgetting promises and responsibilities.

Here’s the secret to ending self-sabotage forever!

… Is what I would say if I were trying to sell you something. I’d be lying, though. It’s impossible to end this sort of behavior permanently, but it can certainly be managed and reduced over time. Understanding the positive intention behind your behavior is a huge step towards controlling it. Be honest with yourself and meet your needs before it comes to the point of self-sabotage. (Easier said than done, I know.) But most importantly, don’t beat yourself up when it does come to that! Once you figure out what it was that you really wanted out of the situation, you can avoid making the same mistake in the future.

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