Understanding self-sabotage: The enemy within

Self-sabotage doesn’t make sense.

We make plans for our future selves, but when we desperately need to take action to advance our plans, we choose to get in our own way — we procrastinate, become extremely self-critical, or make excuses.

Many people want to develop healthy habits, manage their time prudently, save more for the future, and build healthy relationships but fall short or get off track. It happens to many of us. It’s the manifestation of that common phrase “you’re your own worst enemy”.

Self-sabotage is when part of your personality acts in conflict with another part of your personality — those times when you perform an action that intentionally impedes your progress.

People seldom mean to sabotage themselves. It’s not generally a conscious decision to stand in our own way.

So why do we get in our own way? Studies have correlated self-sabotaging behavior with self-preservation.

Self-sabotage has a lot to do with human behavior. Judy Ho, Ph.D., ABPP, a board-certified clinical and forensic neuropsychologist and Associate Professor of Psychology at Pepperdine University, argues that the propensity to commit self-sabotage is built into our neurobiology and woven into the very fabric of what makes us human.

She explains, “The source of self-sabotage is part of a common ancestral and evolutionary adaptation that has allowed us to persevere as a species in the first place. To understand how self-sabotage is tied to our human existence, we need to take a look at the two simple principles that drive our survival: attaining rewards and avoiding threats.”

The human brain is wired to cling to the familiar and to overestimate risk. We are drawn to go with the familiar, comfortable and simple or easy path — even when a different option offers a clear advantage.

This tendency, known as the familiarity heuristic, leads us to overvalue the things we know and undervalue things that are unfamiliar.

Gay Hendricks Ph.D., the author of “The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level, explains, “Each of us has an inner thermostat setting that determines how much love, success, and creativity we allow ourselves to enjoy. When we exceed our inner thermostat setting, we will often do something to sabotage ourselves, causing us to drop back into the old, familiar zone where we feel secure.”

We engage in behaviors that seem to help us in the short term, only to discover they get in the way of the lives we really want to live.

In the grand scheme of things, you want the very best results for yourself today, tomorrow, next month and next year, but you stand in your own way.

Craig D. Lounsbrough, a Licensed Professional Counselor, once said, “The only reason I can’t jump in and engage life is that I’ve told myself I can’t. Yet I can’t help wondering what would happen if I told myself I could?”

Another little concept called cognitive dissonance is the reason you keep shooting yourself in the foot. Basically, the human brain likes to be consistent. Usually, our actions line up with our beliefs and values.

But when they don’t, we get uncomfortable and try to line them up again. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.

To overcome this inconsistency, we must do battle with our future self — the one who, in the present moment, will choose to self-sabotage.

To overcome self-sabotage, learn to step outside your thinking

When it comes to self-sabotage, the best thing you can do is understand where those feelings are coming from — and fight back against the tendency to spend a lot of time in your head, making a case against change.

Learn to tune out those excuses and keep on moving right through them no matter how much your present self-fights against your future self.

Find something so important that it is worth enraging your prehistoric fears. And start taking action now notwithstanding what your lizard brain tells you.

To overcome your fear of taking a step outside your comfort bubble, embrace new ideas, habits, experiences and activities into the largest possible amount of sub-steps you can imagine, and start making progress from there.

Write all the steps down if that helps. Prioritize them. Go back to the first item on your list and find the smallest possible action you can take to advance your goals. Aim for baby steps. Focus on small wins. The idea is to take even the smallest action towards the bigger goal.

Actions your brain won’t see as threats to your survival. If it’s too big a step, your resistance brain will cause you to overestimate the step as a threat — putting you on a path to self-sabotage.

For example, if you want to write a book, start with 200 words a day. Don’t judge your work. Just write. Ernest Hemingway once said, “Write drunk; edit sober”.

If you want to exercise, start with a five-minute routine, and build up from there, instead of half an hour or one hour (something you probably won’t be able to sustain).

If you fear closeness, intimacy or rejection in a relationship, you can overcome that by taking the gradual approach — something you can handle. Taking small steps towards more closeness can help you think more clearly and make better choices.

Use the same mindset or approach for anything you want to start. Choosing actions, however small, with full awareness will encourage good habits and momentum.

Commit to a process your brain can handle otherwise you will make excuses and sabotage the goal. Even if it’s 10 minutes a day. Any time you stumble, just get back up and take another run at it. That’s how progress happens.

You can also use the 2-minute rule to overcome procrastination. According to Productivity guru, James Clear, if a task takes less than two minutes to accomplish, you should do it immediately. He says you can apply the two minutes rule to start something new — that way, you won’t put off starting. Often, he says, you will keep going further than your allotted 2 minutes.

A work in progress no matter how small pushes you to continue working on your goals. People who are ultimately successful in initiating and maintaining major behavioral change usually do it through gradual, step-by-step changes. It’s one of the best ways to stop the patterns of behavior that hold you back from living your best life.

This article first appeared on Medium.