Episode 34

Published on:

17th Feb 2023

5 Ways We Self-Sabotage, and How to Stop Them

We all get in our own way sometimes-- and there are certain important patterns about how, and why, we tend to do it. Today we're leaving judgment and shame at the door (let's hope we do that every episode!) and having a frank talk about common patterns of self-sabotage, and how we can try to adjust them.

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Credits: Beautiful cover art by Danielle Merity, exquisitely lounge-y original music by Jordan Cooper


Dr. Andrea Bonior: Do you ever feel like the biggest obstacle in your way is you? Does that sound too self-help-y? Maybe. But do you feel like you have a problem with self sabotage? A lot of us do. Would you like to do something about it? Today we're talking about how to counter habits that might be self sabotaging. We all have ways that we tend to make life harder for ourselves or keep ourselves from being the people we want to be. There's no shame and no judgment here today. We'll just be talking about five tools that might be able to help. If you've ever felt like you're working against yourself, or at the very least, like you picked up some habits that just aren't working for you, you'll want to listen to today's Baggage Check. Welcome, everyone. It's really good that you're here. I am Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this is Baggage Check: Mental Health and Advice, with new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Baggage Check is not a show about luggage or travel incidentally. It is also not a show about the role of allegory in the lyrics to Money for Nothin’ by Dire Straits. Okay, let's get to it. So I've been a therapist for more than two decades now, and yes, if we do the math, that means my hair has had bangs at several points throughout my career, and I've been writing advice columns and books for many of those years. There are a lot of themes that have tended to stand out. One is that people tend to think that they're alone in their problems, whereas in reality, a lot of folks are suffering with similar things, and connection can be so helpful. But another major theme is the idea of feeling stuck in a situation of your own design. Self sabotage. There's a lot of shame and embarrassment that goes along with it. Why can't I just get through this? Why can't I just meet the goal? Why is it so hard for me to change this when I know it's not good for me? So we're not doing any embarrassment today. Let's leave it at the door. You're listening because you want to improve your life, which is great. Or maybe you're listening because this episode autoplayed on your phone and you're trapped doing something else, and you can't turn it off. apologies if that's the case, but I'm glad you're here, too. There is no shame, no judgment today, no matter why you're here. We all have habits that we've developed that maybe make us go into autopilot ways, that we fall into patterns that are pretty dysfunctional. And often it's the people who are most conscientious about not hurting others that are the ones that do the most harm to themselves. Is this you being so busy taking care to be supportive of everyone else that you decide that you'll just sacrifice your own well being or your own needs or your own hopes? That can be pretty common. So let's think about how to have a better balance and how to help take care of our own needs in reasonable ways. Most of us have goals, whether they're big, like going back to school, or small, like minimizing the number of drawers that I call the junk drawer. Maybe that's just me. What keeps us from meeting our goals? Why are some goals successfully achieved while others remain on our to do list, nagging us for months or even years at a time? Now, you might be thinking, wait a second. We already have talked about some goals in the form of the New Year's resolution episode, episode 19. And absolutely that episode focused on how to set goals that are most likely to be met. We talked about how the most common of New Year's resolutions are often the most likely to be dropped, and how to tweak those goals, how to set better goals that actually will get met. So we've discussed that already, and I definitely recommend that. Episode number 19. If you haven't heard it yet, we're talking about something a bit different today. Because although goal setting is important, there are many times when the problem lies not so much in the goals we set, but in the ways we prevent ourselves from meeting those goals. You might have the most functional, realistic goals in the world, but if you engage in self sabotage, then guess what? Your chance to meet a goal is gone before you even begin. There are lots of patterns that the research has identified as to why we sabotage and how we sabotage. And in my clinical practice, I see these behaviors consistently. They keep us from taking action in the ways that we want, or they keep us from sustaining the action that we've already started, or they just keep us from feeling okay about ourselves. These traps of self sabotage can prevent us from getting where we want to be, from fixing what we need to fix, from helping ourselves in the right ways, and becoming the person that we want to be. You may know what you want and be pretty sure of the path you need to take to get it. But it's not uncommon to be stuck in a rut of self sabotage that just keeps making you frustrated. And then the cycle continues. So let's see which of these five things might resonate with you. Number one, dwelling on if only we all have regrets. Whether they're about something we did, like, if only I hadn't dropped out of college or something we didn't do. Like if only I'd stood up for myself more in that relationship. Sometimes we play the if only game about things that we can't control but that we wish were different, if we had grown up with different parents, or if we were more talented, or if our partner could fundamentally change in some way. These thoughts can follow us around for decades, and the problem with these thoughts is that they don't lead to action. They can't lead to action repeatedly. revisiting if only fantasies, when they involve things that we can't do anything about, keeps us idling and neutral. Given our lack of a time machine, at least at the time of recording this, I don't know what Chat gpt is up to, or those weird ufos that were recently shot down, but I don't see a time machine here. And if we don't have that, we can't go back and press undo. We also can't really change other people who don't want to be changed. So continuing to indulge in the if only thoughts really brings nothing but further frustration and stagnation. Those if only thoughts. They're a breeding ground for learned helplessness. They don't spur action or inspiration or problem solving or insight. And worst of all, dwelling on the if only thoughts keeps the same patterns going. Like ruminating on how you wasted your 20s socially might make you less likely to go out and seek good friendships in your forty s or dwelling on imperfect aspects of your partner builds resentment that can make your relationship worse and can make you unable to talk about it in healthy ways that could actually help solve some of the conflict. Try turning the if only mindset into a different one altogether by accepting what's done but using this fact to influence your further actions. Such as X is this way, but Y can be that way. I mean the variables not like ex boyfriend or why, the letters X and Y. Or I can't undo my past, but I can influence my future. Or I have learned something from X, which is the why. And here's how I plan to use that why to improve things. Each of these is a new and much more functional spin on the if only mindset. Number two being afraid of your Thoughts one of the easiest ways to ensure that a thought will have power over you is to try your hardest to suppress it. We've touched on this before. Sometimes we do this because our thoughts terrify us. Like, this is the third argument that my fiance and I have gotten into this week. What if it was the wrong choice to get engaged? Or maybe we feel guilty for having certain thoughts. My coworker is just not pulling her weight on this project. But she's a sweet person and a good friend, so I shouldn't rock the boat. When you suppress a thought, you have no chance to really process it, to understand it, to feel it, and perhaps eventually to decide that maybe the thought can be dismissed because it doesn't make much sense. Ironically, walking around afraid of what your brain has to say gives your thoughts far too much importance. This is a hallmark of people who struggle with obsessional thinking. These folks are locked in a battle of trying desperately to get a sticky thought to go away. Mainly because they're so overly distressed by having it in the first place. But the thought is more likely to stick because now they've given it the power. They've made it bigger. They've told themselves it's something huge. Getting trapped in this battle just doesn't move you forward. Try not to think of a rhinoceros in a bikini. Try and bam, there she is. Now you're thinking of it. She's wearing quite a hot number. ew. That's really odd for me to say, but you know what I mean. You are seeing a rhinoceros now, unless you have avantasia, which we've talked about in a previous episode where you don't have a mind's eye. That was a good one anyway. The more you battle your thoughts, the more you deny yourself the opportunity to work through them, and the more you keep yourself locked in a negative pattern. So try acknowledging your thoughts and facing them, emphasizing that they're just thoughts and labeling them as thoughts. For example, I'm having the thought that it was a mistake to get engaged. That's probably because I've been stressed out. I don't have to be afraid of this thought. It's human. I will get a bit more sleep, get over this bad week at work, and see if I feel differently. If I don't, I'll think things through further and think about how I can communicate about it. Number three burying your feelings. A close cousin to avoiding bothersome thoughts is trying to bury or mask feelings that you've deemed unacceptable. Many people think that to fully acknowledge feelings means yelling obscenities in the grocery store or hysterically wailing at their next staff meeting. I promise, letting yourself feel stuff does not have to turn into you behaving in ways that will make you go viral. Letting yourself lean into emotions is not the same thing as unleashing these emotions into the world at large. In fact, you'll be less likely to explode and unleash feelings in inappropriate ways if you've actually acknowledged those feelings and worked through them in the first place. Often we bury feelings out of guilt. I'm angry at my sister for making that comment about my weight, but she's generally a kind person and does so much for me. I have no right to nitpick. Or we bury feelings out of fear. If I let myself feel sad about my breakup, I'll get so depressed I won't even be able to function. But feelings, just like thoughts, tend to gain power when we fight them, and when we try to hide them, they tend to grow bigger and bigger. Feelings are prone to corroding people from the inside out if they're constantly stuffed. Emotions don't tend to go away on their own just because we try to keep them in. There's a metaphor there somewhere, like repeatedly slamming a lid onto a pot of water that's boiling over. You know that if you let the water get just a little bit of air, set the lid so that it doesn't completely cover the pot, you'll soon get a calm, smooth boil instead of a frothy, rattling mess. Acknowledging your feelings doesn't make them spin out of control, but putting the lid on them can. The research bears this out. You've heard me say it before, and I'll say it again. Labeling our feelings helps us feel more competent in managing them. Number four habitually. Starting tomorrow. So you've eaten a third sleeve of Girl Scout cookies before noon. By the way, those new adventurefuls? Not too shabby. Sorry. This is not an official endorsement for Girl scout cookies, only an admission that they and I have a very special relationship. Maybe you're completely frustrated that it's 3:00 in the afternoon and you've gotten so little work done. Many times, the natural reaction is to abandon the rest of the day and visualize the beautiful blank slate of tomorrow. But it's never tomorrow. Literally. uh, that's the definition of tomorrow, the place that you haven't arrived yet. If you spend so much time putting things off until tomorrow, the habits you want to pick up and the changes you want to make will always be beyond your reach. Because tomorrow is a constantly moving target. If, hm, you are someone who must have that clean slate to get motivated, it need not be tomorrow. Why not have that clean slate start in 1 hour or 15 minutes? This helps stop the surge of all or nonethinking that can leave you to write off the rest of the day, which would get you farther and farther away from doing what you feel like you should be doing. Even better, instead of arbitrarily declaring the slate clean because the calendar flipped over or the time changed, create a true and meaningful clean slate through your behavior. Take a brisk walk, do a brief meditation, get a cup of tea, have a quick chat with a friend, listen to an energizing song, do some breathing exercises. Allow yourself five minutes of a video that makes you laugh. Each of these things can help reset your mind and your productivity much better than the vague tomorrow, which, since it's never really actually here, it never allows you to really be in the driver's seat. And finally, number five letting inertia harm you rather than help you inertia. uh, is fantastic when it's on your side. If you pick up a healthy habit and maintain it for several weeks in a row. Making coffee rather than buying it. Getting some fresh air and movement every lunch break, sorting your emails as they come in rather than just saving 56 of them as unread and never looking at them again, not visiting certain websites that, you know, just make you feel worse. Then it becomes much easier to continue it. But too often inertia uh, applies to habits we don't want to have and activities that make us feel unproductive and unhealthy. This is the reason why the psychological clean slate we just talked about can be so powerful, we desperately crave the ability to be free from the things we think we've already tainted a busted, dry January, a soured relationship, or a pattern of motivation killing habits at work. We don't want to salvage any of it. We want to start fresh because that's a more attractive option. There's some alternate, um, thinking in there. But here's the thing. Just like in the physical worlds, we are prone psychologically and behaviorally and emotionally and cognitively to staying in motion or in place by this force of inertia. Once we started that pattern, and no one can change this but ourselves. The calendar flipping to a new year, feelings of being fed up, new workout gear, or public promises can all briefly jumpstart new behaviors, but they don't address the underlying inertia which is truly needed to change long term behavior. You must build the right day to day structure in order for new habits to take hold and stick. Otherwise, the inertia of the old habits never really goes away. Yes, those new workout pants are fabulous, but if your gym is still too far away or too incompatible with your work hours, then you haven't done anything to address the inertia that prevents you from going to the gym in the first place. Focus not on the jumpstart only, but on the overhaul of the battery that gets inertia working for you rather than against you. And in that way, we're talking about momentum, really. Once you're in motion, you want to stay in motion. Maybe this isn't inertia once we're in motion. I don't know. It's been a really long time for me since physics class. admittedly, I'm really not sure how planes stay in the air, but I do know that once you are moving, it is easier to sustain that movement than to start moving from scratch. Inertia and momentum both apply to behavior as well thought patterns, too, and emotions. So think about setting up systems where, once they are in place, things can keep perpetuating on their own. So I hope that some of these techniques have been helpful. What do you think? Let me know. Thanks for joining me today. Once again, I'm Dr. Andrea Bonior, and this has been Baggage Check. With new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Join us on Instagram @baggagecheckpodcast. Give us your take and opinions on topics and guests. And you know you've got that friend who listens to, like, 17 podcasts. We'd love it if you told them where to find us. Our original music is by Jordan Cooper, cover art by Daniel Merity and my studio security, it's Buster the Dog. Until next time. Take good care.

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About the Podcast

Baggage Check: Mental Health Talk and Advice
with Dr. Andrea Bonior
We've all got baggage. But what do we choose to do with it?
Every Tuesday and Friday, licensed clinical psychologist, best-selling author and popular psychology professor Dr. Andrea Bonior takes your mental health questions, and makes you part of the conversation. Join her and other voices as they translate research into real life, and talk about relationships, emotions, health, psychological disorders, stress, finding meaning, work, and occasionally-- just occasionally-- the most obscure dance crazes of 1997.
All are welcome, and nothing is off limits. With science, compassion, and humor, she's here to help.

About your host

Profile picture for Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, speaker, and the best-selling author of “Detox Your Thoughts." She was the longtime mental health advice columnist for The Washington Post, and appears regularly in national media, including CNN and NPR, with several popular courses on the LinkedIn Learning platform. Dr. Bonior’s blog for Psychology Today has been read more than 25 million times. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University, where she recently won the national Excellence in Teaching award, given by the American Psychological Association.