What to do when self-sabotage keeps you from getting what you want.
Jennice Vilhauer PhD
Sep 30, 2018
There are lots of obstacles to getting what you want in life, but self-sabotage is probably the biggest one that stops most people. Why would anyone self-sabotage their own efforts to improve their life? It’s a complicated question best answered on an individual basis by some soul-searching work with a therapist. However, there are a couple of very common forms of self-sabotage that, once you recognize them in your own life, you can begin to address even if you don’t know why exactly you do them.
1. Arguing for your limitations
We all know what this looks like. Imagine the friend who asks for help, and every suggestion you offer is met with a reason why it won’t work. When someone argues for their limitations, there is a tendency to use the circumstances of their life as an explanation for why they can’t do the things that would help them succeed. I am sick, I am depressed, I had lousy parents, my spouse doesn’t love me, I don’t have the experience I need, I am over-qualified, I don’t have enough time or money.
The hardships in life are real. We all have them. Limitations are everywhere, because life is anything but fair. But arguing for the reasons why you can’t do something to improve your situation will only keep you stuck exactly where you are. The way our attention process works, the more we focus on something, the bigger it gets in our mind. The more you think about something, the more it becomes the basis for your actions. When you give your attention to the reasons why you can’t do something and accept it as a limitation, your brain won’t generate ideas and solutions for how to overcome the limitations.
Instead of arguing for your limitations, try arguing for your right to live well. When you argue for your right to live well, you are putting your focus and attention on the reasons why the hardships and limitations in life won’t stop you. You are fighting for why you can do something, instead of why you can’t. As you do this, you open up the solution-generating part of your brain to start coming up with ideas and ways to overcome your limitations, because you are telling it to do so. When you look for solutions, that is when you find them.
An easy exercise to get the process started is to simply write down a list of 10 reasons why you know you can succeed at whatever the goal is you are trying to achieve. If you’ve been focused on why you can’t for a while, then this will be a little challenging. That’s a good thing. Look for past examples of times when you’ve accomplished difficult things. Think about what traits and characteristics you have that got you through those hard times. Then read your list over every day, until “I can because…” becomes the dominant feeling on the subject.
2. Engaging in negative self-talk
Arguing for you limitations tends to be about your external circumstances, while negative self-talk has more to do with how you view yourself, although there can certainly be overlap. Negative self-talk is the inner dialogue in your head that says things to you that you would never dream of saying to anyone else: I am stupid, I am fat, I am ugly, I am a phony, I am never going to get it done, etc. Negative self-talk is based on your self-concept, or more specifically your beliefs about who you are and what you can accomplish. Your beliefs determine which actions you are willing to take and consequently what you do in life.
The antidote to negative self-talk isn’t to just quiet the inner critical voice in your head — you must also replace the negative talk with more compassionate statements to yourself: I am trying, I am learning, it’s OK if I make a mistake sometimes, I don’t have to be perfect, etc. Reach for thoughts that feel like an improvement, but are still within the realm of what you know is true about yourself, like: Sometimes when I try, I can succeed. When you choose phrases that are hopeful, but not absolute, you are more likely to buy into their truth, and they won’t sound so fake. When you stick with picking improved thoughts, eventually you get to the place you want to be — I really do like myself. If this seems like a hard thing to do, I would suggest reading the book Self-Compassion by psychologist Kristin Neff.
Once you are able to be a little kinder to yourself, then you can move to the second phase of working on your self-esteem by creating more positive self-statements about what you are capable of accomplishing. Remember, what you say to yourself is the foundation for your actions. If you don't tell yourself something is possible, you won't act on it. In order to achieve the things you want in life, you often have to be your own cheerleader, believe in your abilities, and tell yourself that you can do it. To work on your positive self-talk further, I would recommend the book Self-Esteem by Matthew McKay, which is a step-by-step guide to help you improve your overall self-confidence.