Understanding the roots of self-sabotaging behavior can help us to find fixes that will make our lives more successful and less conflicted.
By Alice Boyes
Do you ever find yourself rushing so much that you end up forgetting your cell phone charger? Then it turns out that you’ve got an important call and you spend the entire time feeling anxious about your phone dying?
Or perhaps you’ve decided your romantic partner doesn’t listen to you; so you keep talking more and more trying to hammer home your point. Unfortunately, this leads your partner to tune you out even more, threatening your bond.
These are just a couple of ways you may be sabotaging yourself and your relationships, creating unnecessary pain and self-generated stress. In my new book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, I help readers self-diagnose the sabotaging thinking and behavioral habits that are holding them back in life and in love, and provide simple, practical tips for overcoming these patterns.
To stop sabotaging yourself, you must first recognize when you’re getting in your own way. Some of the time, we’re acutely and painfully aware of this—like when we find ourselves procrastinating before taking care of a (literal or figurative) mess, so that it becomes a bigger deal to clean up later. Or we impulsively buy a large bag of potato chips when we’re trying to cut back on junk food.
Of course, other times we’re less aware of our self-sabotage or we misdiagnose the core problem. This happens a lot in relationships. For instance, when you’re feeling competitive with the mom of your child’s playdate friend, you may get into a cycle of baiting and antagonizing each other, without recognizing your passive-aggressive interaction style. This gets in the way of you focusing on her great qualities and holds you back from potentially becoming good friends.
To stop sabotaging yourself, you need to figure out your patterns of behavior and then find creative ways to counteract them and form new habits. Here are some of the practical strategies I suggest in my book.
Know your typical thinking patterns
Our personality and life experiences predispose us to dominant modes of thinking, but these can be biased in ways that are unhelpful in the majority of situations.
For example, people who are prone to anxiety tend to be hypervigilant to signs of threat, and detect threats that aren’t really there. This happens to be one of my personal patterns of self-defeating thinking. The way this manifests for me is that problems always seem bigger than they really are; whenever anyone asks me to do something, I (internally) overreact and perceive whatever is being asked as more onerous than it is.
How do I deal with this? Knowing my thinking bias, I factor it into my judgments. I discount my initial reaction and go back and review requests with fresh eyes. I explicitly say to myself, “My brain is reacting to this as if it’s a threat, when most likely it’s actually an opportunity.”
To moderate your thinking biases, you’ll need to develop a psychologically sophisticated understanding of your own thinking. This is possible with some effort and reflection. Maybe you tend to worry people are angry at you when usually this isn’t the case. Maybe you tend to impose your perfectionistic standards on others and it hurts your relationships. Or you tend to hesitate too much in making decisions. When you thoroughly understand your personal thinking errors, you’ll be able to correct for these, and this will become easier and almost automatic with practice.
Prioritize one-time behaviors that reduce your stress over time
When you reduce your mental clutter, you’ll have more time and cognitive energy for correcting your thinking and behavioral biases.
In modern life, it’s extremely easy to get into a pattern of being “too busy chasing cows to build a fence.” A very common self-sabotaging habit is thinking we’ll remember to do something but then forgetting. To work around this tendency, you can design aspects of your life with the assumption that you’re going to be imperfect.
For example, if you have a Google Home or the Google voice assistant on your phone, you can say things like “Hey Google, remember I put my passport in the linen cupboard.” You can then simply ask your voice assistant where you put your passport when you need to find it. A less technology-reliant strategy I use is to keep $20 in the glove compartment of my car for the couple of times a year I manage to forget my purse when I leave the house. This backup strategy means that forgetting my purse doesn’t generate stress. I can still buy that day’s essentials—like gas or whatever groceries I need for dinner that night.
In your work and home life, you can streamline your workflow so you can get simple things done without significant willpower. Tiny changes can help you feel in control. For example, instead of having a container for pens and scissors in only one room of the house, I have these in three different rooms. This makes it much less likely I’ll leave pens lying around, since putting them back after use only involves walking a few steps, rather than going to another room and interrupting the flow of whatever I’m doing. Strategies like these save time and, more importantly, help free you up mentally.
Use heuristics (rules of thumb) for decision making
Decision making is hugely draining—especially if you’re anxious or a perfectionist who overthinks every decision. If you can reduce cognitive fatigue from decision making, you’ll have more emotional energy for other things.
One way to do that is to use heuristics—“rules of thumb” aimed at producing a good outcome most of the time with minimal case-by-case effort. For example, to help me prioritize, I use the rule “Do tasks that are worth over $100 before any tasks worth less than $100.” Also, to help me avoid running out of needed items and make faster decisions, I use the rule “If I’m going to run out in less than two weeks, order it online now.”
You’ll need to develop your own heuristics that suit your personality, circumstances, and preferences. For instance, what works for someone who is too hesitant won’t likely be appropriate for someone who is too impulsive. Likewise, since I usually shop with my toddler, “order online” is easier than a rule that adds something to my shopping list to pick up at the store.
Learn to love incremental improvements
A paradox perfectionists face in trying to reduce self-sabotage is their tendency to have inflexible standards and be dismissive of incremental gains. They want to solve a problem completely, right now, and aren’t motivated by solutions that improve a problem by, say, one, 10, or 20 percent—even if these solutions are almost effortless.
When you start to appreciate the beauty of making incremental improvements, you’ll see easy solutions that you’d previously been overlooking. Over time, even tiny improvements add up significantly. It can be extremely helpful to ask yourself, “How could I improve this by one percent?” instead of “How can I completely eliminate this sabotaging habit?” For instance, you might ask yourself, “How can I improve my problem of overeating by one percent?”
Use strategies to combat avoidance and procrastination
When we procrastinate or avoid, our anxiety about whatever we’re avoiding tends to increase. Many times, people who procrastinate don’t think to use a strategy for getting started—even though many exist (and are outlined in my book). By identifying your six or seven favorite strategies, you’ll always have one that’s relevant and feels achievable in a particular situation.
Some strategies for getting started include:
- Use project to-do lists to outline every step involved in a particular project. Save your daily to-do list for things that truly need to be done that day. Project-specific to-do lists help you utilize small scraps of time. If you have five or ten minutes, you can do a tiny step from your project-specific list.
- Shrink relatively unimportant tasks to the bare minimum required for getting them done. Perfectionists habitually expand the scope of projects to the point that they become unwieldy.
- Try “last things first.” Sometimes the typical final steps in a task are easier to start with than the typical first steps.
- Pretend you’re going to outsource a task and write the instructions you’d give someone else. This can help you simplify your expectations if your demands of someone else would be more reasonable than your demands of yourself.
The strategies you prefer may change over time, but having a big list to choose from lets you try new ones when the old ones don’t work or feel stale. As your life circumstances change (such as becoming a parent or changing work roles), you’ll likely need to explore new strategies.
Understand your seemingly irrelevant decisions
“Seemingly irrelevant decisions” is a concept that comes from treatment for addiction. For example, a recovering alcoholic might decide to call an old drinking buddy, just to say hello or for a game of basketball, and soon finds that this minor decision takes them down the slippery slope of resuming alcohol abuse.
You can use this same concept to understand much less destructive, but still sabotaging, behaviors. For example, you might realize that if you start a new task within 30 minutes of when you plan to leave work, it’s highly likely that you’ll leave late. Or, if you’re prone to running late for appointments, you might learn to recognize your sabotaging behavior of answering the phone when you should be walking out the door to be on time.
On the positive side, you can also learn what makes it more likely you’ll do positive, wanted behaviors later. A micro decision for me is whether I leave a document open on my computer when I plan to go back and work on it after taking a break. If I leave it open, I’ll generally go back to it. If I close it, I won’t. It can be very satisfying to understand your own psychology and realize your personal patterns.
Practice acceptance and self-care
Making changes in your life requires time and energy. You can’t ask this of yourself if your psychological bank account is already in overdraft.
Sometimes people get into a trap of thinking, “When I’m being more self-disciplined or more productive, then I’ll do more self-care.” But, if you’ve run yourself to empty, try it the other way around: Allow yourself to have more experiences of pleasure before you think you “deserve” them. Otherwise, you’ll continue to run yourself into the ground and engage in self-sabotage.