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Are you sabotaging yourself?

by Jennifer Nelson

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Ever ditch your diet for an ice cream cone, walk away from a satisfying relationship because you were scared, or never seem to get your dream project off the ground? You may be a self-saboteur.

Self-sabotage is when you wreck your own best-laid plans. On the outside, you may want to get healthy, be happily coupled, or work on your dream project, but on the inside, you’re compelled to get in your own way. Typically, self-sabotage is considered behavior that interferes with reaching your goals.

Why would you want to betray yourself that way? It’s complicated. We sabotage ourselves in response to early feelings of hurt and helplessness, says Susan Anderson, author of “Taming Your Outer Child: Overcoming Self-Sabotage—the Aftermath of Abandonment.”

Self-sabotage most commonly appears in quick-fix behaviors like shopping when you need to save or get out of debt, starting flings with unavailable partners when you’re looking for “the one,” comfort eating when trying to lose weight, or refusing to risk failure when you want to succeed.

Fear is usually at the center of self-sabotage.

Self-betrayal is usually buried deep. And many of us don’t even realize we’re self-saboteurs.

Why do we sabotage ourselves?

Psychologists say we contain a “pro-self” as well as an “anti-self,” an internal enemy whose critical voice is shaped by our early life experiences. If we’ve been, say, treated as a burden or made to feel stupid, the anti-self adopts views that support how unworthy we are. The anti-self can also take on the attitudes of our early caregivers—so if they were self-blaming, depressed or critical, so are we.

The anti-self likes to write us off as unworthy of whatever we want to accomplish and becomes the critical voice nagging us to mess it up. “Go ahead and have that cookie.” “Sure, watch TV instead of work on your project.” “Why not go out with the emotionally unavailable person again—isn’t that your type?”

Fear is usually at the center of self-sabotage. Fear of success, fear of the unknown, fear of pain or rejection, and so on. That fear keeps us in a chronic state of limbo—never moving forward on our goals, wishes or desires.

Here are three ways to help break the self-sabotage cycle.

Start with self-compassion

Studies show that self-compassion is associated with emotional resilience, and less narcissism and angry outbursts. Self-compassion can also center us, help us go after our goals, and better deal with fears and anxiety.

Kristin Neff, Ph.D., associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin, recommends treating yourself like you would a best friend when you’re suffering. What would you say to your BFF if they screwed up on achieving a goal? Odds are it’s very different from what you’d say to yourself.

It’s helpful to keep a self-compassion journal in which you process difficult daily events through a lens of compassion and kindness.

Be more mindful

Self-compassion also involves mindfulness, seeing ourselves and the situation in the moment, which meditation is great for helping you achieve. Neff says meditation helps to retrain the brain to bring more self-compassion to your life.

Watch what you say to yourself

You may be so used to self-criticism, self-blaming, and name-calling that you don’t even realize you do it. Start paying attention to the internal voice that speaks to you on a daily basis. Whenever you notice it being critical, stop and offer a compassionate thought instead. Rather than, “I’m so dumb for missing that deadline,” try, “I’ve been working so hard and am stressed out, it’s no wonder I missed the deadline.”

Look to the people around you who are doing what they set out to do, accomplishing their goals. What do they have that you don’t have? Probably nothing more than a quiet anti-self who is not sitting on their shoulder trying to screw up their plans. Take a chapter from their novel. If you can be a bit more mindful, self-compassionate and less self-critical, your pro-self may gain a foothold and put an end to your anti-self’s sabotaging ways.

Jennifer Nelson

Jennifer Nelson is a FL-based writer and author of Airbrushed Nation: The Lure & Loathing of Women’s Magazines (Seal Press). She writes about health, wellness, psychology and pop culture for outlets like AARP, WebMD, MSNBC and Next Avenue. Follow her on Twitter @nelsonjennifer.