Jackie is building a tower with blocks. I watch how she slowly places each block creating a taller and taller tower. Her breath is shallow as she places self-sabotagethe last few blocks. She inhales before placing the last block. Then something happens. She lifts her arm, swings it back and over the tower, smirking as she watches the blocks tumble to the ground. She then announces “Ah! Just how I wanted it.”

She built the tower just so she can throw it down? Or was she afraid that the last block would cause the tower to fall and she decided to cut to the chase? In psychology the term for this behavior is self-sabotage. Self-sabotage is when we subconsciously destroy something we truly wanted.

We self-sabotage more often than we care to admit or recognize in ourselves. We self-sabotage and immediately follow up with the phrase “that is how I wanted it.” Did you? Relationships are the most common area in our life where we self-sabotage. Friendships, love relationships, marriages, work relationships, and parent/child relationships. You can self-sabotage you fitness goal, a career move, an important exam or meeting, practically any goal you set for yourself can be destroyed by you.

Why do we do it?

Self-sabotage occurs when we are afraid we will fail at our goal. In order to protect ourselves from the feeling of failure we destroy the goal on our own. Thus we can say, “That is how I wanted it”, and we effectively avoid the uncomfortable feeling of failure. Other reasons for self-sabotage are related to internal messages we say to ourselves; the need to control the ending, the need for familiarity, and the belief that one is not deserving of good things.

 “I need to control the ending”

All relationships have moments where we feel shaky and suspect the relationship might end. Some will buckle down and begin to put in the effort to make the relationship work. Others will begin to create chaos in the relationship causing the relationship to end. For example, they will begin to magnify all the flaws of their partner and decide there are too many flaws for them to stick around. Or, they will push their partner out of the relationship by being nasty, rejecting, isolating, cheating, or being difficult. Either way, the relationship ends by virtue of their actions. The dissolution of the relationship does not come as a shock because they took control and ended the relationship.

“I need to stay safe”

As psychological beings we feel safer with what is familiar to us. Even if the familiar scenes or feelings are unhealthy, we prefer the known to the unknown. If things are predictable and follow the same patterns then we know how to deal with it. When things change, even if it is for the better, we feel uneasy and confused. When a person has a history of parental emotional neglect, isolation, or people leaving from their life by divorce, death, travels; they internalize a theme that everyone in their life will eventually leave them. Since they are familiar with the feelings of being left behind they continually recreate the scene. When their relationship is moving toward connection, attachment, or commitment they panic, those are not feelings they are familiar with. After all, “everyone leaves me”. The uneasiness of the new experience causes them to destroy the relationship, forcing the other to leave them. Subconsciously the reaction to the broken relationship is; “Ah! This feels just right.”

Humans are relational creatures. We seek out and yearn for attachment. Yet, if there is a history of failed attachment during childhood, we create an ambivalent attachment map. The feelings of attachment and intimacy are pacifying yet scary. Being attached means loss. As soon as the person senses or perceives a threat of rejection he or she jumps into safety mode. In order to protect the self from the rejection, the person will preemptively leave the relationship. In a situation where most would work through the pain of rejection (or rejection never happens), they run before the rejection can occur.

Another self-sabotaging defense mechanism used to fend off rejection is being attracted to unreliable and unavailable partners. An unavailable partner can be someone who is preoccupied with his or her career, is married, or is emotionally unavailable. These types of attached-unattached relationships are a perfect fit for those who fear rejection. They get to experience superficial attachment but do not have to fear rejection because they never truly attached to the other in the first place. You cannot be rejected, if you do not attach.

“I am unworthy of the good things in life”

During our development we create a perfect imaginary image of what we should look like. I call it imaginary because this image never comes to fruition and the faster we recognize perfection is imaginary, the faster we can begin to move toward a realistic self. We judge our worthiness according to this illusory image and if we do not fit the mold we believe we are not worthy of good things in our life. The subconscious feeling of unworthiness causes us to hold good things at bay.  The feeling of unworthiness can cause constant fretting. Even if good things do happen, it will be taken away. Once again this perpetuates a cycle of avoiding success because even if success is achieved it will be short lived, so why bother at all?

You’ve been studying for many weeks for an important exam. You are confident that you will ace the exam. The night before the exam you go out drinking, you get drunk, you cannot focus on the test the next day, and you do poorly. You rationalize that you did poorly because of your drinking expedition the night prior. But, why did you go out drinking? You knew you had an exam the next day. Because, you knew (feared) you were going to do well and this will open doors for your success. You got scared, “Oh no, I do not deserve success, I am unworthy of good things in life.”

How can we change our self-sabotaging patterns?

The first step to change is to recognize our patterns. Reflect back to relationships in your past. How did the relationship end? Why did the relationship end? Who left the relationship? Are you finding a common pattern? Reflect on your life goals. What are the goals you have set for yourself and did not achieve? What got in the way of your success? Were there obstacles that you put in the way of yourself? Did you give up on your goal at the last minute?

Once you have recognized your patterns in past experiences, you can begin to identify the current behaviors you continue to do. For example, in the past, whenever you got close to getting a promotion at work you did something that caused your boss to rethink the promotion, such as missing an important deadline. The next time you are up for a promotion, become your own detective. Watch all your actions carefully. Remind yourself that these are the moments where you self-sabotage.

Knowing how to self-sooth will help you curb you self-sabotaging behaviors. As mentioned above, we sabotage ourselves because of our fear of failure and fear of rejection. If you are able to sooth your fears you are less likely to run from the possible experience of failure. A good self-soothing technique is having a short motto that you say to yourself, such as, “failure is a part of growth” or “I have the skills to overcome my failures.”

You can also self-sooth by making a connection between a past experience and your current experience. This would require the ability to introspect and identify the emotion or the internal message you are saying to yourself. Once you identify the internal message, such as “I am unworthy”, or the emotion of fear, helplessness or others, you can recognize that your message/emotion is related to a past experience or early childhood. You are simply replaying something from the past that is not necessarily current. Today does not have to end the same way as yesterday.

If your self-sabotage is because of your fear of rejection, seek out rejection. This seems counterintuitive. If one fears rejection, why would they go out and look for it? This experience would be similar to an experiment or exposure therapy. You are going to expose yourself to the stimulus you fear most. The goal is to share something about yourself or do a behavior that you believe can or will cause rejection. Begin with relationships of lesser value, perhaps a colleague before your spouse. For example, your colleague talks loudly on the phone disrupting your concentration at work. You never asked her to change because you fear that if you tell her she will dislike you. Experiment with approaching her. Then, see if the relationship takes a drastic dive. When the relationship does not fall apart and she does not reject you, do a little dance and recognize that rejection does not ALWAYS happen. If she does reject you, do a little dance as well and recognize that the feeling of rejection is not as scary as you thought. You can now up the ante on your experiment and disclose something you have been holding back from your spouse, a close friend, or parent. Follow the same steps as above and keep on dancing. Bonus points: sharing personal flaws or concerns with your partner enhances intimacy.

The next time you raise your hand to swing over your tower, ask yourself; “Is this really how I want it? Living a life where you are always obstructing your path to success is hard work. Therefor, self-sabotaging is a bad habit worthy of breaking.

Sara Schapiro-Halberstam, MHC-LP, CASAC is a psychotherapist in New York City where she practices individual therapy, couples counseling, and sex counseling. You can contact Sara at [email protected] and read more blog posts at www.mwr.nyc

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