This may be a familiar scenario: you’re getting ready for a big interview. It’s a great job, one for which you’re well-qualified and that will help you toward many of your long-term goals. It’s so perfect for you that…it can’t possibly happen. At least that’s what you tell yourself. So why experience the crushing disappointment of rejection? What if you get the job and fail at something you always wanted to do? All sorts of questions swirl through your mind, allowing you to convince yourself not to leap.
On the day of the interview, you create a life diversion so that there’s no way you’ll make the interview on time. “Great time to start cleaning off those shelves!” you tell yourself. You call the hiring manager and tell the person, “Thanks, but no thanks…it’s just not right/it’s too far/the hours won’t work….”
Self-sabotage has showed up again in your life. You had the chance to get what you really wanted but chose the status quo.
The tendency to sink one’s own ship before it sails is a curiously innocent one that’s rooted in how humans survive by avoiding pain. Fortunately, there are some great strategies you can start using now to stop self-sabotage from sinking you.
In this article, I’ll explore why people self-sabotage, provide some pointers for recognizing self-sabotaging behaviors in our lives and relationships, and give strategies to help you replace self-sabotaging behavior with actions that truly move you toward what you want in life.
I want to clarify what I mean by self-sabotage. To begin, consider that humans are extremely skilled in getting all of our needs met: food, shelter, companionship. It’s how our brains work to keep us alive. In addition, our brains carry out a number of higher-order functions that protect both our physical and mental health. When we encounter experiences that are painful, our brain helps us recall the experience of pain and reorder our path so as to avoid it.
Rejection is an extremely painful experience for humans. In fact, as a growing body of brain research indicates, the social pain of rejection feels as real to us as physical pain. Neuroimaging scans have shown that our brains process the pain of rejection in the anterior cingulate cortex and other regions where it processes physical pain. This helps explain why both a memory of banging your shin and a memory of being humiliated by a group of people makes us wince.
The art of self-sabotage is really one of avoidance; for just as we learned to avoid the corners of the new coffee table or bedframe that we banged our shin into, we avoid social interactions in which we’ve learned to anticipate rejection.
Self-sabotage then is really the avoidance of pain; albeit in a way that’s not especially helpful to our lives. The “sabotage” aspect of this comes in when, in our efforts to avoid pain, we limit ourselves from doing, being, becoming someone who’s happier in a new relationship, a new job or a new situation out of fear.
Self-Sabotaging Behavior Patterns
Self-sabotage tends to show up in a lot of ways that reflect the realm of human creativity. With avoidance of rejection as the central theme, some common methods of behavior are:
- Shooting low: This is a common one. We have an opportunity to be in a situation that we’ve sought for a long time, but convince ourselves that it’s unattainable. Alternatively, we tell ourselves that if we achieve the thing we sought and it doesn’t work out, that we’ll be crushingly defeated. We avoid it all together and stick with the mediocre or worse yet, with a person or circumstance that causes a lot of destruction and unhappiness for our lives.
- Creating conflict: This happens frequently when we’re in the situation we sought (great relationship, plum job, etc.) and are just waiting for the other shoe to drop. “He’s going to leave me anytime.” “She’s way too smart and accomplished to stay with me.” “They’re going to find out I don’t know what I’m doing.” We start the nitpicking, the fighting, the conflict. Maybe we’re testing the situation to see how far we can go before they confirm our fears and reject us, “Yep, they were just waiting to fire me!” or ultimately leave when we don’t want to, thinking that we somehow have the upper hand because we rejected them, they didn’t reject us.
- Procrastination: Dreamed your whole life of a particular bucket list item? Boom, it’s here! Until it isn’t. “I can’t afford this right now,” “I’m just not ready for this.” What happens in these instances is that our fear, our social terror of not knowing what to do, how to act, where to go and other parts of a new situation overwhelms us and keep us from moving forward. Procrastination is sabotaging because it leads others to question our commitment, our preparedness, our loyalty to a course of action. Once again, this often leads to the rejection we sought to avoid.
Self-Sabotaging in Relationships
As a method of avoiding the pain of rejection, self-sabotage shows up a great deal in our personal relationships. This makes a great deal of sense when we consider that the spaces where we are our most vulnerable are also those where we experience the greatest fear of rejection.
A way to understand self-sabotage in relationships is to consider it as an undermining of the relationship’s integrity that we initiate out of our own fear. If you’ve ever used the silent treatment as a method for communicating displeasure, used tit for tat strategies (“he didn’t take out the garbage, therefore I won’t wash his clothes”), or anything else with the intention of antagonizing your partner, you’ve worked against your own self-interests. Your partner may modify behavior, but probably not without some hurt and confusion, and more than an ounce or two of resentment. Confusion, hurt, and resentment start activating your partner’s own fears of rejection; and your partner then acts accordingly.
Clearly, neither you nor your partner chose the relationship as a source of mutual rejection. When these back and forth forms of passive aggression take place, however, they weaken the relationship and dismantle both partners’ trust in the relationship’s integrity.
Even more severe, people squeeze the life out of their relationships through controlling and monitoring a partner’s behavior, by playing games to try and deepen the partner’s interest and commitment to the relationship, or by threatening and even abusing their partners.
All of these behaviors are born out of a fear of loss. Relationships are the place where every fear about ourselves and our worthiness for love gets played out.
An important thing to note is that to be human is to doubt oneself. We all do it. Nobody enjoys rejection and we all fear it when faced with new situations.
In an effort to disrupt the tendency to self-sabotage in your own life and learn to live happier, here are four simple steps that you can take now. I recommend writing down your responses:
- Bring to mind a current or upcoming situation that’s causing you to doubt yourself. If your mind is a-swirl with fear of failure and you’re getting anxious and wanting to avoid it, this is a good example for you.
- Consider a “what if,” exception to the failure, as in “What if they really want me at this job because they see me as qualified?” “What if she really means it when she says she really enjoys time with me?” “What if I really was to believe I deserve this trip that I’ve been waiting for my whole life?” Write in detail about how this would look and feel, what it would be if the “what if” was real.
- Picture yourself acting as if the situation is really happening, and write this in the present tense. “I’m so happy! Tomorrow, I’ll wear my grey jacket that looks good on me. I’ll greet people and look them in the eye to let them know that I’m worthy of their faith in me.” “I’m calling her right now to tell her how amazing she is. I’m not going to hold back. I’ll tell her that I really am so happy when I’m with her.” “I’m buying my plane tickets right now!”
- Act on the things you listed for item 3. Now’s the time to test the new possibility for yourself that you are truly deserving of the positive things showing up in your life. Self-sabotage is one of those learned patterns of behavior that, by the point in life when you’re reading this article, has likely been decades in the making. Go easy on yourself and trust that with sustained effort in moving toward your own potential, your own joy and light, you create the change you seek. With this and all matters of mental wellness, work with a licensed counselor or other type of psychotherapist can be extremely helpful in overcoming self-sabotage.
Dr. Stacee Reicherzer serves as clinical faculty in the SNHU Global Campus Master’s in Counseling program. “Dr. Stacee,” as she is professionally known, is a licensed professional counselor-supervisor from Texas who now resides on the South Coast of Massachusetts. She writes and presents extensively on the topics of diversity, personal empowerment and fabulousness, and creativity as a source of healing. To see more of her work, visit her website at www.drstacee.com