How to stop self-sabotage

Self-sabotage happens in all sorts of seemingly mysterious ways. Ever have a moment where you realise that the very thing you were going to focus on has somehow drifted to the dark recesses of your mind? That’s self-sabotage.
How to stop self-sabotage

I consider myself pretty self-aware but recently I caught myself thinking, I just don’t like exercise. And as I caught the thought (after seeing a couple of joggers), I wondered how long I had been telling myself that. Based on my lack of consistent exercise? I’d been engaging in self-sabotage a long time.

What’s curious about this statement is that there is evidence to the contrary throughout my life. I’d played sports in high school, continued in college. I’d shown up for gym classes, doing yoga, pilates, weight lifting. I jogged and kick-boxed. So when did the self-sabotaging thoughts start up?

Ten years ago, in the space of less than a year, my weight changed drastically. I put on 40 pounds. I’d arise in the morning and start crying because it felt as though more fat had been stuffed under my skin. I hadn’t changed anything in my diet or my life so I was baffled. After a series of tests, it turned out that my thyroid wasn’t working (hypothyroidism) and that I also had Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disorder. My body was fighting itself.

Medication helped other symptoms I’d developed, but the weight gain (by then 50 pounds) proved hard to reverse. As one doctor put it, Think of it this way, you have the metabolism of a 90 year old man. It’ll take time. Time? Time is generally not something 90 year olds have a lot of.

In retrospect, that’s likely when I started telling myself that I didn’t like to exercise. Because I didn’t. My body was different than I’d known it, and it moved differently. I was self-conscious in gym classes and uncomfortable. I wasn’t making peace with my body, no, I was fighting it even as it fought itself. Unfortunately, my self-talk wasn’t helping.

We all have self-talk. It’s a constant commentary in the background–making observations, interpreting events, judging others and judging ourselves. And a lot of that self-talk? It’s negative, harsh, critical and it’s aimed at you. Until you choose to turn in and start hearing it, what happens is that what you’re telling yourself has an effect on your behavior.

A client I worked with had what we termed ‘dragon talk’ because it was harsh and it was vicious. Her self-talk was a constant barrage of criticisms and put-downs. As she opened up to me, I wondered how she managed to ever get anything done. You’ll never amount to anything. No one will ever love you. You’re so ugly you should wear that shirt on your face! On and on. Her self-talk echoed words she’d heard from her father, words that she’s absorbed as a kid and taken to heart.

Self-talk usually has its’ roots in childhood. If you had a critical parent you may have believed what you heard because children don’t know that their parents aren’t omnipotent. And if the person who is supposed to love you the most, the person you’re dependent on, is putting you down it’s a natural thing to think they’re right.

A friend of mine recently exploded over a card game when another player gave the winning card away.. Stupid girl! Stunned, we sat quietly. Teary-eyed, she explained that’s what her dad had said to her over games. It’s what I say to myself, too, when I do something wrong.

In my case, my self-talk specific to exercise was due to my feeling my body had betrayed me. No way was I going to do something that made me even more aware of my ungainliness. I just don’t like exercise. Truthfully, however, it echoed my mom making fun of my ‘big’ thighs whenever I came downstairs dressed in a tennis skirt. (Note to self: athletic doesn’t always equate with big.)

Here are ways to stop your own self-sabotage:

  1. Get clear on what you’re doing to sabotage yourself. It might range from drinking too much, not giving 100% to projects, not doing what you say you’ll do. You’d be surprised by how many people claim they don’t know how it happens. Yes, you do. You just need to hold yourself accountable.
  2. Ask yourself what you’re afraid of. Anytime we’re engaged in self-sabotage, fear is right there with us. Maybe you fear being rejected, your best not being good enough, or people finding out that you’re a failure. Get really honest with yourself around this because otherwise you’re just wasting time.
  3. Listen in on your self-talk. What are you telling yourself that leads to self-sabotaging behavior(s)?
  4. Challenge your self-talk. Chances are there’s evidence that what you’re telling yourself isn’t 100% true. A good exercise for this is to write down your words and then refute them.
  5. Replace the statements you’ve been telling yourself with neutral or positive self-talk.

I’ve replaced my I just don’t like exercise with I’m re-engaging with my body. My client learned to be more self-compassionate and slowly challenged her erroneous beliefs. She learned that her father was not right about her and grew to love and accept herself.  

It’s a process that might take time, but it will change how you interact with the world. If your self-sabotage feels like it’s set in stone, consult a psychologist or a coach who can help you dismantle old beliefs.


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