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self-sabotage

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To Move Out of Self-Sabotage, Get SELFish. Here’s How

Whether it’s an addiction, a bad habit, a harmful relationship, a self-sabotaging behavior or an inauthentic life- we’re often surprised to discover that letting go of the thing which has been dragging us down for so long doesn’t automatically coax out the rainbows and trumpets. In other words, a shiny new life won’t magically appear just because we’ve made space for it.  

The self-destructive mentality that we’ve been operating from for so long dramatically compromises our coping mechanisms and life skills. After we finally stop ingesting poison, we may realize that we don’t know how to engage in nourishing activities like cultivating healthy relationships, setting boundaries, practicing self-care, or supporting ourselves. Our sense of self is shaky, at best, and the shame that has underpinned our negative circumstances and poor decisions may still be running the show. When shame’s the director of our lives, it’s hard to know who we are and nearly impossible to assert ourselves or speak our truth.

No matter what our age, we’re bound to fall back into our intricately designed traps until we make a conscious decision to completely change how we think and relate with the world, and then seek support from mentors who can assist us in uncovering our life-affirming and creative gems from the dung pile of shame. Quitting a harmful behavior, substance or relationship provides us with clarity, but it doesn’t give us the tools we need to move forward in a healthy and wholehearted way.

Recovery teaches us to be of service and to release the habit of indulgent, destructive self-pity. Self-involved thinking is part of what got us into a mess in the first place! However, recovery also requires that we embrace SELFishness and reclaim our power by learning how to respect our own needs and health.

This can be an incredibly foreign concept to many women, who were taught from a young age to be selfless, accommodating and long-suffering- a character lesson passed down unconsciously through generations. Here are five SELFish practices that I recommend cultivating:

1. SELF-PROTECTION

Author Julia Cameron writes, “it is enlightened self-interest to be selfish enough to be self-protective. Being self-protective may not seem nice. We may say no to invitations that do not serve us.” A majority of women who engage in self-sabotage can easily be categorized as “too nice.” They are people pleasers to the extreme, and have little experience in standing up for themselves. No wonder- statistics show that women battling addictions, eating disorders, and abusive relationships overwhelmingly contend with early childhood trauma, which programs them for victimhood and low self-worth down the road. It’s these very same women who become easy targets for violence in their adult lives if they haven’t learned to protect themselves, as they consistently allow politeness and the need to be liked to override intuition and self-preservation. When we learn how to adequately protect ourselves, we gain the confidence necessary to show our true selves to the world while asserting our values and beliefs through our actions.

2. SELF-SUSTENANCE

Making a successful major life change usually requires the support of a trusted circle of people, as well as the humility to accept our shortcomings and ask for help. Being able to financially and emotionally support ourselves in some way acts as a counterweight in this process while preventing learned helplessness in what should be an empowering, freeing journey. Excuses and “I can’t” mantras are detrimental to recovery and, if uttered often enough, will undermine our efforts to improve our well-being. One of the most effective ways to legitimize our power is to make our own money through a pursuit that nourishes us, even if the paychecks are initially barely enough to cover a morning tea at Starbucks. It is the act of reaching toward self-sustenance that matters in those beginning stages. Through working, you are proclaiming, “I am committed to taking care of myself.” Similarly, by learning how to emotionally nourish ourselves rather than relying on external validation, we find our voice, our courage, and our self-respect.

3. SELF-CARE

In any major transformation, regular self-care is the contract we must make with ourselves in order to redirect attention to the parts of us that were once neglected and step into a more awakened way of living.

Initially, something as simple as taking time to meet with a coach or therapist, or read an uplifting book with a cup of soothing tea in hand will open up the space you need to trust yourself again. Self-care faciliates a romance between the body and the mind, integrating our practical needs with our higher desires and providing us with the energy we need to venture out into the world with our heads held high. Often, self-care is a sacred secret, a ritual that unleashes our childlike spirit. By doing something each day that is loving to ourselves, we generate a grounded and joyful energy which attracts supportive people and opportunities into our lives. Through self-care, we radiate the message, “I’m worth respect and love.”

4. SELF-CONTROL

Self-control is central to human evolution as a developmental perk of our prefrontal cortex. It’s also what allows us to move forward as individuals through conscious decision-making and behavioral regulation. No surprise- those of us who have struggled with an addiction or bad habit tend to be low on self-control, and once we’re able to admit this shortcoming, we’re likelier to develop more of it. Just like our physical muscles, self-control must be exercised each day in order to grow and flourish. This can feel painful and tedious at first! Because excessive self-control is tied to perfectionism, this SELFish skill may be the trickiest to master, particularly if you’re overcoming an eating disorder, exercise addiction or any other type of compulsive pattern. Often, controlling ourselves actually means riding the wave and letting go of insisting on a particular outcome. Instead, we focus on the moment in front of us and take actions aligned to our integrity and purpose. Self-control is considered one of the greatest signs of spiritual maturity, and mindfulness and prayer are two great ways to cultivate it.

5. SELF-DISCOVERY

At the heart of addiction is the belief that we should not be “feeling” creatures, that the emotions we label as negative are to be snuffed out and rejected. In our pursuit of non-feeling, we lose the essence of what it means to be human, to connect, and to love. Without a full range of emotions, we’re unable to understand who we are and what our purpose is. Self-discovery is a process of allowing once-forbidden emotions to resurface, and of tuning in to the wisdom of the body rather than processing everything through logic.

Being willing to rediscover the self means rejecting the dictates of our current society, which demands that we plaster on a happy face at all times and become masters at emotional perfectionism.

When we commit to self-discovery, our emotions flow without censorship, and we learn how to befriend them in order to uncover what we’re really about.

Although the world may tell us otherwise, every single one of us is worth self-respect. That self-respect must be generated from the inside first; once we treat ourselves well, we’ll begin to notice that other people show more kindness and consideration to us. When we put these five SELFish skills to work, we begin to refill the once empty well that drove us to self-destructive behaviors in the first place, and we eventually come to a place where we appreciate our lives enough to stop the cycle of self-sabotage for good.

How are you integrating a life of service, purpose and SELF-ishness? What's the most important thing you're doing to take care of yourself? Leave your thoughts in the comments section- I'd love to hear from you! 

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Why We Self-Sabotage… and How to Stop

Artist: Tigran Tsitoghdzyan

Artist: Tigran Tsitoghdzyan

Self-sabotage is perhaps the most common factor leading to the derailment of a person’s goals, and yet, we generally fail to see this core issue at the center of our disappointment. A personal trainer might think, “oh well, she just didn’t want it bad enough” while a yo-yo dieter may say to herself, “I’m big boned and diabetic- might as well give up on being fit.” A woman with a binge drinking disorder might think, “it’s been a stressful day at work. I need to take the edge off,” while her partner may silently mutter, “if she wants to kill herself, that’s her business.” By taking the messes we make in our lives at face value, we're able to avoid the sharp yet temporary pain that comes with deeper investigation. Unfortunately, this perpetuates further sabotage; we eventually find ourselves neck deep in our own unsettling muck. 

So, what exactly is self-sabotage? 

Self-sabotage is the act of confirming the worst beliefs you have about yourself, beliefs that are often imposed on you by an external source at a time when you were not yet prepared to think independently. Self-sabotage is rooted in a legacy of self-hatred passed down through generations, like an ancient poison recipe, or a customary curse. It’s the echo of an elementary school teacher who screams, “what are you, stupid?” because that is what her great aunt taught her about herself. It’s the memory of a narcissistic mother who defined you as “nothing,” or the imprint of a schoolyard bully who, after punching you into the lawn, goes home to a father who does the same to him. What’s most compelling about self-sabotage is that even though it can decimate our lives, it has absolutely nothing to do with us. In fact, its seeds may have been planted hundreds of years before we were born.

Why do we self-sabotage?

We sabotage ourselves because we take what we perceive to be “wrong” with us so personally. We believe deep down that our “failures” are what define us and that we’re destined to be less than what we once hoped we’d become. Whether it’s regaining all the weight back, picking up the bottle after swearing off alcohol yet again, allowing that bully at work to undermine our success, or failing to ask for what we need and desire, our self-sabotage is a message to the world about how we see ourselves: Less than. Unworthy. Undeserving of help. Unable to have a voice in our own lives. Beyond redemption.

We sabotage ourselves because self-imposed isolation seems like the safest path. We act out the traumas of our distant past as if we’re still small, unprotected, disempowered. Whether it’s wrapping our bodies with a flesh-coat of extra kilograms to repel and dissuade, or numbing ourselves with booze in our bedrooms to avoid meeting the day, or tucking our inborn talents within the darkest parts of us to avoid potential criticism, our self-sabotage lets others know that we’re off limits: Undesirable. Untouchable. Repulsive. Undeserving of love. Unable to steer our own ship. Beyond protection.

We sabotage ourselves because we have no other means to cope with discomfort. We internalize our stress and we refuse to accept that unpleasant emotions are a natural part of each person’s existence. Whether it’s compulsively running on the treadmill for two hours every night after work, drinking to blackout after a fight with a lover, or mindlessly bingeing on chips in an effort to stop ruminating, our self-sabotage announces that we prefer “numb” as our default setting, that we’re not interested in intimacy or vulnerability or growth. We strive to be robotic. Unfeeling. Detached. Perfect. Undeserving of closeness. Unwilling to celebrate our common bond. Beyond humanity.

Artist: Andre Gelpe, Christine au Mirior, 1976

Artist: Andre Gelpe, Christine au Mirior, 1976

Self-Sabotage can manifest as:

  • Overeating
  • Undereating or restricting food
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Ruining solid, healthy relationships
  • Remaining in toxic relationships
  • Attracting people with personality disorders
  • Gravitating toward violent, abusive people
  • Neglecting your mental health needs
  • Failing to see a doctor for physical health concerns
  • Quitting a fitness or weight loss plan
  • Spending too much money
  • Staying in a job you hate
  • Trying to copy someone else's path
  • Doing what seems easy over what seems right
  • Saying “yes” when you mean “no”
  • People pleasing
  • Ignoring messages from your body
  • Ignoring callings from your soul
  • Refusing help, even though you may need it
  • Numbing out in any way possible
  • Neglecting your gifts and talents
  • Downplaying your abilities
  • Not asking for what you need
  • Not asking for what you want
  • Self-harm, cutting
  • Harming others, emotionally or physically
  • Getting into legal trouble
  • Cheating on your spouse
  • Signing up to a race and not accomplishing it
  • Overcommitting
  • Setting yourself up for failure
  • Constantly putting others needs before one's own

How can we stop self-sabotaging?

Artists: Vogue Italia by Paolo Roversi, September 2011

Artists: Vogue Italia by Paolo Roversi, September 2011

Remember what I’d written on accepting beliefs about ourselves that aren’t really our own? In order to overcome self-sabotage, we have to take our power back- power that we’d handed over to external forces a long time ago. Taking our power back means owning every decision we make, and developing a deeper consciousness about our actions. We can no longer place the blame for our behavior or perceived failings on someone else. We must commit to being responsible for what happens in our lives.

The beginning of a journey to return to our truest selves can often seem daunting, if not impossible. We’re no longer sure what we want, or how to measure our progress, or if we’re telling the truth to ourselves. At this point, it’s helpful to enlist a group or individual who can reliably act as both mirror and guide, providing you with a way to strengthen your awareness. Consciousness, like anything else, is a muscle that must be trained. If we don’t know how to do the training, how can we expect to see results? Refusing to self-sabotage means ASKING FOR HELP where you need it.

When we’re ready to stop self-sabotaging, we’re ready to accept the natural process of things, not as big chunks of achievement that we take on with all our might, but as small and reasonable steps toward change that allow us to build and learn as we grow. We no longer say, “even though I haven’t moved from the couch in a month, I’m going to run a marathon this April.” Instead we say, “I’m signing up for the 5km at the end of the year and I’m going to find someone qualified to help me with my training.” We no longer think about writing the next great novel in the span of a week. We focus instead on producing a steady and comfortable word count each day.

Leaving self-sabotage behind means abandoning our rigidity. We don't insist on having things exactly as we think they should be, and we honor the beauty inherent in a world that unfolds unpredictably with the ebbs and flows of seasons. The perfectionism we once held dear is seen merely as an obstacle to our creativity, an unwelcome roadblock in our yearning for exploration. We are open to the full experience of life- the beautiful and the cringeworthy, the depressing and the divine. We seek to see in color now, rather than in black and white. We commit to self-partnering in the moment, no longer looking to dead relics for our identity and worth.

How have you self-sabotaged in your life? What do you attribute to pulling you out of it? Leave your thoughts in the comments section- I'd love to hear from you. If you think this post would help someone else on the journey, please share it. 


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