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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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The Conversation: "Total Alcoholic"- Is Our Language a Problem?


“The Conversation” is a weekly series on women and drinking. If you missed the introductory post, you can read it here. I am a health and addiction recovery coach and researcher who has firsthand experience with this topic; I am not a medical doctor, counselor or psychologist. All ideas proposed are up for discussion and debate- it's one of the best ways we can find new solutions and evolve. 

Tina* was the kind of girl you could always count on for a fun time. We met when we were both waitresses at the landmark Coffee Shop in Manhattan’s Union Square, and we immediately discovered that we had something else in common- we both relished getting blitzed toward the close of our work shift and were always smooth about not getting caught. After we'd punch out the clock, we’d race over to the East Village together and spend the rest of our evening drinking at a handful of dive bars until closing time- ones that would serve underage charmers like us. Our party came to an abrupt end when, after barely a few months at Coffee Shop, we were both dismissed. I didn’t see Tina again until a few years later, when I ran into her at the 24-hour diner where she worked as I was brunching with a friend. I surveyed her face- sunken cheeks spotted with acne, circles under her drowsy eyes, collar popped on a grubby shirt- while we exchanged an awkward acknowledgment, and I remember thinking to myself,

“Total alcoholic.”

What were our differences? She was a young black woman from the Bronx, I was a Connecticut-born WASP without the usual privileges attached. She was serving up eggs at a rundown greasy spoon, while I was racking up student loan debt at a fancy university. She was relatively honest in her presentation to the world, while I was a liar in a Betsey Johnson frock who spent money I didn’t have on dresses and martinis that I certainly didn’t need. She’d always been “balls to the wall.” I was measured, careful, rehearsed. And yet, we were both heading in a similar direction. 

“Total alcoholic.”

Have you ever had this thought cross your mind about a person you don’t truly understand while out at a friend’s party or a wedding or a company meeting? I know I have, at several points in my life. The colleague at work who’s always hungover, who’s always calling out sick. The melodramatic, co-dependent buddy who just can’t seem to keep it together. That Facebook friend who posts photos of cocktails several times a week, with hashtags like #roughday and #thirsty. The lover who stumbles home well past midnight after yet another business outing, who wakes you up by vomiting. It’s the easiest way to dismiss a behavior that unsettles us because that behavior hits too close to home, or because it looks like us, or because it confronts us with something that seems incomprehensible, alien, uncouth.

So, what’s an “alcoholic?” This often misused and outdated term came into our lexicon way back in 1852 to describe a person who was addicted to alcohol and who could no longer control their consumption, nor the harmful outcomes resulting from it. Much like the designations  “lunatic asylum” or “mentally retarded,” “alcoholic” was retired quite a while ago and is no longer found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which sets the standard for criteria and language to be used by mental health professionals, researchers, insurance providers and pharmaceutical companies. “Alcoholism” has been replaced instead with “Alcohol Use Disorder,” a phrase implying an issue that flows along a spectrum (your experience and mileage may vary), rather than a disease (you either have it or you don’t). Unfortunately, journalists, recovery programs, and the general public have not received the memo- labeling someone an “alcoholic” may be as inaccurate, inappropriate and backwards as placing the “R” word on a child with dyslexia or ADHD- or any other challenge, for that matter.  Compounding this issue in our language and, of course, our thinking- as one shapes the other- is the fact that the primary method of treatment prescribed by hospitals, doctors and courts is Alcoholics Anonymous, which more or less encourages its participants to pat a label on themselves like a gold-foil badge: “my name is so-and-so and I’m an alcoholic.” 

I know the drill well because I’ve said that sentence myself at least a few hundred times over the years, which has created just as much peace within me as it has turmoil. When we are labeled, that mark initially makes it a lot easier to find our place in the world, even if that place costs us, over time, our ability to flourish, transform and grow. Sadly, I still use the word on occasion- about myself and in describing the experiences of others- if only because it makes it so much easier to carry on with a conversation or get to the point, rather than delving into its history and myriad offenses. “Alcoholic” is what most people know. It’s what we’ve learned to get comfortable with. And, I owe a great deal to AA, just as millions of others do. In its context, saying, "I'm an alcoholic," becomes nearly as easy as, "my name's Aimee and I'm a Taurus." 

But, what would happen to the way we view, treat and discuss excessive or problem drinking if we changed the language we use in describing it, and in describing all the millions who are impacted by it? How would treatment for those with an ALCOHOL USE DISORDER evolve and improve if we honored the spectrum as well as each individual's unique experience, rather than framing it in black and white? By alleviating sufferers from the yoke of stigma- and I cannot help but think of Hester Prynne's scarlet red patch embroidered in gold with the big letter "A"- are we then finally encouraging them to heal and become healers themselves? Or, must we brand them in order to keep them humbled and in line? I don't have the answer, but what I do know is that I'm doing my absolute best to adopt this more progressive terminology as a way to acknowledge the dignity and POTENTIAL of those who are wishing to change their relationship with alcohol, those who have already changed it, and to also respect my own growth.

I stopped fully identifying with the term "alcoholic" a few years ago- a divorce that was actually quite conflicted. I remember saying it aloud following my name, and feeling my throat constrict. This constriction had happened again and again- it felt as though I was no longer telling the truth about who I was, and I had a lot more to discover about who I was to become. I needed to make room for that. In this shift- one that isn't yet complete and may never be- I've discovered a world of difference in living as a thriver, in comparison to existing as a survivor. 

So, I'll pose the question once again- what would happen if we released the term "alcoholic" from our world and all the ideas that go along with it, and instead began to work with and through the knowledge, language and discoveries of more recent times? Estimates show that only around 15 percent of people with an alcohol use disorder receive treatment and that most people who drink too much are not alcohol dependent. If we went about discussing it in a more accurate and progressive manner, how many more would finally get the help they need? 

Thank you for reading. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic, and as I mentioned earlier, all points are up for discussion or debate. I do not propose to have or offer all the answers, so if you disagree with me or feel that something needs more explanation, please say so. I'm here to learn as well! In the next installment of "The Conversation," I'll be exploring how one can identify an addiction or alcohol use disorder. What's the difference between someone who likes to party and someone who drinks too much? How and when does drinking become a problem?

*Names have been changed.






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