Self-sabotage occurs when we passively allow dysfunction or disaster to accumulate around us without proactively seeking a way out. We might point to unfair obstacles to better performance, or we might blame others. Much better to say I failed the test because I didn't study or the instructor was against me, rather than I failed the test because I did not understand the material. We self-sabotage to protect our self-esteem in our own eyes as well as in the eyes of others.
Many fail to recognize that our fortitude to do the hard work of racial and social justice depends heavily on our personal well-being. It’s hard to be a change-maker if our hidden thoughts are undermining our efforts.
Years ago, I had a series of disappointments, one after another. I overheard that a colleague had trashed me. I planned for a consultant job that fell through. I developed some physical symptoms that limited my mobility. You get the idea.
At first, I carried a low-level fog in my head. Then inexplicably, I started missing things. I missed the appointment with the doctor to try a new regime for my physical health. I stopped going to the health club regularly and dropped down to once every two weeks. I would scribble notes of things I promised someone to do and then lose the notes. I began missing appointments because I didn't check my calendar regularly. Most telling of all, eventually, I started telling myself week after week that I should probably resume meeting with my therapist, and week after week, avoided making the appointment.
How did I allow this to go on for at least two or three months? To say it made me miserable is an understatement. It’s no secret that we as human beings deceive ourselves. I did so by using the first of the 10 well-worn self-sabotaging statements below to justify myself to myself.
Believing we have to do everything perfectly is known as the perfectionism syndrome. Somehow we have come to believe that only by being perfect could we earn others’ love and respect. The fallacy of that should be self-evident, but if it is not to you, consider the following:
Which would you rather have: ·
Perfectionism goes hand in hand with feelings of helplessness. Or at least in my case, it did. When things started not going right, I subconsciously just gave up and let everything go to pot.
Never mind that I had an active consulting business, access to a competent therapist, and several friends who would’ve been glad to talk me through whatever had me stuck. Instead, my mind ruminated over statements like this:
Claiming “I can’t help myself” is a choice. Yes, we can be put in situations where someone is physically holding us down, or some illness immobilizes us involuntarily. Or we may have family circumstances or commitments that we freely prioritize. Those are legitimate reasons for not doing something we want to do. They are adaptations to life, not self-sabotaging behavior. Usually, we know the difference.
This is the language of the defeated. In my case, I had given up on myself. I was stuck in inertia.
You can recognize the pattern when you hear someone claim that some uncaring person or unfair organization has the deck stacked against them.
Those who make statements implying some all-powerful external forces present impregnable barriers believe that cynicism will fend off their feelings of helplessness. Some people even think they sound sophisticated, wise to the ways of the world.
All my life, I have been told I should wise up and see how the game is rigged. Never have I been told that by someone who was happy and fulfilled in their lives. Certainly, they are correct in believing that the deck is stacked. A stacked deck, however, does not mean our goals are unachievable.
When I hear people say this, it strikes me as ironic. People often say it when they don’t want to engage in an upsetting discussion they don’t know how to handle, so they opt out, claiming a lack of time. I often wonder if people really believe they don’t have the time, or has it just become an acceptable phrase and a way of bowing out of a difficult conversation. What I have learned is you either pay now or you pay later. Opt out of a challenging conversation today, and that person may sabotage you tomorrow. Opt out of that conversation today and then spend hours telling other people how dismal the person is and how wrong they were. Then you’re back where you started in the same situation with all of that wasted time not dealing with it.
The preceding all assume at least some personal responsibility. Those making the statements are at least acknowledging they have agency, even though they are not using it. Let’s move into the statements that explicitly or implicitly blame others for our misconduct.
I wouldn’t have done what I did if you hadn’t done what you did.
This one is tricky because behaviors really are interactive. Your actions prompt my reaction, which stimulates your response. The statement becomes problematic when we don’t acknowledge our part – when we shift total responsibility for what happened to the other person.
Dolina: Gabriel, I wish you would wipe the sink more carefully when you do the dishes.
Gabriel: If you wiped up behind yourself, I wouldn’t have to.
Chris: I don’t think you understand how it makes people in my family feel to be called “flyover country.”
Ebonisa: Well, maybe I wouldn't think of them that way if they didn’t say such racist things.
When we turn the tables without acknowledging our part, we transfer all responsibility for our actions to the other person. Consider that when we evade responsibility, we diminish ourselves, retreating into passivity and helplessness. The need to deny our flaws, coupled with the belief that we must be perfect, ends up making us weaker and less effective.
This tendency becomes especially problematic when we blame whole groups of people for our negative thoughts and actions. This is called projection, and studies show that projection is a major factor in racism.1 “Those people are causing our problems.”
Mentally healthy people do not project their problems onto other people. They own their responsibility and claim their agency to improve the situation. Better for Dolina to admit that she really did not do a good job of washing the sink, then at a later conversation, ask Gabriel to clean up after himself.
This is another ironic statement from the defeated. If you genuinely don’t care what anyone thinks, you are choosing to wall off from your feelings. Humans are social beings. We are meant to care for one another and to care that others care about us. There’s no shame in that.
Sisha had to choose which of two of her direct reports to give a coveted opportunity. In talking about this with a friend, she explained that Carlos would be mad he didn’t get the job, but Brenna was better suited. The friend responded, “What do you care what he thinks? Do what you think is right!” Sisha responded, “I DO care what he thinks, AND I will not let that stop me from doing what I think is right.”
Always and never are slimy roads to self-deception and self-sabotage. We are looking at the half-empty glass and choosing not to see the part that is already filled.
Always and never are the clues that we are using thick filters to view the other person (or ourselves) and judge who they are intrinsically. On the one hand, we don’t want anyone to put us in a box. On the other hand, phrases like “always” and “never” allow us to put others in a box and deny responsibility. If it’s always that way, or never this way, there is nothing further for us to do. It’s not our fault.
We may also put ourselves in the always/never box. As the saying goes, never say never. Who can predict the future? How many things have you done in the past 18 months of the pandemic that you thought you would never do?
I’ve heard people say this so many times, and then the next words out of their mouth will be some kind of judgment. We make judgments all the time about what we like or don’t like.
What could we say instead? We could say I make every effort not to impose my values on other people, and when I discover I’m doing so, I try to see the world from their point of view. That’s more truthful.
First, let’s look at the origins of that word. Prejudice means prejudge. We judge each other all the time. We make assessments about other people and situations, and we also have responses to those judgments. This is the way brains work.
The challenge for us then, given this reality, is to ruthlessly root out what unconscious prejudices or biases we have and then take whatever steps we can to mitigate against them.
For example, early in my academic career, a White male student reminded me of a White man who had harassed me when I was in my early teens. What was I to do about that? It was not that student’s fault that he stirred up a buried memory. So what I did was sit down and have a long conversation with the student, ask him about his background and his hopes and dreams, until eventually, I could see him as himself and not a figment from my past.
All of the above ten statements are a form of self-sabotage. Review them again and reflect on how passive they are. They serve the function of letting us off the hook. They reflect an orientation toward learned helplessness as a way of staving off disappointments. We can’t help it. We are doing the best we can. It’s other people’s fault. We are above reproach. When we make those statements, we passively accept a compromised life and choose numbness or emptiness over agency and emotional well-being.
We were told as children, “You can’t do that.” Or “I don’t have time for you.” Or “You’re not worth the trouble.” Or “you should know better.” We are shamed for natural curiosity about others, about why things happen, about our bodies, and we are told we are bad for asking. We were shamed for stretching the boundaries of what was regarded as acceptable in our corner of the world. Or we were shut down for intruding on the prejudices of others.
As we grew up, we continued to believe those words and seek out situations where they are true because they are familiar. We stayed on the job with the abusive boss or in a relationship with the abusive partner. We found the social media sites that tell us how insecure the world is and impotent we are. We were dismayed to find ourselves again and again in the same rut we swore we were done with.
At the same time, an inner voice battles the despair, refutes those negative messages, and tells us that maybe we can find happiness and purpose. The tension between learned helplessness and the human impulse toward fulfillment and happiness creates inner conflict. We nearly give up when we consider how impossible it all seems. Yet no matter how dire the situation, a small voice inside of us still believes there can be more. We become sick and tired of being sick and tired.
As I explained in the introduction, I am not immune to the ten self-defeating traps. When I was younger, it was easier to blame others for how I disappointed myself. It’s harder now for me to engage in conversations about how the other person should shape up or how ‘they” should run the government. I will indulge myself for a little while, allowing the familiar feeling of defeat, helplessness, and separation to settle in.
But now I know it’s a sham, a punishment I learned to inflict on myself.
I know that if I stay actively engaged, doing what I can, however I can, I will feel more alive and have a greater sense of agency to make the world and my life better.
So how did I overcome my self-sabotaging that I described at the beginning of this post? I began by starting to read up on self-sabotage. I had to create a mental shift and my preferred approach is to read about whatever I’m going through.
Finally, I managed to see my therapist and shamefacedly told her what had been going on. She quietly said, “You’re punishing yourself.” Her words hung in the air. There was no refuting it.
I can still feel the sullen, resentful expression on my face as I sat there in her office, wrestling with whether I wanted to stay in this familiar feeling of helplessness and somehow satisfying misery or work my way out of it. I knew the fact that I had finally found my way to her office meant I was ready to let go, yet I really didn’t want to. If life sucked, I deserved to feel miserable.
Back in my car, I sat behind the steering wheel and reflected on our session. Suddenly, I started laughing. I had been quite the drama queen for the last few months. At that moment, I chose to live again.
And so began my slow climb out.
In a previous blog (#62), Peter Michaelson wrote about the conflict we face between our inner critic and our inner passivity. The inner critic tells us how wrong and bad we are, echoing lessons instilled in us when we were young and had too few tools to resist. Inner passivity appears in the form of learned helplessness – acceptance and even reproduction of situations and thoughts that harm us. The inner critic responds to our inner passivity by telling us if we were worth our salt, we would do more and do better. The cycle repeats itself.
The antidote is to acknowledge that we are caught in the cycle between self-blame, self-punishment, and learned helplessness. Helplessness leads us to blame ourselves, which leads us to punish ourselves, reinforcing our sense of helplessness.
The alternative is to acknowledge then refute the passivity that keeps us stuck. Instead of passivity, choose personal responsibility, resilience, and curiosity. Responsibility to avoid deflecting our missteps onto others and to embrace our capacity for change. Resilience to survive life’s inevitable disappointments and find the courage to begin anew. Curiosity to find another way, another approach, another strategy if our efforts don’t yield the results we are seeking.
I have used all four of these approaches. In the end, I either choose to go after the life I want, or I sink into a familiar pothole without hope. I could dredge up 1000 reasons why all is lost. But my logical mind also has to acknowledge that the world might not be coming to an end, authoritarianism might not win out, humankind might pull it out after all, I may actually achieve my goals. Nothing is impossible if it’s not proven so. I can choose uncertain life or slow death while still alive. Given these two options, I choose to live fully.
Why bother? Many of us don’t see the connection between our own mental well-being and attitude toward our personal agency and what we are willing to tolerate as members of a democratic society and champions of social justice.
Peter Michaelson writes that all of us need to take care of our own mental health so we can change our insidious collective mindset of helplessness and passivity.3 This passivity gives us permission to tolerate inaction on climate change, racial and social justice, corrupt politicians, income inequality, starvation and genocide, a resurgence of authoritarianism, and the rest of the ills of today’s world. I so totally agree with him.
All of us are needed to co-create the world we want to live in and that future generations deserve. It’s not just our personal lives that are affected when we sink into passivity and self-sabotage. What’s also lost is the potential of what we can give to others and to the world. All of us are needed. Let’s make it happen.
Questions to ask ourselves:
 Plous, S. (2012). The Psychology of Prejudice: An Overview Understanding prejudice and discrimination. S. Plous. Boston, McGraw-Hill.
 Albalooshi, S., M. Moeini Jazani, et al. (2020). "Reinstating the Resourceful Self: When and How Self-Affirmations Improve Executive Performance of the Powerless." Personality & social psychology bulletin 46(2): 189-203.
 Michaelson, P. (2020) Three self-defeating reactions at the heart of American Disunity. Why We Suffer: Transformative Insights from Depth Psychology.