When talking about happiness, one of the questions I get asked most frequently is: “So how do I stop sabotaging myself?” This is usually prompted either by something I had just said, or by the questioner having just read my book’s back cover where one of the bullet points proclaims, “Learn how to stop sabotaging yourself.”
Whatever prompts it, this is a really good question worthy of exploration. As with most good questions, there is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all solution. One thing is certain; although we strive towards happiness, we do all sabotage our progress at times. Indeed, some of us seem to have perfected the art of self-sabotage to the point that we manage to accomplish it without even thinking!
UNDERSTANDING SELF SABOTAGE
To arrive at the best way to stop sabotaging yourself, it is necessary to first understand why it is that you do this to yourself (probably) time after time.
Part of this understanding requires the realization that sabotaging ourselves is not the problem; it is a symptom, or a consequence, of something else: the real problem. The cause of our subversion has its roots in our subconscious mind. How it got there is probably as unique for each of us as our fingerprints, although there are enough similarities to explain self-sabotage in general and to use as a map to get out of this prison.
In many cases, particularly with girls and women, the mischief is practised consciously; disguised as a good trait: caring for others, whatever the cost to her personally. From a young age, in many different cultures, little girls are taught explicitly, and by example, that their role in life is to serve; that her needs are not as important as the needs of others.
These other people, could be teachers, parents, siblings, boyfriends, spouses, their own children…the list is endless. This is all hogwash! Whoever you are, you are a special, unique, and wonderful person. Your needs and desires are just as important as the needs and desires of anyone else.
We sabotage ourselves when some action is required or desired; some forward movement. One of the most common causes of sabotage is the intervention of that part of us that is resistant to any form of change. Change is scary and dangerous; it requires effort, and stepping into the unknown. It requires taking a chance with no guaranteed good outcome.
Our comfort zone, this state of equilibrium we inhabit, is safe and known, even if it is not exactly the situation we desire. It requires very little risk or effort on our part. We know what to expect. We can just go with the flow…this is where the saying “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” comes from – which is absolute nonsense 99.9% of the time.
This is the battle we face between the (often wise) part of us that knows we need to take whatever action we are considering, and the critical part of us that fears change, whispering predictions of defeat or reasons to delay:
“I don’t deserve a better life.”
Or: “I always fail, so why bother trying?”
Or: “I’m not ready yet, I’ll just wait a while and start when….”
Or: “Even if I try, I will never follow through to the end.”
Each of these thoughts has their root in fear. Fear of failure and fear of ridicule in one form or another usually top the list of fears when it comes to self-sabotage. What is really scary is that sometimes these excuses seem so very reasonable and logical. The thing is, this part of you knows you better than anyone else. It knows just which buttons to push at any given moment.
There are innumerable reasons not to do whatever it is you are considering. What is common to each is the advice to do nothing. And if it is too late to do nothing, give up immediately and go back to the way things were. Don’t upset the status quo!
THE TWO WOLVES
A parable, which appears to have Cherokee roots, illustrates this internal struggle and the solution: A young Cherokee man is brought to the tribal elders. The tribe are concerned about his aggressive tendencies.
An elder tells this young man his anger is understandable because we all have two wolves inside us. One wolf is good, peaceful, and kind. The other is evil, angry, and mean. Being such opposites, the two wolves fight constantly with each another, but neither is powerful enough to destroy the other.
The young man thinks a moment, then asks the elder: “If they are equally strong, which wolf will win?” And the elder replies, “The one you feed the most.”
Seeing the first wolf as your positive, progressive, active voice and the second as your negative, self-defeating, lazy voice, you get the idea. Your mind is like any other part of your body. It learns and develops through exercise and repetition. The more you allow yourself to buy into your negative, destructive, sabotaging thoughts, the better you get at it.
At the same time you become correspondingly less effective in taking charge of your life. Moving towards your dreams and aspirations becomes more difficult with all the negative internal chatter. You question your ability to stand on your own and often abdicate that responsibility to someone else.
On the other hand, if you feed the first wolf with healthy, positive affirmations, celebrate all that is good in your life (there is more good than you may think!) and acknowledge the positive within yourself – whilst at the same time taking small steps to prove to yourself that you are capable of making your own choices, you will find that internal saboteur’s voice becoming weaker and less convincing.
To continue using the wolves in this parable as an example, the better fed the self-defeating wolf is, the more effort and apparent risk will be required to sneak nourishing “food” to the positive wolf so it can grow stronger. For this reason, you will have to make a concerted effort to ignore the little voice that tells you that you cannot, or should not, do this or that…whatever it is you know to be in your own interests.
Taking a chance is scary and risky. For this reason you need to be sure (especially for life-changing actions) that the change you are contemplating is what you really want. Listen to your heart. Take some of what I call “Self-Time” – a quiet time dedicated to yourself – to allow your mind to process and confirm your true desires.
When you begin, don’t start by making the decision to opt out of a marriage, or leaving your job with no better prospect in the offing, or anything else too serious. Start small.
For example: If you, like many, constantly take on more than you should, perhaps start off by saying “no” a few times each day. There are those times when you are asked to do something (or manipulated into offering to do something) that you know you do not want to do, or that will cause you problems with your time management, or whatever. Just say “NO!” If it troubles you to be so direct, soften it – but stick to your guns. Don’t back down.
You could say: “I would like to help you, but unfortunately I have other commitments I need to attend to…” Or slightly differently: “I know I usually do …(fill in the blank)… for you, but today I have to …(fill in the blank)…
People will be surprised, and may react aggressively when you start this. Expect it occasionally. Their aggression is more about them than it is about you! They are used to talking advantage of your good nature. Remember, you owe it to yourself to exert your own will sometimes. If you don’t care for yourself, how can you expect other people to?
Once you master declining in this softer way, work up to actually using the “N” word in your response.
As you get better and more confident, realizing that the sky will not really fall in when you consider your own needs, push the envelope a little. You will soon find that you start feeling better about yourself and sabotage yourself less and less often. You will start feeling empowered!
A closing warning though – it is probably not necessary to say this, but don’t take it too far! Balance is important in every part of life. You need to consider others too. It is by helping others that we get help ourselves, so balance your giving with your taking.