My journey through addiction and recovery brought me to the extremes of self-sabotage. One of the lessons I learned in the process is that addiction and other forms of self-sabotage come from internal conflict. The conflict is often caused by a perceived void that we frantically seek to fill with alcohol, other drugs, food, shopping, stealing or whatever the object of self-sabotage happens to be. We become convinced, though usually not consciously, that our self-sabotaging behavior is necessary in order to protect ourselves.
So, the key to eliminating self-sabotage is to convince ourselves otherwise. To do this, we need a strong understanding of how we’d managed to convince ourselves that sabotaging our plans is a good idea in the first place.
The main symptom of self-sabotage is an unplanned focus on some thing or activity outside of ourselves with absolute conviction that this thing or activity is more important than whatever decisions we had consciously made. Unconsciously, we may think it will make us feel good, complete and safe inside like nothing else possibly could. So compelling is this conviction that it leads us to act in ways that go directly against what we believe are our own values and interests. As in active addiction, no matter what decisions we consciously make, and no matter how deeply motivated we are to follow those decisions, this compelling conviction seems to undermine and sabotage every step we take, therefore, compromising our freewill.
When dealing with addiction, we usually define this phenomenon as a “disease” (referred to as alcoholism, OCD, eating disorder, addiction, etc.). It is widely believed that this disease afflicts us like a monster inside our heads, and this monster is unique to addicts and sets us apart from “normal” people.
Personally, I believe that we all have tendencies toward addictive, self-sabotaging behavior and that the line between an addict and a “normal” person is very blurry. Just like the diseases of Type 2 Diabetes or Heart Disease can afflict just about anyone under the right circumstances, I believe the same is true for addiction.
I also believe the reverse is true, just as a Type 2 Diabetic can live a fairly normal life by changing their behavior, the same is true for an addict. And, if that is the case, then it is also true that anyone struggling with any type of self-sabotaging behavior can overcome self-sabotage and be successful at whatever they set out to do.
I disagree with the “self-sabotaging monster” idea. Instead, that “monster” is simply an inner conflict caused by a lack of congruence between what we want and what we think we want (the conviction mentioned above). And, I believe that “monster” can be tamed and befriended through inner communication that brings our entire consciousness back into congruence. It’s a process of correcting the incorrect assumptions: i.e. the object of our obsession is going to bring true happiness. This is what happens when addicts and alcoholics work The 12 Steps of recovery (whether that be via Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, etc.). And, through continued maintenance, we can maintain that congruence and live a “normal” life.
This conflicts with the popular belief that the “monster inside your head” will always be there and will always work to sabotage your life, and that as addicts, we need to constantly defend ourselves from this villain and maintain an identity that separates us from “normal” people. Though I believe that this view is helpful in maintaining motivation to keep up with the maintenance of a program of recovery, especially early in recovery, I believe that it falls short in that it never allows us to be fully at peace with ourselves and let go of the addict behavior completely. Additionally, it allows us to fall back on the “well, I’m an addict” excuse whenever exhibiting any type of self-sabotaging behavior.
If addiction is self-sabotage, then to get a full understanding of self-sabotage is to get a full understanding of addiction. When people talk about self-sabotage at any level, they often refer to it as a villain, the same way the recovering addict refers to their addiction. We might think of it as a part of us that does not want us to succeed or that wants our goals to fail. Here again, this view will limit our ability to fix the problem.
The Misguided Friend In Your Head
If we look closely at that part of us that leads us into self-sabotaging behavior, we’ll see that it is looking out for our best interests, but is doing so in manner that is probably misguided. In the case of the addict, the inner saboteur looks at the the circumstances in life and says, “We are not capable of dealing with this pain and frustration. We need to protect ourselves from it. There’s too much uncertainty. I know just the thing that will keep us safe. It made us feel better in the past.” So it is with any self-sabotaging behavior: i.e. “We are not capable of maintaining this exercise routine. It’s going to drive us crazy and make our life miserable. We don’t know what frightening affect it will have on us. Watching TV is much safer and more enjoyable. Let’s do that instead.”
The problem is that we rarely hear that voice consciously. We just get a gut feeling that it’s easier and more rewarding to get high or watch TV. Not really knowing where that feeling is coming from, we trust it, then later label it a saboteur since it effectively sabotaged our plans. By doing this, we give up our freewill in the same way we might give it away to alcohol or crack.
Disarming this saboteur is as simple as acknowledging it, recognizing it’s feelings and justifications, and re-directing it. Simple as that may be, it is not always easy to do and often requires compromise.
Building A Healthy Relationship With Yourself
Having a congruent mind is a lot like being in a healthy relationship. If both partners have not wholly agreed to a path for the relationship, the relationship simply won’t follow that path. How do you agree on a path? Through communication, compromise and synergy. You can’t ignore your partner’s wishes and expect the relationship to go the way you want it to any more than you can ignore your own contradictory wishes and expect to have any personal success.
Sometimes, the saboteur is justified. For instance, if you are trying to lose wait and stick to a starvation diet, it is inevitable that you will sabotage yourself eventually. Your saboteur is saying, “This is not healthy. We’re starving. We have to eat something that’s high in calories in order to survive.” In this case, you could acknowledge that voice and try to correct it by saying, “No, we’ll be fine eating 800 calories a day.” But, if your goal is not based on honest truth, your subconscious mind will figure it out and redirect your actions.
Other times, the saboteur will have a strong case that you will want to consider. For instance, if you are in college and preparing for final exams, your saboteur might be saying, “This is not healthy. We need to have more balance or we’ll go crazy. Let’s go clubbing tonight.” (Ever wonder why you get urges to let loose at the exact time it would be most detrimental to you?) This might be a good time to consider the side effects of your behavior. For instance, will sleep deprivation prevent your peek performance or lead to sickness? Are you neglecting important relationships in a way that could seriously harm them? Sometimes, we need to compromise with the saboteur in order to bring our thoughts in congruence.
Bottom line: If you are not totally and completely convinced, through and through, that the path you have chosen is the correct path, sabotage will occur.
Discovering The Sabotaging Inner Dialogs
Since we are not always consciously aware of the dialog of self-sabotage within us, the challenge remains – how do we discover it?
We can start by asking honest questions. It’s important to do this when making important decision and also when we notice self-sabotaging behavior. For instance, when we find ourselves sitting in front of the TV when we had planned to exercise, we can ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?” in a curious, non-judgmental manner. Then, seriously seek the answer.
This is in contrast to the way we might otherwise communicate with ourselves. “Why the heck am I watching TV? This sucks. I can’t believe how lazy I am. I’ll never accomplish my goals.” At this point, you are consciously sabotaging yourself and your saboteur is saying, “Yeah, that’s true. That’s why we might as well just watch TV. Why go through all that trouble just to deal with another disappointment.”
Having a serious and meaningful inner dialog requires that we take time to relax and center ourselves on the present moment. This allows us to clearly hear our inner dialog. This is what happens when we meditate and is one of the reasons that meditation is so tremendously beneficial. When we meditate, we quiet our conscious mind so we can hear and address the subconscious mind which really accounts for most of our mind and dictates our long-term behavior to a much greater extent than our conscious thoughts do. In the future, I will provide a guided audio meditation to help you break the cycle of self-sabotage.
Meditation is not always practical in every circumstance, but we can make a habit of taking moments to breathe and listen to our thoughts. Ask ourselves… Why am I doing this? Do I truly believe that my goals are worth the sacrifices I need to make?
Example Dialog with the addict
The addict: “We are not capable of dealing with this pain and frustration. We need to protect ourselves from it. I know just the thing that will keep us safe.”
The conscience: “It’s true that this pain and frustration are overwhelming and we can’t continue to live with them. Let’s find a way to deal with them that will have a long-lasting, healthy affect. Let’s reach out to someone in our support system, go to a meeting and work the steps.”
The addict: “That could work, but it will take a long time. We need some relief right now so we don’t go crazy.”
The conscience: “We can deal with this for a little while longer, because we know that if we do, we’ll solve the problem permanently and not have to deal with it again and again.”
The addict: “Alright, but just for a little while.”
In this dialog, we bring the addict part of us over to the healthy way of thinking, rather than blowing the addict off as a villain to be avoided. The fact is, there are still some doubts because there is no way to know for certain if the path you have chosen is the right one until the benefits are noticed; whereas the benefits of the drugs are immediate and obvious. As time goes on, we repeat the dialog as we gather more evidence.
The saboteur returns: “Look, we’re dealing with another problem. This always happens. This recovery thing isn’t working. Let’s just get a little buzz tonight so we know for sure.”
The conscience now has evidence to site: “We’ve been through another problem just like this already and look how much better our life is now. Problems still come but they’re isolated now. We can get through this one too.”
The addict: “Fine. Let’s write about it.”
Dialog with the exercise saboteur
The saboteur: “We are not capable of maintaining this exercise routine. It’s going to drive us crazy and make our life miserable. Watching TV is much safer and more enjoyable. Let’s do that instead.”
The conscience: “It is definitely difficult to start and maintain this exercise habit, but the benefits far out way the difficulties. The more we do it, the more capable we will become and the enjoyment we will get from it will be far greater than any TV show.”
The saboteur: “Maybe, but this is too much. At this rate, we’ll never get any rest, and I miss watching TV and eating popcorn.”
The conscience: “Yes. It is sad that we aren’t doing that as much now, and maybe we should bring the routine down a notch. But, we will continue to exercise.”
The saboteur: “I like that idea. Let’s do that. But, I still think we should schedule a day to watch TV and eat popcorn.”
The conscience: “Agreed.”
These examples are simplistic and often the real compromises we face are much more difficult: for instance, deciding to end a relationship, or even choosing two important but conflicting ways to spend our time, energy or money. But it’s important to work through these and make wholehearted decisions about them. Halfhearted decisions will always result in self-sabotage.
FYI: Throughout this article, I have been referring to this contrasting inner voice as a “saboteur.” I hope by now that it’s clear that there really is no saboteur, but rather a misunderstanding between your conscious and subconscious (or perhaps even different factions within your conscious or subconscious). Labeling your alternate intentions as an enemy will do little to help you understand and solve the self-sabotage problem. The solution is to bring them into congruence.