Issue #9: The Self-Sabotage Curse
Learn about self-sabotaging behavior, the science behind gossip and abusive relationships
Dear mental health advocate,
I hope your Saturday is as sunny as mine! Two weeks have passed so again it is time for a new edition of The Present Psychologist Paper. But, before I dive deeper into the psychology content, I have an offer and request for you…
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And now, back to the content. Today I shall deep dive into self-sabotaging behavior. As humans we try our best and do what benefits us. However, we regularly act in ways that actually harms us to a certain degree. Think of crossing our own boundaries or people-pleasing others.
Then, I will share some recommendations written by other mental health authors. Some interesting reads were created about grief and items that trigger our memories, why humans gossip and the reason behind people staying in abusive relationships. Keep on reading!
The Self-Sabotage Curse
Imagine going through a rough time. You are at home. It’s a Friday night. You just had a fight with your partner, your job is stressing you out and you have hundreds of errands to run. But, you see that there’s a fine, tasty and full bottle of Pinot Noir standing in the kitchen. To unwind, you decide to open it and drink a glass. And another. Until it is empty. Once it is, you still crave more so you open a second bottle. In the spur of the moment it feels nice. You love how it tastes and makes you feel. Your problems seem to drift away from your mind and the alcohol pleasantly numbs you. Finally an evening where you can park your issues somewhere far away and live in the present moment.
The following morning you wake up, with a severe headache. You feel awful. Your problems come back in full force and flood your brain. Because of your hangover, your emotions are all over the place and you do not only feel physically sick, but mentally unstable too. How nice the bottle of wine felt the evening before, how much you regret it in the morning. You used the alcohol to drink away your problems. It is a short-term reward with long-term harmful effects. This can be seen as a form of self-sabotage. Because it is an obstacle towards reaching your goal (making up with your partner, dealing with work).
I am the last person to judge people who enjoy a drink. I mean, I love a good wine myself. The only reason why I used this example is to highlight how it can be problematic when alcohol is used as a way to cope with problems. A few glasses can be fine, but when a person binges and suffers from negative effects the days after, it sabotages what the person wants to achieve. Self-sabotage has many other examples, some more subtle than others. Procrastinating because you do not want to study for your exam, only to flunk it later. Being so perfectionist in a work project, only to get into a fight with your co-workers. I get it, we are all human and prone to such patterns. So am I. But, taking a closer look at our actions can help improve what is in our best interest.
Where does self-sabotage come from?
Humans are complex beings. We have a very strong instinct to survive. Overall, we try to do what is good for us because it helps us to live our lives. At the same time, we struggle to navigate a world of responsibilities. Being an adult can suck, right? To cope with stress and an overwhelming amount of stimuli, we resort to coping mechanisms. To numb ourselves. To make us feel good. To avoid pressure. It’s pretty normal to do this and in no way am I trying to judge here. The only thing I want to achieve is that we reflect what we do and become aware of our actions. As I said before, eat that donut. Drink that glass of wine. Just ensure you do it for the right reason, without harming yourself or someone else. We all have our pleasures.
Aside from our human nature and our cravings, there’s another reason why we self-sabotage. We sometimes destroy our relationships, our confidence or our health because we struggle with our self-love. There are situations where we deal with childhood wounds and coping mechanisms, questioning our capabilities or worthiness. Some people are convinced they are not worthy of success or are allowed to feel a certain way. They suppress their emotions because their beliefs are distorted. Sometimes they were taught to be insecure, through bullying or strict parents judging them. Every person who goes through a similar ordeal resorts to releasing pressure in one way or another. This can happen in the form of self-sabotage, preferring short-term pleasure over long-term happiness.
Examples of self-sabotage
There are numerous situations and behaviors that can be described as self-sabotage. The most crucial part is to understand that self-sabotage simply means ‘something done by a person that is harmful to their own well-being in the long run’. It applies to all sorts of patterns. I have made a list of six very common examples explaining self-sabotage:
Blaming others for mistakes we make. If we are at fault, we try to point our fingers at the cause of our failure. We do not like to blame ourselves, as it can make us (wrongly) believe we are not worth anything or stupid. Instead, we can look at external factors or people. In the short-term, we feel better because we avoid blame ourselves, but in the long run it sabotages us as we could learn from our mistakes and do better next time.
Procrastination. This might be a familiar one for many of you. Avoiding work and postponing our tasks with the idea we will finish things later is a way of sabotaging yourself. In the moment it gives pleasure, because it frees up time to do something fun instead of the dreaded effort. However, in the long run we have to rush to complete our work, potentially impacting the quality of it.
Not speaking up. Any introverts or people-pleasers around? I know I have been there. Many people find it difficult to communicate their needs to others and give their perspective on things. In the moment you will avoid conflict and it is easier to agree and go along with people. But in the end this can mean your needs are neglected and others crossing your boundaries.
Avoiding decisions. Choosing something is not easy. In most cases it means you will not have choice B, because you chose A. People love postponing decisions or even not make them at all. Because if we avoid a decision, we do not have to bear the consequences AND we still have the other option as a possibility. In the long term it is better to make a decision, because without making a choice there are no consequences or potential growth at all.
Putting yourself down. It might sound counterintuitive, but for some people talking negatively about themselves actually makes them feel good in a way. At least in the moment, as they imagine the worst. Then it can only get better and they have nothing to lose. This negative self-talk is a form of protection, to not get their hopes up. But in the long run it holds them back.
Toxic relationships. Abusive, harmful relationships do more damage than good. Why do people stay in such toxic environments? It affects mental health and someone’s confidence. Yes, but in the short term it is too big of a step for people to step out of the relationship. They are scared they will not make it on their own. But in the long run, it keeps them from protecting their own wellbeing.
What can I do to stop sabotaging myself?
Introspection and proper reflection is necessary. Think about what your goals and needs are. What do you want to achieve? Don’t just look at one large goal such as ‘I want to be happy’ or ‘I want to make the world a better place’. Focus on actionable chunks you can measure. Especially when you find it challenging to take big steps, ensure you take small ones. This can range from reading a few pages every day, or writing down what you are grateful for each evening. Then, if it is clear what you want to achieve, examine closely what you have done so far including the things that did not help your cause. Did you stand in your own way? Are there any unnecessary obstacles created by you?
More importantly, which beliefs do you have about yourself? How do you perceive your skills and your worth? If these thoughts are quite negative, it could be useful to think where these come from. Did you grow up in a strict environment? Was there a lot of peer pressure? A mental health professional can help with unpacking each belief you have about yourself. These need to be divided in helpful or unhelpful ideas, rational and irrational ones. The best form of therapy that can assist with this process is CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy). During this treatment a person will focus on reframing their cognitive distortions (thoughts not based on reality).
📚 Some Good Reads
Welcome to my new feature! Here I will share some great reads by other psychologists, therapists and journalists. Free to access and of course related to our mental health.
Love can be beautiful, but also complicated. Sometimes, our cultural ideas of romantic love can leave us stuck in jealous, abusive and difficult relationships. Why? Evolutionary anthropologist Anna Machin tries to find an answer how love chemicals influence us. Read the essay ‘Tainted Love’ in Aeon’s Psyche here.
When a loved one passes away, we are confronted by items they leave behind. These can trigger our memories and elicit strong emotions. Do we keep or discard these things? Clinical psychologist Maria Lamia writes about navigating grief, acceptance and our memories. Read the article ‘Hanging On to Items that Trigger Memories’ in Psychology Today here.
Do you ever gossip? Chances are pretty high you do. Almost everyone does it at a certain point. Why? Because it has a function, writes Sophie Gottfried. And it does not necessarily have to be negative, sometimes we gossip in a positive way too. Read ‘The Science Behind Why People Gossip—And When It Can Be a Good Thing’ in Time Magazine here.
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My name is Alf Lokkertsen and I am a psychologist and writer, creating mental health content for you. My passion is to raise awareness about topics related to psychology, as it has helped me greatly in my personal life. I strongly believe that many problems could be avoided or dealt with better if everyone had some in-depth psychology knowledge.
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