Why Do People Self-Sabotage?

September 20th 2015

No matter how promising my life becomes, I suffer from anxiety and consequent self-sabotaging. On the surface, my self-sabotaging tendencies make little sense: I have health insurance, my colleagues respect me, I live with the love of my life, and I'm doing well at work.

These things, however, are exactly why I'm a prime candidate for self-sabotage. While my childhood was special in many ways, I experienced ample uncertainty in my younger years that conditioned me to doubt that positive life forces can be permanent: I was bullied all through junior high and the first year of high school. My dad died of cancer on the morning of my senior prom. Prior to meeting my significant other in fall 2013, I had six years of tumultuous, heartbreaking dating experiences. As a serial job hopper, I'm insecure about my resume's appearance.

Because I'm not accustomed to consistency, loyalty, and reliability, my brain is consistently trying to find a reason why I'm unworthy of this happiness and stability. I was in survival mode for so long that I can't believe there's no longer a battle to fight. Through therapy and self-reflection, I've learned that I succumb to irrational anxieties as a distraction from living in the moment.

What makes people self-sabotage?

As an anxious person by nature, it's not unusual that I fall into this negative pattern of thinking and look for faults in my life. Dr. Christine Purdon, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, told ATTN: in a phone interview that people who are anxious in temperament are "always sort of in an alert mode and waiting for the other shoe to drop." It can also be a means to gain control over one's life.

"In some ways it's almost more comfortable when that shoe does drop because then you can do something about it," Dr. Purdon told ATTN:. "I think that's why you might find people trying to figure out where to focus their energies on and are able to kind of find a problem even if there really isn't one there. I think when they can find a problem to land on, it makes them feel more in control and it takes away that nauseating sense of uncertainty that any moment you're about to get ambushed."

Dr. Purdon added that people who feel anxious can fixate on this reality because they assume they wouldn't feel anxious for no reason. This can also send our bodies into the fight or flight syndrome, a physiological response to perceived harm that allows humans and animals to fend off threats.

"When we're in sort of an anxious mode, our nervous system is preparing the body to flee or fight danger, so it does make us very threatened and it does narrow our attention or focus on the source of the stress," she said. "When we feel agitated like that too, we want the story. We're thinking to ourselves, 'Well there must be something to be anxious about or I wouldn't be anxious.' Because of those attentional biases and processing biases, I think people are quick to over-exaggerate something that could be a sign of a threat or to interpret a neutral cue as a threat."

The Upper Limit Problem.

A few years ago, Forbes contributor Barbara Stanny detailed her own experience with self-sabotage. A day prior to her wedding, she picked a fight with her fiancé and called off the ceremony. It wasn't until she considered Gay Hendricks's book "The Big Leap" that she realized she didn't actually want to leave the man of her dreams at the altar.

"I was having an Upper Limit Problem," she wrote. "I’d maxed out on how much good stuff I could stand. As Hendricks explains, 'Each of us has an inner thermostat setting that determines how much love, success, and creativity we allow ourselves to enjoy.'"

When you surpass this by “making more money, experiencing more love, drawing more positive attention to yourself—you trip your upper limit switch,” according to Hendricks, who adds that these switches are programmed "through unconscious childhood decisions" early in our lives.

How do you stop yourself from self-sabotaging?

During my freshman year of college, when I first started experiencing self-sabotage, I watched the movie "Van Wilder" and really appreciated a quote from the titular main character portrayed by Ryan Reynolds: "Worrying is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn't get you anywhere."

The same can be said for self-sabotaging tendencies. You can get out of this cycle by identifying the source of your anxieties, according to Dr. Purdon.

"It's about addressing the underlying source of insecurity," she said. "People, for example, in romantic relationships start to fear they might not be lovable enough to stay in the relationship, so they become anxious and these other processes take over. It's not really deliberate in most cases. I think what people need to do is recognize that anxiety comes with a lot of very automatic processes that it doesn't occur to us to question [what's going on]."

She added that we hone in on potential threats as a survival instinct, but that for the most part in modern society, we have the luxury of looking at the larger pictures of threats.

"What we want people to do is zoom out," she said. "Anxiety causes you to zoom in and focus on threat. That allows us to evolve as a species. That's a good response; it protects us. But in today's day and age, most of the time it's a false alarm. We want people to be able to learn that they're anxious and then for people to step backwards and sort of zoom out and look at all the information in the situation—not just the information the anxiety is bringing to mind—and be able to start really working at getting perspective."

It's also beneficial to accept that things can be good and stay good. According to Dr. Purdon, people struggling to embrace this should work on "daring to believe that things might turn out okay as opposed to feeling committed to trying to protect catastrophic outcomes."

This makes many people happier in the long run. When Stanny started to consider the Upper Limit Problem, she got to the core of her issues and realized she did not, in fact, wish to call off her wedding.

"As soon as we go beyond our artificial boundary, a little voice inside us says: 'You can’t possibly feel this good,'" she wrote in her Forbes piece. "So we unwittingly find ways to feel bad ... [A]s soon as I recognized the real problem, everything shifted. My grouchiness gave way to gratitude; my overwhelm fell prey to pure joy. I had no choice but to laugh at myself (and apologize to my man, who graciously forgave me). It’s crazy how we can spend years yearning for ‘more.’ Yet once we create it, we instinctively put the kibosh on what feels like 'too much.'"

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