Self-sabotage - why?
“I don’t have traumatic experiences. I just can’t understand what’s wrong with me.
Why do I keep sabotaging myself and not doing what I truly want to?
Why do I avoid, delay, lie, find excuses?
Why do I eat what I know is making me feel bad in the long run?”
I hear from many clients.
Let’s find out.
There is a conviction that therapists’ clients are mostly people with severe problems (long-lasting depression, post-traumatic stress disorder,
morbid obesity, etc.) and horrific experiences (violence, sexual assaults, crime, etc.). They often are. Equally often, we work with people who seem more
average on the outside and are fascinating inside; people that live next door, or work two desks away from you, serve you coffee or teach your children.
People like you and me, like the three individuals whose stories I share below. They all struggled with self-sabotage, and although their individual experiences vary,
the reason behind them was the same: conflicting beliefs.
Please note, while the stories of my clients are true, their names and identities have been changed to protect their privacy. Thank you for understanding.
Case 1: How can a man who meant to lead a victorious life be a notorious underachiever?
Lars, in his mid 30’. His name is derived from the Roman name Laurentius, which means "from Laurentum" or "crowned with laurel".
Studied economics, worked in a few industries and functions: from customer service, through marketing, to planning; from non-profit organizations, through private and small to public and big companies. Everywhere liked and appreciated,
sometimes even promoted.
Extremely smart, speaking fluently four languages, each time he changed his career, he studied days and nights, weeks and months to learn a new function, acquire recognized certificates and accreditations.
But Lars was not after the top of a corporate ladder. Neither after money. Eventually launched his own business, working hard with very moderate success. Some days Lars was on fire. Some others, he felt just lazy and tired (and
enormously guilty afterward for not doing what he should). He never felt accomplished, proud, and happy with what he achieved. He knew he could do much better.
Lars couldn’t figure out why he kept procrastinating, allowing himself to be distracted, frequently underestimating the time and effort needed to deliver. He questioned whether he had what it takes to be successful.
In a hypnotic regression during Rapid Transformational Therapy®, we went to a few scenes from his past that caused Lars’s self-sabotaging problem.
First flashback from Lars’ memory:
At the age of 11 he asks his father to allow him to buy a knife. Some of his friends had knives, and Lars wants to be like them, just as every 11-year-old does. He has saved the money, and he really wants this knife. His father
agrees under one condition: Lars must kill a slowworm (a small snake-like leg-less lizard). The boy needs to prove that he can handle the knife skillfully, responsibly, and carefully. And that he understands a knife is a weapon, not
Just thinking of doing it makes Lars sick, but he desires the knife. And if he backs off now, his dad will surely think of him as weak and a loser. With shaking hands, racing heart, nausea, disgust, horrible guilt, Lars completes
the mission. He feels terrible afterward. But he gets his reward. Beautiful, shiny, cool, very masculine. Lars belongs to the cool kids. Neither happy nor proud.
With this, probably well-intended, task Lars’s father assigned to him, Lars learnt to handle the knife responsibly, just as his dad wanted. The repulsive nature of this act and extreme conflicting emotions caused the little boy to
learn something more:
- To achieve what I desire, I must commit something I morally disagree with, something that repels me, disgusts me, something which is not me.
- I have to sell my soul to get what I really want.
- The effort to achieve what I want is painful.
- When I accomplish what I want, I feel relief but no joy.
- The reward I wanted so badly reminds me of the horrible thing I have done.
- Success is achieved at the expense (or life) of another being.
- Achieving success is immoral and wrong.
Most people would not describe such an experience as traumatic. But in combination with few other occasions when Lars confirmed to himself that success is immoral and painful, it was powerful enough to prevent Lars from pursuing what
When facing conflicting thoughts: typically “I want something” but “what I want causes me pain”, pain avoidance is a more potent driver of our actions than the attraction of something we desire.
Case 2: How can a talented aspiring musician repeatedly miss auditions and playing competitions?
An exceptionally talented violinist, Marieke regularly qualifies for international playing competitions and is invited to auditions with world-class conductors. Strangely, Marieke misses the plane half of the time, feels unwell the
night before, cannot get there on time. Marieke is very disciplined in other areas of her life. And surprisingly, the music she loves and feels the calling for is the only one affected by weird mishaps. And she knows it is something
in her causing these accidents, but she can’t figure out what and why.
We investigated the past. One of the scenes that came to Marieke’s mind was a regular occurrence in her childhood. Drunken father yelling at her mom, threatening her, shouting that kitchen and bed is where the woman’s place is.
Marieke’s mom can only go out to buy food for dinner, which she is supposed to cook, but any time beyond that spend in the city is neither necessary nor permitted.
Marieke is scared, shocked, paralysed. She would like to defend mom, but it’s not easy when you are 4, 5, 6 years old. She never knows how long it will last and whether the aggression will be “just” verbal. It always takes too long.
Sometimes, when the father is not drunk, they all have family dinners, and the dad can be quite nice and funny. He compliments mom for cooking and makes little girl laugh. Marieke likes these family dinners. At home.
Without anybody spelling it out, this little girl learns that:
- Women have no voice; women don’t matter. They can’t have dreams, friends, not even mentioning aspirations or successes.
- Going out is risky. It brings rage, rejection, and fear.
- The only way to (sometimes) achieve dad’s love, acceptance, and attention was to be home and to have no dreams.
- Pursuing a passion and a calling was not allowed, not available.
Conflicting thoughts as snake’s venom trickled into Marieke’s heart and mind for years.
Thirty years later she desires success, fulfillment, pure joy that she cannot get inside the four walls of her apartment. Yet, her mind still runs on the same program. The belief that success is not available for her, that women have
no right to be accomplished and happy, and attempt to achieve something can lead to rejection (by father, who is not even around anymore) is still stronger than a desire to be successful, especially as the feeling of being successful
is not so familiar to Marieke.
Our mind likes what is familiar.
Deeply engrained conflicting thoughts: “I want something”, in this case self-realization, and “what I want causes me pain”, in this case anger, aggression, rejection, fear, make us sabotage our own success.
Case 3: I know all the reasons why chocolate is bad for me, yet I can't stop falling for it again and again.
Monika, a passionate midwife, reported at my practice as she experienced burnout and could not see the way back while it was her only profession and her calling.
If you are curious what we discovered as the underlying reason for her burnout, check Burnout – your work is just the trigger, not a root cause.
She came back a year after our initial burnout dedicated session seeking help with her sweet tooth. She liked sweets since she remembered but never before had problems with her weight. Monika was always pretty active at work (the
midwife profession is not for couch potatoes) and at home with her child.
After dealing with burnout, she built up her confidence and resilience to return to work and face its challenges. She became more assertive and protected her time and energy better.
Yet, the announced COVID pandemic left its mark on Monika. Work became more stressful due to new regulations, restrictions, and ways of doing things. Her seven-year-old was on and off school due to changing rules (school closing,
opening, remote schooling), making her and her husband struggling with homeschooling and organizing care days. Midwives don’t work remotely. Pandemic or not, babies arrive at this world in a non-virtual way. Her marriage got impacted
as her husband expected her to take over their son’s primary caregiver role. As much as she tried to rearrange her work, she couldn’t stop working altogether, so they argued a lot.
Additional exhaustion from night shifts in hospital and day shifts of homeschooling didn’t help with intimacy either.
Chocolate, cakes, and cookies became Monika’s best friend. After a few months and too many extra kilograms on her weight, Monika called for help.
Monika knew she was using sweets to comfort herself, and… she still couldn’t stop.
We looked at what caused Monika to fall for sweets despite the analytical knowledge about its impact and despite Monika’s overall discipline. We knew from the previous session that Monika spent the first few years of her life with
her grandparents, as her mom had to return to work 12 weeks after her birth. What came out during our RTT session was linked to those first few years of experience.
Every weekend when Monika’s parents were coming to see their beloved first daughter, her grandma was baking a cake. It smelled lovely, and it tasted delicious. And this smell of baked cake was like an announcement for 1-2-3-year-old
girl that day when mama and papa are coming. The best day of the week. The happiest day of the week. The most heartwarming day of the week.
Grandparents loved Monika dearly. And she loved them wholeheartedly, but her little heart loved and craved her parent’s presence every single day. “Cake days” were the love days, the joy days, the comfort days, the days of a happy
family reunion. Although she knew after the cake days, there are other long days without her mom and dad (five days for a three-year-old is an eternity). Monika associated the sweet smell and taste of the cake with love, care,
closeness, warmth, most genuine childly happiness.
As with previous examples, it is just one selected scene out of three we explored. Other ones confirmed and ingrained the believes Monika has formed, being only 2-3 years on this planet.
And here she is now: struggling with work and home, with separation from her parents, who live in a distant city and cannot even visit her due to federal restrictions and their fear, with the relation with her husband, who became
distant and frustrated. And she was turning into what she associated with love, care, and connection, what represented family happiness, comfort, and a sense of connection. She needed a cake day every day to fill the loneliness and
to silence the sadness.
And just like in her first years of life, the cake day was leaving her feeling sad, desperate, and miserable afterward. Sweets were her reward, and they were her punishment. She loved them and felt guilty the moment she swallowed
And again, pain avoidance (being abandoned and rejected by her parents as that’s how she felt as a little girl and that’s how she feels now) won over the desire of “I want to be healthy and fit”, despite rational knowledge and
strong motivation to eat healthy.
The venomous snake of conflicting thoughts made her self-sabotage, act against what she knew she should and genuinely wanted to do.
Your mind is there for you to survive.
Not to be happy, accomplished, rich, nor famous. Primarily goal of our mind is to keep us alive.
If we want something and reject something simultaneously, if a reward and punishment are the same things, our mind will choose what it learnt helped us survive better.
The needs for personal safety (there's no safer place for a small child than mama's arms) and love and belonging come way before needs of self-esteem,
Our mind will prioritize an action that it learnt helps us avoid the pain (physical or emotional) over the one that leads to "just feeding our ego", so anything that will make us proud, accomplished, happy…
Our mind will always choose what it learnt is the best from a survival perspective.
"what it learnt"...
Luckily, we now have the tools to unlearn the old limits. I will explain how that works in my next article. If you don't want to miss out - subscribe to the newsletter.
Luckily, just as with the venomous snake – once you know which poison is it, you know which antidote to apply to neutralize it and cure. So we did.
- Monika finds comfort in frequent calls with parents, the connection in conversations with friends, and love in the arms and the eyes of her husband, her child, and her own. She disassociated sweets with positive emotions. Her
weight is back where she wanted, and so is her self-esteem.
- Marieke is up in the game, or I should write, in concert halls. She believes not only that success is available to her, but she knows the universe gave her a unique gift to develop, nourish and share with the world. If you are
into music, you’ll hear her sooner or later.
- Lars defines success on his terms now, and “over the dead body” is no longer on the list. He continues his own business with more passion and discipline than ever before. He also decided to take the first step and take
paragliding lessons, which he dreamt of but postponed for many years.
Do you sabotage yourself in any dimension of your life?
Professional, relationships, family, health and fitness, hobby, money?
If so, try to identify if you don’t have conflicting beliefs about what you desire to achieve. It is the first step to decode and recode our brilliant minds.
And how do we do that is whole another story. I will share some techniques in some of the next articles.
Awake. Accept. Arise.