A friend recently called me to ask if herbal sleeping tablets had ever worked for me. I said I’d never tried them. “I’m starting a new job,” she explained. "Oh", I replied. "I see".
For the past ten years this friend had missed the first day of every single job she’d ever had. A few ‘celebratory’ glasses of wine always ‘got out of hand’ and before she knew it, rather than turning up smelling like day-old Merlot, she was calling in sick.
At first we laughed at this funny quirk of character but as the years rolled on, her ability to mess up before she’d even started began to seem positively pathological. “I get so nervous,” she explained, “I feel like the wine will help me sleep.”
And while I might take comfort in a smidgen of superiority (I’ve never been hungover on a first day) I’m far from immune to such behaviours. I’ve gotten drunk the night before a half-marathon that I’d spent months training for, handed commissions in well past deadline a myriad of times because, I repeatedly tell my exasperated editors, I was working on getting it ‘just right’ and ended perfectly good relationships for ridiculous reasons.
“Behaviours that stand in the way of us achieving our long-term goals are said to be self-sabotaging,” explains chartered counselling psychologist Dr Sarah Crawford.
It’s not that we don’t know the right way forward. We just choose, with varying levels of awareness, not to take it. Self-sabotage is the gap between ‘should do’ and ‘did’ - an oddly alluring space that I’ve all too often found myself in.
It’s such a common trait of modern humanity that we’ve come to fetishize self-saboteurs, particularly female ones. Most notably there’s Pheobe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, which deals with the fallout from life choices that are so self-evidently self-destructive that one Guardian reviewer called it “a squalid little story of a life gone wrong”.
There’s also Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel Animals, about two 30-something women stuck in a destructive cycle of booze and fags and drugs and bad men. The film version, starring Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat, debuted to great acclaim at Sundance last year. Then there’s comedian Roisin Conaty’s sleeper hit GameFace, Halle Butler’s novel The New Me and Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation - all narratives of women who are, in some way, sabotaging themselves and, in the process, opting out of modern life.
Part of the allure of these narratives, though, is that ultimately each protagonist overcomes their self- sabotaging tendencies.
For me, it hasn’t always been so straightforward. Of course, I spent years trying to correct these behaviours; like my friend who’d finally decided to switch to herbal remedies the night before starting a new job, I often vowed that I would be better prepared next time I got a commission, or that I’d give the next guy a real chance. But life is not like books and films; where Fleabag was given a crash course in breaking free from unhelpful narratives by a hot priest, it took some therapy for me to really understand why I kept falling into the same old patterns of behaviour.
Those sessions of counselling came to a fairly similar conclusion to that of cognitive hypnotherapist Hazel Gale, in her book, The Monster Mind Solution: How to Overcome Self-Sabotage and Reclaim your Life. In it, she argues that we self-sabotage because of internal narratives - she calls them our ‘monster stories’ - that make us believe we cannot, or do not deserve to, achieve our bigger goals. I mention it because if you’re identifying with any of this, it’s definitely one to add to your reading list.
Therapy taught me I had my monsters to deal with. That abandoned half-marathon? I’d spent much of training training fretting that I would get an ‘embarrassingly’ slow time. My obsession with getting my work ‘just right’ and the accompanying hours of procrastination to distract from the pressure of it all (I call it “suicide by Netflix”) is born out of the deep seated fear I’m not good enough to get the commission in the first place. My desire to run from a relationship is a form of protection; to leave is better than being the one who’s left.
And, yes, I realise that you may be eye-rolling right now and thinking, ‘Get your head out your backside and get on with it.’ I hear you. (I also envy you - you monster-free people who aren’t worrying about imaginary consequences that may never happen.) It’s a neat trick - I am the victim but also the architect of my downfall.
After these sort of fairly brutal realisations, therapy also gave me the tools to start tackling my self-sabotage. They were bespoke and multiple. Personally, I found the most helpful thing was to take part in more activities that made me feel good about myself without setting myself any kind of goal or expectation. I made enjoyment my main priority. I began running just for fun. No tracking my progress on an app, no competing against anyone else, including myself. Just the pleasure of my feet hitting the pavement and the breeze on my face. It was freeing in so many ways.
There are no blanket, cure-all methods guaranteed to help everyone overcome self-sabotage; the process of working out how to do it for ourselves is one of profound self-discovery. And perhaps that is why we’re culturally so obsessed with the narratives of self-saboteurs - because we learn so much by delving into our bad habits, or watching others delve into theirs. Perhaps, when it comes to self- sabotage, the journey is just as important as the destination.
Find the benefit of the behaviour
It might sound counter intuitive but begin by asking yourself, “What’s the gift of X?” (your self sabotaging behaviour)”. Once you’ve realised what the benefit is to you, then ask yourself “Knowing this, what do I want to choose to do next? For example, if you regularly miss deadlines, the gift might be “The longer I put off filing my work, the longer I put off the potential negative feedback”. And you then have a choice - do I want to intentionally carry on doing this acknowledging this is the benefit? What might be possible if I chose to make the deadline instead?
Flip fear on its head
Fear fuels self-sabotaging behaviours. We’re scared. We’re acting from our fight/flight/freeze response, rather than from a place of compassion and confidence. Ask yourself “What would I do if I couldn’t fail?” – and see if it sheds any light on your self-sabotaging behaviour.
Embrace and engage with your inner critic
Rather than trying to ignore our inner critics (which doesn’t tend to work), give them daylight instead. Talk about them out loud. Either to yourself, or someone who you know won’t judge you. And then ask yourself “What’s evidence to support what I am saying”. More often that not, when we do this, we realise there is very little truth in what we hear from them.
For more go to Lisa Quinn Coaching