Why do we indulge in behaviors that aren’t in our best interests? What are the signs of self-sabotage? How do we stop self-sabotage and why does it even matter?
A few mornings ago, I woke up, determined to get an 8-mile run in before work. I was about 4 miles in when I got a call to stop and head back home. The caller gave me a few reasons why I needed to cut my run short. Every argument was stronger than the one before.
So, I did. I headed back home after a 5-mile run instead of 8. How could I say no in the face of such persuasive reasoning? Especially, since I was starting to get to the hill (tough) portion of the run and already feeling vulnerable.
The caller was my inner voice. She makes special appearances when I start facing discomfort of any kind. She is an excellent storyteller. I call her CC (Captain Cautious). An apt acronym, because this voice is my inner CCTV, constantly surveilling the environment for any sign of difficulty and forewarning me.
Before you think I’m in some deep mental health crisis, let me just say, I’m only as delusional as the average person. I tend to make deals with myself. Especially when the going gets tough. I know I’m in great company because I see other people doing it. All. The. Time.
What is Self-Sabotage?
The technical term for this deal-making is Self-Sabotage. I can talk at length about it because I’m somewhat of an expert at it.
Self-sabotaging is the art of getting in one’s own way, the minute you see progress.
Sometimes (most times?), we are our worst enemies. The culprit we look to blame can’t be found because she is right between our ears.
So, how do we recognize and stop this awful habit?
Before we can rouse ourselves up with MLK-style ‘I have a dream’ speeches, let’s first analyze why we engage in self-sabotaging behaviors.
Self-sabotage — causes and solutions
What’s stopping us from being our own cheerleaders? Isn’t it counter-intuitive to disrupt our successes?
In theory, yes. But 4 main reasons prevent us from carrying our cheer pom-poms. Let’s see what they are and how to counteract their effects.
1. Impostor syndrome
You feel like an impostor in your chosen field. You believe you know very little compared to others and it’s just a matter of time before you’re exposed as a fraud.
This is NOT humility or modesty. It truly is a feeling of inadequacy that you create for yourself. And because you feel like a fraud, you self-sabotage yourself from getting too successful.
I’m intimately familiar with this one. Maybe you can relate to some of my examples here:
- I have worked for over two decades implementing technology systems — yet, I cringe when I’m referred to as an expert because the field is vast and fast-changing; so there’s always some new technology that I might not be familiar with.
- I have run over 10 marathons — yet, I hesitate in calling myself a runner because I’m no Speedy Gonzales.
- I write and publish stuff — yet, I cannot refer to myself as a writer, because, well, no one reads what I write! (Truth!)
Ouch! Yes, Stop the pity party, please!
If you think this sounds lame, I’m not the only one.
Meryl Streep, referred to as the ‘best actress of her generation’ and a winner of 3 Oscars and 8 Golden Globes, has said this ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?’. What???!
How to deal with Impostor Syndrome?
Here’s the thing. While it’s okay to accept you have room for improvement, constantly telling yourself (or others) that you are no good is, well, no good.
One of the world’s greatest Mathematical prodigies, Srinivasan Ramanujan, once tried to solve the Quintic equation because no one told him it could not be solved using radicals.
Ramanujan was born to a family of modest means and did not have access to the published works (or challenges faced) of other Mathematicians. He did not know that other geniuses before him had tried to solve a particularly difficult problem but couldn’t. Ramanujan simply saw a problem and went about trying to find a solution.
He did not consider himself an impostor because he did not have anyone to compare himself to.
So, here’s how to deal with Impostor syndrome and stop yourself from self-sabotage.
Stop comparing yourself to others.
You are uniquely you, trying to solve your unique problem.
2. Comfort zone
We all like to stay comfortable and cocooned in our happy places. I get it. It is hard to get out of your comfort zone. Your mind will give you some great excuse notes for why to stay put where you are.
Our brains like security and are wired for preservation and protection.
I once had a friend tell me that running marathons were going to be bad for knees in the long term. Instead, I should simply run about 3 miles a day for fitness.
For some reason, this stuck with me. I don’t remember anything else about that conversation except for this advice. It’s like my brain made an oversized billboard with a slogan ‘ 3 miles are all you need’ and stuck it in a highly visible highway. Every time I run past 3 miles, Captain Cautious sees the billboard and reads the note to me loud and clear! And I listen.
For this reason, it’s important to be selective about what information sources you expose yourself to. If you’re trying to cut sugar out of your diet, please don’t watch an Ina Garten baking show on TV.
Also, be discerning when you get well-intentioned advice from friends or family, especially when they conflict with some goals you choose to go after.
See my previous long post on Comfort Zones on how to step outside your bubble. Planning and having systems in place will help when the going gets tough.
3. Fear of failure
You’re attempting something new. You’ve never done it before nor do you know anyone in your immediate circle that has. It sounded like a great idea when you thought about it initially. But now that you’ve dipped your toes, you’re overwhelmed.
You run through scenarios in your head of what will happen if you don’t succeed. You creatively direct your movie on how your reputation will be ruined and you’ll end up a laughing stock. In other words, you indulge in severe Overthinking.
As a result, you do what you can to protect yourself from the misery that might be. You self-sabotage by copping out of the situation to prevent failure.
I’ve seen this play out many times in corporate situations. People perform very well and it looks like they are destined to get to the next level in their careers. Yet, they freeze when the discussion of their promotion comes up. They worry about the challenges the new positions entail. But rather than embrace the challenge with a can-do attitude, they worry they’ll fail miserably.
So, they opt to stay at their current position by undermining themselves on their performance appraisals. They do it with a poor rationalization too, saying, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’.
How do we stop this kind of self-sabotage?
By avoiding Overthinking in the first place. If you managed to get this far, you need to trust the universe, and more importantly yourself, to believe you’ll find a way to manage the challenges ahead.
4. Limiting your dreams
Instead of aiming for the sky, you just aim for the treetop, even though there is a possibility that you can get way past the treetop.
You start a business and right at the outset you say, ‘Oh no, I’m not trying to create a Google or Amazon here, I’m simply trying to make enough money to pay for my kids’ college tuition’.
This is not about having sky-high ambitions. But, by limiting your possibilities before you get started, you severely undermine your worth. Often, this thinking makes even the treetop harder to achieve.
Here’s a ‘Did you know’ for you.
Did you know that the common folklore of 10,000 steps a day for good health is a made-up number? In reality, about 7,500 steps should suffice for improved health and wellbeing. The 10,000 steps originated because a Japanese company wanted to sell more pedometers. The Japanese character for a man walking looks like the number 10,000. Using that symbolism, the company gave the pedometer a name that roughly translates to ‘10,000 steps’.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Little did the company know that there were going to be crazy loons halfway around the world vigorously going up and down the stairs in their house at 11.48 pm trying to hit their 10K step goals.
This story raises some interesting questions, though. Should we now heavily publicize the reduced step count? In doing so, are we deterring someone from engaging in higher levels of activity? Would this disincentivize an already exercise-averse public?
It’s debatable whether, sometimes, it’s best to leave some truths unsaid. As a lifelong consultant, I’ll stick to the consulting answer. ‘It depends’.
But I mention this example here because it brings me to the core of the problem we’re discussing.
Knowing you can do more, should you be doing less? Are we self-sabotaging ourselves just because someone else lowered the standard? That brings us to the final question…
Why does any of this matter?
How does it matter if I get 15,000 or 7,500 steps a day?
Does it matter if I’m happy with building a corner mom & pop shop and don’t want to run the world?
How does it matter if I’m content with where I’m at work and don’t want to climb the corporate ladder?
Honestly, in every one of these cases, it does not matter. These are material concerns that won’t make you happier in the long run.
But what does matter is whether you’re fulfilling YOUR potential. No matter what area of life that is in — creating a business, climbing a mountain, parenting, volunteering — it certainly matters if you’re putting in 100%.
It matters because, as a society, we need to pursue excellence rather than mediocrity in our chosen field. Imagine a world where everyone settles for mediocrity. None of the progress we witness today would have happened.
Unfortunately, we’ve adopted the ‘Participation trophy’ culture in a society where everyone gets a trophy regardless of effort. There’s a lot of psychological research done around this area (especially with children) — so we’ll leave scientists to figure this one out.
In the meantime, let’s try to make sure we attempt to do our best without self-sabotaging or undercutting our own efforts.
We don’t realize it, but we constantly make poor deals with ourselves all day. I’m here to warn you against buying the ‘If at first, you don’t succeed, lower your standards’ mantra.
As you embark on your journey and encounter some difficulty (you most definitely will), you need to have the tools to stop self-sabotaging. Wishful thinking and good intentions will just make your Captain Cautious turn into Captain Crazy Cautious. She’s already overworked, so let’s find a way to get her some rest.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, 2:46, is about ‘Sthira-sukkah-asanam’ literally meaning ‘stable-comfortable-pose’. As yoga teachers often say, ‘Find your edge’. This is the point where you can maintain both comfort and balance in your pose. The longer you stay, the more you’ll get used to it, and the deeper you can go. With focus, concentration, and practice, you can redefine your edge every day.
Your edge is a beautiful thing. Keep finding and redefining it every day. That is where the magic starts to happen. And, learn how to stop getting in your own way.