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Stop the cycle of self-sabotage

Main Line Health July 12, 2017 General Wellness By Paula Durlofsky, PhD

If you often find that, despite good intentions, your efforts are often backfiring, you may be unknowingly using self-sabotaging tactics and engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors.

Self-sabotaging behaviors are made up of a complex set of actions and thoughts that ruin our good intentions and negatively affect our relationships, employment, health, quality of life and emotional well-being. These self-sabotaging behaviors are usually learned in childhood through example and by modeling, and it is not uncommon for these behaviors to be passed down from one generation to the next.

It’s important to understand that since self-sabotaging behaviors are initially reinforced, in the short-term they allow temporary relief from feelings of anxiety and stress by means of avoidance, but in the long-term they lead to chronic depression, low self-esteem, substance abuse, poor interpersonal relationships, un-actualized life goals and stifles potential.

Examples of self-sabotaging behaviors and thoughts are:

  • Agreeing to commitments and tasks that you’d like to say no to
  • Procrastinating
  • Neglecting your physical health (e.g., a poor diet, lack of exercise, abusing alcohol)
  • Frequently lying to people in order to avoid a conflict
  • Being impulsive with actions and feelings
  • Believing and needed to always be right
  • Not finishing projects or tasks you’ve started
  • Focusing only on the negative aspects of your life or yourself

Although self-sabotaging behaviors can be difficult to let go of, it is not impossible. Instead, replace self-sabotaging behaviors with helpful, positive behaviors and thoughts.

Below are a few strategies to help you get out of the self-sabotage trap:

  • Acknowledge that you engage in self-sabotaging behaviors and thoughts. The first step in addressing any issue is to acknowledge it. Acknowledging our struggles allows us to take personal responsibility for them and makes us aware that it is within our power to make life real and lasting changes.
  • Identify when you most often use self-sabotaging tactics. Write down specific situations where you recognize you use self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. Identify the feelings you’re avoiding by using self-sabotaging tactics such as anxiety, fear of hurting someone else’s feelings or avoiding a conflict.
  • Have a plan for challenging times. Take the time to brainstorm with a trusted friend, family member or a mental health professional in order to find alternative ways of responding to future challenging situations. It’s difficult for most people to think clearly when they are feeling anxious or stressed. Being prepared with healthy tactics when facing a challenging situation improves your chances for making changes.
  • Seek professional help. Self-sabotage behaviors are complex and being able to actually change them may need the help of a professional. Together, exploring the underlying causes of one’s self-destructive behaviors can bring about the insights needed for lasting change and for leading a rewarding and enriched life.

Dr. Paula Durlofsky is a psychologist in private practice in Bryn Mawr, whose practice focuses on psychological issues affecting individuals, couples and families. She is affiliated with Bryn Mawr Hospital and Lankenau Medical Center, part of Main Line Health.