August 15, 2014

Stop Self-Sabotaging

by Tim Hillegonds

There’s a delicate balance between who we were, who we are, and who we want to be. And the only way to bridge the gap between our past and future self is through forgiveness.

“You just need to get out of your own way.”

We hear versions of that saying all the time—on the playing field, in recovery circles, in our shrink’s office. It’s sort of annoying to hear, too. Even though there’s truth in it, no one really knows exactly how to do it. And even when someone accomplishes it, it seems like there’s no real way to go back and deconstruct it, no way to mass-produce a solution so the rest of the world can figure it out.

In fact, it’s virtually impossible to find someone who’s actually in the process of getting out of his or her own way. You can find people who’vealready managed it, but rarely do you find someone who’s currently doing it. It’s always past tense, never present. And that’s pretty interesting. Perhaps it’s akin to dreaming—you don’t know you’ve done it until after it’s over.

Turns out, what most people refer to when they talk about “being in their own way” is something psychologists call “self-sabotage.” The phrase refers to knowingly or unknowingly participating in behaviors that keep you from achieving the results you desire. It’s a type of sabotage that’s comprised of debilitating patterns that keep people fat, drunk, unhappy or just plain stuck in the same rut they’ve been trying to get out of for years. It revolves around the concept of “self.”

But understanding the self isn’t as easy at it seems.

“The self isn’t a single entity,” says Dr. Timothy Pychyl, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. “It’s really complex. There’s a temporal version of self—the self over time. It includes past self, present self and future self. Unfortunately, they seem to be very different people at times.”

When we mention getting out of our own way, we’re really talking about not letting past or future self inhibit or distract present self. When addicts and alcoholics get clean and sober, past self is full of regret, but future self is somewhat unimaginable. Most addicts have a hard time conceiving of a version of themselves that doesn’t drink or use drugs.

There’s a delicate balance between who we were, who we are, and who we want to be. And the only way to bridge the gap between our past and future self is through forgiveness.

“So many times when we’re struggling we fail,” says Pychyl, who also maintains the procrastination research website “And that’s normal. We usually don’t get the fix right away. But when we fail, we have to be willing to forgive ourselves. If we don’t, we’re much less likely to try again.”

The concept of self-forgiveness is a tough one for addicts in general. There are usually generous helpings of shame and regret and pain that try to weaken our newly poured foundation. But when we make a cognitive, deliberate decision to forgive ourselves, we actually strengthen that foundation. Forgiveness provides the fortifying rebar we so desperately need.

So how do we stop sabotaging ourselves? As it turns out, there are some pretty simple steps we can take to limit the amount of sabotaging we do.

1.      Make concrete pre-commitments. Research shows that making a pre-commitment to dox in situation y greatly enhances our ability to be successful. When it comes to addiction, part of the struggle is in breaking negative habits. By having implementation intentions that take away the choice to fall back into a habit, we are more likely to succeed in our endeavor. 

2.      Forgive yourself. This may sound like a repetitive no-brainer, but we all struggle with self-forgiveness. It’s critically important though. If we forgive ourselves, our motivations change. We go from “avoidance motivation” to “approach motivation.” We move from wanting to avoid situations in which we might (or did) fail, to wanting to approach them. It’s a necessary shift that repositions us for success.   

3.      Beware of unrealistic expectations about the future. Pychyl and his team’s  research shows that people are just not very good at predicting how their future self is going to feel. We can’t be overly optimistic about how quickly we’ll change, or we’ll be right back to feeling the pressures of shame and regret if we fail, thereby returning us to the incapacitating cycle of sabotage we’re tying to get out of.

When it comes to recovery, the path is different for each person. We all struggle in our own ways, with our own issues. But there are also some themes that are universal—some things we know ring true for each of us no matter the circumstance. The key is to learn from one another so we can turn self-sabotage into self-discovery.  


Other articles you might be interested in…

The Blame Game

To thine own self be true

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