We don’t intend to sabotage ourselves. But if we take the time to observe how we are living our life on a daily basis, we might catch glimpses of how we seem to thwart our own best interests by the habits we keep, the attitudes we hold or the behavior we extend towards others. Based on over twenty-five years of “professional” observation, I’ve noticed there are common themes in “self-sabotage”. We can easily sabotage our lives by not attending to things that matter, insidiously creating personal chaos and discontent.
To self-sabotage successfully, simply follow one or more of these rules:
1. Don’t pay attention to your own self-care. Neglect your need for sleep and sleep hygiene. Eat inconsistently, focusing on comfort food rather than nutrition. Refuse to exercise. Decide these things are important for others, (i.e. “the kids”) but somehow you don’t need them, or you’ll get to it next January, or you “can’t”* exercise the willpower to put them into practice.
Alternatively, remember that sleep is one of the kindest things we do for ourselves. Sleep stages 3 & 4 are deeply restorative, and most often disrupted by too much caffeine. Limit yourself to 250 mg of caffeine a day (about 2 cups of coffee, before early afternoon). Work with your body’s natural circadian rhythms: Wake up with sun, turn lights on, allow yourself to work, eat and sleep at consistent times each day.
Exercise has all kinds of health benefits and perhaps most importantly “uses up” our stress hormones and produces endorphins – our “happy hormones,” as well as increasing our stamina and cardiovascular indicators.
By willing yourself to do what you need to do, setting goals and keeping yourself accountable, you will actually change your brain as well as change the image you have of yourself – from being powerless to possessing self-discipline and control.
2. Let negativity get the best of you. Believe every negative thought that crosses your mind. Focus on your worries and convince yourself that the worst of them will happen. Allow your fears to hold you back from attempting…almost anything. Hang on to resentments and rehearse the offenses others have committed against you.
Alternatively, remember that we may be actually unaware of the negative thoughts we believe about ourselves or others, and instead live unknowingly with their consequences — feelings that prevent us from enjoying life, or trusting others. Listen to what you are telling yourself day to day. Just because you think a thought does not mean it is true. Challenge yourself to view life with realistic optimism. Each day ask: “What three things went well today?” Write them down. Every. Day.
Deal with the resentment in your life – it is a sibling to anger and bitterness. Step back from the resentment that attaches itself to the hurt others have caused. Practice forgiveness – and perhaps even more radically (where appropriate) – forgetfulness.
Re-circulate your joyful states: Remember wonderful times and people, revisit photos, listen to and tell stories of positive memories and family members overcoming challenges. Keep fun and humor as a part of your daily life.
3. Constantly be in a state of overextension. Consistently have too many commitments and not enough time. Never take breaks in your day or routine. Determine that you do not need any time apart for rest and relaxation. Believe that only you can “fix everything” wrong in your work world and/or family to the extent you neglect yourself and your actual priorities.
Alternatively, consider Segerstrom and Miller’s (2004) meta-analysis of 300 studies on stress led them to conclude that a Biphasic Model best explains the impact of stress on our immune system. Acute stress enhances the immune system for a short time, but as stress accumulates and becomes chronic, the immune system is overloaded and is eventually suppressed, opening the door to serious physical illnesses.** Recognize and limit the cumulative stress you carry. Plan breaks and “down time” to recuperate before moving on to the next challenge.
Learn to recognize how much you can handle and allow yourself the option of saying “No” or “Not now”… and to balance that by saying “Yes!” to things that matter.
4. Isolate yourself. Avoid people… even those who care about you. Avoid initiating activities that might lead to friendship with others. When you are in difficulty, don’t talk about it to anyone and don’t make any effort to help others in difficulty either. Make no attempt to resolve conflict or a misunderstanding –avoid it completely or let it “work itself out”. Use sarcasm and criticism frequently. These are ways you are sure to increase the distance between yourself and others, which leads to loneliness, hurt feelings and false assumptions.
Alternatively, consider making the effort to have a supportive connection with someone every day by initiating an act of kindness or engagement with another person. Initiate it, don’t wait for someone else to do it first. Look for ways to increase your own trustworthiness by demonstrating follow-through.
Often when we are in difficulty, we assume others won’t care. Suffering is part of the human condition and only made easier when shared with others who want to help. Initiate helping first, so others can follow your lead. Having daily contact with nature and other living creatures helps too. Get outside!
5. Lose Perspective. Think only of yourself and what you might gain from any relationship or activity, including work. Consider only your present situation, give no thought to what you need to do to create a future where you could be engaged in purposeful activity. Have an attitude of entitlement, with expectations that you should be taken care of instead of instead of taking responsibility for yourself and others. Use your resources only for yourself with a short term focus. Have low expectations of yourself and be sure not to work too hard at anything.
Alternatively, consider keeping focused and working towards a valued goal – something that you find meaningful. Keep clear about what is important in your life, and how you can impact others for good. In that sense, your life is not your own. Determine to be an influence for good in your world.
The most effective treatment for depression is “life engagement”. The opposite of depression is not happiness, it is “feeling alive”! To circumvent the “Self-Sabotaging blues”, become fully engaged in meaningful activity and in the lives of others. It’s a clear road to mental health.
*Let’s replace that word “can’t” with “won’t”, just to be honest with ourselves.
** For more information on understanding stress and it’ effects, check out Gabor Mate’s book,
When the Body says No: The cost of Hidden Stress.