The Science of Self-Sabotage: 7 Reasons for Self-Defeating Behavior
We’ve all done it. Gotten close to achieving a long-sought-after goal only to then shoot ourselves in the foot. Going on a diet only to binge on a whole box of Oreo cookies. Or so close to putting the final touches on a home project only to find another new project to start. Or putting off until tomorrow what could be done today. Sound familiar? Well, having done some of these myself, I was compelled to investigate this self-defeating behavior and unravel its root causes.
Before I delve into the science of self-sabotage, I want to share an interesting thing about me that some of you may not know. I was the youngest of four children, raised by two German immigrants. Interestingly, my father was a psychiatrist and my mother, a psychologist. One could say I have the brain’s psyche and neuronal grid embedded in my DNA.
From doing research on this topic, I found that self-sabotage is not a simple act, but a complex process which pits us against our own thoughts and impulses. It’s repeating unhealthy behavior time after time, eventually becoming a habit. Makes me think about the definition of “insanity”: Repeating the same behavior over and over again and expecting a different result!
Why do we do sabotage ourselves?
1. Fear of change: Our brains are wired to be aware of danger. It’s a survival instinct. If we think of the worst-case scenario we can prepare ourselves to best survive the outcome. Because of this wiring, we like to stay consistent and not accept change very readily. In psychology terms this is called, “cognitive dissonance” – when our actions don’t line up with our ingrained beliefs or values, we get uncomfortable and try to revert back to our original beliefs. It’s too scary to venture to new heights because they are foreign to us. We rely on the safety of the status quo and therein lies the problem.
2. Low self-worth/Low self-esteem: As children, we heard from our parents, teachers and many
others, stories about negative self-worth that don’t serve us. Unfortunately, we have imprinted
these into our brains and replay them every day. Some examples:
- You don’t deserve to be happy.
- Who are you to think that you can make a lot of money.
- Do you really deserve that vacation? Other people are still working hard and you’re going to take time off?
I’m sure that you could add your own list. Because we feel that we aren’t good enough and lacking in some way, our sense of inadequacy continues to escalate over the years, casting doubt on even our smallest dreams.
3. Need for control: If we can control our own failure rather than letting someone/something blindside us, we feel less uncomfortable. As the captains of the ship, if we hit an iceberg and sink, at least we were at the helm. Self-sabotage is a way to feel in control when you may feel like you’re spinning out of control
4.Feeling like a fraud. Psychologists have a name for this one, known as the Imposter Syndrome. We think we are fooling people with our level of education, work responsibilities and rising up the social rankings. I vividly remember having this fraudulent experience during my fourth year of medical school. In the springtime of the fourth year, all medical students find out where they have “matched.” This is the program where you will do your internship and residency training. My first choice was the Ob/Gyn at UC San Diego Medical Center. The problem was that only one medical student from the UC San Diego Medical class would be accepted and there were over 15 students vying for this one spot.
When the day came to open the envelope which revealed my destiny, I remember sitting with my close friend, Doug Zatzig, (who is now a psychiatrist!) fearful to tear it open. I breathed deeply and looked at the sheet of paper which said: UC San Diego Medical Center, Obstetrics and Gynecology Internship/Residency Program. I freaked out-I was convinced that they made a mistake. Obviously, this was an error which needed to be corrected. How could I get this position when there were so many other highly qualified candidates? Luckily, Doug calmed me down and after a good hour of telling me that what was printed on the letter was true, I started to consider the possibility that I had been the one chosen for this program.
5. Procrastination. Why not just put it off for a day or two? It won’t matter, right? These are famous last words of a self-saboteur and one of the most common ways we shoot ourselves in the foot. We invent plenty of seemingly legitimate excuses to delay making an important decision or finishing a project. Ultimately, by delaying or not acting at all, we are only further fueling the flames of self-sabotage and disappointment.
6. Fear of leaving the pack: We are used to our own “tribe” – the people we hang out with and spend time with. If we were to somehow elevate our self-esteem, believe that we deserve better, we would alienate those in our tribe. They may alienate us and retaliate against us. This fear of disappointment or abandonment is another way we stop from achieving our goals.
7. Addictive behavior: We fail to meet our goals because we self-medicate with different things like drugs, alcohol, food and many others, like shopping. Heard of “retail therapy”? Home Goods anyone? How about binging on an 8-hour marathon of watching “The Good Wife”? I remember telling myself, “It’s a great show and watching just one episode won’t hurt.” Or having a glass of wine that puts your brain in “break mode” rather than focused work mode for a pressing work project?
We know that our thoughts create our actions. Over time, our repeated actions become habits which are deeply embedded in our brains. Imagine a huge oak tree growing in your backyard. At first, it was just a sapling, but over years of “watering” it with our negative thoughts and self-sabotaging behavior its roots now dig deep into the ground. If we had wanted to uproot this tree when it was a mere sapling, it wouldn’t be difficult. But when the roots delve 6 to 8 feet into the ground, trying to uproot this monolithic oak would be far more challenging.
But there is hope. Science has now found a new field known as neural plasticity, the ability of our brains to re-wire and form new pathways. “Nerves that fire together, wire together.” Having the same thoughts form certain neural pathways. By re-training our brains and making new neural pathways we can actually change our brains. Pretty cool, right?
With the right courage, guidance, and perseverance, we can transform the parts of our brains that potentially have been our worst enemy to becoming our new best friend.
In health and happiness,
Please share your comments and experiences!