Self-sabotage holds many of us back, it is responsible for turning a successful career into a crushing one. You can avoid ugly self-sabotage with a 2 step process. There are many subtleties to this that we will explore today.
In The 2 Most Important Ideas for Improving Balance in Your Life, we’ve explored the interplay between tension and relaxation.
We looked at the trio of tension, intention, and attention as well as how they relate to optimal performance, such as recognizing the subtle cues that signal diminishing returns.
The point of diminishing returns is a very subtle time that is often missed before it is too late. That’s what we will look more into today.
What are the early signs of exhaustion?
What are the causes of self-sabotaging behavior?
How can you find the proper balance to optimize performance, in any field, whether writing, exercising, or problem solving?
We will tackle this using the below structure:
- Causes of Self-Sabotaging Behavior
- Mind-Muscle Connection
- Correct (State Change)
- Maturity to Recognize Funk
- Acknowledge the Existing Energy Before Change
- Balancing Planning and Presence
Big Idea: Noticing the subtleties behind feelings and decisions gives great power.
Basically: The subtle sensation can serve as a cue of future self-destruction.
Self-sabotaging can come in many forms. I’ve recognized it as rationalizing away a moment of positive amongst many moments of negative.
I may have struggled hard during a run one day, then the next I have a cup of coffee and the run is much easier. I am quick to rationalize the ease of the second run to be due to coffee, food, or some other external factor.
While that may be true, it prevents me from updating my sense of identity with the new evidence that I can run farther, harder, faster, etc.
The mind is powerful, your thoughts can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is at the heart of many mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. A negative thought pattern takes hold and is reinforced.
My performance during the run could very well have been due to food or coffee, but perhaps not all of it. And it’s possible to even improve my running ability by finding some internal reason, such as my consistent training runs.
Choosing to find this internal reason for my success would encourage the habits that I have in my control. It will reinforce the consistency of my training runs which may lead to even more improvements in the future.
The point here, is that self-sabotaging can come in the form of rationalizing away the positive.
This is especially true when you have had a series of rough moments and then some light begins to shine at the end of the tunnel. Being swallowed in so much struggle can make it easy to focus on the negative.
Causes of Self-Sabotaging Behavior
Here a few potential causes
- Fear of Failure
- Fear of Success
- Want the Blame on Something External
- Lack Self-Worth
My example with running above is a form of “Fear of Success”. Its a feeling of “I don’t deserve success because the story I’m bought into right now is that of being in a negative state”.
Your mind will create a story and then look for evidence to support it. This happens without you consciously knowing it, and since your thoughts also come from your mind, you can easily rationalize it.
After all, if you found your feet moving in a particular direction, the story of you controlling your body will take over so quickly that you will come up with some reason for heading in that direction.
The key here is to recognize moments where your actions are simply to promote consistency of a story.
This desire for a consistent story is EXACTLY what holds many people back.
This can be illustrated by people with a victim mindset. They may see themselves as having been wrong by the world. This self-sabotaging belief will lead them to subconsciously make decisions and filter the world in a way that supports that belief.
Here are some warning signs of self-sabotaging behavior:
- Prioritizing instant gratification over self care
- Procrastinating important things
- Focusing on self-defeating thoughts
One way to counter the negative thought patterns of self-sabotage is to begin building up evidence why you can succeed at something.
Like a cookie jar, each challenge you accomplish (relative to your current ability), is another cookie in the jar. During times of struggle or self-doubt, grab a cookie from this jar to remind you that you can do challenging things.
The biggest hurdle to overcome with managing self-sabotage is its subtle nature.
Without proper training, you won’t recognize it until it has already taken hold. At that point, turning around is incredibly difficult.
There is an incredible subtlety to exhaustion in the early stages.
I find this well-illustrated by ab exercises. Hitting my abs hard in an exercise leaves me being unable to flex them for a short while afterwards. It is as if they are unable to respond any further.
But during the exercise itself, it felt like I could do more reps, so I kept going, but the amount that I activate my abs is less and less.
This is diminishing returns at play. I’ve been lifting weights since I was 15, and the most fundamental principle that I’ve found for strength and muscle growth is activation of the target muscle.
After passing a point of exhaustion for movements such as crunches, I find other muscles begin taking over (e.g. quads). But an ab exercise should target the abs, and once you’re not anymore, then you’ve reached failure of the target muscle, anything after is not effective.
This is self-sabotage, since I am now fatiguing a muscle that I’m not targeting which, in turn, will lead to degraded performance for subsequent movements involving that muscle.
This idea of mind-muscle connection is useful for any sort of tension/relaxation balancing activity. This is true for problem solving or other thought-intensive activities. In fact, those sort of activities are the MOST subtle, since we pay far less attention to the activity going on in our brain than our physical body.
I’ve explored how you can develop a very strong awareness of mental activity in my detailed post on The Ultimate Guide to Intensity of Stimulus.
The energy in an environment is also very subtle, but can be picked up on, subconsciously, especially by sensitive individuals (who tend to also be the “creative type”).
This can also be trained to be more noticeable.
I’ve personally have found a profound importance to frequencies and energy of the environment around me. If someone is angry, I’m able to pick up on that, especially if it’s someone I’ve spent a long time around (e.g. parents).
This will be explored further below, the point here is that you can develop your awareness to these subtle cues and use them as a warning sign for diminishing returns or self-sabotage.
Correct (State Change)
Big Idea: Changing mental state is a very subtle, incremental, process.
Basically: With practice, you can change between mental states quickly and effectively.
The question of correcting self-sabotage is really a question about effective state change.
How can you go from one state to another?
The key lies in doing something. If you want to change where you are, whether physically or mentally, some sort of motion will have to take place.
In fact, a study has shown that just moving your eyes from left to right, rapidly, is enough to reduce negative thoughts. Eye movement has been linked to negative thinking in several ways. The theory is that movement is stimulated when your eyes pick up on new scenery through your peripheral, as if walking, which is a behavior that the brain encourages more off with dopamine.
Sort of how going for a walk is a great way to change your mental state.
I have developed a checklist for getting out of a funk that follows this principle of movement.
- Go for a walk
- Change location where I am working
- Remember the purpose behind my actions
Maturity to Recognize Funk
The first step, as with anything, is Awareness.
There is a level of maturity that must be developed to recognize when you’re in a funk. All else is resistance, which will lead to diminishing returns.
This involves a few big ideas:
- Recognize that all feelings are temporary. They take a wave-like pattern and will have peaks and valleys, they will come and go.
- Be able to distance the response from the stimulus. This is developed with awareness. Great ways to practice this is meditation and general mindfulness.
- You can feel an emotion without acting that emotion out. More on this below.
You don’t have to grab a pillow and beat something with it when you feel angry. That will only encourage negative habits.
You don’t need to act out the emotion, just need to be aware of it.
Acting out the emotion will only develop habits of unconscious reaction, not conscious response. It will put your biology into control and in that state, rage can easily take over.
The more proactive habit to develop is effectively dealing with the emotion, which takes emotional maturity. You don’t need to act out the emotion, just need to acknowledge it.
One way I’ve found that helps build this awareness is using a habit tracking app like HabitBull (free!)
For mental habits, I find tracking 2 habits to help:
- The number of successes
- The total number of opportunities
The number of opportunities is how many times throughout the day have I had a chance where I could have exercised this more effective habit.
Number of successes is how many times I’ve successfully chosen the correct, or more productive path.
For example, if I am addressing irritation, I would recognize times where I am irritated, and that adds to the “total number of opportunities”. If I successfully “found the rhythm” (see below) or some other tactic to recenter myself and change my state, then I also add 1 to the “number of successes”.
The development of these mental habits come in stages.
The first is awareness. This means that when you first track these habits, the indicator of progress is the “total number of opportunities” value going up. The “total number of successes” may be very low, and that is okay. The only objective at this stage is awareness.
After the total opportunities number stabilizes to a value that is representative of how many times you were irritated (or whatever the mental/personality habit is), then that is a good indicator that you’re ready to begin focusing on the number of successes.
Acknowledge the Existing Energy Before Change
Going back to the idea of every situation have a particular energy or frequency to it, this energy must first be acknowledged before you can change it.
This is, again, another very subtle behavior.
You could go in to a room with incredibly high energy and by the sheer force of the energy lighten up the room. But, this will combat what energy you have and over the course of a day may exhaust you.
Pretending the energy of the current moment is somewhere it is not is a form of a resistance. I’ve found that this is something that goes unnoticed and easily “swept under the rug” by the constant distraction of our thoughts.
Here are simple strategies to synchronize with the energy before changing it:
- Wiggle/Shake: Consider how books often describe characters “shaking themselves” out of a negative thought, they’re releasing that energy and re-synchronizing)
A sad song can put us in a sad mood, the same for a hyped up song and an excited mood. Our bodies naturally recognize frequencies, music just makes this far more obvious and can therefore serve as a doorway into changing your state.
Dancing is similar, pairing it with music and you have a powerful pair to change state.
I particularly found that when I feel irritation, I tend to be tense and rigid. I am quick to label things as negative.
One day, I asked the simple question of “what if I did the opposite”, so I began swaying back and forth, I let me rigid knees bend a bit and I just let my body do whatever it wanted.
Something wonderful happened.
I INSTANTLY felt lighter, like a weight lifted off of me. Positive thoughts came in far easier. I instinctively had the thought of “I’ll be alright”.
All I did was began moving in place, my feet were still fixed to the ground. I was scrubbing dishes, so I just found a rhythm and synchronized.
A few moments later (a minute or two?) I found that my movements naturally slowed down back to a calm state, and the irritation was gone.
This was the first time I had the insight into this important point:
- To change your state you must first synchronize with the existing energy.
Trust your body and let it move as it will. As music and dance shows, the body has a natural ability to synchronize with frequencies, you just have to find the rhythm. Slip into the beat.
Dance to find the rhythm, and then let the energy flow again, much like a connected circuit.
Balancing Planning and Presence
Planning is a time where thinking is in the future in some way, or even the past (e.g. pre-mortem). While actually engaging in the activity is a moment of presence.
Recognizing where you are is important to determine where your thinking should go.
During practice for a sporting event, you are preparing for the challenges of game day. During game day, you’re fully present, trusting your training.
Clarity is all about recognizing the obstacles you will face and prioritizing your efforts to thinking through how you’ll handle them. Pre-mortem is a thought exercise where you visualize the moments after the event (e.g. after game-day) and the regrets or worries that you’ll have. You then plan accordingly.
This is a powerful way of ensuring that you don’t regret a decision or miss an important detail.
Visualize both the future as you desire it and its opposite. Visualizing what life would be like without can uncover key motivators for your action. You may even uncover some insights behind your identity and personality, such as a purpose that hasn’t been articulated yet.
Visualizations help to remove the resistance and therefore the added layer of psychological pain. This leads to the brain aligning with the objective. When the brain is half-in and half-out, action feels forced, there is a lot of resistance.
When the brain is all-in, perhaps even feeling like there is no other choice, then it will stop focusing on whether to dive in or not and focus on how it can make the objective come a reality.
Reflection, journaling, and meditation are thought-full activities. This means journaling for 20 minutes isn’t necessarily writing for that long. Perhaps you are writing for 5 minutes total, spread out over the 20 minutes, and the rest of the time is spent thinking.
The thinking that you engage in could be a form of visualizing. You could practice a pre-mortem scenario and work backwards towards how you can ensure the outcome of something is as you desire it.
Reflection is a great form of planning for a future event, you basically just consider what went well, what went wrong, and how you can improve. You then use this information to calibrate so that you’re better prepared for the next time around.
Meditation is just a concentrated and formal way of practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness is being aware of your internal world. This awareness allows for a buffer between stimulus and response. This makes a (mindless) reaction turn into a (mindful) response.
This buffer is where stillness is found and therefore the power of choice. This links closely to the idea of “one-second decisions” that I discussed in The Ultimate Guide to Challenge. This space is what allows you to take ownership of those one-second decisions.
For example, running a long distance and the urge to quit comes up but you, recognize it, and then push on, instead of your biology taking over.
To help avoid overthinking during planning, emphasize “rules of thumb” for decision making.
You can’t visualize everything 100% accurate. Instead, recognize the high-level overview of obstacles and the steps necessary without being too detailed.
Once you begin taking action, you can then calibrate and fill in the missing pieces. True clarity requires action. To gain 10 feet of clarity in fog, you have to move forward 10 feet.
During planning, put together a rough schedule. Avoid being too rigid, and allow buffer room for unexpected interruptions. Ensure your planning of obstacles also includes the potential interruptions and distractions that may come up, such as being sure to put your phone out of site.
It’s important to also consider variety. Doing the same thing over a long period of time will lead the body to adapt, the action may feel easier, but that means there is less growth and learning going on.
You want to remain in a state of mild-challenge and ensure that you are consistency progressing over time.
After your practice days, you are ready for the game day. This is a time that you trust your training, you should have mimicked game-day so frequently during practice that this is just another repetition of that same intensity.
Got an exam to take? Your studying should of involved active recall in the form of quizzes, which means to remove crutches of reading answers and actively thinking through them without cues from books or videos. Why? Because that is what game-day (the exam), will be like, you can’t rely on those same cues during game-day.
Practice is about internalizing those cues so that you don’t need them externally anymore, you are able to derive the necessary information in real time. That is what learning is all about.
Learn to Love Incremental Improvements
You will be exhausted at times. You will find it hard to rationalize the struggle being worth it during those times. Persistence is key here, along with that maturity of recognizing when you’re in a funk that we talked about earlier.
If you’re a hard-charging type, it is important to give yourself permission to relax and shut off. Be more forgiving. Practice self care. See exhaustion as a sign that you’ve pushed yourself hard, good job, now rest. You’ve earned it.
The Psychology of Motivation
Motivation comes and goes, it is an emotion. Like happiness. You can be happy and then hit a wall, and that happiness is out the door. In the same way, you can feel motivated, then hit your first obstacle, and that motivation is out the door.
You can’t rely on motivation for anything long-term in life, because the emotion simply won’t last that long. Losing weight? Building muscle? Training for a marathon? You will have so many emotional swings during those endeavors that motivation would die out in the first 1%.
Life is a long game. If you want a lifestyle change or a big life accomplishment, you’ll need to dig in for the long-run.
A purpose, a deeper meaning behind your actions, is what will push you through.
Motivation can get you going and help you plan, but be mature enough to recognize that it is fleeting and will go away quickly.
Here is a road-map for how a successful action might be taken from the initial motivation:
- Motivation starts with an ambition, a desire for something, perhaps a better life or just to relax for a day.
- Then you have to believe in your ability to achieve it, you have to have expectancy.
- Then you need to put the effort in to take the steps.
- Action is necessary to build momentum.
- Finally, see your actions as having meaning (ideally) through being of service to others, impacting the world at large.
Commitment must come in at some point early in this process.
Commitment is a big idea, whatever you do, do it wholeheartedly. This is a habit, which means the times you do something with poor commitment will reinforce future half-hearted behavior, this will lead to degraded performance and self-sabotage.
Have a single objective, and do it with a focus on intense quality. Perhaps you’re building a new exercise habit, in that case quality may not be doing each exercise like a pro athlete, but instead showing up and building the consistency.
Dancing in-between all-in and all-out will only build negative habits and reinforce a poor sense of self-esteem. If you’re doing an action, then fully trust, be wary of self-sabotaging thoughts.
Big Idea: When awareness comes before action, the result is higher quality.
Basically: Take two steps forward and one step back to find the rhythm.
Self-sabotage is a behavior that can easily take hold and goes unrecognized until it is too late. With the proper awareness, cues, and the experience you can prevent this self-destructive behavior from taking over.
The subtle nature of thoughts and feelings makes this very difficult. It is as if there is the level of thought, and a very subtle (but infinitely deep) level of awareness above the thought. I’ve found this awareness becomes more acute with training. I believe this is what spiritual teachings aim to promote.
This state of awareness brings with it immense stillness, and I’ve only experienced it in glimpses. Its frequency is increasing as I explore more and more. The feeling can be best described as just “existing”.
Along with this awareness, comes the recognition of energy and frequency.
Once the awareness is there, you address it. But this requires a level of maturity to understand the transient nature of emotions.
You then can acknowledge the frequency by synchronizing with it by means of movement or dance. This will help release the tension within you.
Once the body has let out tension, you’re in a better place to visualize as a means of planning. Then when you are finally ready to engage in the action, you can trust your preparation and act from a place of presence.
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Self-sabotage is something that isn’t thought about a lot, but its impact can be enormous. This is probably due to its subtle nature How do you think self-sabotage could come up as a writer? Writer’s block is closely related to this idea. Share in the comments section below!
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Don’t put off contemplating what the insights from this article mean, find a quiet location and think deeply about what it might mean for you. Just 10 deliberate minutes can make a large difference, set a timer, do it regularly and you will notice the changes within a few weeks. You improve your ability to think and therefore make effective decisions by spending more time deliberately thinking about the relevant subject. Consider applying journaling and meditation to see more profound changes, these are just more deliberate and concentrated forms of quiet and focused thinking. Slow down, find stillness.
I am always looking to improve my reach and the impact that I have with my writing, please provide your feedback in the comments below.
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