Continually choosing the wrong romantic partner and then wondering why you’re unlucky in love; eating right and exercising for weeks only to slack off right before you hit your goal weight; not asking for a promotion at work because you think you won't get it. Sound familiar? These are self-sabotaging behaviors that can often compromise our happiness.
But how do we break the habit? We spoke with Judy Ho, PhD, the author of Stop Self-Sabotage: Six Steps to Unlock Your True Motivation, Harness Your Willpower, and Get Out of Your Own Way ($26.99, Amazon) to learn how to rise above and live up to our fullest potential.
Why do we self-sabotage?
Self-sabotage occurs when fear incapacitates our minds and we can’t override the systems telling us to be afraid, explains Dr. Ho. “For some people, they become really paralyzed and [are] stuck in this idea of ‘I’m not going to be able to go forward. What if I do and bad things happen?’” she says. “So people then start to veer away [from their goals] or they’ll self-sabotage. Sometimes it’s self-conscious, but a lot of times it’s not.”
Ho explains that self-sabotage relates back to the threat-avoidance system that’s been ingrained in our minds since our caveman days. The threats have morphed from saber-tooth tigers into something less tangible and more psychological, like failing at work, and issues sometimes arise because our brains have difficulty differentiating between the two.
"Women are most likely to self-sabotage when it comes to health, romance, and career — but not all three."
“Our body is wired in such a way that it doesn’t distinguish between a physical threat and a psychological threat,” Ho says. “In my theory, whether or not it’s a bear that’s staring at you or it’s the fact that you might finally actually get somebody who wants to commit to you and give you what you want, all of those things provoke the same fear centers in your brain.”
While self-sabotage happens across the genders, it manifests in different ways. In her research, Ho noticed that women were most likely to self-sabotage when it came to health, romance, and career — but not all three. "Career is good, health is good, but they just can’t get into a good relationship, or some kind of permutation."
How to Stop Self-Sabotaging
Self-sabotage is a universal phenomenon, but the good news is (and there is good news!) that it's conquerable — and it begins with recognition. Your first instinct after admitting you’ve self-sabotaged may be to scold yourself, but it's a human condition and nothing to be ashamed of. “We need to make sure that you understand the problem and that you don’t blame yourself for it, because it’s universal, and we should all be talking about it,” Ho explains. “It only becomes a problem when you see a pattern.”
Ho recommends getting to the root of the problem by writing down three fears related to your goal. “A question to ask yourself is, ‘What am I scared of if I [were] to reach this goal?’ and actually write that down.” For example, let’s say your fear is that you won’t be able to maintain your weight loss. Now, dig a little deeper and ask yourself why you feel that way. Is it because you haven’t succeeded in the past? Do you think your partner will resent your weight loss? Or are you worried about loose skin affecting your self-confidence? There is a solution to each of these problems, but you can only get there by confronting the issue.
“A value is different from a goal because you don’t check it off; you live it for the rest of your life.”
Then, it’s time to stop focusing on goals and start questioning values. Ask yourself why you choose specific goals and how they relate to your core values. If your goal is to run a marathon, is that because you want to challenge yourself? Or do you value being healthy?
“A value is different from a goal because you don’t check it off; you live it for the rest of your life,” says Ho. “If you’re able to tap into the things that are truly important to you and what you want your life to stand for at its core, then you’re going to be more willing to face up to your fears."
Figuring out what’s valuable to you can create meaningful happiness — not just the fleeting feelings of joy you experience after going on vacation or eating healthy food. “It’s happiness but it’s more feeling that your life is meaningful as opposed to every moment of your life being ecstatic. That’s just not a realistic ideal.”
Ho's main message is women, and people in general, should understand that if a goal is truly important and valuable for you, it’s not going to be happy all the time. "There’s going to be fear. There’s going to be stress," she says. "But at the end of the day, it’s worth it for you to confront them. It’s more about reorienting yourself to think about things in that fashion, and then you’ll be able to overcome that threat-rewards switch.”