Sabotage is tricky. It’s seductive. It can trap us, making us feel like we have no way out. Often it feels shameful, so we hide it from others. It disrupts our lives, our plans, our happiness. And yet, sometimes it feels so safe, so incredibly comfortable, that we give in without a fight.
This sense of safe comfort is why we keep going back for more. The pull is sometimes too strong to resist. Afterwards, we beat ourselves up for doing it again. Or perhaps we’ve become so numb we no longer notice the impact sabotage is making in our lives.
Based on my personal and professional experience, I’ve come to understand self-sabotage as a form of protection. It aims to protect us from rejection, failure, judgement, pain, grief, and more. Most often it stems from childhood, or young adulthood, when we needed coping skills to handle painful circumstances.
To heal these sabotaging coping strategies, we need to proceed with love, compassion and understanding. In fact, love, compassion and understanding are crucial for transformation. It’s exactly what our younger selves needed during painful experiences. Additionally, it’s especially crucial for our adult selves, as we dive into the work of healing.
Sabotaging behavior can be traced back to earlier painful experiences. For example, a young child, eager to show off his singing voice, might be hushed or teased by family members. This experience, especially if repeated, could lead to beliefs that it’s not safe to sing in front of people, or that he isn’t important, or good enough. A natural response to this would be to protect himself from further pain by sabotaging, or squashing, his desire to sing. He might use tactics such as playing small, busying himself with work, or refusing to participate in musical endeavors.
Other examples include:
A child who experiences the pain of neglectful parents, might believe that no one shows up for her, or that she’s unlovable. Later in life, she might attempt to protect herself from further rejection. For example, she might avoid or even sabotage social situations, neglect self care , or adopt some form of addictive behavior.
A child who grows up with a highly critical parent will likely develop a hefty critical voice, and tend towards perfectionism, procrastination, and dependence on others for validation. All to protect against the pain of criticism.
A traumatic event can feel overwhelming for all of us, especially children. Common feelings resulting from trauma include shame, helplessness, and grief. When not processed, these often unbearable feelings can lead to substance abuse, self-neglect, and other risky behaviors. As harmful as these behaviors are, they’re a form of protection against difficult feelings. It’s important to reach out for help to safely process these feelings.
It’s clear that all of these situations call for love, understanding, and healing. Action and discipline are certainly necessary to create new behavior patterns. The real work, however, is giving ourselves the help we needed in the first place. Without healing, action and discipline will have far less impact.
Suggestions for going deeper:
- Journal to dialog with your younger self to get to know her and what she needs.
- Write a compassionate, loving letter to your younger self.
- Join a support group for your particular form of self-sabotage.
- Reach out for help. Contact a Mental Health Professional. EFT Tapping and Matrix Reimprinting are effective tools for releasing the painful emotions that can lead to sabotage. Contact me if you’d like to learn more.
Sabotage can show up in a variety of behaviors. You’ll know it’s sabotage if it consistently gets in the way of your success and happiness. It can hide itself in seemingly positive behaviors such busy work, care-giving, and perfectionism. Or show up as risky behaviors, procrastination, self-neglect, and more. No matter how it shows up for you, your inner saboteur is asking you to look deeply within. It’s reaching out for love and compassion, and, most of all, healing.
Take compassionate care of yourself,