Breaking the Grip of Self-Sabotage
In last week's post, I was ruminating on JB Spears’ advice to scare ourselves in order to really live. (See his interview with Dave Aspry.) I want to continue this week by sharing his thoughts on self-sabotage. This is a topic I think about a lot, largely because I’m pretty much a master of self-sabotage. Let’s just take today, a day supposedly devoted to putting a post on my blog. I got up early to begin the task. It is now 1:00 p.m. and I’m just now sitting down to write. In the last 5 hours, I’ve cooked a delicious, large breakfast; run two errands (neither of which was critical); organized stuff for a garage sale this Saturday (it’s 5 days away!); washed two loads of laundry; emptied the dishwasher (the glasses were still warm); paid some bills and even decorated the envelope of a check I am sending to my assistant. I’ve planned smoothie flavors for the week; reorganized my linen closet; and called Caladium World and placed an ordered 40 Miss Muffitt caladium bulbs.
Ya think I’m avoiding something??
In the work I’ve been doing with accountability groups over the past year, I’ve seen a lot of creatives using masterful avoidance tactics that come dangerously close to being a form of self-sabotage. So what is this all about?? Why do we do this??
According to Sears, “self-sabotage is typically a symptom of unresolved emotional pain and/or disempowering beliefs of ourselves.” Just what I was afraid of. In some cases, though, I think he’s right: when we find reasoning, excuses, or drama that take us away from the deep work we want to do, or the creative project we want to bring into the world, we may actually be avoiding patterns of depression, sadness, anger, disconnection, or behaviors of unworthiness. Spears suggests that self-sabotage is an “expression that validates a disempowering belief of self or a pain of self.”
And in fact, this is consistent with a lot of situations I’ve seen with clients who suffer from two conflicting beliefs. On the one hand, they desire to express themselves in some creative form; on the other hand, they hold a belief that they are not capable of doing it. And there they remain until clarity arrives about the nature of the hidden and self-sabotaging belief.
Are we doomed to stay locked in the grip of these two opposing beliefs? No, says Spears. And he offers a helpful line of questioning that can disarm self-sabotaging beliefs.
The first is simply, "Okay, what do you do?" In other words, recognize and then catch yourself in the very acts that allow you to avoid doing the thing you seemingly want to do but don’t do. When I start re-arranging the paint cans out in the garage, I’m pretty sure I’m avoiding doing something that scares the heck out of me. I am actually making fun of myself here, calling myself out, and labeling the exact actions (avoidance tactics) that I was pretending were so important to do.
Question two, Spears says, is “Why do you do what you do?” This can be tricky to figure out—and for some of us takes decades of therapy— but most of the time, if we get really still and really open, we can find the honesty to see our behavior as actually serving us in some way, and that’s why we do it! The behavior actually serves us by keeping at bay a fear we will have to face if we are successful in our intention. In Field Training, this is called counter-intending. We say we want to write a book, but in actually we are afraid of all of the attention we’ll get if the book is a raging success, and so we self-sabotage the completing of the manuscript. Philosopher Philip Golabuck, founder and former director of the Field Project, offers a helpful question at this point in the process: “What bad thing happens if I actually achieve the goal I’m after?” There’s almost always an answer to this paradoxical question. And the answer to that question is the reason we are self-sabotaging.
So then, question three is “How does part of me benefit by doing this?” Spears says it is very important to get to the “story under the story of our self-sabotage, get beyond the symptoms to the root of why we do what we do.” Early on in our lives, we might have constructed a story about who we are and we continue to carry it around, even after we’ve outgrown the story. These stories can keep us locked in unconscious reactions that are ultimately destructive to us, and that keep us in patterns of self-sabotage.
Hmmm. This might be too much psychology for you. I get it. But still, whether you analyze it or not, we’re left with the need to drop self-sabotaging behavior. Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series on fear & sabotage to learn some helpful ways to release the grip of a counter-intention.
In the meantime, I hope you find Spears’ three questions helpful as you address any version of self-sabotage you may be experiencing.
Until next week. . . I’ll be out in the garage, organizing the paint cans by color and size.