Stopping the Self-Sabotage!

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- never completing the initial one.  

Sound familiar? It’s self-sabotage, my friend!  Well, having done these myself, I was compelled to investigate this self-defeating behavior and unravel its root causes.

One of the reasons that I’m so interested in this topic is because I love to study the human brain and behavior.  I was born the youngest of four children, raised by two German immigrants - my father became 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 sabotage ourselves?

Here are 7 Reasons:

  1. Fear of change: Our brains are wired to fear danger. It’s a survival instinct. If we think of the worst-case scenario, we can better prepare ourselves to survive the outcome. Because of this neural 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 Low self-worth/Low self-esteem status quo and therein lies the problem.

  2. Low self-worth/Low self-esteem: As children, we learned from our parents, teachers and many others, stories about negative self-worth that don’t serve us. For some of you, this may NOT be true and you were very fortunate to have positive role models in your life.  Yet, in my upbringing, this definitely was a constant theme.  “One could never be enough.”  Unfortunately, this “self-talk” eventually becomes imprinted into our brains, which we replay many times a day.

Here are some examples: 

  • I don’t deserve to be happy.
  • I don’t deserve to make lots of money. Money is the root of all evil. 
  • Do I really deserve that vacation/massage/other personal care treat? Other people are working hard and I can slack off like this?
  • Who am I to think that I can be successful?

I’m sure that you could add your own to this list! 

Over years of listening to these beliefs, our sense of inadequacy continues to escalate, casting doubt on even our smallest dreams. 

  1. 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. Or breaking up with someone before they break up with you.  At least you were, in the end, in control.  Self-sabotage is a way to feel in control when you may feel like you’re spinning out of control.

  2. Feeling like a fraud: Psychologists have a name for this one, known as the “Impostor Syndrome.”  We think we are fooling people with our level of education, work responsibilities and rising up the social ranks. 

I vividly remember experiencing this Impostor Syndrome during my fourth year of medical school. In the springtime of the fourth year, all medical students find out where they have “matched” – where they will spend their 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 prestigious spot.

On match day, I remember sitting with my close friend, Doug Zatzig, (who is now a psychiatrist!) fearful to tear the envelope open revealing the result within. 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 had 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.

Sounds crazy, right?  Well, you won’t believe how many people suffer from this syndrome…

  1. 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.

  2. 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 shame and retaliate against us. This fear of disappointment or abandonment is another way we stop from achieving our goals.

  3. 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 Ted Lasso or The Witcher? “ I remember telling myself, “It’s a great show and watching just one episode won’t hurt.” Then before you know it, it's 2:00 am!


What’s the GOOD NEWS?


We can change these stories/behaviors/self-sabotage!!

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 plunge 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.

Fortunately, help is on the way!  Scientists have now found that our brains have the ability to adapt and change.  This is known as neural plasticity – the ability of our brains to re-wire and form new pathways. That’s why the slogan “Nerves that fire together, wire together.” Is so important!  Thinking the same thoughts forms certain neural pathways, which can be deeply ingrained.  By re-training our brains, thinking more positive thoughts creates new neural pathways that change our brain’s anatomy.

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.

Try reframing the statements above into positive statements.  Repeat them during the day.  Write them on a 3x5 card and put it on your refrigerator, bathroom mirror or on the front windshield of your car.  This way, you can remind yourself throughout the day to practice positive self-talk and create new neural pathways.  Yes, we can change our brains and our habits!

Want to get a REAL reset?  Changing Your Mindset - the first module of my Badass Transformation Click here to order!

- In health and happiness

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