Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at AXA PPP healthcare
From a medical perspective, what is self-sabotage?
Self-sabotage occurs when an individual’s behaviour prevents them from achieving their goals or living a fulfilled, happy life. A common example is procrastinating in the face of a workload. Perfectionists may procrastinate by dwelling on tasks until they feel they can perform to the best of their ability, but this can be to the detriment of their productivity and ability to meet deadlines.
In more severe cases, alcohol, drugs and self-harm can all be forms of self-sabotage that stop an individual from facing a reality (either imagined, or ongoing).
Other examples of self-sabotage might be ending relationships because you fear being rejected, isolating oneself when facing difficulties, not putting ourselves forward for promotion because we fear being ‘found-out’ as not good enough (imposter syndrome).
Why do we do it?
Self-sabotage is a form of procrastination and avoidance. It stems from a reluctance to face a situation that triggers negative feelings. For example, a self-saboteur might drink an excess of alcohol the night before a job interview. While this may temporarily calm their nerves, filling them with happiness and/or confidence, it can impair their performance the next day, leaving them feeling sluggish, poorly and unable to make a strong impression.
Self-saboteurs misguidedly believe that their habits will wash away, solve or help them cope with a problem. They can become hooked on the temporary high, or escape, that these habits create. However, they risk slipping into a vicious cycle where they continually avoid events or experiences that could cause unhappiness. This unhealthy behaviour can breed new issues, preventing achievements and unsettling relationships. If undetected, some forms of excessive self-sabotage can escalate into addiction.
The desire for control can often be a reason for self-sabotage. It feels better to control your own failure rather than face the possibility of it taking you by surprise. Self-sabotage may not be pleasant but it may feel better than spinning out of control.
Fear can play a major role in self-sabotage, leading the individual to behave in a way that keeps them in their comfort zone and avoid dealing with a situation head-on. They might want to forget about an upcoming event that they fear will make them uncomfortable or upset. AXA PPP healthcare’sresearch shows that nearly a third (32 per cent) of Brits say fear causes them to overeat, whilst 27 per cent turn to drinking, smoking or taking drugs to cope. Procrastination is another habit, which half (50 per cent) of Brits admit they’re guilty of when it comes to dealing with their fears.
Is there any evolutionary benefit to self-sabotage?
We self-sabotage to protect ourselves. Our brains cannot determine between imagined and real threats and so we respond in similar patterns mistakenly using our inbuilt reward system to try and improve the discomfort we experience – this can lead us to stress eat, use drugs and alcohol or engage in other unhealthy coping strategies. In the case of self-sabotage, we don’t feel equipped to fight, so we escape using habits that enable us to feel safe or less exposed. Unfortunately, though, a short-term fix can lead to longer team discontent and underachievement. However, we can embrace our fears and use them positively, as motivation to enjoy life to the full.
How does it relate to imposter syndrome?
Imposter Syndrome is the fear that you’ll be exposed as inadequate, or a failure, despite evidence proving you’re successful. It’s a mindset that is more common than you might think, with AXA PPP healthcare’s research revealing that nearly a third (31 per cent) of Brits feel they’re a failure in all aspects of their life, so this feeling is more common than you might think.
If left unchecked, Imposter Syndrome can lead us to feel stressed and anxious. So it’s important to challenge negative thoughts surrounding this fear, turning them into positives. Rather than thinking “if this goes wrong, I’m fired’, think “I’m qualified. If I make a mistake, I’m only human.”
How can someone stop self-sabotaging?
It’s possible to overcome self-sabotage with therapy like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which can help break the cycle of persistent negative or self-critical thoughts and challenge or dispute your self-defeating internal narrative. It’s important to challenge the niggling impulse to indulge in a self-sabotaging habit. This could be dietary – rather than overeating, enjoy smaller meals throughout the day. Or, if you sense you’re procrastinating, why not channel the energy into a run? This will pay dividends not only to your physical and mental wellbeing, but your productivity for the day ahead.
Recognise your strengths – list your achievements and think of the ways you managed to succeed in the past – these strategies could also help you in the future.
Be kind to yourself – and practise self-compassion. Think how you would support and dispute your best friend’s negative view of themselves and then become your own best friend.
Taking a moment out of your day to practice mindfulness – being in the present moment – can also help to quieten negative thoughts we may be having.
- Focus on your breathing.
- Breathe in through your nose slowly and steadily, then out through your mouth.
- Feel yourself relax on each exhale, your shoulders dropping, your arms and legs becoming heavy.
- If your mind wanders, acknowledge it, then gently take your mind back to focussing on breathing.
You should feel calmer and more content. Attending a motivational speaker event could also help you reconnect with your goals and focus on what’s within your control.
For more information visit AXA PPP healthcare.