From the boardroom to your best friends, you’re all about women empowering women. But how much do you have your own back?
You don’t need a PhD in psychology to see that getting drunk the night before a potentially life-changing meeting is a classic case of self-sabotaging behaviour. While it’d be easy to put it down to age, there’s science behind sabotage. “Humans don’t want to put themselves in uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situations,” says counselling psychologist Dr Sarah Crawford.
Part of the problem is that, on a neurological level, we can’t differentiate life-or-death fear from meeting-a-future-boss fear. The brain’s emotion processor, the amygdala, responds to fear by sending a distress signal to the hypothalamus, the command centre of the brain — which then triggers the release of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, prompting your body to enter fight-or-flight mode.
Your whole body is telling you to get out of the situation you’re in. “Rationally, you might understand that nothing too bad could happen,” explains Dr Crawford. “But to your brain, fear is fear; it puts obstacles in your path to keep you in the known, ‘safe’ place and away from the thing you’re afraid of.”
Why procrastination is a form of self-sabotage
For financial analyst Emma Richards, 30, fear manifests in the form of procrastination. “The bigger the deadline, the more TV I watch,” she says. “And then I hate myself for it when I’m rushing to finish the night before. I just can’t seem to stop.”
This is a classic case of self-sabotage, explains Dr Crawford. “Putting something off until the last minute means that, if it doesn’t go well, you can say, ‘Oh well, I didn’t try that hard anyway.’ You’re avoiding the potential pain of failure, but ultimately damaging your chances of succeeding.”
By scuppering your chances in this way, you’re also taking back control of a situation that feels too much like it’s down to chance, says Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at AXAPPP Healthcare.
“When something feels overwhelming, it can feel easier to control your own failure than face the possibility of that failure taking you by surprise.”
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Perfectionism can also play into self-sabotage
If self-sabotage for some people is motivated by fear of failing, for others, it’s a fear of success; a refusal to acknowledge your own victories in the face of evidence to the contrary. Hazel Gale was 30 when she became a world champion kickboxer. “I won two world championships in one day,” she recalls.
“But afterwards I laid on my bed, staring at the ceiling and feeling rotten. This was the thing I’d worked towards for years; the thing I’d trained three times a day, six days a week for. But I couldn’t stop telling myself that the victories didn’t count. Or that I didn’t deserve them. Straight after, I was back in the gym, training extra hard so that I could get a real win the next time, one that I actually deserved.”
Failing to enjoy your hard-won successes is just self-sabotage in disguise. Take running a half-marathon: The fear-motivated saboteur might do zero training and stay up late the night before, so they have the perfect excuse, but the perfectionist-saboteur might never sign up in the first place because they don’t want to risk getting a bad time. The outcome is the same: ballsing up your chance of crossing that finish line.
“Perfectionism is much more common these days, fuelled by social media and the pressure to ‘live your best life’,” says Chloe Brotheridge, author of The Anxiety Solution.
It makes sense. Take in the message that you can do anything you put your mind to enough times – be it reaching the top rung of your ladder, owning a home or being in the ‘perfect’ relationship – and the goal posts soon start to feel out of reach.
“A recent study found that since 1989 ‘socially prescribed perfectionism’ has increased by 33%,’ she adds. “A culture that encourages competition could be partly to blame. Women arguably find social connectedness more important and are therefore more prone to worrying about what other people think.”
READ MORE: Why You Need Boundaries ASAP
How to deal with self-sabotage in your own life
1. Recognise your monster
Regardless of why you are self-sabotaging, you need to spot the signs – because negativity breeds negativity. Dr Crawford recommends a journal as a way of identifying self-defeating thoughts. “Do it every day for a month and then look back to see if you can spot any patterns,” she suggests. “Once you pinpoint them, you can start to overcome them.”
“Mentally rehearsing how you want things to be, whether that means being super productive or saying yes to a challenge, will help you put those plans into action,” says Brotheridge. Doing the same thing repeatedly creates a neural pathway in the brain; to break that habit you need to create new pathways. Enter, visualisation. “Just a few minutes visualising a new behaviour each day can work wonders,” she says.
3. Help yourself
There’s no point in visualising a behaviour and not doing it. If you feel like getting drunk to calm your nerves, try breathing exercises or have a herbal tea. “Self-sabotage can be hard to overcome because the causes can be deeply rooted in our core beliefs about ourselves,” says Dr Crawford. “CBT can help you to identify negative patterns and build strategies to break them.”
The article 3 Ways to Nix Self Sabotage in 2022 — For A Happier, More Successful Year was originally published on the Women’s Health UK website.