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When The Mood Strikes, Strike Back: Three Ways to Stop Self-Sabotaging Behavior

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

We are the masters of our own destinies.

But what if our masters are frequently out misbehaving?

We’re all guilty of partaking in self-sabotaging behavior at some point in our lives.  It could be that hot fudge sundae when we’re on a diet, that splurge on a new dress when we’re up to our ears in debt, that hour—or two or three—we spend on Facebook when we have a deadline.  It could be a relationship that causes us more pain than happiness, a third glass of wine, or saying yes to an invitation when we have neither the time nor the energy to commit ourselves to another engagement.  Counterproductive actions may seem innocuous at first—a second helping of dessert usually won’t kill us, after all—but self-sabotaging actions often manifest into negative patterns of behavior with far-reaching consequences.  Whether it’s gambling or smoking, paralyzing perfectionism or abandoning tasks, here are three ways to stop self-destructive behavior:

1)    Shake It Up. 

We take comfort in the familiar.  It feels safe.  Soothing.  Easy.  Self-sabotaging behavior, however, is often ingrained in the very routines we rely on to find relief—and these patterns of behavior exacerbate when we’re under stress, leading to anger, doubt, and disappointment.  Desperate and unsettled, we turn to more and more self-sabotaging behavior in an effort to feel better, until we’re mired in an irrational, vicious cycle of making one poor decision after the other.

You know how it goes: That second cosmopolitan the night before—which seemed perfectly reasonable at the time—has caused you to sleep through your alarm.  You’re late for work, your boss snaps at you, and your tasks for the day seem insurmountable.  Furious with yourself, overwhelmed, and exhausted, you seek solace in a bacon cheeseburger and fries at lunch even though you’re trying to lose weight.  Back at the office, you have trouble concentrating because your mind is busy calculating how many hours you’ll have to spend at the gym to burn off what you just consumed, distracting you from finishing an assignment you want to ensure is your best work yet to make up for being tardy.  Your boss snaps at you again for the delay, and in a moment of hopelessness, you convince yourself that you’ll feel better if you just spend an hour perusing potential vacation spots on-line.  Screw it, you think when the day ends and you realize you haven’t accomplished anything worthwhile: You’ve had a bad day so you might as well call it quits.  You spend your evening on the sofa consoling yourself with reality TV, wine, and takeout, rather than attacking that unfinished assignment, going for that run you swore to yourself you’d take, and taking care of your laundry.  You wake up the next morning bloated and dull-minded—and you have nothing to wear—and the cycle starts all over again, until it becomes a routine that’s suddenly your new normal.

Whatever rut you find yourself in, break out of it.  Making one healthy, wise decision usually begets another.  Exchange that second cosmopolitan when you’re out with your friends for a glass of sparkling water.  Get in the habit of going to sleep at a decent time.  Spend time packing a lunch that will bolster your energy and willpower.  Take a brisk walk when pressure rises instead of dipping into your stash of sweets.  Consistently weighing the costs and benefits of the decisions you make throughout the day will lead to a new pattern of behavior that’s constructive, rewarding, and aligned with your long-term goals.

2)    Practice Tough (Self) Love. 

I’m a staunch believer in the power and importance of self-love.  It’s just as crucial, however, to practice tough self-love.

My daughter is intelligent, driven, responsible, kind, and radiant.  She’s well on her way towards a remarkable future, and I made it one of my life goals to guarantee her happiness and success.  Had I let her indulge in her every wish and impulse while growing up—eating candy to her heart’s content, attending school only when she “felt like it,” staying up past her bedtime to watch movies, or leaving her room a mess with the hope that someone else (that would be me) would clean up after her—would she be the woman she is today?  Absolutely not.  I like to think of myself as a fun mom—and she and her friends would agree—but I also set boundaries.  When self-sabotaging behavior takes over, it’s time to tell on ourselves to our inner mothers.

“Practicing tough self-love is the responsibility of our inner parent,” therapist Martha Baldwin Beveridge writes in Loving Your Partner Without Losing Yourself.  “Using tough self-love involves the discipline of developing and maintaining a firm, nurturing, and wise stance with the child self who lives within us…The needy, jealous, greedy, hungry, demanded, and wounded aspects of our inner child insist on having what they want when they want it.  The desire driving our child self may be a cigarette, a drink, chocolate, a trip to the race track, a shopping spree, putting off something we need to do, or doing something we know we ought not to do.  The child inside us pleads, begs, argues, and insists that just this one time it will be okay to indulge ourselves.  It attempts to get its way despite whatever earlier decision our parent and adult selves may have made about what is best.”

“Whenever the inner child tries to get her way, she needs the firm parent and clear-thinking adult parts within us to take charge and tell her “no”—if “no” is the response that is consistent with our goals and intentions.”

What do you do when your inner child throws a tantrum loud enough to shatter glass?  Give yourself a time out—“time,” Beveridge writes, “to be still, to sit quiet, breathe deeply, and reflect on the roots of your pain.  You may write in your journal about what is happening inside you.  You might take a warm bath, go for a walk, sit outside, pet your dog or cat, or pursue some other activity that helps to ground you and redirect your attention to nourishing and comforting yourself in wholesome ways.”

The next time your inner child makes a demand that will work against you, check in with yourself and ask, would you want your child to behave in such a way?  The answer will almost always be no.  Would you punish them?  Yes—and if you give in to your inner child, there is no doubt you’ll end up mentally berating yourself.

3)    Get to the Bottom of Your Behavior. 

My client Penny is a talented graphic artist who runs her own business but has trouble meeting deadlines.  In an effort to work better, faster, and more efficiently, she drinks cup after cup of coffee and stays up late, obsessing over every detail.  This amplifies her anxiety, plummets her into bad moods when her caffeine high crashes and her sleepless nights catch up to her, and prolongs the time it takes for her to finish tasks.  Terra is a young, full-time nurse who picks up jobs on the side to not only make ends meet but to put a dent in her student loan and credit card debt.  She’s diligent about sticking to a budget until it comes to going out with friends, often spending up to $200 on a weekend night.  After a recent health scare, Ramona revamped her diet, took up yoga, cut out major stressors in her life, and started taking vitamins religiously, but sneaks in cigarettes when her husband works late.

When we examined Penny’s pattern of behavior, we discovered that she couldn’t bear to part with work unless she thought it was flawless.  Her inability to hand in assignments on time exasperated her clients, which only heightened her self-doubt, made her second-guess her work, and delayed her productivity.  In realizing that her clients didn’t have the same unrealistic standards as she did—and were more interested in having a final product than no product at all—she was able to approach her work in a relaxed, sensible way, accomplish more, and satisfy her clients.  Terra was inclined to overindulge on evenings out with her friends because she felt she deserved a reward for all of her hard work; she also didn’t want to let on to her friends—many of whom made more than her—that she was sky-high in debt.  We found ways for her to reward herself with low-cost alternatives, mainly in the name of leisurely baths, taking time out each evening to read in bed, and finding restaurants in her area that offered excellent happy hour deals.  She felt lighter and more capable of keeping to her grueling schedule when she confessed her financial woes to her friends, who were more than happy to offer her tips on saving—and host dinner parties at their apartments on the weekends instead.  Ramona’s anxiety over her hospital bills and the shame she felt when her husband worked long hours to recoup the costs got the best of her when she was alone.  Ramona discussed her concerns with her husband and together they decided to take out a second mortgage on their home to pay off their medical debt.  She also joined a knitting club that met on the nights her husband had to work late.  By identifying the root of my clients’ tendencies towards self-sabotaging behavior, we were able to explore ways to nip them in the bud.

The next time you’re tempted to self-sabotage, ask yourself: Is this a step in the right direction?  If not, head the other way—and head there fast.

Transcend, Transform, Thrive.

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