How to recognise self-sabotage (and stop it in its tracks)
When I was 25 I signed up for a 10km run. I told people I intended to start running and the race was something to aim for. I scheduled a training plan that allowed me to start small and build up to the event. I was all in. Or at least I thought I was.
In retrospect it seems that I never intended to take part in that run. I ‘forgot’ to set the alarm or ‘slept through it’ (‘turned it off’ would be closer to the truth). I drank too much on nights out and let myself off the hook when I woke up feeling hungover.
And when I did make it out the door I slacked off, walking more than I ran, never pushing myself.
It is painfully obvious now that this is a story of self-sabotage. But while it sounds ludicrous it is a surprisingly common phenomenon.
Dr Joann Lukins is a sports psychologist. She says that self-sabotage is behaviour that disrupts our goals. It’s when we want something, but then act in a way that is contrary to achieving that thing.
“In relation to fitness or wellness, it might be about committing to exercise in the morning and then consciously not setting the alarm, knowing we won’t get up in time.
“Or it might be about exercising as part of a strategy towards weightloss and then ‘rewarding ourselves’ with coffee and cake,” she explains.
So why on earth would we do this to ourselves? Dr Lukins notes that there are several reasons, but it often boils down to lack of confidence. We don’t think that we’ll be able to achieve the goal and so we set ourselves up to fail.
Sometimes this is because the goal we have set ourselves is unrealistic. This was definitely true of my 10km run. I signed up in a moment of bravado, but having never run more than a mile (and that was a struggle) it might have been better to start with a 5km.
Every time I thought about the race I freaked out, I told myself I couldn’t do it, and unsurprisingly my training went south. On race day, I didn’t even show up.
One of the hallmarks of self-sabotage is negative internal dialog – we are literally telling ourselves that we can’t do it. Obviously, this isn’t a great way to get motivated as Dr Lukins explains: “The emotions that negative self talk provoke result in negative behavioural choices that are inconsistent with the goal.”
But there are other elements too. If family and friends are unsupportive of the goal then their negative attitudes can seep into our own. This is especially difficult if the people in your immediate circle aren’t on board.
This can be subtle. In the case of my 10km run, my flatmates all said the right supportive things – “good on you,” “you can do it.” But then on Friday nights when I needed to head to bed for an early night they dragged me out to the pub. Given that I was all ready sabotaging my own goal, it didn’t take much to persuade me.
But even if you are prone to self-sabotage, you don’t have to accept it. According to Dr Lukins, the trick for beating it is to recognise when it’s happening.
“There are a few tell tale warning signs, negative self-talk, feeling anxious about the goal you’ve set yourself and simply not acting on the changes that you’ve planned,” she explains.
When it starts to happen you can stop self-sabotage in its tracks by staying focused on your goal.
“Re-state your goal to yourself, then stop and consider what behaviours will be consistent with achieving the goal. Develop a recipe for success, then start to act in a way that is consistent with success,” advises Dr Lukins.
“Know that change and achieving goals takes courage,” she says.
“There is always a risk of failure, but you won’t achieve anything if you don’t try.”
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