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Self-sabotaging is when you acknowledge that there’s something out there that you genuinely want and believe is good for you, but then you do things that directly conflict with that goal. Maybe, you mentally beat yourself up when you don’t achieve perfection, deny yourself time to relax, quickly give up on your goals before you’ve had a chance to experience progress. You might also avoid prioritizing your mental health, engage in unhelpful coping mechanisms, avoid asking for support when you need it or even abandon a new relationship, in the fear of it ending.
There are times when we’re acutely and painfully aware of this — like when we find ourselves procrastinating, before taking care of a (literal or figurative) mess, so that it becomes a bigger deal to clean up later. We impulsively buy a large bag of potato chips when we’re trying to cut back on junk food or we avoid difficult emotions by mindlessly scrolling through social media.
It can be worthwhile to recognize that self-sabotaging behaviour doesn’t usually appear out of nowhere. It can often be a warped attempt to protect yourself from things that you perceive to be scary, stressful, overwhelming, or challenging.
To stop sabotaging yourself, you need to figure out your patterns of behaviour and then find creative ways to counteract them and form new habits. Before you can undo an unhealthy behaviour, you must understand the function it serves. Take a moment to think about how this might be true for you. What is your self-sabotaging behaviour attempting to protect you from? Change? Stress? Vulnerable emotions? Too much success? Not enough success?
Try to be patient with yourself as you try out these practices! They can be challenging at first, but they will often start to feel more natural with time.
Feel comfortable examining your behaviour to find patterns, it helps to look at areas of life where things seem to regularly go wrong. Imagine something lousy happens to you. Your thoughts begin to tear you down more, for example, “Bad things always happen to me — I’m such a loser.” Once you believe you aren’t worthy of good things, you further reinforce that belief by engaging in self-sabotage and that can be a compelling trap that can happen over and over again.
Recognise the thoughts that arise simply for what they are, so that you can start to distance yourself from it. You then become aware that you’re thinking of something. It’s not necessarily truthful, helpful, or realistic — it’s just a thought. As you begin to believe in your worth, you might not turn to self-sabotaging behaviours as often.
Start with small specific ways to improve your habits, rather than trying to eliminate all self-defeating behaviour from your life. In time, it will add up more than you expect and will help rewire your default mindset to create resilient new habits. For instance, if you know that your mental health would benefit from exercising each day, but you currently don’t exercise at all, then start with one or two short walks each week.
Be patient and build good mental health habits, so they become familiar and feel safe to you. This strategy can also help you achieve a sense of control — rather than only having unhelpful behaviours to turn to, you might be more empowered by choosing better options. By having a big list to choose from, it lets you try new ones when the old ones don’t work or feel stale. Ask yourself, what options do I have? Is there more than one way to achieve my goal?
Grab a pen and paper and write down your accomplishments, even the really small ones. Fight the negative voice in your head to prove to yourself that you are capable of doing great work. You are worthy of success. It takes time to break negative thought patterns, but with persistence, you can break out of them! Ask yourself, what can I say to myself that is positive or encouraging?
Pretend you’re going to outsource a task and write the instructions you would give someone else. This can help you simplify your expectations, since your demands of someone else would be more reasonable than your demands for yourself.
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