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Self-sabotage: failure's fatal allure

Date

Sarah Berry

The urge to self-sabotage stems from a negative self-image, writes Sarah Berry.

Self-saboteur ... is Kristen Stewart her own worst enemy?

Self-saboteur ... is Kristen Stewart her own worst enemy? Photo: Getty Images

How quickly razor sharp clarity can become clear as mud.

We can have a strong sense of what's important to us ... and still royally screw it up.

Kristen Stewart certainly knows what that's like, after her 'momentary indiscretion ... jeopardised the most important thing in my life.'

Author and self-coined 'relationship expert to the stars' Dr Gilda Carle recently put in her two cents on the saga, saying that Stewart couldn't face up to her own feelings and be honest that she wasn't ready for marriage, so she acted out instead. "She self-sabotaged," Carle said.

While celebrities make easy targets, we all do it. We all self-sabotage.

Sometimes it is subconscious and we slip so easily into the familiar groove of subversiveness that we don't even skip a beat.

Other times we are well aware of our actions (or lack thereof) and the distress they will cause, but we feel a strange sense of inertia; our bodies keep moving towards self-sabotage, while we watch on in our minds.

Either way, despite the fact that most of us long for love, beautiful bodies and rewarding work, we hold onto the proverbial handbrake, handicapping our hearts, our health and our happiness.

Take our attitude towards our bodies, for instance. A new study by Roy Morgan Research, for Lorna Jane, of over 50,000 Australians found that 63 per cent expressed a desire to lose weight, yet 53 per cent had not done formal exercise in three months.

The majority said it was because "there are not enough hours in the day." But, three out of every five still managed to find the time to watch three or more hours of TV per day or spend 15 or more hours a week online.

Why is it that we stymie our own potential and do not walk our talk?

Admittedly, accidentally slipping into a tub of ice cream or luxuriating in laziness is delicious and decadent. Surely, such acts are too good to be bad?

Psychologist Edward Selby says that behaviour becomes self-sabotaging or self-handicapping when, "in attempting to solve or cope with a problem, it instigates new problems, interferes with long-term goals, and unsettles relationships."

He also says that while we all self-sabotage some of the time, repetition is often what makes it problematic.

We tend towards habitual self-sabotage "when [we] don't have other coping skills in terms of self-regulation," says Dr Timothy Sharp of the Happiness Institute.

It has also been found that we are more likely to self-handicap if we "have a precarious but not entirely negative sense of self-competence." Put another way, if we lack confidence about our abilities we err on the side of caution and sit on the fence of our own potential.

Self-sabotage comes in many forms.

It's when we do everything, but the one thing we need to do; it's when we pick a relationship apart because things are a little too perfect; it's when we polish off food when we're well beyond full and it's when we drink or drug ourselves into a stupor to subdue emotion; it's when we go on shopping sprees we can't afford; it's when we curl into ourselves in anticipation of rejection; and it's in the lack of too much effort lest we fail and confirm our fears.

"What all self-defeating behaviours have in common is that they are false friends - they seem helpful at the time but are actually harmful to us, especially when repeated," Selby says.

"[We] deploy self-sabotaging behaviours to short-circuit the emotional cascade, in the hope that physical sensations from the destructive behaviours - the taste of food, pain from self-injury, or the high from a drug - will distract [us] from the upsetting thoughts. Stopping the emotional cascade and reducing emotional pain feel good in the moment, but the negative consequences of the behaviour persist."

Indeed. They often get worse. But, although self-handicapping exacerbates the problem and decreases the likelihood of success, it protects the belief that we have the ability to achieve. Because, we use the obstacle or excuse to explain away our rejection, shortcomings or failures.

And as, social psychologists Frederick Rhodewalt and Michael Tragakis, point out, in the unlikely event of success, we look even better "because the good performance happened despite the handicap." 



"The self-handicapper then is willing to trade the increased likelihood of failure for the opportunity to protect a desired self-image," they explain. "It is important to point out that the self-handicapper is willing to accept the label of procrastinator or drunkard [or whatever else] in order to preserve a more central label of competence and worthiness."

But, our sense of worthiness may be what motivates self-sabotage in the first place. The relationship between the two is one renowned author, Louise Hay explores in her book, You Can Heal Your Life. She says that our belief systems are central to self-handicapping. For instance, if  we don't believe that we are good enough, that relationships are nourishing or that our bodies are beautiful then we will subconsciously create circumstances that affirm those feelings.

"If the belief that you 'are not good enough' is strong in you, how can you possibly create a loving, joyous, prosperous, healthy life?" she asks. "Somehow your main subconscious belief would always be contradicting it. Somehow you would never quite get it together, for something would always be going wrong somewhere."

And it's a downward spiral as self-sabotage preserves a negative self-image.

"Ironically, the tools that uncertain individuals use to maintain and protect and desired self-conceptions are often the implements that sustain their uncertainty," Rhodewalt and Tragakis say.

The way past this starts with an awareness of our beliefs about ourselves and our potential, Hay says. Then, it is a case of mindfully moving forward and being gentle with ourselves.

"I think it is our natural birthright to go from success to success all our life," says the author, who is speaking in Sydney this weekend. "If we are not doing that, either we are not in tune with our innate capabilities, or we do not believe it can be true for us, or we do not recognise our successes.

"When a little child is learning to walk or talk, we encourage him and praise him for every tiny improvement he makes. The child beams and eagerly tries to do better."

Instead, she says, we berate ourselves for being stupid or clumsy or a 'failure' and we don't try.

But, we can learn to try and we can learn when to ease off or utilise the handbrake better so that it serves us, Tim Sharp says.

"People who self-sabotage are not very good at seeing beyond the current frustration. People can learn to do it.

"You might not become an Olympic athlete, but you can get faster. Some people are inherently better at [self-regulation], but it's not a competition. We can teach people mindfulness and how to apply relaxation and meditation. Better communicate skills, traditional cognitive behaviour therapy and even exercise [also help]."

36 comments

  • Great article

    Commenter
    CC
    Date and time
    August 22, 2012, 1:54PM
    • Concur. A lot of good points in a short article. Speaks truthfully about what we go through, without self denying or touching upon them superficially.

      Commenter
      JM
      Date and time
      August 22, 2012, 2:28PM
    • Might have been a good article, if it wasn't tied so hamfistedly to Kristen Stewart.

      There is no indication that she deliberately self-sabotaged by having an affair, this is an entirely pop psychology explanation without any factual basis. She may have had an affair for any number of reasons, ranging from the mundane (he was hot, I was bored) to deep and complex psychological issues. In a hypothesis exactly contrary to that presented here, she may have even had an affair out of a desire to bolster her success (after all, he was a famous director). But we'll never know, not that it's actually any of our business.

      This is where analytic psychology falls down and becomes totally unscientific, offering post-hoc explanations of any and all events, and rendering itself unfalsifiable. Dr Carle does nobody any favours by projecting emotions onto a woman she has not examined or worked with. I guess even people with PhDs can be prone to a bit of gossip, eh Gilda?

      Commenter
      Psychologist
      Location
      Who remembers Popper
      Date and time
      August 22, 2012, 5:34PM
  • I am self sabotaging by reading and commenting on this article instead of working like I should be ...

    Commenter
    Sarah
    Date and time
    August 22, 2012, 2:09PM
    • Word.

      Commenter
      Mel
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      August 22, 2012, 3:36PM
    • Double Word.

      Commenter
      TheDoozy
      Date and time
      August 22, 2012, 4:24PM
    • Wordizzle

      Commenter
      Mat
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 23, 2012, 10:19AM
  • Kristen,
    Next time you get the urge to self sabotage, call me. Really.
    Swiss

    Commenter
    Swissfondue
    Date and time
    August 22, 2012, 2:48PM
    • Go down to your local Club X and buy a life-sized plastic doll, they have equally as much personality and acting capabilities as Kristen Stewart

      Commenter
      NickR
      Date and time
      August 23, 2012, 12:48PM
  • 'Other times we are well aware of our actions (or lack thereof) and the distress they will cause, but we feel a strange sense of inertia;....' It's called being a narcissist. They have little to no empathy of the damage they cause to those around them.

    Commenter
    Theo
    Date and time
    August 22, 2012, 3:07PM

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