The siren song of self-sabotage

Many of my clients come to me with concerns about self-defeating habits. Do I think they drink too much, procrastinate, or don’t exercise enough? Shouldn’t they feel more motivated? Shouldn’t they work harder - at their careers, their relationships, self-care? It costs them a lot to ask these questions; often having had to navigate desperation, fear and great anxiety. And while I have great respect for their concerns, my answer is always the same: might these be the wrong questions to be asking?

My clients’ fears about their self-defeating habits may or may not be warranted, but it occurs to me that the bigger question is WHY. Why are they choosing these behaviours?

Intrinsic to the Gestalt modality is an integration of creativity and the commitment to experimentation. So, as a way into the experiences of my clients, I tried something new: I embraced some of my own self-defeating habits. What do I do to hold myself back? How does it feel? And quite soon my particular ‘vice’ became clear: a powerful procrastination.

For me, it’s a sense of being frozen - or profoundly stuck. It’s as if I am mired in something sticky and consuming, leaving me completely intransigent - as if forward movement is impossible. I can write lists of the things I need to do - and I do! But as I sit and contemplate all the things I should be doing, I am suspended in a sense of stasis. I do nothing.

As time passes and the intensity of feeling builds, so does the anxiety. Procrastination truly kicks in and I tell myself elaborate stories about action ‘in a minute’, ‘later’, ‘tomorrow’...and still, I do nothing.

Finally the pressure builds to the point where I can’t stand it, I can’t sit still. Eventually the physical discomfort of inaction outweighs crippling inertia. Then, like a whirling dervish I desperately attack the tasks at hand and finally achieve completion...until next time. And the cycle starts again.

When the fog finally lifted, I had a ‘moment of clarity’: as long as I was trapped on the hamster wheel of procrastination, the drama I created in my own life acted as the ultimate distraction. The ‘crazy-making’ activities I embraced ensured I not have to spend a minute examining real life considerations or emotions - I did not have to face my fear, grief or anger. By creating untenable anxiety, I actually shielded myself from what felt deeper, more intense and far more dangerous. So in a way, my self-defeating behaviour was actually helping me - protecting me from perceived emotional harm.

I am not saying that procrastination isn’t problematic - it is. But I am saying that this particular self-defeating habit has been - for me - much more than that. Perhaps there is empowerment in seeing ‘bad’ behaviours as simply more or less effective ways of coping. We all do things - good and bad - for lots of reasons. But before I could change the ‘what’, I needed to explore the ‘why’. Maybe self-defeating habits actually act as a well-intentioned smoke-screen, hiding what we want to protect. That which have always kept us safe.

So, my challenge: acknowledge self-sabotage. As much as possible, without judgment examine your self-defeating behaviours - muster your courage and go further than the ‘what’ to explore the ‘why’. I think you’ll find there’s method to your seeming madness. And isn’t understanding a great place from which to make any significant change?

What is your flavour of self-sabotage? How does it work for you? Please consider sharing your experiences below.

Katie Mead2 Comments