Self-Sabotaging: Why We Get in Our Own Way

The expression “you are your own worst enemy” rings true for most of us. How many times have we acted against our self-interest, then asked ourselves why did we self-destruct? Why did we say that to a loved one? Why did we procrastinate on that project? Why have we stopped doing that one thing that makes us feel great? Self sabotaging thoughts and behaviors are perpetuated by an inner critic we all possess, which psychologist and author Robert Firestone, calls the “critical inner voice.”

The critical inner voice doesn’t represent a positive sense of self that you can entrust in. Rather, it epitomizes a cruel “anti-self,” a part inside us that is turned against us. It casts doubt on our abilities, undermines our desires, and convinces us to be paranoid and suspicious toward ourselves and those close to us. This anti-self fills our mind with critical self-analysis and self-sabotaging thoughts that lead us to hold back or steer away from our true goals.

Watch: Whiteboard Video on The Critical Inner Voice

Where Self Sabotaging Thoughts Come From

Our critical inner voice is formed from our early life experiences. Without realizing it, we tend to internalize attitudes that were directed toward us by parents or influential caretakers throughout our development. For example, if our parent saw us as lazy, we may grow up feeling useless or ineffective. We may then engage in a self sabotaging thoughts that tell us not to try, i.e.“Why bother? You’ll never succeed anyway. You just don’t have the energy to get anything done”

In a similar manner, children can internalize negative thoughts that their parents or early caretakers have toward themselves.  If we grew up with a self-hating parent, who often viewed themselves as weak or a failure, we may grow up with similar self sabotaging attitudes toward ourselves. For instance, if our parent felt critical of their appearance, we may take on similar insecurities without realizing it. We may feel easily self-conscious and less sure of ourselves in social or public situations.

We can’t change the past. Yet, as adults, we can identify the self sabotaging thoughts that we’ve internalized and consciously choose to act against them. When we fall victim to our critical inner voice and listen to its directives, we often engage in self-limiting or self sabotaging behaviors that hurt us in our daily lives. As author Elizabeth Gilbert put it, “You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day. This is a power you can cultivate. If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind. That’s the only thing you should be trying to control.”

How to Stop Engaging in Self Sabotaging Behavior

Once we know where our self sabotaging thoughts come from, we can start to differentiate from the negative identity we have cast upon ourselves. We can familiarize ourselves with our critical inner voice and notice when it starts to seep in to our thought process. As we do this, we can start to recognize ways we act that we don’t like or respect. For example, if we often feel embarrassed or ashamed and, as a consequence, hold ourselves back socially, we can start to push ourselves to be more outward and open.

Changing these self sabotaging behaviors will make us anxious, because it means challenging deeply ingrained, old and familiar attitudes that we’ve long held about ourselves. Differentiating from these behaviors is essential to leading happy lives. In their book The Self under Siege: A Therapeutic Model for Differentiation, co-authored by Dr. Robert Firestone, Dr. Lisa Firestone and Joyce Catlett, we describe the four steps involved in differentiation.
Step one involves separating from the destructive attitudes (critical inner voices) we internalized based on painful early life experiences. The second step requires us to separate from the negative traits in our parents or influential caretakers that we’ve taken on as our own. The third step involves challenging the destructive defenses or adaptations we made to the pain we experienced growing up. These adaptations may have helped us in childhood but, very often, hurt us as adults. For instance, if we were used to being let down or rejected as children, we may have formed a defense that shuts us off from wanting or expecting much from others. Though this lowering our expectations may seemed to help cushion us from getting hurt as kids, this same defense can keep us from trusting or getting close to someone as adults.

The fourth and final step of differentiation asks us to develop our very own sense of our unique values, ideals and beliefs. Once we have separated from the negative overlays from our past, we can uncover who we really are. We can stop self sabotaging behaviors and choose the person we want to be.

How We Wind Up in Self Sabotaging Relationships

The defenses and critical inner voices that we carry over time often lead us to recreate dynamics from our early life in our adult life. We tend to play out negative, old behavior patterns with the people we get close to. We often form self sabotaging relationships by indulging in our critical inner voices and failing to challenge our core defenses.

For example, if we felt abandoned as a child, we may have the tendency to become insecure in our adult relationships. We may hear “voices” toward ourselves like, “How can you trust her? She is just going to leave you. Be careful and don’t let yourself get close to her.” If we had a parent who acted overbearing or intrusive, we may feel easily suffocated by our romantic partner. We may hear voices like, “He is too needy. Can’t he just leave you alone? You’re better off on your own. You just can’t handle being close.”

Our critical inner voices encourage us to act out our defenses in all areas of our lives, but most often in our closest relationships. They often hold us back from getting what we really want, instilling fears in us that we will be hurt in the same ways we were hurt as children. We may even choose partners who play into these old dynamics, recreating past scenarios that help us maintain a negative identity we’ve long held.

Getting to know our patterns can help us to avoid self sabotaging relationships. We can start to act against our inner critic and break from defenses that no longer serve us well today. Facing our past is an important part of this process. Once we familiarize ourselves with our defenses, we can differentiate from self sabotaging behaviors and live a more liberated life, in which we are more powerful and much more in control of our destiny.

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