What is meant by the term self-sabotage?
“We are all descended from cowards”. This quote is paraphrased via a colleague from a lecturer in first year psychology. It is a perfect place to start an explanation of what is meant by self-sabotage. You might immediately discard the idea of self-sabotage as pop psychology. You’ll be happy to know, however that the basis of this concept veers away from the self-help section of the book store. Self-sabotage is not really entirely explained by your sense of self-esteem. The truth of the matter is that we’re all trying to avoid feeling anxious and humans have an acute ability to drag every possible fear of the future and make it feel like we are confronted with it right now. It is an adaptive trait. We will be confronted with less danger and expend less energy escaping if we just guess the bad things that can happen. In developed countries, every generation is coping with a new web of social expectations and information that becomes more complex but is mostly non-life-threatening. Unfortunately we are still using almost the same outdated tech in our heads as when we were running from bears.
This means we still utilise anxiety to assist in navigating important decisions in our lives and with limited direct experiences that give us perspective on the inherent danger in those decisions, our anxiety can really get away from us. So here we are confronted with the job interview that we really want and it slowly begins to feel like your new boss is probably a real life version of Christian Bale in American Psycho. What better way to keep calm than to have a half a bottle of vodka to calm down and put off the research until the next day when you have a pounding headache and you’re trying to read the wrong companies’ website on a bus that’s bouncing and braking in the perfect rhythm to induce vomit. That is if the person inhaling your Booze Sweats next to you doesn’t beat you to it. This is what is meant by self-sabotage. Basically, “I don’t want to feel this anxious how do I immediately remove it”. The short answer or solution is that you don’t remove it. We’ll get to that later.
The more psychology takes up empirical methodology the further away we get from a pure Freudian explanation of our motivations. At least, away from the Freud that you all might imagine. The man taking lots of cocaine and somehow leading you back to an explanation of your chosen career path as having something to do with the sex you wanted to have with your Mother or Father. Empiricism means that we can have a more simple explanation based in evolutionary concepts that still involves some of the developmental processes that Freud first threw his twisted imagination toward. When I am speaking with clients who are stuck in the process of self-sabotage I usually ask them about their upbringing so we can identify what skill sets they may have not been taught. If how to self-sooth during an anxious moment was never taught then it is possible that could lead to a susceptibility for self-sabotage. For my approach with clients, practicing these skills replaces the long term goal of “healing the inner child” and instead focuses on strengthening the adult in front of me.
If self-sabotage is an attempt to avoid anxiety then it follows that we are attempting to avoid the anxiety of confronting something important to you, the future effort that may come from investing in something difficult and avoiding the potential pain of failure. This is a far more total view that helps give a broader perspective than that of motivational speakers that suggest that you’re not a millionaire because you don’t really believe in yourself. The function of this approach might actually work for some but this immediately places a potentially dysfunctionally high load of anxiety on your sense of self. That is, “if I ever procrastinate, or if I am ever fearful and shy away from something it is because I don’t believe in myself enough”. There are many reasons why we fear, not all of them are about your character. Positive reinforcement has been time and again experimentally proven as the most effective method of improving a particular skill and overcoming performance anxiety. This is true regardless of how many times you’ve seen the Sport Movie trope of the hard arsed coach.
Talk yourself through how you’re going to kill the interview the next day. Remind yourself of your successes in any area of your life so far. Don’t just remind yourself of these things, feel them. Swim around in the pride that you have in how far you have come so far. Now carry that anxiety with you as you start to research that new company and prepare for the job interview. Leave behind the vodka though, I’ll look after that, don’t you worry.