From the boardroom to your best friends, you’re all about women empowering women. But how much do you have your own back?
Below is one Women's Health writers account of how self-sabotage has impacted her life, plus the steps you can take to recognise and reframe your own thought patterns and self-sabotaging behaviour.
Want to get right to 3 expert tips to nix self-sabotage? Scroll to the end
Pouring myself a glass of Pinot Grigio, the size of which would probably be best described as ‘student measures’, I tell my friend about an important meeting I have the next day. ‘I’m so nervous!’ I exclaim, in a tone that betrays how tipsy I am already. ‘Better not stay up too late, then,’ he suggests, clinking my glass with his.
We laugh a laugh that says this is advice I will almost certainly ignore. That was me eight years ago. I was 22, working as a PA to the director of one of the UK’s biggest book publishers and I dreamt of becoming a writer. And yet I was about to scupper an amazing opportunity that had been handed to me on a plate.
What does self-sabotage look like?
In an act of kindness, my boss had offered to introduce me to some agents on the understanding that I ‘impress them’. The night before, I went for a drink to take the edge off my growing nerves. One turned into two, which turned into 4am. I woke up with a hangover so potent my head felt like the inside of a blender and I couldn’t so much as turn on the shower let alone turn on the charm.
I remember the relief on the agent’s face when the meeting came to a natural end just 20 minutes after I first mumbled hello. Why did I do it, when I knew that with every sip beyond that first anxiety-easing glass I was fucking up the best chance I had of getting what I wanted? I couldn’t tell you back then. Now, I’ve got a little bit more of an idea.
As a British woman at this moment in time, I have the support of other women; #metoo and the gender pay gap has been unmasked if not yet undone. But, something is still holding me, and possibly you, back.
If it isn’t the patriarchy, the problem is closer to home, staring at you in the mirror. From not going for that promotion to halting that half-marathon training, why are we all standing in our own way?
What is self-sabotaging behaviour and why do we do it?
You don’t need a PhD in psychology to see that getting drunk the night before a potentially life-changing meeting is a classic case. While it’d be easy to put it down to age, there’s science behind my sabotage. ‘Humans don’t want to put themselves in uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situations,’ says counselling psychologist Dr Sarah Crawford.
Part of the problem is that, on a neurological level, we can’t differentiate life-or-death fear from meeting-a-future-boss fear. The brain’s emotion processor, the amygdala, responds to fear by sending a distress signal to the hypothalamus, the command centre of the brain, which triggers the release of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, prompting your body to enter fight-or-flight mode.
Your whole body is telling you to get out of the situation you’re in. ‘Rationally, you might understand that nothing too bad could happen,’ explains Dr Crawford. ‘But to your brain, fear is fear; it puts obstacles in your path to keep you in the known, “safe” place and away from the thing you’re afraid of.’
Why procrastination is a form of self-sabotage
For financial analyst Emma Richards, 30, fear manifests in the form of procrastination. ‘The bigger the deadline, the more TV I watch,’ she says. ‘And then I hate myself for it when I’m rushing to finish the night before. I just can’t seem to stop.’
This is a classic case of self-sabotage, explains Dr Crawford. ‘Putting something off until the last minute means that, if it doesn’t go well, you can say, “Oh well, I didn’t try that hard anyway.” You’re avoiding the potential pain of failure, but ultimately damaging your chances of succeeding.’
By scuppering your chances in this way, you’re also taking back control of a situation that feels too much like it’s down to chance, says Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at AXAPPP Healthcare.
‘When something feels overwhelming, it can feel easier to control your own failure than face the possibility of that failure taking you by surprise.’ It sounds familiar. Back to my bender. I’d landed that PA job mid-recession, and it had been hard to come by.
So when a dream scenario was handed to me on a plate, it felt too good to be true. It felt easier to instigate potential failure and give myself an excuse for scuppering the opportunity with a hangover, than it did to stay home, prep hard and wow the people in the meeting.
Perfectionism can also play into self-sabotage
If self-sabotage for some people is motivated by fear of failing, for others, it’s a fear of success; a refusal to acknowledge your own victories in the face of evidence to the contrary. Hazel Gale was 30 when she became a world champion kickboxer. ‘I won two world championships in one day,’ she recalls.
‘But afterwards I laid on my bed, staring at the ceiling and feeling rotten. This was the thing I’d worked towards for years; the thing I’d trained three times a day, six days a week for. But I couldn’t stop telling myself that the victories didn’t count. Or that I didn’t deserve them. Straight after, I was back in the gym, training extra hard so that I could get a real win the next time, one that I actually deserved.’
On the face of things, it seems a hell of a lot more productive than my version of shooting myself in the foot. But failing to enjoy your hard-won successes is just self-sabotage in disguise. Take running a half-marathon: The fear-motivated saboteur might do zero training and stay up late the night before, so they have the perfect excuse, but the perfectionist-saboteur might never sign up in the first place because they don’t want to risk getting a bad time. The outcome is the same: ballsing up your chance of crossing that finish line.
‘Perfectionism is much more common these days, fuelled by social media and the pressure to “live your best life”,’ says Chloe Brotheridge, author of The Anxiety Solution (£12.99, Michael Joseph).
It makes sense. Take in the message that you can do anything you put your mind to enough times – be it reaching the top rung of your ladder, owning a home or being in the ‘perfect’ relationship – and the goal posts soon start to feel out of reach.
‘A recent study found that since 1989 “socially prescribed perfectionism” has increased by 33%,’ she adds. ‘A culture that encourages competition could be partly to blame. Women arguably find social connectedness more important and are therefore more prone to worrying about what other people think.’
The link between social media and self-sabotage
It feels like there’s something else going on here, something bigger than your in-built fear system; something cultural. There is, says Hazel. We’re much more concerned with self-image than we used to be.
Why wouldn’t we be when our lives – or at least, a filtered version of them – are out there for all to see. It’s something Hazel has acknowledged in herself. It was only when she trained herself into illness that she realised she wasn’t being driven by a love of her sport, but by fear of looking weak among peers. She rethought her goals, retrained as a hypnotherapist and wrote her first book, Fight: Win Freedom From Self-Sabotage (£18.99, Yellow Kite).
‘Certain beliefs have been with us since childhood and for many people it’s “I’m not good enough,”’ Hazel says. ‘We self-sabotage to make sure these beliefs remain true. I was being driven by the fear of appearing “a loser”. By the time I realised I was only pursuing my fighting career because I was worried what others would think, I was in a destructive cycle of negativity.’
Like Hazel, I seem to thrive on negative self-talk. Despite the less-than-ideal outcome of that meeting, I’ve successfully carved out a career as a freelance journalist. And yet, when I’m in the grip of self-doubt, instead of getting to the root of the problem, I’ll get in a wormhole of other people’s success and windup feeling worse than before.
‘Comparing yourself to others doesn’t just rob you of joy, it can also stunt your progress,’ says Hazel. ‘If you’re jealous of someone else’s relationship, work on your own; if you envy someone getting promoted, perhaps that’s what you need to work towards.’
But if social media is to blame for making us all more envious of each other, it also deserves credit for encouraging introspection. Two words: self-care. These days, for me, a big meeting is likely to be preceded by a student measure of camomile tea and a 9.30pm bedtime.
If self-care has taught us one thing, it’s that our interior lives deserve as much energy as our social ones. I’m still standing in my own way. But I’m doing so with a self-awareness I didn’t have before; I’m trying to recognise that voice in my head that says, ‘Oh, what’s the point?’ and I’m beginning to understand that it isn’t just about achieving your goals.
Just the act of going to the gym, picking the healthy option or an early night has intrinsic value, irrespective of what the outcome is. The taking part counts, too.
How to deal with self-sabotage in your own life
1. Recognise your monster
Regardless of why you are self-sabotaging, you need to spot the signs – because negativity breeds negativity. Dr Crawford recommends a journal as a way of identifying self-defeating thoughts. ‘Do it every day for a month and then look back to see if you can spot any patterns,’ she suggests. ‘Once you pinpoint them, you can start to overcome them.’
‘Mentally rehearsing how you want things to be, whether that means being super productive or saying yes to a challenge, will help you put those plans into action,’ says Brotheridge.
Doing the same thing repeatedly creates a neural pathway in the brain; to break that habit you need to create new pathways. Enter, visualisation. ‘Just a few minutes visualising a new behaviour each day can work wonders,’ she says.
3. Help yourself
There’s no point in visualising a behaviour and not doing it. If you feel like getting drunk to calm your nerves, try breathing exercises or have a herbal tea. ‘Self-sabotage can be hard to overcome because the causes can be deeply rooted in our core beliefs about ourselves,’ says Dr Crawford. ‘CBT can help you to identify negative patterns and build strategies to break them.'
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