Anatomy of Self-Sabotage – The What, The Why and The How

For those who, like me, have either sabotaged themselves or have borne witness to the self-destruction of someone else and have lost a love that seemed to be heading in all the right directions.

Why do we destroy relationships with those who love us? How do we break our own trust, betray our dreams and rob ourselves of happiness and safety the moment it finally seems within reach? This is a very dark and mysterious behavioural loop that seems to have limitless power over us; a chain reaction that keeps us running and hiding from the ugly truth of what we’ve done.

Just like an addict, you might live with a subconscious awareness that you will inevitably destroy whatever good you might have in your life – and the anxiety that lives in that is the theme of every waking moment. And so you self-medicate the fear; you work harder, try new ways to be a “different person” and cling more tightly to what you so desperately want. Then, when you do inevitably self-sabotage and act out in ways that betray your values and destroy the hearts of those you love, that experience is heavily laden with soul crushing shame.

This is in part because you have no conscious idea of why you’re doing it. You have an almost separate self who is doing these things despite you. And because it hurts and invokes such intense guilt, it restarts the cycle. Your actions create the feelings, which create the actions.

If you’re reading this and nodding in acknowledgement, I want you to know there is a simple reason behind your cycle of behaviour that you must make the CHOICE to confront, and understand.

I can’t stress this enough – IT IS NOT WHO YOU ARE.

It is a survival mechanism that you learned to cope with unrelated pain and anxiety. To best understand how to overcome self-sabotaging behaviour, first we must break it down into three parts: the What, the How, and the Why,

The What

You could be in a long, but noticeable repeating pattern of self-loathing – that makes you feel badly about yourself and causes you to ruin a good thing immediately upon discovering it. Alternatively, you might actually choose to avoid relationships that get serious at all – even if you really like the other person – because you already know that it’s going to end up hurting too much.

Maybe you long for love and intimacy and currently have a great partner! Someone who is more than you could have ever dreamed for. They are the best, most tolerant and accepting human you’ve ever met. Despite that truth, you find yourself in situations that you know are wrong (ie. being unfaithful, treating them poorly, etc) and you realize you didn’t really want to do it way too late.

It’s like a ship that keeps veering off course when you’re not paying attention – but the ship is actually you.

You might do things that don’t make any sense at all to you – that upset you, even horrify you while you’re doing them. You might feel “outside” yourself and your life as you’re living it. Like you have this secret dark side and you cannot be trusted.

It’s almost like being the living dead. You cannot figure out who you are or what motivates you and it takes a ridiculous amount of energy to just start trying for something good. Over, and over, and over again.

Maybe your cycle of self-torture has become so prevalent that you have difficulty distinguishing between who you actually are and the destructive acts. You might have a slight awareness that the acts are not what you want – that they hurt you, make you feel worthless and disgusting – but yet here you are. Doing the same things, acting like the person you already decided not to be. Life is a heavy, blinding fog of hopelessness and self hate, and there’s no end in sight.

If any of this sounds like you, please take heart! You might not make much sense to you, but you make sense to me. I see in you, myself in a former stage of life. Know that your problems are not who you are, and they are not your lot in life! They are most likely tied to something specific from long ago – something you may even feel like you have dealt with already. I want you to know that you can solve this issue – FOREVER – if you make the choice to look at it in detail and untangle yourself from the roots of it.

I promise you, it will be the most rewarding growth you’ve ever experienced.

In fact, there is NO EXCUSE for not taking on this work now that you’ve recognized that you need to. Please don’t let fear of old problems keep you from learning to love yourself now!

The Why

Everything we do is based on our life experiences thus far. So we can say that pretty much everything you do, everyone would do if they lived your life and were placed within the same circumstances. The darkness you fight is not something specific to only you. It is in part created by your set of life experiences.

So, know that you are not alone. You’re not destined to suffer in this way, and you CAN and WILL find understanding in your issues.

IF…. you pursue acceptance and healing with openness.

You did not arrive in this place by accident. Your actions are an outward manifestation of something you are feeling; something that does not align with your conscious values – with your true self. Self-destructive actions happen to make sense of these feelings. You’re an actor following the script in the play of your life experiences.

It’s very likely that you try to rationalize the behaviour with some logical source; “I did this because of _______”. Fill in the blanks with whatever you usually use: the stress, I was drunk, I didn’t really want this anyway, I’m just a screwed up person. It’s so natural to want to assign a logical reason to something that doesn’t make sense to you.

The difference in this instance, is the inner conflict and confusion resulting from the polar opposite emotions about your own actions! No matter the source you assign to the behaviour it still doesn’t make any sense and seems totally outside of your control.

The why in this behavioural loop lives in the denial of a feeling. A denial of what we are ashamed to feel, don’t want to feel, or are afraid to feel for a many reasons. They betray us, they are intolerable to loved ones, we cannot understand them fully, there’s nothing we can do about them, or they don’t align with what we want.

So we ignore them. Medicate them. Bury them under busy work. We run faster, and work harder in all the other areas of our life.

This is how we inadvertently create shame.

The more we disconnect from and suppress the underlying feelings, the more power they gain over us – creating an inner volcano of anxiety and dark thoughts. The more you hold in, the more pressure builds in the volcano. Suddenly, the pressure of the fear, sadness and darkness you’ve been holding on to feels like it might explode out of you. Just acting as your normal self becomes increasingly difficult – an extreme exercise in self-control. When the pressure finally builds to the point of eruption, the scalding lava that bursts forth burns you and to the innocent bystanders close to you. This is the chaos created by living an opposite truth.

You might be thinking… “People feel good and bad things all the time, I’m not the only one. So why do I react in ways that I don’t really want to?”

The difference is that you lack the ability to CONFRONT them, and deal with them in ways that align with your true self – your most rational, self-aware, thinking self. Because you’ve been suppressing these things for so long, they’ve almost become infected, like a pimple that turns into a boil. Yuk.

By avoiding and repressing fear, you hide it from your awareness. Through this, you create an almost separate self – a duality that removes ALL of you from being present in your own life. You are living a lie that no one can know, including you. Shame grows here like mould in a petry dish. Once it starts growing, it seeks more of itself – it wants to be fed with the actions that make it true. It takes on a very powerful role in your existence by subconsciously guiding your actions, egging you on from deep within. “You know it’s inevitable…. it’s who you are.”

Now you’re probably asking. “Why couldn’t I just deal with these feelings in the first place?”

This is something that requires the assistance of a therapist. This is an old system, that most likely started a long time ago when you weren’t capable of coping with the emotions that created it. Usually, the beginnings stem from childhood experiences, or an old trauma, or series of traumas.

We take on coping mechanisms when we have to – for survival. It’s ironically a very healthy thing that you’re doing! Your brain started this system as a way to protect you from a breakdown. When we start suppressing feelings, it’s because they are simply too much for us to handle at the time; too scary, too painful. It’s called denial – somewhere you know the feeling exists, but it’s being redirected from your consciousness because you can’t even imagine a way to deal with it.

When we are young, or an any more vulnerable phase of life, you rely on caregivers for survival. You need a confident foundation to stand on in order to face things that are scary and overwhelming. So when you feel overcome and helpless and you don’t have that support you need to deal with or understand it, a healthy brain will employ a new coping mechanism to keep itself from breaking. Like a computer crashing.

This mechanism was helpful at one time, but it isn’t now.

Now this system of self protection is overriding your life.

There are many creative names for this system; hiding, smothering, swallowing, numbing, ignoring, distracting from, escaping. They all mean the same thing – that you are cut off from these emotions just enough to continue to function. They’re always there, subconsciously guiding your self-image and your view of the world around you, and always just out of reach of your conscious mind.

After some research, I found that there are 6 common causes of self-destructive behaviour. I will outline them in my next entry, as they deserve their own attention.

I will link it here, as I feel like it could bring you more understanding of your own “what”, which will be helpful before reading the final part of this entry!

The How

This section could also be called “the tools”, as we’re going to discuss the things that will help you heal your heart.
I know I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. As many times as it takes for you to believe that it can and will help you.
It’s so scary to think about talking about your deepest, darkest secrets with anyone, never mind a stranger. I know that fear very well. I also know that sometimes an experience with a therapist can sometimes go very badly. I have never been there myself, but I know other people have, and I’m sad to think that you might be one one of them. I truly believe that there is someone who can help you and I encourage you to continue to seek them out! Don’t ever stop.
And while you continue your search, keep reading books and articles on the subject. The things you learn on your own could help you find an excellent starting point in therapy. Start asking yourself what from your past is crying out to be heard.
Here are a few tools to help you manage in the interim.
Tool One – “Learn Your Triggers”

“I’m triggered!” – It’s a phrase all the kids are using today, (which surprisingly gives me immense hope that our younger generations are so much more equipped with self-care then we ever were!) Triggers are the emotions that you feel in the moments before you begin to “use” your negative actions.
They are typically so buried and faint that they might be difficult to recognize at first. Start a journal and write in it in the moments when you start to feel triggered. Be as detailed as you can, and try to recognize patterns. What time is it? Where are you? Who are you with? What is happening around you? What are you feeling? What does that feeling remind you of? What age does that feel like?

Tool Two – “Greet The Feelings”

In the moments when you recognize the underlying stirring of fear or guilt – the emotions that perpetuate that “infection” I mentioned before – start to call them out, on paper. Write them in your journal. You can even write them on a random scrap of paper or a note on your phone and dispose of them immediately if it makes you feel safer. There is a point to this though, so write them somewhere.
Let the emotions manifest physically in black and white. When you write about these feelings, just let it ramble like your train of thought. It doesn’t have to make sense or even be legible.
By giving these feelings physical from, you take away their power over your subconscious. It’s so weird but as soon as you SEE it, you can know it, and recognize that it’s pretty normal. When you are completely conscious of these emotions, you regain power over their hold on you. You reduce them to what they are; thoughts.

Tool Three – “Take Action”

When you feel that inner volcano start to bubble and smoke with fear and shame, instead of allowing it to explode and acting out in your go-to destructive ways, take one POSITIVE action instead. Take action in any small good direction – even if it’s completely unrelated to the situation that’s triggering you. Go for a workout, take a walk, cook something healthy and delicious. It doesn’t matter, as long as it helps you stop wallowing in the guilt, because guilt VALIDATES the eruptions.

Tool Four – “The Art of the Pause”

Before every habitual function throughout your day, try to take a moment to acknowledge it by saying or thinking “one-one-thousand”. This enhances your ability to make the CHOICE to perform this function, rather than REACTING to the impulse or emotion that tends to take the steering wheel for you. It’s especially helpful to do this before anything that is motivated by urge. For example, before you take a bite of that cookie in your lunch bag that your tummy has been growling for for a half hour…


This can help you in moments when you feel triggered to recognize that this is where you would normally act out or automatically bury the feelings. You can now instead WITNESS them happening, and CHOOSE to do nothing. You are not your thoughts and feelings, but reacting to them allows them to control you.

Now, if you’re afraid of what’s next for you, I can tell you that the fear of the outcome is a million times worse than the outcome. This is coming from experience.

Being free of the fear, shame and guilt is absolutely the best feeling imaginable! The weight of that massive burden you carry is heavier than you can possibly fathom – and when you lighten your load you will find that things become so much simpler and the path you are meant to be on becomes much clearer. You get to decide who you want to be – from your highest self. Begin the process today.

Forgive yourself. Free yourself.

In Strength,

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