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"I know what to do; I just don't do it!" Understanding Self-Sabotage

I wanted to hop on and quickly address something that keeps coming up within my own client sessions. Frequently, I hear, “I know what to do; I just don’t do it” from frustrated clients who say they are sick and tired of self-sabotaging. You may relate.

The first thing I’ll say about this is that self-sabotage is often misunderstood. We get frustrated and mad at ourselves because the actions we are taking are misaligned with what we’ve said we want. We are going against the goal we’ve set, right?

Often though, what we don’t realize, is that the behavior we’re engaging in instead, is helping us to uphold or keep in place something that has been useful, protective, or functional at some point in time.

For example, I work with a man who is divorced and is now online dating. He’s speaking with a woman who he shared with me is gorgeous, open, seems honest and inquisitive. He’s enjoying their interactions and learning about her, but he has also expressed that he’s felt some anxiety about sharing certain things about himself. He wants to be open and honest as well, confident in who he is, and show up as himself, because he knows that’s the only way to have a “true” connection. But he feels the walls come up sometimes during conversations, and he holds back. He feels he may be sabotaging himself.

So let’s look under the hood. My client moved out of a relationship in which he was accused of not being honest. He was called a salesman by his previous partner. He admits to often keeping his feelings superficial or sugarcoating certain things as the relationship progressed because when he was honest and open, attempting to connect more fully, she would berate him. He learned to shut down, hold things back, and keep vulnerable and sensitive parts of himself super close. He wants to have an intimate connection, which means honesty, sharing, and vulnerability, and he’s guarded.
Is this self-sabotage, or is this self-protection?

Let’s use an emotional eating example.

You want to fuel your body in a more balanced way, and you want to choose healthier options so that you can feel more stable throughout the day, but you find yourself, in situations where you feel emotionally activated, be it sad, anxious, frustrated, worried, or dismissed… eating. You’re not hungry, but you’re eating.

Again, let’s pop open the hood and take a look.

What’s your relationship with emotion? Especially emotions that you might label as unpleasant or uncomfortable? Do you want to fix them? Change them? Get away from them? Shift them? Shut them down? What did you learn to do with emotions growing up? Were some emotions acceptable and when you experienced others, were you avoided, shamed, or completely ignored? I work with a woman who learned at a very early age that it was not okay to express discontent or hurt. If she felt like crying, she learned to go away. She would go away and she found another way to take care of the tender parts of herself… by eating highly palatable, sweet foods.
Is this self-sabotage, or is this self-protection?

Often when we talk about emotional eating, we believe we have a problem with food. More often than not, we believe our emotions are a problem, and we haven’t developed the skills to be with the full range of them. We don’t understand emotions. We’re trying to help ourselves in ways that no longer serve us-- in ways that often stem from younger parts of ourselves.

Often, we may think it’s about the “what” we should be doing, but it’s really about the “how.”


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