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What it REALLY Means to Master Your Motivation(Pt 2): Self-Sabotage & Your Basic Psychological Needs

In Part 1 of this series about Mastering Your Motivation, I shared the 3-ingredient recipe for the secret sauce of psychological success. You learned that your motivation, in essence, your vitality, energy, and sense of aliveness as you pursue your goals, is governed by the satisfaction of three basic psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Check out Part 1 for a full explanation of each need, how they can be threatened, and what the impact can look like.

In Part 2, we’re going to look at the concept of self-sabotage and how it’s related to the basic psychological needs. For the purposes of this example, we’re going to use eating behavior, however, you can replace it with any behavior that you’d classify as inherently necessary for the meeting of an important goal you endorse. Keep in mind that whether you deem the behavior effective and necessary does not mean that it is, or that the consequences of engaging in it are healthy and functional.

Example 1

Let’s say that you go out with your friends to a restaurant. You have intentions of being intentional and attuned with your eating. You would very much prefer to not drink so much alcohol as you’ve experienced its negative effects and want to feel better, and you want to feel capable

of choosing more wisely. What happens instead, is that you eat most of the appetizers, order a couple mixed drinks, and punctuate your meal with a slice of cheesecake suitable for a few consumers. You go home wondering, “What the heck did I just do? What is wrong with me? Where is my self-control? I can’t believe I did that.” You feel incredibly ineffective at managing yourself in tempting situations and you’re uncomfortable, physically and emotionally! You feel incompetent. So, you vow to get back on track by restricting your carbs for the rest of the week. “I’ll keep them super low to make up for it,” you think.

The adoption of rigid rules like this, after a self-labeled dieting indiscretion, is very common. Especially for those who have histories of chronic dieting or eating restriction, it’s an almost automatic reaction. Restriction (whether practical or psychological) following a self-proclaimed overeating episode, provides a temporary sense of relief from the discomfort associated with a frustrated competency need. In other words, when a person eats more or in a different way than they decided beforehand was appropriate, they begin to wonder about their capabilities (i.e., they don’t trust their competence) and believe they are self-sabotaging their efforts. Their sense of competence is now “frustrated.” They may feel better psychologically, once they vow to repent for the mistake, but doing so only compounds the problem. Restriction leads to more overeating, and we’re now in a vicious cycle. Once again, we see how a person can run to a “false refuge” as described in Part 1.

Example 2

You’ve decided that to gain the attention of your spouse, and to make them happy and reinvigorate your sex life, you will lose weight. You’ve felt disconnected from each other, and you think that by becoming a sexier, leaner version of yourself, you can solve your marital malaise.

Remember the basic psychological need of relatedness? Relatedness is a sense of belonging and love. What’s most important here, is that it isn’t related at all to changing yourself to “fit in.” In fact, if you’re changing to “fit in,” it’s faux belonging. It’s not authentic. If you feel like you’re on

the outside of your relationship, looking in, you need to start connecting with the person with whom you feel distant, not go on a diet! Personally, my body has been the punching bag when I’ve been in difficult relational situations in the past. Before I learned how to meet my truest, most vulnerable needs, it felt easier to start controlling my food and pick myself apart than to ask for what I needed of my partner. Again, false refuge.

Binging, Restricting, and Over-Exercising, Oh My!

Binge eating, emotional overeating, and restricting food, all behaviors common among chronic dieters, are further examples of using food to gain a sense of control when we feel chaotic and uncomfortable. Let’s not forget though, that if you’re restricting, you’re also likely very hungry and limiting the foods that you find satisfying. You might blame yourself for not being able to hold it together, but consider the physical/biological mechanisms at play, specifically designed to take care of you. That aside, what feels like out-of-control eating behavior is often triggered for many women, including myself, by feeling dismissed, unheard, or misunderstood. The need is clear—to acquire a sense of importance in the eyes of another, to feel like the person across from us “gets us.” When we feel small and insignificant, we want to feel differently! The discomfort, if we’ve not done the work to truly understand what we need and to meet the emotions with compassion, invites us to fix it, and so we go to what feels better in the moment—food.

Bingeing in this case is called a “needs substitute.” We’re substituting an authentic expression of our hurt/emotion with food. It’s pretty amazing—we’re attempting to protect ourselves. We’re just going about it in a less than effective or skillful manner. Needs substitution can result in further distress and unpleasant emotion. Tell me you feel good after you binge. The guilt, shame, and remorse you experience, compounds the initial hurt, and what are the consequences? You vow to restrict, restrain, purge, or go exercise for hours to punish yourself for your lack of control. One of the major variables in our ability to help ourselves in a skillful way is to begin understanding how our thoughts impact our actions. We often believe and label a behavior that seems to limit our ability to close in on a goal, as self-sabotage. But what’s often actually getting the way is our relationship with the thoughts our minds make. Many of us believe the stories our minds tell, and our minds have specific ways in which they will distort reality. Our minds are not trying to sabotage us; they are just doing what minds do. However, what they are doing is not always functional, and we need to help ourselves by helping them.

Let’s do a short activity to tease this apart. Ready to reflect? Grab a notebook. You might even start one specifically for this series.

1. Think about the behaviors that you classify as “self-sabotage.”

2. Now, write them down. If you need help, think of the behaviors that you’d classify as moving you further from your goal.

3. Next, identify and write down the thoughts that pose a threat to your goals.

Do you think in certain ways that influence your goal pursuit negatively? We can think in a certain way, and we can think certain thoughts. Both are important. The former focuses on the approach (the how) we take, while the latter targets the concrete thought itself (the what). Process versus content. Let’s outline some examples for clarity:

Thinking in a certain way (how you think):

  • I think in black and white terms: a food is either “good” or “bad”

  • I tend to think negatively: in the glass-half-empty sort of way

  • I make assumptions: I believe something to be true without evidence and don’t ask many questions or get curious.

Thinking a certain thought (what you think):

  • I can’t eat this.

  • I’ll never be attractive unless l lose weight.

  • Only when I lose weight will I try to date.

Now, let’s pause here for a bit. Just reflect on the impact of each of the specific ways of thinking that you listed. How do you behave when you think in these ways?

Next, just take note of how you feel when you believe the thoughts you listed. And then, when you feel that way, how do you behave?

You learned to think the way you have, and have the thoughts you have, in an effort to protect and support yourself. It’s not self-sabotage. Why would you actually sabotage your efforts willingly and intentionally? It doesn’t make any sense. Often, what we have not explored are all the advantages that the behaviors in question contribute to/have contributed to our lives. And what’s driving them is largely subconscious. We’re doing them because they have served a purpose, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing them!

As we continue our motivational mastery exploration, I want you to remember something very important to your change process. When we engage in a behavior that seems to move against a goal, we’re trying to help ourselves. It’s not self-sabotage. We are often confused about the need we’re trying to meet, we choose an ineffective (i.e., long-term) intervention, and we don’t yet have a toolbox of other skillful means! Please read this again. You are acting in your best interests, with the skills, capacities, means, knowledge, and strengths you currently possess. And, if you've been doing things a certain way for a substantial period of time, it will take time and a lot of practice with patience and compassion to carve out new pathways and ways of thinking and being!

Stay tuned for part 3 of this series, in which we’ll take a deep dive into autonomy! In the meantime, note the situations that prompt the thoughts and processes you identified above! Reach out to me if you’d like a comprehensive list of the various ways in which our minds often distort reality.

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