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Why Do I Self-Sabotage? 4 Types of Beliefs and How They Prompt Our Actions

Person with box over their head, lacking awareness of "Why do I do what I don't want to do?"

Do you ever wonder why you do what you don't want to do?

Are you often surprised by emotions that come tearing through you?

Do you behave in ways that are counter to what you express to be of value?

It was these sorts of questions that led me into the field of mental health and psychology years ago. I was perplexed by my own mind and curious about the feelings I experienced.

And I very much wanted to understand the reasons for my behavior, especially the behaviors that were limiting, harmful, and wreaking havoc on my life! While the list of explanations for our behaviors is exhaustive, this blog will focus on one primary variable, our beliefs. If we don't know them, many of which are operating deep below the surface, any sustainable change that we desire will elude us.


Why do I Self-Sabotage?

Meaningful behavior change is governed by the narratives we tell about our lives. Listen to the stories you share, and you'll uncover the beliefs that guide your actions. I've found four types of beliefs that can show us why we do what we do.

Type 1- Relational Beliefs

Many of us grew up within some sort of relational structure. I was born into a family with a mother and father, and then the structure changed when my parents divorced. Of course, this is a simple example. The structures will vary between all of us, but no matter what they are, while we're in them, we develop ideas about what it means to be with people; beliefs about how we are supposed to act in order to receive love, validation, and attention; and intimate knowledge (both intellectual and on a nervous system level) about trust, honesty, intimacy, vulnerability, boundaries, belonging, safety, rest, and emotion. How we are in our relationships now is influenced by the beliefs we learned early on about how to be in relationships.

For example, if you were constantly in the role of problem-solver within your family of origin, it's likely that you may find yourself feeling as if you self-sabotage your efforts to set boundaries. You bend over backwards to help others and say yes to the point of overworking and over-caring. Maybe you insert yourself into other people's problems when they haven't even asked for assistance. You learned that in order to feel important and significant, you needed to be in a helper role.

So what might this sound like as a belief? It's my job to take care of others.

I am insignificant.

Please take a moment to consider how these might drive certain behaviors.

Because significance and a sense of belonging is a basic human emotional need, we are going to attempt to find ways to meet that need. The point is not to get rid of the need, it's to understand the how we try to meet it and the beliefs underlying those actions, and then to work toward healing the wounds that created the belief in the first place so we can operate with self-beliefs that are nurturing, open, and restorative in nature!

Now, go back through the list I shared up above and ask yourself the following question: What did I learn about __________, growing up?

This question can help illuminate the inquiry.

(Fill in the blank with trust, honesty, intimacy, vulnerability, boundaries, belonging, safety, rest, and emotion).

See if you can extract a core belief from each one. Some may be generative and others may be restrictive.

Type 2 - Emotional Beliefs

Emotional beliefs are those which, you guessed it, influence how you are within the emotional or feeling sphere of your life. Consider the relationship you have with emotions in general. Are you accepting and honoring of your emotionality and yourself as an emotional being?

Earlier in my life I was involved in relationships with people who were not comfortable with my emotion. Tears scared them. My passion was perceived to be "too much," "too loud," or "too angry." As a young adult, I had to learn that my sensitivity and ability to feel deeply was not a deficit, but a strength! The discomfort that others felt around my displays of emotion was not indicative of a personal weakness but more so the beliefs that others harbored.

I'm working with a woman who grew up with a mother who struggled with alcoholism. My client shares just how loving and warm, soft and gentle her mother was when she was sober, but how eerily alone and invisible she felt when her mother was present but wasted. When her mother was sober, my client learned that she needed to be the good girl, to have everything just so, to have her anger, fear, and disappointment locked down in the hopes that the next day would be just the same. Like an invitation for her mom to not drink again.

She was forced to cope with such uncomfortable emotions at such a young age, all by herself. Doing the best she could, the belief developed that "Things need to be perfect."

Now, what you might find, like my client has, is that there is a belief underneath a belief, buried by a belief. My client's belief of "Things need to be perfect," is protecting her from the belief, "I am not in control." Underneath that belief is the belief, "Change is scary and at any time, the bottom can drop out from beneath me." Yes, these were revealed through our conversations. You can guess how these beliefs will influence her behavior.

As you consider your personal relationship with emotion, take it a step further and reflect on whether there are specific emotions that you might label as off-limits, weak, disgusting, unattractive, or that you attempt to avoid. Can you identify the beliefs at play?

Type 3 - Motivational Beliefs

Motivational beliefs influence our sense of choice, competence, and efficacy.

Such beliefs might sounds like, "I am the way I am" or "I'm not the type of person who can _______" or "People like me can't/aren't supposed to/shouldn't __________."

Consider how you move through the world and how you approach challenges. When you bump up against something difficult, how do you react? Do you dig in, get curious about what you might shift, think through your options, see the obstacles as opportunities, and expect that you will make mistakes? Or, do you give up the first time you can't figure something out or at the first sign of struggle? Of course, it is not black and white like this, and racism, classism, ageism, and other oppressive forces etc. all play a role, but viewing your own experience on a continuum, where would you fall on the line?

Do you believe in your ability to influence your circumstances? If you grew up in a household that promoted exploration, encouraged appropriate risk taking and responsibility, did not shame or blame when mistakes were made and cheered for the effort vs the achievement, it's likely that you have a healthy sense of your own competence and capability to do hard things. On the other hand, if you grew up in a household where your caregivers micromanaged your behavior and held very rigid boundaries around what was acceptable, the chance to develop your sense of choice and resilience for engaging in challenges was limited.

I'm working with a client who is planning for an overseas trip and has shared with me her desire to go on this journey in much better health. She recognizes what will be expected of her in regards to the packed sight-seeing schedule and miles of walking, and she wants to prepare herself. This woman is a highly skilled medical professional and knows how to work hard. She can persist intellectually, however, what she's finding is that even with the time to devote to getting stronger and building her physical endurance, she has done nothing but think about how she wants to. "I don't know why I'm not doing it," she's lamented to me.

As we reflected together, I asked her to share with me what it was like when she was little. Did she play sports? What was her relationship with activity and movement as a young person?

She told me stories about how she loved to swim when she was little. But as her brothers and sisters, who were also swimmers, started excelling in the water, and her dad as the swim coach paid more and more attention to them, she felt like she couldn't measure up. Her dad was constantly praising them for their times at the swim meets, and she felt less and less capable. As she was sharing she said, "I'm not an athlete." I continued to listen as she explained how both her parents would comment on her weight and touch her arms or her stomach. They told her she needed to exercise more to be smaller. "Exercise was a punishment," she said.

At this point in her story, her eyes suddenly widened. She got it. Two beliefs were at play for her, and often, as you might be understanding now, the beliefs we hold are very broad, sweeping generalizations. And as it turns out, they're faulty. My client, as a little person, had some highly traumatic experiences as an athlete. Those do not qualify her as a non-athlete, however. Secondarily, if she believes that "athletes are lean, muscular, and love to exercise all the time," and she doesn't fit that description, she will stop before she starts. And, if exercise is a punishment, held up by the belief that her body is wrong and not to be trusted, is it likely that she'll want to be active?

Type 4 - Moral Beliefs

Moral beliefs center our ideas about right and wrong, good and bad, and influence what we claim to value.

Consider how you conduct your life and the principles or rules you use to make decisions. It's your moral beliefs that serve as the foundation for your doing so.

Some common moral beliefs that you might relate to include the following:

  1. Always tell the truth

  2. Never give up

  3. Treat others as you want to be treated

  4. Always be polite

  5. Never cheat

Now consider where these came from. From whom or where did you learn these? Have you found them to be functional? All the time? If you notice, they are all black and white. That means they don't leave room for nuance or situational granularity and context. I find that to be a problem. I also understand, however, that in some cases, a bright line such as "Never cheat" creates a sense of ease. It doesn't require any problem-solving, decision-making, or mental gymnastics. Hard line. And it's appropriately protective. What about "Never give up" though? What if you're in a job that is consistently compromising your safety? Do you stick it out? Or the goal you set last year is no longer fulfilling and is causing you to deprioritize other significant areas of your life? Do you keep on keeping on? Or you've spent the majority of your life on a diet, always looking for the next best thing to "work" to get you to a smaller size. Do you keep getting back on the wagon? I argue that those deserve some reflection, reckoning, and retooling.

Remember that many of the beliefs you live by were not chosen by you. They were not presented to you with informed consent. Yet, there they are, guiding your life.

Person reading, asking "Why do I do what I don't want to do?"

Your beliefs can be your lifelines or the currents that pull you under. Do you recognize which of these four have you hamstrung and which are healing?

Contact me today to learn how we can work together to get out from underneath the beliefs that are hijacking your personal growth! Let's stop the dysfunctional patterns of behavior getting in your way and optimize your strengths so you can make those changes you long for!



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