Have you ever been stuck in a behavior pattern that seems designed to thwart your happiness? Do you feel powerless to change destructive behavior patterns even as you can clearly see the damage they inflict on your life? Lying at the root of such behaviors are usually a set of negative beliefs about yourself. These core beliefs are often ingrained during childhood and adolescence and then lived out and confirmed through self destructive behavior that serves to affirm your negative self image. It is the worst kind of self fulfilling prophecy and it can steal years of your life. Breaking these maladaptive patterns is often long, hard work but in the end it is work worth doing.
WHAT ARE YOUR STORIES
The key to solving any puzzle is understanding it. If you can recognize that as a human being you are an incredibly complex puzzle, you can start to do the work of understanding all the pieces that have come together to form you. Getting to know yourself is not just about identifying your likes and dislikes, it involves understanding your beliefs about yourself, your values, and how your behavior shapes them and is shaped by them. What are the stories you hold to be true about yourself? Who wrote those stories and were they ever true? Are they true today? How are you living out these stories and do they serve you or hold you back? What are your values and do you act against them? For example, many people endorse the value of being close to their families and yet sabotage those relationships by being so afraid of judgment that they give up the chance for true intimacy by hiding their vulnerability from those they want to be closest to. Identifying the behaviors that harm you, naming the stories behind them, and then taking responsibility for the toxicity they create are the first steps in letting go of self sabotage.
Once you’ve done the soul searching required to learn about yourself, you can move into learning about your triggers. All of us have automatic responses to certain stimuli. An impending visit from my mom may lead to fear of her judgment about the state of my house, which then leads to an anxiety fueled cleaning spree, only to end in crankiness towards my children and resentment towards my mom for presumed judgment that may or may not even be present. And yet it is not enough to simply name our triggers, we must also work towards understanding the underlying feelings and core belief systems they activate. What kinds of maladaptive beliefs do I hold about myself and my value to my mother? Do I believe that I am not deserving of her love if I do not channel Martha Stewart? Where did I learn what makes me valuable to her? Negative core beliefs are often the main drivers of self sabotaging behavior and deconstructing them goes a long way towards a healthier sense of self.
CORE BELIEFS DRIVE THOUGHTS, THOUGHTS DRIVE FEELINGS, FEELINGS DRIVE BEHAVIORS
All of this introspection is helpful when it can be translated into shifts in behaviors. Once you’ve started to gain understanding of some of your core beliefs and the role they play in any self-destructive patterns you may have, you can start to set some goals for breaking those habits. When I see clients who are habitually self-destructive, I often illustrate the vicious cycle of negative core beliefs that lead to self critical thoughts, which then create feelings of self loathing and inadequacy, ultimately leading to self sabotaging behavior that only serves to strengthen the negative core beliefs that started it all. As my clients often hear me repeat, the easiest place to disrupt this cycle is at the “thoughts” part. Core beliefs are extremely hard to shift without evidence to disprove them and feelings are by their very nature irrational and overwhelming. Learning to be mindful of your negative thoughts gives you the agency to start shifting your negative patterns. Press pause on the tape in your head and counteract the negative thoughts with self compassion, practice intentionally replacing self defeating thoughts with more positive ones. Setting small, achievable goals to help you stop acting on faulty thoughts can help shift the feelings of self doubt.
I would be willing to bet that there is almost no one alive who has reached adulthood without some habits of self sabotage. Over the course of our lives we can break these habits one by one by learning to identify them, understand their roots, and practicing more compassion towards ourselves.