A quick look around the web will find a plethora of articles, blog posts and helpful tips all about self-sabotage, but I want to suggest that there really is no such thing.
This is a new idea for me, and I want to thank one of my clients for it. We were discussing something & the client characterized a series of unfortunate events as “self-sabotage” and then went on. The problem at that point was that the expression self-sabotage was a glib label and didn’t provide any insight. There is, of course, an entire approach to psychotherapy which is extremely behaviorist in nature and doesn’t worry about insight. But even for a behaviorist, a little insight now and again can be helpful. And the problem with using the expression self-sabotage as a label is that it doesn’t explain or describe anything.
There’s another angle: our image of a saboteur is someone who sneaks around and secretly messes things up. So if I’m self-sabotaging, I’m secretly screwing things up and can look forward to a long, painful process of ferreting out the secrets while continuing to hurt myself. Yuck.
There are a couple of additional things that are unhelpful about the label. First, it’s a form of name-calling on yourself. “I self-sabotage” is a way of saying that you’re a trouble-maker for yourself, that you deliberately hurt yourself or are somehow a bad person. In the framework of cognitive therapy, it is the cognitive distortion of labeling, in which you dismiss something by giving it a name. A more blatant version of this might be if you make a mistake, and instead of saying to yourself (or others) “I made a mistake,” you say “I’m an idiot.” An even more pernicious view is that I secretly am harming myself, and I will have to take a long time to find out this secret that I am hiding from myself.
The corollary problem with using the label is that it’s too vague. So I tried to do something and it went wrong. Did I undertake a task without enough planning? Without enough resources? Did I need to enlist the aid of friends and tried to do it alone? Did I shoot from the hip when a more measured response to something would have been more appropriate? Here’s a little list that includes a variety of forms of self-sabotage (but is far from exhaustive):
If you peruse the list, you will see that some of the things that are on the list have wildly different solutions. So my suggestion is this: when you catch yourself using the label self-sabotage, check your assumptions.
This is a moment where the classic nonjudgmental stance, combined with some self-compassion, can really get you started on a helpful change process.
Not to be too paradoxical about it, but dismissing your behavior with the label self-sabotage when you’re unhappy with yourself is a form of self-sabotage. But which form?
P.S. I’m assuming folks know the origin of the word sabotage. If not, look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabotage