The Alchemy of Destruction
What does your self-destruct button look like? We all have one, although we use them in different ways.
Maybe you’re an avoider? Do you procrastinate your time away with computer games, cleaning or Netflix? Do you fail to submit your job applications? Do you steer clear of the challenging conversations that you really ought to have?
Or, maybe you like to be more dramatic with your self-sabotage? Maybe you fly into frequent fits of rage? Maybe you get drunk and show off shamelessly (but only when your secret crush is around)? Maybe you turn up to work — late, hungover and stinking of last night’s kebab — the day the big boss is in?
Whether we do it in a subtle or pronounced way, self-sabotage leaves us baffled, and that can be what hurts the most. “Why??” we ask ourselves, “What the hell was I thinking?”
Since publishing a book on the psychology of self-sabotage, I have been contacted by a number of journalists writing articles on the topic. They all want the same thing: “Three simple steps to stop beating yourself up,” or, “How to master self-destruction… in 500 words,” (true story).
I don’t mean to sound insulting. Magazine editors ask for these “quick fix” articles because that’s what their readers want. But herein lies the problem. The readers (we) want a quick fix (someone else to solve our problem for us) because we don’t really believe that we can do it ourselves.
“Just give me the magic pill!” we demand, “I’m not strong enough on my own.” And so long as we’re thinking that way, we’re probably right.
The self-sabotage problem is circular and self-fuelling. After we screw ourselves over we tell ourselves that we need more control. Then — thanks to this world’s insistence on selling us miracle cures — we tend to seek that control from something on the outside. This, rather than solving the problem, quietly disempowers us. With every magic pill we consume, we chip away a little more of our own self-command. With every attempt to find a fix in the Other, we compound our belief that the Self doesn’t have what it takes to put things right. The result is that we grow ever more prone to self-sabotage. So, we do it all over again… and again, and again.
Moments of self-destruction can be followed by quite intense periods of self-loathing and the desire to strike back. This, too, is a circular issue. We wouldn’t sabotage ourselves in the first instance if we were operating from a place of self-love. So, clearly, beating ourselves up is not the answer.
SO, WHAT *IS* THE ANSWER?
With magic pills and self-punishment off the table, where can we find a solution?
Self-command and self-love — the two actually magic requirements for overcoming self-sabotage — both grow out of self-awareness. This is why no one else can solve the problem for us; we are the only ones who are absolutely always going to be there at the crucial moment. This is our gig.
In this article, I’m going to outline five powerful questions for deepening your self-awareness. This list is not exhaustive and it is not a one-time solution. Rather, it’s a guideline for an increasingly powerful way of life. By getting in the habit of asking these questions, you can gradually build the type of control that can stop self-sabotage in its tracks. Furthermore, I’d hope that you might also get an idea of how to better use the energy you once squandered on self-destruction.
#1. How, specifically, do you self-sabotage?
You need to get real about the issue(s) before you stand a chance of taking control. Every now and then, I suggest you grab a pen and make a list of the things that you do to bring yourself down. Don’t want to? That’s a good sign that you should. The activities that we strongly resist very often turn out to be the things that can advance us the most.
When you have your list, write “self-sabotage” next to each item, and emphasise the “self.” This is to compound the fact that these choices belong to you. These acts are your doing, your responsibility and only you have the power to stop them (and that, believe it or not, is a really good thing).
#2 What type of self-judgement do you make afterwards?
Complete this sentence:
“When I (insert sabotage), it makes me feel like I am…”
What do you get?
Here are some common examples:
… like I’m a failure.
… like I’m unlikeable/unloveable/always going to be alone.
… like I don’t fit in.
… like I’m stupid.
… like I’m selfish.
… like I’m never going to amount to anything.
… like I’m not good enough.
Self-judgements like these reveal our unconscious beliefs (in this case, the limiting ones). Beliefs like, “I’m not good enough” act as self-fulfilling prophesies. This is because the unconscious mind will do anything it can to protect and preserve whatever it considers true. It does this because its job is to keep us safe, and familiarity feels safer than novelty.
So, imagine that you hold a limiting belief like, “I’m unattractive.” You dearly wish to disprove this notion but every time you pose for a photo you somehow manage to pull a hideous expression. Yep, that could be you’re mind’s idea of a protective strategy. Cheers, brain.
Knowing about our limiting beliefs can help us to interrupt the pattern. We also need to remind ourselves that these ideas are not reality. This is important: beliefs are not the truth. They just feel like the truth. And that’s especially the case when we lack self-awareness.
#3 For what do you judge others most harshly?
By acknowledging the things we detest in others, we give ourselves a direct line to the traits we’re least willing to accept in ourselves. I’m sorry to have to say it, but whatever it is that you find the most irking about that friend, will most certainly be a characteristic of your own as well. After all, there are no traits that we can avoid in their entirety.
The phenomenon we’re talking about here is known as “projection” — we only see that which we are. It is an involuntary transference of our own behaviour onto others, so it appears that out most hated qualities belong to them rather than us. We do this in an attempt to avoid the shame that we attach to the trait, and because we want to disown it completely. But it doesn’t work. By resisting or denying a certain quality, we make it bigger rather than smaller.
The answer is to embrace the aspect of self that behaves that way. And this, of course, demands that we develop our awareness of it.
So, consider the trait that has most infuriated you recently in someone you know. Maybe it’s arrogance, flirtatiousness, weakness, dishonesty? Now, ask yourself these questions:
- If there have been times in the past when I have acted that way, when would they have been?
- If I were acting that way in my life right now, how/where/with whom would I be doing that?
- When might I find myself acting in that way in the future?
Since you dislike this trait, you’ll probably find that your answers to those questions read like a list self-sabotages. Here’s the take-away: so long as you continue to deny that quality in yourself, you’ll give your mind no reason to stop producing those kinds of behaviours.
The more effective strategy is to get OK with the fact that you have the capacity to act that way. This puts you back in the driving seat. Furthermore, by accepting this trait in yourself, you’ll let go of the annoyance you feel towards others when they display it. You may notice their behaviour but it won’t bother you, which means you’ll feel no need to react. And, considering it’s in the moments when emotions flare up that we’re most likely to do something stupid, that means you’ll probably avoid another self-sabotage or two as well.
#4 What do you envy in others?
Projection is not reserved only for negative traits. When we disallow ourselves positive things — like the knowledge that we’re beautiful, intelligent, interesting or that we can have success — we will see these too as if they’re bigger and more obvious in others.
This means that jealousy can be an empowering emotion if you choose to use it rather than suffer it. It signposts your as-yet-untapped resources and strengths. It does not mean that you’re unlucky and that everyone else has been gifted their abilities on a silver platter. That kind of thinking is nothing more than self-harm.
In the point above, I felt bad about saying that you definitely possess the attributes you most loath in others. Here I get the much happier job of telling you that you definitely possess the attributes that you most envy in others. You do. You just haven’t learned how to see, access or utilise them yet.
#5 What can your most painful life-experiences teach you?
As touched on above, allowing ourselves to feel like the victims of dire circumstances, poor luck or the actions of others is both a symptom and the cause of self-sabotage. By casting ourselves as the wounded sufferer, we voluntarily relinquish our power.
By utilising our challenges in the name of growth, on the other hand, we can expand our sense of power.
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning...”
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Admittedly, “finding meaning” is a hard thing to do when we’re having a tough time. But it’s not impossible (unless we’re determined to play the victim). Getting in the habit of asking ourselves what challenge is here to teach us, makes us infinitely more capable of moving past it, and doing so stronger.
So, take a look back on the most painful experience of your life so far. If that happened in order to teach you something, what would the lesson be? And, how can you use that knowledge to improve your life right now?
The answer to the question of why we press the self-destruct button is simple: we self-sabotage when we don’t much like ourselves. Perhaps more accurately, we self-sabotage when we fear that some part of ourselves is not up to scratch. Not good enough for other people to respect, love or admire.
Because we fear that part may well sabotage our chances of a happy, connected and loving existence, we set about trying to destroy it. But this is a losing battle. You simply cannot wage war on yourself and then emerge victorious.
So, what if we stopped looking for the quick fix? What if we stopped trying to numb, deny or project away the uncomfortable moments, and chose instead to see them as opportunities for growth? You can only learn how to love and accept yourself completely when you dare to experience yourself fully. You can only change your behaviour when you take ownership of it. And, you can only rewrite the narrative imposed by limiting beliefs when you have access to the rough drafts… pain, shame and all.
To put it simply, we could paraphrase Frankl’s beautiful quote from above to read like this instead:
In some ways self-sabotage ceases to be self-sabotage at the moment it teaches us something important.
There will always be times when things don’t go to plan. And we’ll all have those moments when we wonder what the hell we were thinking. But so long as we do take the time to actually wonder, then maybe… just maybe… those very moments could be the beginning of our finest hours.