How do we stop self sabotaging?



"...a self sabotaging story line is being formed and if the child is experiencing emotional pain they will hard wire an adaptive solution, usually not the wisest option from an adult’s perspective, to keep the psychological pain at bay – buried deep down in a cavernous mine of twists and turns, the cart racing on its tracks not to be diverted.  What is more, as that child ages into adulthood, he or she continues to light up that same neural pathway. – “…this stimulation or trigger must equate to this pain so therefore I must behave this way to avoid it.” is the brain’s coding all happening out of consciousness." - Traci Ruble

How do we stop self sabotaging?
by Traci Ruble, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

“I did it again!  I had the perfect job and I sabotaged it.  I had the perfect relationship and I sabotaged it.  I had the perfect community and I sabotaged it.  I know what I do.  I know the pattern like the back of my hand. Why do I keep doing the very thing I know not to do?”
As a therapist and client I have been on both sides of this conversation.  There are some behavior patterns that are immune to our insight and will power.  We can use whatever thinking and behavior tools we want but the behavior won’t budge.  Why?

Because, we are avoiding pain the past has trained our brain to be on the lookout for.  And our brain is completely unwilling to stop protecting us from a worse fate than the preemptive, self sabotaging strike.  Our young mind concluded that it was better to be in control of the situation or be the dumper than the dumpee, the wrecker rather than the wrecked or scared, mad and lonely rather than abandoned.  Sadly the longing we are warding off, all those things we now want as adults, are in direct opposition to what we are protecting against and usually it is all an unconscious snowball of re activity we can barely stop.

As young children, we experience a lot of big feelings from small and large stimuli.  Death of a family member, divorce, starting school, moving, money troubles, family alcoholism, a scary TV show combined with our own temperament, cultural setting and the quality of our connections with those around and they all cook up together to create a perfect and very personal recipe for adapting to life with some sophisticated brain circuitry.  Even if it seems like the child is un phased by the circumstances going on around him or her, I assure you, they are adapting, a self sabotaging story line is being formed and if the child is experiencing emotional pain they will hard wire an adaptive solution, usually not the wisest option from an adult’s perspective, to keep the psychological pain at bay – buried deep down in a cavernous mine of twists and turns, the cart racing on its tracks not to be diverted.  What is more, as that child ages into adulthood, he or she continues to light up that same neural pathway. – “…this stimulation or trigger must equate to this pain so therefore I must behave this way to avoid it.” is the brain’s coding all happening out of consciousness.

As is true with most of our behaviors, including self sabotage  none of it is black and white.  Some  behavior that is problematic in one setting is an asset in another making it even harder to see how to change it.   Being able to accomplish a lot is great for work, maybe not great for intimacy in one’s marriage.  But for some, slowing down to be intimate and have a “date night” or “sex night” is next to impossible.  Soon, it is revealed that the busyness is meant to protect and ward off intimacy.    I think you get the point.  This stuff was all designed for very good reasons and was and sometimes still is extremely useful but often it isn’t and it is hard to change.
How do we change these behavior patterns that seem to prevent us from getting the very thing we say we want then?  We want to belong, we want intimacy, we want success, we want community but we continue to leave ourselves out either through some various avoidance patterns or preemptive rejection of good things or we reach for the people or things utterly mismatched and re triggering of the original pain. 

Sure we can try to force ourselves to change our behavior and for some that can work.  Lots of forms of therapy assume a more integrated brain that can just insert some new thinking and will power and voila.    For many folks, there is a kind of self shaming that has taken hold by naming things as good or bad, right or wrong stoked by these versions of “self improvement”. 

How do we shift this self sabotage in lasting ways?  

  1. We unearth the original pain beneath the patterns and notice it mindfully.   No, not the pain the patterns  cause(well actually those too) but rather the pain that the patterns were trying to ward off. This part takes time and usually a pretty darn skillful person to help us see it or even get to it because it can feel intense and non-linear.  Once there with the pain we mother and nurture the pain rather than avoid.  We sit right in the eye of the storm and learn to mindfully watch it without hooking into the idea it is all of who we are.  It helps if we have another person right there with us letting us be in pain but supporting us – not talking us into some “positive thinking” mindset.  Suddenly, the brain’s idea that this in us is unlovable is proved wrong just by having that other there with us still loving us. From this place the brain and we are less sure of our original conclusions.  Rejection, not so bad.  Not being liked, survivable.  Not being the best at everything, manageable and less tiring.  We stop avoiding the thing we imagine will be unsurvivable.
  2. We gradually and compassionately learn to tolerate the very pain we are the most avoidant of.  Doing that in a way that is gradual allows the brain to rewire itself, to challenge oneself just enough that the body and mind are not so overwhelmed so that the reactive patterns are ratcheted up even more.  Therapies like Somatic Experiencing, Modern Psychoanalysis, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and Mindful approaches to relational therapy have the corner on the market for uprooting these old adaptations in lasting ways.
  3. We notice our bodies and the raw sensations and feelings associated with them and support them.  We get a little distance from the pattern taking over our whole being by supporting the racing heart, collapsed chest, balled fists or retching heaving stomach.  We normalize our whole experience.  We offer some support to the body – again making a new link in the brain that with this pain there is also comfort, support or strength. If scared, maybe you build yourself a wall of pillows, soothing and protective.  Angry, maybe you push against a wall, feeling the strength of your anger and what it is like to have it in a way that is contained.  The list goes on.  Body-oriented therapists do a lot of this work.

These things sounds simple and therapists have more than just these three ways of rewiring this old self sabotaging pattern.  The key is that in order to get that mine car going in another direction we have to dig a new tunnel, lay new tracks and get the car to go down the new tracks.  That level of excavation and construction takes some time and commitment.  And it isn’t linear.  You come across some big boulders you have to dig around, rather than go through.  Once the new tunnel and tracks are complete you will , from time to time get off course.  So you also have to build ways for the car to jump the tracks and get back on the right track.  It is possible.  I have seen it happen in therapy…in my work with clients and in my own therapy.  It is really possible.  If you have tried therapy before but it did not help shift this old stuff, maybe you need a new approach or you needed to stay longer.  The brain is a fascinating organ plastic, ready for change, but by good design, the change for old patterns is gradual. So I hope for you and for me we all hold each other with compassion.  Rewiring this stuff takes time but hanging in there with mindful compassion and grace you will see it is such a worthy endeavor.  Much love.  


Traci Ruble is the founder of Psyched in San Francisco and is digging new mines in downtown San Francisco.  You can find more about her work as a therapist at www.traciruble.com or follow her on Twitter @TraciRubleMFT.

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