Clients frequently tell me they feel like they are self-sabotaging.
This typically looks like the person saying they want to do one thing but doing things that directly work against that goal. Such as saying they want to engage in self-care more often but then packing their schedule with so much to do that there is feasibly no time for self-care in the week. Or saying they really want to stay on top of their to-do list but finding that they keep procrastinating with mindless activities such as scrolling social media and/or bingeing streaming services. It can also look like the individual having core values that their actions are not in alignment with, such as wanting to be a kind and patient person but finding there are times that they lash out in anger and can’t seem to see this coming nor stop it.
It is very understandable to me that this feels like self-sabotage to my clients. Afterall, it does appear that something in them is actively working against goals and values that they hold.
However, I strongly encourage my clients to not view themself in this way. First of all, I find that labeling their own actions in this way does not do a lick of good in helping them to make a change. Typically clients tell me they have had a sense that they are self-sabotaging for a long time before taking the step to make that first counseling appointment. This means they have spent a long time viewing themself in that way with no desired change taking place. Additionally, I find that viewing oneself as self-sabotaging causes a great deal of shame, confusion, and self-loathing. So not only does it not help, but it seems to be actively working against my clients and their overall mental health and wellbeing when they speak of themself in this way!
Instead of believing that something in them is self-sabotaging, I find it benefits my clients far more to consider that there are different parts of them who are disagreeing over what is actually best for them.
Let’s look at a specific example to illustrate this. In the above example of a client who has a goal of staying on top of their to-do list but who finds themself doom scrolling on social media endlessly instead: the client typically views the part of them who wants to tackle the to-do list as “good” and then has the sense that there is some “bad” and/or “self-sabotaging” part that is spending all that time on social media.
Instead of taking this shaming approach, I would encourage my client to assume that both parts of them have a good intention and would help my client to get curious about what the seemingly “self-sabotaging” part of them is trying to accomplish.
Maybe that part of them is sensing how tired they are and is trying to get them to rest by staying inactive physically and engaged online instead. Maybe it is a part of them who has seen how rewarding it can feel to scroll (I mean, these apps and platforms are designed to hit that reward system in the brain!) and is simply trying to bring in good feelings during a week that has contained few.
The important thing is to assume that there is actually a good intention behind the action that was viewed as self-sabotaging and to get curious about what that good intention could be.
To assume there is good intention from all parts of the client and be open to understanding that intention does not mean that the individual then has to simply allow their parts to continue to do what they’ve been doing. It also is not to suggest that good intention overrides any negative consequences that are coming from the behavior. Afterall, we can all think of an example of a time that we had a good intention but still brought about a negative consequence despite that intention.
But the reframing from a “bad, self-sabotaging part” of oneself to “a part that has a good intention but is sadly causing negative consequences despite the intention” tends to feel considerably different and better to my clients. And understanding that both parts of them have good intentions that simply conflict (intention to stay on top of the to-do list vs intention to stay rested/feeling good) allows the individual to begin to work differently with all parts of them to work towards a common goal.
Shaming never helps someone to feel open to trying something new, and it does not help with any parts that are being labeled as “self-sabotaging.”
People (as well as each of their individual parts!) are most able to produce change when the proper environment is created that fosters change. A shaming environment is not the type of environment that promotes positive and sustainable change. It can cause one to feel misunderstood and just generally bad and this tends to result in more of the same, or even a “digging in of the heels.” Have you ever experienced someone trying to shame you out of an action you are taking when that person does not even understand the intention behind your action in the first place? How open to change did you feel if it was done this way? Conversely, consider someone who first tries to understand your intention before attempting to persuade you to do something different. Wouldn’t you feel more open to considering other options if you know that your good intention is understood and respected?
It is the same with a part of the individual that seems to be self-sabotaging. To first assume and be open to understanding the part’s good intention will allow you to establish a different relationship with it and create an environment that is more conducive to change. And if there are parts of you who seem to have these types of conflicting intentions (polarized parts), they will be more open to finding a compromise if they know that you see and value their seemingly separate intentions.
Doing this type of internal work can be challenging at first but is deeply rewarding. Feel like you need some help getting started? Contact me and I will help you begin to understand why it is that you can’t seem to stop “self-sabotaging.”