And what you can do about it.
Written By – Ayodeji Awosika
Self-sabotage fascinates me. Like a lot of other psychological phenomena, knowing how it works doesn’t fully guard you against it. Not at all. That’s the self-improvement battle in a nutshell — trying to override your emotions so that logic runs the show. But those emotions are a pain, aren’t they? You observe yourself in the middle of sabotaging something and you know that you’re going to feel like crap about it after you’re done, but you can’t help but do it anyway.
Then you have to sit in this purgatory where you have to live with the results of your actions. You binge ate and now you’re stuck feeling sick. You skipped your side project work to have drinks and now you wake up the next morning wishing you could reverse time and make the right decision. You’re heartbroken after a breakup from a relationship you deep down knew you never should’ve been in to start with.
We set these little traps for ourselves, knowing deep down they’re traps, fall into them, beat ourselves up for falling into them in the first place, and go through a seemingly infinite loop of self-harm. It’s really quite bizarre and cruel to ourselves. So why do we do it? I’ll tell you the answer, which will help, but you have to embrace the knowledge at a deep level to be able to do anything about it.
Simple, Counterintuitive, and Deadly Accurate
Once I realized this, fully, my life changed. What did I realize? I, you, we all, like, no, love… self-sabotage. You derive a perverse level of satisfaction from self-harm. It provides certain emotions that help you cope with and navigate life, albeit in a counterproductive way. Over time, you come to emotionally love your own messed up self-image, confirmed by your self-sabotage, even if you logically want to change it.
I used to ask myself why I kept screwing up. I searched for this magical answer to seemingly irrational behavior. I’d ask myself, “If you want to make your life better, why are you acting like this?” All the while I didn’t understand the truth. I didn’t want to make my life better. I wanted to be a loser.
Why would I want that? Simple. I got certain payoffs from my negative behaviors. I had perverse motivations, but motivations nonetheless. So do you. You live by the “pay off principle.” Anytime you find yourself making bad choices, ask yourself “what’s the payoff?”
For most of my life, I lived below my potential. I did so because my payoff was being able to cling to the identity of the “kid with potential.” I loved living in Potentialville. See, if I were to try hard then I could run into the possibility of failing. Failing meant I’d no longer be talented and gifted. I’d no longer be the sharp kid with the whole world in front of him.
I got the payoff of comfort with my own distorted self-image. I had insecurities, but at least I’d grown used to them. Having to change my behavior and live up to my potential meant I had to face a whole set of yet to be known problems and insecurities. These might cut even deeper because there might not be anywhere to go from that point — trying hard and still failing.
What’s your pay off?
People stay in bad relationships and continue to choose bad partners because they get the payoff of confirming their identity as someone who doesn’t deserve love — often a mental map created in childhood. Think about that for a minute. On a deep level, many of us are driven by the need to exacerbate our own self-loathing because it’s all they know. Humans can have a desire for punishment. You don’t think you deserve great relationships because you’ve made too many of your own mistakes. Some people get the payoff of “excitement,” in relationships that are ultimately unstable. That’s a whole entire treatise we don’t have time for.
People pretend they don’t want more for their lives because they get the payoff of being a martyr. When you see someone acting outrageously, they’re getting their payoff in the form of attention. With social media and the click-bait outrage machine it’s created, this will only get worse. People are becoming addicted to dopamine in the form of emphasizing their victimhood.
I could give you many other examples here, but you get the point now. The payoff principle helps you understand your behavior as well as the behavior of others. Instead of thinking you know everything and scoffing at the behavior, you disagree with, ask yourself, “What is this person getting from this?” Also, ask yourself the same question when you make missteps.
There are many micro reasons and payoffs people use to, often poorly, navigate life. But the main culprit is almost always the same.
You’re “The Devil You Know”
The main payoff you get from sabotaging yourself? You get to remain you. Almost all roads to a life you don’t want to live lead back to ego and identity preservation.
Say you consider yourself a total loser in every regard. Why would you want to maintain that identity? Simple, because if you were to change you’d have to admit that you wasted a large chunk of your life feeling a way you didn’t have to feel. That’s usually the kicker for all of us.
We don’t want to admit that we’ve wasted time. Also, there’s just something painful about puffing up your chest and still failing. You defeat yourself before you start so as to avoid the pain of real defeat.
You’d rather stay the same for the rest of your life than do what’s necessary to change — totally eradicate your current self. To truly change, you have to die.
You have to kill your old belief systems, mental maps, deeply-rooted elements of social programming. And this death is precluded by admitting you got tricked, admitting you need to start over from a humble place, admitting you don’t really know a whole hell of a lot.
Spoiler alert — this doesn’t feel good. For whatever reason, it seems beneath you to start at square one. You think you should just get it. Many people in society, who I would never in a million years want to trade lives with, get a payoff that I do sometimes envy. They think they know what they’re doing.
They’ve convinced themselves they have everything figured out. Sometimes I wish I could feel that way. I really do. I wish I could be okay with living like that, but I can’t.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably like me. As much as you love sabotaging yourself, you can’t shake the idea that you could be doing more. You see yourself flipping that switch one day, somehow, and you’re holding out hope that it will happen.
You haven’t given up yet because you understand the consequences of giving up. Yet, you’re not quite there yet. You haven’t yet done the things you’ve been meaning to do forever You still sabotage yourself.
How do you stop?
Update Your Software
Everything in your life can be looked at through the lens of incentives, rewards, payoffs, patterns, etc. The less you think of yourself as a rational agent and the more you think of yourself as a software of sorts, the better you’re able to change your life.
You have to find a way to change your programming, change your payoffs, and give yourself a reward that’s better than the weird love affair you have with self-loathing. Usually, finding your purpose…serves that purpose.
Nothing provided me a better reward than self-sabotage until I found writing. Luckily for me, I caught that motivational fire quickly. I knew pretty early on that this was it. The process might not happen the same way for you.
You’ll have to not only find the thing but do it long enough to get traction before you sabotage yourself like you normally would.
How do you pull it off? Well, the closer you’re aligned to your strengths, your tastes, and your deep-seated predilections, the better. I’ve written multiple books about this if you’re curious about the process.
Aside from finding and working on your purpose though, success comes from simply making this mental switch that is really hard to make.
Often, true pain can cause this switch. Life can beat you up enough to where you’re like, “Ok, screw this. The payoff doesn’t justify living like this.”
But often, people experience a level of pain that still doesn’t reach that threshold. It’s a dull pain, low-level anxiety that hurts just enough to be a consistent annoyance, but not sharp enough to override the payoff of being able to make sense of their lives.
It’s a cruel trap, like the fable of the frog sitting in a pot of water that starts to boil and it doesn’t jump out because the heat increases ever so slowly.
The best you can do is try to manufacture that stark realization that, in many ways, you’re throwing your life away. Realize that it’s not dramatic to think you’re throwing your life away. Then, change your payoff.
When you follow the road less traveled, you get a payoff that can be felt much better than it can be explained, but I’ll try. You feel powerful. Most people can’t exert their force of will over reality, but you can.
You feel like you have this secret that few can understand. You feel a deep level of pride because you didn’t let the idealistic youthful version of yourself down. There is no better payoff.
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