A little while ago I was asked to facilitate a workshop alongside a friend of mine. It was a great opportunity to dust off my skills in a new environment outside of the corporate world where I originally learned my trade.
But my inner critic had other ideas.
‘You can’t do that! It’s not your specialism! You’d better come up with an excuse to bow out before you make a fool of yourself.’
So I did. I cried off with some lame excuse about a scheduling conflict. And then proceeded to beat myself up about my decision for the next few weeks.
Classic self-sabotage at play.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we obstruct incredible opportunities that are put in our path for no purpose other than to satisfy our inner critic? Here are 4 big reasons:
“I know what will make me feel better”
This is common when we attempt to solve an immediate problem - for example, eating comfort food to soothe a depressed state. We are seeking comfort from a deeply ingrained habit but, at the same time, we are harming our long-term progress - for example, if we are trying to lose some weight.
“Better the Devil you know”
Throughout ours lives we form a picture of who we are and what we stand for - in other words, our self-image. Over time this picture becomes rigid and immovable. We label appropriate behaviour as ‘should or shouldn’t’, our capacity as ‘can or can’t’ and our characteristics as ‘quiet or loud, bold or meek' etc.
When we attempt to change or challenge our self-image, our defenses shoot up - we try to protect ourselves from the unknown. Acting outside of the values we are familiar with leads to imposter syndrome.
The example I shared with you at the start of this post fits into this category - I felt I was an imposter by trying to apply my skills to a new situation. My inner critic didn’t like that I was challenging my label set, my ‘can or can’t’, and unfortunately this time I let it win.
Lack of confidence.
“I’m bound to fail”
We get pretty used to failing in life, but surprisingly failing isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, failure is absolutely essential to learning. However, the feeling of failure can be pretty traumatic. So much so that we become conditioned to expect failure.
The problem with this is that pessimism is proven to lower our success rate. Failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy - a predetermined path to failure.
Need for control.
“Don’t take away my safety net”
When we are presented with an opportunity to stretch ourselves, it means leaving our comfort zone. In turn, we have to loosen our grip on control. This is an extremely difficult thing to do - after all, being in control is a fundamental human need.
So often in this type of situation, we do the equivalent of backing out of a parachute jump at 13,000 feet. We take ourselves to the edge of the precipice only to wimp out because we’re scared.
So how can we stop sabotaging ourselves?
All of these reasons for self-sabotage have something in common - they are rooted in the fear of failure. Understanding this is the first step to progress.
Here are some more great methods to get you moving forward:
Rather than aiming purely for greater confidence, try to simply be more kind and considerate to yourself. Studies show that practicing self-compassion has a significant positive association with self-reported measures of happiness, optimism, positive affect, wisdom, personal initiative, curiosity and exploration, agreeableness, extroversion, and conscientiousness.
Create an unshakeable vision.
Do you have a solid grip on your needs and values? How well are you living up to them on a daily basis? How does your current behaviour support your path to betterment? Sometimes we simply have to decide what’s more important - giving into our fear or living up to our desire for growth. We won’t always get it right (as I testified right at the start of this post!) but we can always give it our best shot.
Practice better habits.
It’s the tiny actions - the micro-decisions we make each and every day - that add up to failure over time. These decisions are framed by our habits - what we repeatedly do. If we can change these habits through conscious action, we begin to set ourselves up for success.
Action over anxiety.
Stop overthinking and Just Frigging Do It. OK, this might sound a little simplistic. But in the words of Ray Bradbury,
First you jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.
Jumping off the cliff requires action in the face of the critical inner voice. The best way to quieten that voice is to act - and act fast.