Do you know somebody who is always on a diet but she keeps losing the same five or ten pounds over again, only to gain it back?
What about the person who keeps saying he needs to find a new job, who complains endlessly about his boss or coworkers, yet stays in those same conditions for years on end?
Is there something you keep saying you want to change, but you never seem to get to your goal? Maybe your goal is to quit smoking, save money, keep your home neat or to be on time. Whatever it is we’d like to achieve, why can it be so hard for us to just buckle down and do it?
The answer is self-defeating behaviors. Almost everybody has a couple of self defeating behaviors. These are habits that provide us with an escape hatch, a way to distract ourselves from feeling sad, overwhelmed or inadequate. We pick up these habits at a time in our lives when they help us cope with strong emotions or difficult situations, but over time, these behaviors begin to get in the way of our progress.
Recognizing Self Defeating Behaviors
When we find ourselves unable to achieve a goal that should be within our reach, there has to be something we’re doing instead that somehow rewards us. Rather than changing our behavior in order to move towards our goal — like stopping overeating to get thinner, we make it a habit of going for the reward (eating naughty food) that’s contradictory to our goal.
Many times we don’t know exactly how or why we sabotage ourselves, but if you have a goal that seems to be just out of reach, keep your ear to the ground. Next time you experience a failure, pay attention to what you do that’s counter to your goal, and figure out what reward you’re getting.
Here’s an example. You tell yourself that you are going to save money and you aren’t going to shop anymore. You have everything you need and it’s time for you to pay off your credit card. The idea of paying off your credit card and limiting your spending stresses you out. The mere thought of the balance and all that interest you’re paying every month makes you sweat a little. And you’re getting tired of the arguments that your spending causes. Maybe you even hide some of your spending from your mate, which you find even more stressful.
Ironically, shopping and spending money is the very thing that makes you feel good and gives you that high, a feeling of invincibility and elatedness. There’s nothing like plunking down that plastic on the perfect purchase, ripping the tags off a new dress and slipping it on to wear for the first time. You try to tell yourself NO MORE, but the next thing you know, you’re walking out the door of your favorite store with a shopping bag on your arm.
Of course the reward is obvious in this example, and so is the ultimate suffering it causes. But the point is, sometimes our brains seem to go blank when we’re breaking our own rules.
When we procrastinate, we escape from our responsibilities. When we overeat, we might enjoy the comfort that food affords us. If our chronic dieter doesn’t eat to console herself when she feels lonely or bored, then she might have to face the loneliness or boredom without the comfort of chocolate to soothe her.
Maybe the person stuck in the job he dislikes complains that he can’t find a new job when he is so busy in the current one. That’s silly. If he hates the job he has, then of course he can take time out of his schedule to find a different job. What’s the worst that could happen: he would lose a job that makes him feel miserable and trapped for years on end?
What does he get out of keeping the old job? Security, for one thing. He doesn’t have to face the fear and discomfort involved with interviewing, the risk of rejection. Or the fear of failure from taking a leap into the unknown at a job he’s untested at. He can complain all he wants, but there’s something comforting about staying in the old job.
Figure out for yourself what behavior you’re favoring over achieving your goal, and discover how that behavior is somehow rewarding you.
What’s the Worst That Could Happen?
Ask yourself what you think will happen if you stop the old behavior and cut yourself off from the reward. Your belief about the old behavior might even sound ridiculous when you discover what it is. Hint: you are usually trying to avoid some kind of emotional discomfort.
The spender might be afraid that the stress of dealing with her bills without the comfort of shopping to relieve her stress will be too painful.
The dieter might be afraid that she’ll have to endure hunger, loneliness or boredom without the ability to eat whatever, whenever. Or the dieter might be afraid of good old deprivation. If she sees delicious food, she might feel deprived if she won’t let herself have it.
The job hater might be afraid to apply for a new job because he would feel inadequate if he doesn’t get it. Or he fears that if he lands a new job, he might not be good at it and he’s supremely uncomfortable, maybe even humiliated when faced with his imperfections and inabilities.
Compare and Contrast
Once you’ve laid yourself bare and you are aware of your sabotaging behavior and the reward it gives you, let’s compare that current situation versus what you would get if you let yourself achieve your goal.
Do you really and truly value the self-defeating habit over your goal?
Does the dieter value overeating over reaching her goal of getting thin? Of course not. She might make the wrong decision in the heat of the moment due to subconscious fears around deprivation and loneliness, but she doesn’t truly value hanging onto unhealthy habits.
Does the shopper value mounting debt over her goal of saving money? And does the job hater secretly love his job? No. But they are stuck in patterns of thinking and behavior that are preventing success.
Challenge Time: Build New Habits
Let’s take on the shopper. All of the mental tomfoolery aside, what she’s left with is mounting financial worries and a bad shopping habit. What if she takes a baby step and challenges herself the next time she wants to break out that plastic to hold off instead. She might be waiting to see how uncomfortable it is to avoid spending, but what will actually happen is that she can wait for the urge to pass. If later on she notices that she didn’t spend and she didn’t die, then she can chip away at the belief that she must spend to relieve stress. She can avoid her bad habit more easily by adopting a replacement habit. Going for a walk and calling a friend are clichés for a reason. They might work when we actually DO them.
How about the dieter. Same deal here. She might be afraid of hunger or negative emotions, but the next time she wants to overeat she can turn to a different behavior instead. She can challenge her feeling that she has to eat to feel comfort. She can start the work required to break that habit of turning to food and find other ways to comfort herself. If she’s looking to get thinner so she can have more confidence, for example, maybe she can cut to the chase and look directly for opportunities to build confidence, like taking a dance class or trying out online dating.
The job hater can dip his toe into the job pool by trying out an informational interview with a company that interests him. That way he’s not putting himself at risk for rejection, but he gets to try out a low-pressure interview situation. He could also look into doing some pro-bono work to help brush up his skill set and get his resume up to date to feel more confident in his abilities.
The next time you find yourself engaging in a self-defeating behavior, ask what you could do differently next time. Chip away, and you will reach your goal while creating new and empowering habits.