You have something you want to do. You truly want to make it happen. And yet, for some reason, you just can’t seem to stop getting in your own way.
It’s totally normal. And, turns out, often stems from a few core levers of how humans operate. If you find yourself getting in your own way, ask yourself these four questions. They’ll help shed light on what’s going on, and give you a clear idea about what you need to attend to to get things back on track
Here are three questions to ask yourself to get out of your own way:
Question 1: Do I have the resources to do this?
A lot of times what looks like self-sabotage actually might be your mind and body engaged in an act of self-care. It could be that you just don’t have the resources to do whatever it is you’re trying to do. And while you can borrow against yourself for a while, eventually your mind and body are going to pull the emergency brake and force you to stop whatever you’re doing and refuel — which can look a whole lot like self-sabotage.
“If a person can’t get out of bed, something is making them exhausted. If a student isn’t writing papers, there’s some aspect of the assignment that they can’t do without help. If an employee misses deadlines constantly, something is making organization and deadline-meeting difficult. Even if a person is actively choosing to self-sabotage, there’s a reason for it — some fear they’re working through, some need not being met, a lack of self-esteem being expressed.” (Laziness Does Not Exist)
If you’re struggling to get out of your own way, it could be that your battery is just too drained — or that you’re trying to make something happen at a time of day, or in a sequence of other events where the right resources just aren’t available to you.
For example, if you’re trying to start a habit of meditating in the morning, but you’re also not a morning person and have to get the kids to school, that habit is going to be much harder to form than if you just worked with yourself instead of against yourself and tried meditating say, during the afternoons when things are quieter.
“So when you hear people say that change is hard because people are lazy or resistant, that’s just ﬂat wrong. In fact, the opposite is true: Change is hard because people wear themselves out. And that’s the second surprise about change: What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.” (Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard)
Similarly, “big bandwidth” events could be impacting all sorts of other things in your life. If you’re going through major life changes, grieving, experiencing a lot of stress, or having to make a lot of decisions all the time, of course you’re going to end up self-sabotaging. You just don’t have the resources to do otherwise.
How do you get a sense of what your resources level are? There are many models you can use — spoons is a popular one that started in the chronic illness community but is moving outwards — but we think about it in terms of The Good Life Buckets.
“Think of your life as three buckets. The first bucket is called Vitality, and it’s about the state of your mind and body. The second is Connection; this one is about relationships. The third, Contribution, is about how you contribute to the world. The fuller your buckets, the better your life … if any single bucket runs dry, you feel pain. If two go empty, a world of hurt awaits. If all three bottom out, you don’t have a life. Figuratively and, in short order, literally.” (How to Live a Good Life)
The thing is, the buckets leak, so you have to refill them constantly. And, your lowest bucket drags the other two down with it. For example, if you’re trying to do amazing work (Contribution bucket) but you’re also not eating regularly or sleeping well (Vitality bucket), you’ve got a recipe for failure there. If you find yourself regularly struggling with something you know you should be able to do, check out your buckets — it could be that you’ve got a bottomed-out bucket issue going on, and when you take care of that, you’ll be able to do that first thing no problem.
Question 2: Do I actually want this and believe it can happen?
Our brains are super powerful, which is fantastic … when they’re working in the direction we want to go in. Thing is, they’re also hardwired for efficiency of action and survival. To that end, the amygdala part of your brain (processes emotions, fears, etc) will actually “hijack” the prefrontal cortex part of your brain (processes critical thinking, decision-making, etc.) Researcher Jonathan Haidt compares these two parts of the brain to an Elephant and a Rider.
“The conventional wisdom in psychology, in fact, is that the brain has two independent systems at work at all times. First, there’s what we called the emotional side. It’s the part of you that is instinctive, that feels pain and pleasure. Second, there’s the rational side, also known as the reﬂective or conscious system. It’s the part of you that deliberates and analyzes and looks into the future.” (Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard)
Here’s where self-sabotage comes in: if you’re working towards a goal you don’t actually believe in, or aren’t genuinely aligned with, your brain is going to see it as a lost cause, a waste of energy, an inefficiency. And as such, the Elephant is going to hijack things, dragging the Rider away from the direction you wanted to go in. And — here’s the super sneaky part — because the Rider knows it can’t overpower the Elephant, once the Elephant makes a decision, the Rider convinces itself that that’s what it wanted anyway.
“Our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.” (Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard)
If you find yourself routinely failing to meet a goal, or blowing off a routine, ask yourself if (1) you actually want this and (2) you believe that it’s actually possible. If the answer to either one is no, then you’ve got a losing game going on with your Elephant.
Question 3: What am I afraid of?
Self-protection is another common reason for self-sabotage. While it’s uniquely frustrating to keep having yourself get in the way of something you want, it comes from a good place.
“Self-sabotage or self-handicapping is a cognitive strategy employed by individuals as self-protection; primarily aimed at preserving self-esteem and self-image.” Psychology
Remember that part about the Elephant before? Your amygdala is fine-tuned for pain-prevention, and psychological or emotional pain registers just the same as physical pain, if there’s even a chance that you might get hurt, it’s going to jump in and try to get you as far away from that potentially harmful event as possible.
The good thing is, as long as you’re not actively down in the midst of a runaway Elephant event (aka you’re not in an adrenaline cascade, or something similar), you can do a lot to soothe your fears simply by writing them down. When you see them outside yourself — this is also called embodied cognition — you’re better able to plan for them and react to them from the Rider space, giving you more control over where you end up going.
The one thing you absolutely shouldn’t do to get out of your own way? Shame yourself.
It’s tempting to give into shame and blame if you find yourself self-sabotaging. After all, nobody’s making you do this, this is all an inside game. Plus, we’re often socialized to be very harsh to ourselves when we don’t accomplish what we set out to do. But the truth is, shaming doesn’t work.
Shame researcher and GLP podcast guest Brene Brown says,
“Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.”
In fact, shame tends to have the opposite effect, and can set you up into this nasty spiral where something doesn’t work out, you beat yourself up, and then maybe perform better in the short run, but end up failing again in the long run … or just give up entirely.
— We all self-sabotage sometimes. It’s totally normal, and also tends to be caused by a few basic facts about how humans operate. If you find yourself struggling to get out of your own way, ask:
— Do I have the resources to do this?
— Do I actually want this and believe it can happen?
— What am I afraid of?
— Most importantly: don’t shame yourself. It’s absolutely unnecessary, and actually counterproductive.
Getting out of your own way is a life-long work for most of us — and those kinds of things are always better with friends.
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