The Thinking Mind Podcast: Psychiatry & Psychotherapy

The Many Paths to Self-Sabotage

May 31, 2024 The Thinking Mind Podcast
The Many Paths to Self-Sabotage
The Thinking Mind Podcast: Psychiatry & Psychotherapy
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The Thinking Mind Podcast: Psychiatry & Psychotherapy
The Many Paths to Self-Sabotage
May 31, 2024
The Thinking Mind Podcast

What if the biggest obstacle in your way was yourself?  If this were true and it was something you took seriously, it would have major implications about the way you conducted yourself. It would also mean reflecting on your decisions, and the overarching patterns of your life might be one of the most important things you could do. Today we discuss the many routes to self-sabotage, including evolutionary reasons, fear of change,  the repetition compulsion and much more. 

Audio-Essay by Dr. Alex Curmi. Dr. Curmi is a consultant general adult psychiatrist with a sub-speciality in addictions who completed his training in the South London and Maudsley NHS foundation trust. In addition to general adult psychiatry he has a special interest in psychotherapy and mindfulness meditation.

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Show Notes Transcript

What if the biggest obstacle in your way was yourself?  If this were true and it was something you took seriously, it would have major implications about the way you conducted yourself. It would also mean reflecting on your decisions, and the overarching patterns of your life might be one of the most important things you could do. Today we discuss the many routes to self-sabotage, including evolutionary reasons, fear of change,  the repetition compulsion and much more. 

Audio-Essay by Dr. Alex Curmi. Dr. Curmi is a consultant general adult psychiatrist with a sub-speciality in addictions who completed his training in the South London and Maudsley NHS foundation trust. In addition to general adult psychiatry he has a special interest in psychotherapy and mindfulness meditation.

Give feedback here - thinkingmindpodcast@gmail.com  
Follow us here: Twitter @thinkingmindpod Instagram @thinkingmindpodcast
Join Our Mailing List! - https://thinkingmindpod.aidaform.com/mailinglistsignup

If you would like to enquire about an online psychotherapy appointment with Dr. Alex, you can email - alexcurmitherapy@gmail.com

SUPPORT THE PODCAST: buymeacoffee.com/thinkingmind

Welcome back to the Thinking Mind podcast. My name is Alex. I'm a consultant psychiatrist. What if it was really true that the biggest obstacle in your way was yourself? If that was true and it was something that you took seriously, then it would have major implications about the way one would conduct themselves. And it would also have major implications about the value of introspection. Getting some altitude on your life, reflecting on the overarching patterns of your life, and the types of decisions that you make. At first glance, the idea of self-sabotage can seem a little bit absurd, but that's only because at the surface level, we kind of appear to ourselves to be basically rational decision making machines. As human beings, we have certain needs and desires, for example, food, shelter, money, connection, and we scan the environment and try to meet our needs. At one level of analysis. This is true. By looking at our environments, I'm making fairly rational decisions. We can and do get our needs met. But this really isn't the whole story. This model of human behavior doesn't take into account the fact that we have a complicated network of needs and desires that are often in conflict with each other. For example, our short term sexual desires can conflict with our desires for a long term monogamous relationship. Our desire for sugary foods can conflict with our desire to be healthy and lean. Our desire for money this month can conflict with our desire to have a fulfilling career in the long term. This model also doesn't take into account the fact that in any given endeavor, there are different levels of success we can achieve, particularly as technology continues to improve. You can simply make ends meet, or you can become a billionaire, or you can land at any point in between those two. This model also doesn't take into account the fact that we are not perfect perceivers of our environment, but in fact, we perceive the environment in an incredibly selective way, unconsciously emphasizing or de-emphasizing different things in our environment in a manner which is colored by our beliefs, past experiences, expectations, our emotional states. This is something which I have often referred to as one of the most important things people should understand about human psychology. And if you want more information about that, I've written a whole essay about it, which is called You Are What You Focus On. Finally, this rationalistic way of seeing human beings doesn't allow for the fact that we often make decisions extremely irrationally colored by our emotional states, and often in a frankly self-destructive way. So today, I wanted to talk about self-sabotage, because I actually do believe that if you live in a reasonably safe, modern society, and if you have reasonable access to physical and financial resources, if you're not being directly oppressed by anyone, chances are you are the biggest obstacle in the way of your quality of life improving. I'm aware of this, probably with some controversial to a lot of people, but this idea is why the fundamentals of psychotherapy and self-help often teach that it's vital for the individual to take responsibility for their own lives. It's not that external factors like the people around us, our societies, our governments, our environments don't negatively affect us. They do. They can impede us in all sorts of ways, but ultimately, we're the ones who can meaningfully take the actions necessary to improve our experience of life. Another way of phrasing this is that our problems may not entirely be our fault, but they are largely our responsibility. And by the same token, there's a myriad of ways in which we can make our lives more difficult for ourselves, often without being aware of it. So today I'd like to discuss the different paths to self-sabotage. Because often when self-sabotage is discussed online, it's done in a superficial or cliched manner. And as a result, what is trying to be communicated doesn't meaningfully sink in. 1s Before I tell you what these paths are. I'd like to point out that the significant overlap between these different causes. So rather than thinking about them as distinct entities, I'd encourage you to view them as different ways of thinking about the same issue. What would I like for you guys to get from this podcast? Maybe while you're listening, just think which of these points or examples seem to resonate with my life experiences. So what are the different routes to self-sabotage? 1s One. Evolutionary reasons. So thinking about self-sabotage from an evolutionary point of view at first it might not be very intuitive. Why would it be evolutionarily adaptive to get in your own way? It does make sense when you think about the fact that, like most animals, humans organize themselves into hierarchies and being towards the top of the hierarchy, although certainly bringing a lot of perks like status and power, can also make you vulnerable to attack from others who would like to take your place at the top of the hierarchy. This is why, although in my view, this is kind of on the disgust, success brings with it a strange kind of stress and pressure when you become successful. Suddenly more eyes are on you and what you do, whether you succeed or fail and everything you do has a lot more gravity. A lot of people are also invested in your success and may depend on your ongoing success, for example, your family or your employees. If you start earning a lot of money while at the same time others possessed by envy will be hoping for you to fail and sometimes may take active steps to sabotage you themselves, particularly if their ego is threatened directly by your ongoing success. Simply being well known is extremely stressful, as we know from countless case studies of celebrities who fall victim to mental health problems, addictions, very public legal problems, and even suicide after becoming famous. All of this being the case, there's actually a sound evolutionary sense in getting some success, but not getting too successful in this paradigm. Going for high levels of success represents a high risk, high reward strategy while going for a more middle of the road level of success. Whatever that means for you represents a low risk, medium reward strategy. There is some safety in numbers. There is some safety and anonymity in the herd and not standing out. Another evolutionary reason for self-sabotage is that we are, in fact, programmed by evolution to prioritize short term comfort to minimize energy expenditure. And we're also predisposed to be, on balance, more afraid of risk than we are enthusiastic about risk. This is something I also covered in detail in another essay released last fall, Why you are Lazy and Afraid. So if you want to learn more about that, definitely look that up. But the gist of it is that because in our ancestral environment, comforts were so scarce and you constantly have to expend energy to survive. And there was so much to be afraid of. The human beings that latched on to comfort where it could be found and were able to minimize energy expenditure when possible. And the ones who felt more fearful were the most likely to survive were the descendants of those people. Now we're in a very different environment where comfort can be found in abundance, and there is much less to be afraid of those very instincts that helped us to survive are now sabotaging us. And that is why, as much as we might want to lose weight, we can still end up eating ice cream. Or even though we want to get a new job, the fear of what that involves can stop us and so on. We're very much restricted by the intuitions which helped us before, and this is very common in psychological development actually, that today is coping strategy can become tomorrow's cage. 1s Two, craving the familiar and discomfort with change. Following on from the evolutionary reasons. I'd like to comment on discomfort with change in general. It's worth noting that as biological organisms, there's often a strong tendency for us to keep things the same. In biology, this is called homeostasis. It applies to all sorts of things about us, like our body weight, our body temperature, and so on. Change in and of itself can cause a lot of fear to arise within us, because it can bring us from the known to the unknown when we're achieving new things. It can, by definition, bring us into the unknown. And even though in some ways it can be really exciting and seductive, can also bring with it a lot of problems we did not anticipate. This is why instead of development, there is an idea that we don't really ever get rid of our problems, but rather we trade our current problems for better problems. And even though the problems we might be trading into might be better, in many ways, they're still new to us, and therefore they're still be demanding new things from us, new parts of ourselves that need to be developed. For example, if you're having problems dating and getting into a relationship when you're stuck in this era, you might have a fantasy that once you eventually solve the problem and get into that relationship, that everything is going to be great, and you'll have one less issue in your life to think about. This way of thinking, although flawed, can give you a hope and keep you going through the arduous dating process. However, once you figure out dating and getting into hopefully a good relationship, you'll then discover that rather than just getting rid of problems with dating, you have actually swapped the problems of dating for the problems of being in a relationship, such as how do I balance alone time with time with my partner? How do I meet both of our emotional needs? How do we share our life together practically and financially? How do we start a family together? How do I manage feelings of loneliness even within a relationship, etc.? 1s On balance, the problems of being in a relationship are better problems to have. But there are new problems to be dealt with nonetheless. Some people may not be ready to handle such problems, for example, if they have an avoidant attachment style. And even though a relationship might be perfectly healthy and a good thing for them overall, they may sabotage themselves and their relationship by pulling away. Consciously, they may claim that they feel they haven't chosen the correct partner, but in actuality, they may simply not be prepared for the challenges of intimacy and sharing a life with someone. 1s Three unbalanced personality traits. 1s A third path to self-sabotage is having an unbalanced personality. What do I mean by this? Sometimes people present with certain extremes of personality traits without having cultivated any complementary personality traits to balance this out. So, for example, thinking about the big five model of personality, someone may be really high in trait agreeableness, which means they tend to be compassionate. Empathic. Diplomatic, polite. Someone high in agreeableness is likely to prioritize someone else's experience over their own, and they can often prioritize social harmony over rationality. In other words, they can prioritize getting along with someone, avoiding conflict and darkness over the truth. 1s Like with every personality trait, there are big advantages to being agreeable. Can make you really good at creating and maintaining social relationships. Good at taking care of vulnerable people, good at mediation, etc. but if you're really high in agreeableness and have never cultivated any ability to be the opposite, to be disagreeable, then you're going to find yourself in difficult situations repeatedly. One way I encourage people to think about their personality is as a set of tools. And the larger the toolkit you have, the greater variety of problems you can solve. Conversely, if you only have a few tools at your disposal, you're at a tremendous disadvantage. The extremely agreeable person may find themselves continually trying to solve social problems with people pleasing behavior, whereas actually, if only they could proactively engage in a little bit of conflict up front, they could avoid a whole lot of conflict down the road. Often people pleasers spend so much time suppressing their own anger and aggression that they occasionally have angry or violent outbursts that they have very little control over. And in those moments, they can do and say things which are extremely destructive to themselves and to their relationships. For example, a people pleasing husband who was unable to express his sexual needs to his wife because of a lack of ability to own his desires and be a little disagreeable, may end up going on a weekend long alcohol binge and committing adultery, destroying his marriage as a result. Having an unbalanced personality is perhaps one of the most subtle forms of self-sabotage, and another way of thinking about it is having an uninterrupted shadow. In other words, an individual has failed to integrate the parts of themselves they have suppressed for one reason or another. Number four. Repetition. Compulsion. This is a psychoanalytic way of thinking about self-sabotage, and is essentially the idea that human beings are unconsciously drawn to and tend to recreate situations from our past. We may be initially attracted to situations that seem similar to our past because they are familiar, and then once are enmeshed in such situations. We may also try and fix them as a way of fixing our past. A classic example of this is if you grew up with a narcissistic parent, you may be drawn to narcissistic people to date and form relationships with. Or if you had a parent who needed a lot of taking care of, you could be drawn to people with emotional problems. The repetition compulsion can be thought of as a response to trauma, and that you are unconsciously trying to heal the trauma of your past through an external relationship or situation. Although I do not think one needs to have experienced a major trauma to engage in this behavior, I do think the more traumatized an individual is, the more likely they are to fall into this particular trap. The people that remind us of our pasts are often the people we have the most initial and obvious chemistry with. Although this is not the only reason for chemistry, but often the initial dizzying sense of being in love can give way to old and unsatisfying relationship patterns. And at its worst, this can look like different kinds of abuse, whether it's emotional, physical, or sexual. This idea helps us to understand why people end up in similar relationship dynamics again and again and again. In many ways, the people we end up in relationships with are psychological mirrors to ourselves. This is very important to understand. It is, for instance, very difficult for a narcissist to be in a relationship with a totally emotionally healthy person for a long length of time, because typically the healthy boundaries are deployed naturally and intuitively by the emotionally healthy person would be too difficult for the narcissistic person to tolerate. And in the same way, the narcissistic behavior would stand out as a conspicuous red flag to a person with healthy self-esteem and emotional self-sufficiency, and they would be less likely to tolerate it. 1s Rather, what happens is a narcissistic person would tend to form relationships with a codependent person. In other words, a person who is quite willing to sacrifice themselves for they perceive to be the safety of being in a relationship, and someone who is easily seduced by the perceived power of the narcissist. Both individuals in this pairing have self esteem problems, but the problem is being expressed in different ways. One is expressing their problems with grandiosity and the other one with submission. Again, the biggest danger of the repetition compulsion is to arrive at the flawed conclusion that you have simply chosen the wrong person. While there is some truth in this, it's important to understand that the problem runs deeper. The deeper truth is you attract and are attracted to a person that mirrors your unresolved psychological issues, and that is why it can be considered self-sabotage. And therefore the solution would not be simply to find the correct person, but rather to resolve your own issues through your personal growth, to develop healthy self-esteem and emotional self-sufficiency, to be introspective and reflective about who you're attracted to and why, and to consider experimenting with dating people outside of your comfort zone. 1s Of course, the repetition compulsion can manifest itself in many other contexts, such as work like continually ending up in jobs where you are mistreated by your superiors, or even how you might pursue your interests outside of work. For example, giving up on personal projects because you are failing to meet up to the perfectionistic standards you're setting for yourself. 2s Five. The avoidance compulsion. In contrast to the repetition compulsion, which is mentioned a lot in psychoanalytic literature. The avoidance compulsion is a phrase I've kind of just made up myself, so bear with me. As you can imagine, this is the opposite of the repetition compulsion. Although similar to the repetition compulsion, it's something that can happen in response to trauma. But in this instance, the individual can do things to prevent themselves from getting into situations which remind them of their past, rather than simply repeating their past. Usually, people with this problem have a resigned attitude towards life. They may have decided, consciously or unconsciously, that certain good things about life like love, a good relationship, financial success, fulfillment, are simply not for them. At the extreme, such individuals can become cynical. For instance, coming to the fullest conclusion that the only way to achieve success is to cheat, steal, or sell your soul. In some way. After the worst people in this frame of mind can not just sabotage themselves, but even inflict their cynicism on others, subtly or not so subtly, trying to stop other's earnest attempts at trying to get what they may want out of life. The avoidance compulsion can manifest itself in ways which are obvious. For example, after having a few bad relationships, someone may give up on dating and become reclusive. Sometimes the behavior can be a lot more subtle. For example, I've come across case studies of women who have previously been sexually assaulted, having problems losing weight or keeping weight off because for them, being overweight is an effective way of avoiding male attention. As with the repetition compulsion, the avoidance compulsion can come up in many different aspects of life. Like procrastinating with getting started on a creative project because of a fear of failure, or stagnating in jobs you're overqualified for, for fear of difficulty a more challenging job might bring. Six. Stress. 1s The last route to self-sabotage I'd like to talk about today is stress. This one probably applies more to people who have actually done a bit of personal growth, and to have been able to transcend a lot of the default ways of self-sabotaging. What often happens with people like this is they can end up being quite successful, actually, and having a lot of opportunities. As I mentioned previously in this podcast, success can bring with it its own strange kind of stress. And when people start to get a bit of traction in life, they can often bite off a bit more than they can chew. What then happens is that seemingly all of a sudden, the stress that the person finds themselves under can cause them to revert to their default ways of coping, which can often include a bit of self-sabotage, whether that's by avoiding repeating, reverting to extreme personality traits or whatever that person has done historically. I wanted to talk about this specifically because it can be quite disconcerting to an individual who's done a decent amount of personal development to find themselves regressing into these historic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. It can leave people who have done quite a lot of work on themselves, feeling like it was all for nothing. It was pointless. What I'd want to emphasize here is that it's totally normal to revert to old ways of dealing with things when one is under a lot of stress, whether that stress is because of a relationship breakdown, grief hitting difficult obstacles, or even just simply working too hard. If you find yourself in this situation, it's not a sign of personal failure, but it's simply an indicator that you've taken on too much. Or perhaps you've had some bad luck. 1s One of the problems with personal development is it can make people fall into a kind of omnipotence fantasy that if only they do all the right things eat the correct diet, perform the correct meditation exercises, go to therapy that they will wipe out all their flaws and become immune from life's ups and downs and frankly, life's more tragic elements. While it's true that personal development can significantly improve your life and the quality of your experience of life. A well-rounded approach to sustainable personal development must include the possibility of making mistakes, failure, loss, suffering, etc. despite even your best efforts, it must also include the fact that sometimes you can and will get in your own way. You will self-sabotage. And that's okay. 2s So all of that being said, what are the main dangers of self-sabotage? It can significantly diminish the quality of your life. It can stop you from acting in accordance with your values. It can limit the degree to which you actualize your potential. And all of these can leave a person feeling empty, unfulfilled, stagnant, or stifled. Subtle forms of self-sabotage can cause you to form false narratives about your life, or about the way life works in general. The problem with this is it will further blind you from reality and make future progress even more difficult. At its extreme, it can even cause you to sabotage others, especially if you're in a position of responsibility such as being a parent or an employer. 1s So now that you're more aware of these factors, what I'm hoping is you've taken some time to listen to this and reflect on which one of these points may resonate more or less with your experiences. Which one of these situations you find yourself ending up in more often than not? And hopefully this puts you in a position to make better decisions and to have more choice. Success is a narrow road. There are typically many wrong ways to do something. It's therefore very easy to make mistakes when pursuing a particular goal. This does not mean that every mistake is an act of self-sabotage, but it does mean that if someone were prone to self-sabotaging, there are many different ways that that could look, some being more obvious and some being more subtle. A degree of vigilance is required to spot self-sabotage and prevent it from fucking up your life. Although we can often feel that people are against us, most of the time they're actually indifferent. And if we choose the right people and approach them in the right way, they can be very helpful. Allies and often enemies can be avoided entirely. Success looks different for every individual and therefore so that self-sabotage. What might be an act of self-sabotage for one person, might be the right decision for someone else. Determining whether any act or behavior is an act of self-sabotage requires a lot of introspection, a careful examination of your values, what stage in life you're at, and the key an awareness of how you feel in the present moment when engaging in a particular behavior. 1s And lastly, I would say it's okay if you find yourself self-sabotaging from time to time. We all do it. We all have flaws. It's a part of the human condition. When all else fails, a bit of self-compassion can go a long way. Thank you for listening. If you have any feedback, you can email us at Thinking Minds podcast at gmail.com. This is the Thinking Mind Podcast, a podcast all about psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy and self-development. If you like it, there are a few ways you can support it. You can share it with a friend. Give us a rating on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Do follow or subscribe wherever you're listening or watching because that really helps people to find us. Or if you want to support us further, you can check out the Buy Me a Coffee link in the description. In addition, if you're thinking of not just listening to podcasts about therapy, but maybe trying some therapy for yourself, whatever goal you happen to have in mind, I'm now offering a private one on one psychotherapy sessions, both online or in person in the South London area. So if that's something you're interested in, you can send me an email at Alex Karimi Therapy at gmail.com. Thanks for listening.