Anticipating what’s going to happen in the future is part of what defines us as human, but there comes a point where obsessing over an upcoming event, or challenge becomes unhelpful. It’s fine to run the scenario and consider the outcomes, but not if it leads to too much pressure. You’ll either lock yourself down with analysis paralysis or seek an escape, deflecting you from your purpose. RSNG asked psychological health expert Dr Mark Winwood to find out more, and reveal the best way out…
‘I’m Telling Y’All It’s Sabotage!’ In the immortal words of the Beastie Boys, your own habits can end up sabotaging your best efforts. ‘Self-sabotage occurs when an individual’s behaviour prevents them from achieving their goals or living a fulfilled, happy life,’ says Dr Mark Winwood director of psychological services at AXA PPP healthcare. We’ve all had the experience of putting off what can be done today until tomorrow, but it’s not usually down to laziness – it’s often too much analysis. ‘Perfectionists may procrastinate by dwelling on tasks until they feel they can perform to the best of their ability, but this can be to the detriment of their productivity and ability to meet deadlines.’
Self-sabotage can extend beyond work into your personal life – ever put a relationship under strain, or even ended one, through a fear of being rejected down the line? And the common male response to feeling down – isolating yourself – is classic self-sabotage.
Being a perfectionist is a pain and isolation is good for no one’s mental health, but self-sabotage can become even more toxic. ‘In more severe cases, alcohol, drugs and self-harm can all be forms of self-sabotage that stop an individual from facing a reality, either imagined, or ongoing,’ adds Winwood.
Analysis Paralysis Leads To Toxic Habits A tendency to over-analyse situations that you’re not looking forward to can lead to self-sabotage, which is a form of procrastination and avoidance. Stressing about a job interview might lead you to having a beer to unwind… and then one beer becomes several. ‘While this may temporarily calm your nerves, filling you with happiness or confidence, it can impair your performance the next day, leaving you feeling sluggish, poorly and unable to make a strong impression,’ says Winwood.
Even though these avoidance tactics have a tendency to blow up in the face of a self-saboteur, Winwood has seen cases where they become habitual, and even addictive. ‘Self-saboteurs misguidedly believe that their habits will wash away, solve or help them cope with a problem. They can become hooked on the temporary high, or escape, that these habits create,’ he says.
This vicious cycle leads to continually avoiding events or experiences that could cause unhappiness, which is where the paralysis sets in, preventing achievements and unsettling relationships. ‘If undetected, some forms of excessive self-sabotage can escalate into addiction,’ warns Winwood.
It feels better to control your own failure rather than face the possibility of it taking you by surprise
Let Go And Then Push On There are two driving emotions for self-sabotage – one is the desire for control, and the other is fear. ‘It feels better to control your own failure rather than face the possibility of it taking you by surprise. Self-sabotage may not be pleasant but it may feel better than spinning out of control,’ says Winwood.
As for fear, it often leads us to stay safely in our comfort zone and avoid confronting situations, and people, head-on. We can end up doing anything to forget about an upcoming event that’s making us uncomfortable or unhappy, including overeating, binge drinking or abusing drugs. Confronting your fears may be painful, but it’s better than destructive distractions.
The Evolutionary Advantage You’d think that if self-sabotage was so destructive we would have evolved out of it by now, but we do it to protect ourselves. ‘Our brains cannot determine between imagined and real threats and so we respond in similar patterns mistakenly using our inbuilt reward system to try and improve the discomfort we experience – this can lead us to stress eat, use drugs and alcohol or engage in other unhealthy coping strategies,’ says Winwood.
‘When it comes to self-sabotage, we don’t feel equipped to fight, so we escape using habits that enable us to feel safe or less exposed. Unfortunately, a short-term fix can lead to longer term discontent and underachievement. However, we can embrace our fears and use them positively, as motivation, to enjoy life to the full.’
If you sense you’re procrastinating, why not channel the energy into a run?
Outmanoeuvring Self-Sabotage If you find yourself self-sabotaging then don’t beat yourself up about it – it’s just a defensive reflex. Instead, take positive steps to break the chain. ‘It’s important to challenge the niggling impulse to indulge in a self-sabotaging habit. This could be dietary; rather than overeating, enjoy smaller meals throughout the day. Or, if you sense you’re procrastinating, why not channel the energy into a run?’ asks Winwood. Not only will this give you a physical and mental wellbeing boost, it will also supercharge your productivity for the day.
If that doesn’t work then there are more professional solutions: ‘It’s possible to overcome self-sabotage with therapy like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which can help break the cycle of persistent negative or self-critical thoughts and challenge or dispute your self-defeating internal narrative,’ says Winwood.
Daily Hacks To Defeat Analysis Paralysis If you’re overthinking an upcoming event or challenge, running the possible outcomes through your own personal ‘virtual reality simulator’ is going to do your head in. Instead use Dr Winwood’s quick hacks:
‘Recognise your strengths – list your achievements and think of the ways you managed to succeed in the past – these strategies could also help you in the future.’
‘Be kind to yourself – and practise self-compassion. Think how you would support and dispute your best friend’s negative view of themselves and then become your own best friend.’
‘Take moment out of your day to practice mindfulness. Focus on your breathing; breathe in through your nose slowly and steadily, then out through your mouth; feel yourself relax on each exhale, your shoulders dropping, your arms and legs becoming heavy. If your mind wanders, acknowledge it, then gently take your mind back to focussing on breathing.’
WHAT NEXT? For more on the psychology of self-sabotage watch Debi Silber’s Ted Talk.
For more information visit AXA PPP healthcare.
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations.