You slowly pull the gun out, and point it down towards your foot…
Your mind is yelling at your hand, saying “Please don’t do it! Not again!”
But your finger squeezes on the trigger, almost involuntarily, and you feel the pain spread through your whole leg.
Frustrated and defeated, you ask yourself: “Why in the world did I do this again?”
That’s what self-sabotage can feel like at times… like an uncontrollable urge to screw up your best-laid plans.
We once heard someone say that sabotage is like, “accidentally-on-purpose shooting ourselves in the foot.”
“Accidentally” because we’re not intentionally trying to screw up or hurt ourselves… but “on purpose” because we’re the ones pointing the gun and shooting it at our foot.
And we do it over and over again.
Most of us have a favorite way of sabotaging ourselves.
We call these doing the “overs”.
Overeating is Nita’s. She says, “Self-sabotage is when I’ve decided to lose weight, yet I find myself watching TV drinking beer and inhaling chips.”
But for some people it’s overworking… or maybe over-worrying. Or overspending… Heck, some people even “oversex.”
If you’ve been on this planet for more than 5 minutes, you’ve experienced some type of self-sabotage…
But what is self-sabotage..? And why do we do it?
If we want to understand what causes self-sabotaging behavior, we’ve got to understand what the heck self-sabotage is…
Here’s a simple definition:
“Self-sabotage is any behavior or thought that keeps you from what you want in life.”
Simple enough, right?
Any time you do something that prevents you from getting what you want, having something great in your life, or just being the person you want to be… you’re committing an act of self-sabotage.
Some types of self-sabotage are big and obvious. We know we should stop doing those behaviors but…. We can’t seem to stop them.
For example, chronic worry has been a way Nita has sabotaged herself.
Sometimes at night, she’ll find herself lying in bed trying to sleep, but she can’t seem to turn off that annoying voice in her head.
At times, she doesn’t even know what has triggered this pattern.
Even though she’s worked on this a lot…The sneaky lie that she must control all the details of her life sneaks up on her.
You may be so used to doing things one way that you don’t see it as sabotage.
For example, we had a client, Marilyn, who had an unconscious need for chaos. She used disorganization and clutter as a way to distract herself from tasks that needed to be done.
Marilyn always had good intentions to clean up her house and organize her life. But somehow chaos still reigned…
Her need for chaos was so great that she would even pick fights with her husband when things were going too smoothly!
This pattern was a mystery to her, until we explained to her what causes self-sabotaging behavior…
The “Emotional Payoff” Behind Self-Sabotage
Usually, this is what we hear when people tell us about their self-sabotage:
“Ugh, why do I always do this to myself? I hate this pattern. I wish I could stop it. I’m so frustrated with myself.”
“I’m disgusted with myself because I gained back the 30 pounds that took me a year and a half to lose.”
This attitude of frustration and negativity is totally understandable… but it’s because most people don’t really understand what causes self-sabotaging behavior.
Here’s the thing about self-sabotage:
There’s ALWAYS an important reason for our self-sabotage.
The fact is…
We wouldn’t do those non-productive things if we didn’t get SOME kind of benefit from it.
This is a tricky concept for most people to wrap their minds around… because they’re used to seeing self-sabotage as a purely negative thing.
But if you want to change your pattern of self-sabotage, you have to discover what causes your self-sabotaging behavior. You have to figure out the “Emotional Payoff” behind it.
Simply put, the Emotional Payoff is the benefit your Emotional Brain gets from doing the behavior.
Most people don’t know this, but you have two parts of your mind…
Now, this a very simple way of explaining it, but it helps people understand what causes self-sabotaging behavior.
The top part of your mind is the Rational/Thinking Mind.
The bottom part is your Emotional/Feeling Mind.
These two parts are also called the Conscious and Subconscious mind.
You make many of your plans and decisions in your Rational/Thinking mind, but whether you carry those decisions out depends on your feelings (your Emotional Mind).
These two systems are working together in your brain at all times. They influence each other, but they also have distinct personalities…
The Elephant & Rider Metaphor
Imagine your Rational Mind as a tiny rider sitting on top of a huge elephant – your Emotional Mind.
For example, your Rational Mind (Rider) is the one who makes the decision to stop stress eating so you can lose some weight.
But it has very little power to overcome what your Emotional Mind wants…
That’s because the Elephant outweighs the Rider by thousands of pounds!
So you might be able to follow your eating plan for a little while (your rider is guiding the elephant).
That eating plan flies out the window, and you find yourself scarfing down a whole bag of chips and half a case of beer…
In other words, your emotions rule and drive your behavior.
The simple answer to what causes self-sabotaging behavior is that you can’t always control your elephant.
You sabotage yourself when your Thinking Mind (the logical part of you that says you need to lose weight for health reasons) is at odds with your Emotional Mind (the side of you that drinks beer and eats chips when you’re tired and stressed out).
Understanding the Inner Logic of the Emotional Brain
Most people just don’t understand the cause of their self-sabotaging behavior because they don’t understand how the Emotional Brain thinks…
The Emotional Brain has its own internal logic. It follows the beat of its own drum.
Many types of counseling and coaching try to get you to understand how “illogical and irrational” your negative beliefs and behaviors are so you’ll realize the error of your ways…
Unfortunately, that’s the complete wrong approach when it comes to stopping self-sabotage!
First, you have to discover the Emotional Payoff. Once you do, you’ll realize that your behavior is not as illogical as it seems.
Sometimes, the Emotional Brain’s internal logic can create a pattern of self-sabotage that, ironically, leads you to experience the very situation you were trying to avoid.
Josh gave a great example of this in our Beginner’s Guide to Overcoming Limiting Beliefs.
He was having trouble falling asleep at night, and he noticed it was especially bad whenever he brought on a new client in the business.
Josh used some simple techniques to discover the root of his fears: He was terrified of letting his clients down.
The reason he was lying awake at night was to prevent that situation from happening. His mind was frantically trying to remember all the things he needed to do in the coming days.
Here was the inner logic his Emotional Brain followed:
“I really don’t want to let them down or they’ll hate me. I need to think of every possibility, run through every scenario in my mind, make sure everything is taken care of so that doesn’t happen. Sleep is not important right now.”
But knowing that didn’t stop his self-sabotaging pattern of laying awake at night thinking of all the possibilities.
We’ve talked about this in other posts, but the number one job of your Emotional Brain is to keep you safe… it’s always trying to prevent bad things from happening to you.
Usually, self-sabotage is an attempt at keeping you safe… even if the pattern doesn’t actually help you stay safe!
It’s an old survival program that we learned at a young age. More on that in a second…
An Eye-Opening Example of What Causes Self-Sabotaging Behavior
This story is a bit more complicated, but it really opened our eyes to how unconscious our patterns of self-sabotage can be…
And how complex the inner logic of the Emotional Brain can be!
It comes from Dr. Bruce Ecker’s fantastic book Unlocking the Emotional Brain.
He tells the story of a client named Ted who came to him for help with his “chronic underachieving.”
As a child, his father was hyper-critical and mean towards him. Ted never heard his father say “I love you” or express affection towards him in any way.
Through some simple questions, Dr. Ecker helped Ted discover his powerful Emotional Payoff for underachieving…
Ted secretly wanted his father to apologize for this earlier emotional abuse. He wanted him to understand how deeply he had been wounded as a child, how wrong his father had been to be so critical.
So it was important for Ted to NOT be successful as an adult. Because if he was successful, his father would think how he treated him was okay… that Ted turned out fine in the end.
Here’s the sentence he used to describe the Emotional Payoff:
“The way I can make my Dad realize what a lousy father he’s been is… Me being a mess.”
Put another way: “I need to be a failure so that my Dad sees that he really messed up… and so that he apologizes to me.”
From the outsider’s perspective, it seems insane to deliberately fail in so many ways…
But it makes perfect sense considering Ted’s upbringing as a child.
Ted felt a deep, unconscious need to get his father to admit his mistake and to finally apologize…
That need was even more important to his Emotional Brain than being successful in life!
Before he discovered this Emotional Payoff for failing, Ted always thought something was wrong with him. He was hard on himself for not sticking with anything.
Two tricks for discovering what causes your self-sabotaging behavior
Luckily, there are a couple easy ways to discover the hidden Emotional Payoff behind your self-sabotage.
Here’s the simplest exercise you can do to discover the hidden Emotional Payoff…
Imagine that you have a magic wand. When you wave it you magically stop doing your self-sabotaging behavior.
Imagine yourself successfully doing what you would rather be doing. You’re staying on track and doing so well… day in and day out.
Notice how you’ll feel when you’ve changed this pattern. You might feel a sense of pride, you might feel satisfied and like a sense of accomplishment.
But you might also feel some resistance come up… In fact, it will probably make you feel uncomfortable to NOT do the self-sabotaging behavior.
After imagining it for a minute or so, stop and ask yourself these questions:
- What bad thing might happen if you stopped doing this self-sabotage?
- What would you lose out on if you stopped doing this?
A case study: Josh finds the cause of his self-sabotaging behavior
(**NOTE: This was a different type of sleep problem than Josh’s worry of bringing on clients. He’s had a lot of sleep problems.) 🙂
No matter what he tried to do, he always found himself sabotaging that goal. Most nights he would stay up until 11 or even close to midnight watching Netflix with his roommate.
So he decided to try the magic wand exercise. He imagined himself winding down early and getting in bed by 10PM every night.
He imagined himself staying on track night after night – going to bed early and waking up early.
Almost immediately, he felt a big internal objection come up:
“That sounds so boring! I don’t want to be one of those boring people who goes to bed early every night and doesn’t have a life…”
He also realized that he was rebelling against the conventional wisdom that successful people have to go to bed early and start their days early. The whole “The early bird gets the worm” mentality.
In his case, Josh discovered two important Emotional Payoffs behind his self-sabotage:
- Every time he stayed up later than he wanted to, it was because he wanted to be an “exciting, fun” person… not a boring person who goes to sleep early.
- It was also an inner act of rebellion against the conventional wisdom about success. He secretly wanted to prove that he could stay up late and still be successful.
Of course, the irony is that when he stayed up late, he always woke up the next day feeling groggy and tired… so much for having a successful day!
Trick 2: The “Why is it important?” question
If you’re still struggling with the Magic Wand exercise, you can ask try asking yourself this question:
“Why is it important that I [insert self-sabotaging behavior]?”
This question is very simple, but really effective because it flips the script on self-sabotage…
You’re asking yourself why it’s important to keep doing the self-sabotage, instead of trying to figure out how to stop it.
Here are some examples:
- “Why is it important that I avoid confrontation at all costs?”
- “Why is it important that I have this beer and chips at night?”
- “Why is it important that I work all the time and never rest?”
If the answer isn’t coming to you easily, turn the question into a simple sentence completion exercise.
That’s how Josh discovered his Emotional Payoff for being anxious and staying awake at night…
He filled in the blanks, “It’s important that I stay awake because I don’t want to let them down and make them hate me.”
Here are those same examples as a sentence completion exercise:
- “It’s important that I avoid confrontation because….”
- “It’s important that I have this beer and chips at night because…”
- “It’s important that I work all the time because…”
Just fill in the blanks with whatever pops into your head. Sometimes you have to finish the sentence a few times before you discover the true Emotional Payoff.
More Examples of Discovering What Causes Self-Sabotaging Behavior
Let’s run through a few more examples so you can really understand how this whole Emotional Payoff thing explains what causes self-sabotaging behavior…
How Overeating Helped Nita Feel Safe
She grew up with a father who cycled between depression and rage.
During his rages he was emotionally intrusive, asking pointed questions about her behavior.
And criticizing her answers loudly.
Nita didn’t recall her father sexually abusing her. But she remembers telling therapists that she had experienced “emotional rape.”
Food became her comfort as a child. She learned to “eat” her feelings and numb herself with food.
It wasn’t until she was in her 40’s that she discovered the Emotional Payoff of being fat:
Her father’s anger couldn’t engulf her if she was large. Her fat prevented him from invading her emotional space.
You probably think this doesn’t make sense. But being fat equaled safety in her Emotional Brain.
That’s the reason Nita has struggled with her weight most of her life.
Nita’s experience is a common one for women who have been emotionally or sexually abused.
In fact, any kind of abuse can be a setup for eating disorders.
How Procrastinating Helped Preserve Independence
For some people, procrastination is a way of life. Maybe you always run late getting places. Or you don’t start a task until the very last minute.
And you may be clueless about why you procrastinate.
There are lots of different possible Emotional Payoffs for procrastination…
But here’s an interesting one:
Dr. Bruce Ecker told a great story about one of his clients.
He came to Dr. Ecker desperate for help with his pattern of chronic procrastination. He was in law school and just couldn’t bring himself to do his assignments on time.
After talking with his client for a while, Dr. Ecker helped him uncover the reason behind this self-sabotaging pattern.
Here was his Emotional Payoff for procrastinating:
“I secretly hate law school and I don’t want to be here. I’m only doing this because my dad wants me to and he’s convinced me I should do it.
I’m going to procrastinate as a way to keep my independence and autonomy. This is how I take control of my own life, by not doing these assignments.”
Once he realized his important reason for procrastinating, he decided that his heart wasn’t in law school… and he left.
Worry and anxiety
We already covered this up above, but there’s a powerful Emotional Payoff for people who suffer from chronic worry and anxiety.
If you worry all the time, you can think through every possible scenario and deal with it in your mind before it happens.
The payoff is that worrying makes you feel safer (ironically) because your worry prepares you for all the bad things that could happen.
If you were to magically stop worrying, your Emotional Brain would probably even feel even more unsafe… because then you wouldn’t be prepared for the worst!
They might promise themselves, “I’m going to get ready early and get there with plenty of time.”
But then they somehow manage to show up 10 or more minutes late, despite their best intentions.
There could be a lot of different reasons for this tardiness, but here’s a common Emotional Payoff for this pattern:
“I’m really busy and I have a lot of things I want to accomplish today. I need to cram in as much work as I can.”
As you can see, behind any type of self-sabotage is an important Emotional Payoff.
Self-Sabotage At Work & In Relationships – Your Hidden Saboteurs
The most damaging patterns of self-sabotage are the ones that screw up our relationships at work and at home.
Remember how we said that most types of self-sabotage are subtle, but insidious patterns..?
Most people aren’t aware of old survival programs learned at a young age..because they’re hidden and unconscious.
But you can’t fight an enemy that you can’t see…
Dr. Shirzad Chamine, a Harvard psychologist, had developed a free Saboteur Assessment to identify your unique ways of self-sabotage.
His research led him to discover 9 main “Saboteurs.”
He describes them as “automatic and habitual mind patterns, each with its own voice, beliefs, and assumptions that work against your best interest.”
According to Dr. Chamine, everyone has saboteurs. The trick is to discover and name which ones you have and how much they impact your life.
We formed our saboteurs when we were young, from interactions with all the people around us.
Remember that the main job of your Emotional Brain is to keep you safe.
And it does that by forming these special guardians (Saboteurs) to protect you from real or imaginary threats.
The issue is that, by the time you’re an adult, you no longer need these Saboteurs to stay safe. But they have already taken over your mind.
It’s like you’re now wearing a special pair of glasses that make you see the world in a certain way…
But you don’t even know you’re wearing them!
For example, one of the Saboteurs is the Stickler. Someone who has a strong Stickler is quick to point out everything that is wrong with a person or a situation.
We all know someone who is hyper-critical and always looking for fault.
One of my top Saboteurs is the Pleaser. And now that I’ve shared about my father you can probably understand how this saboteur kept me safe…
If I kept him happy and everybody in my family happy, then I wouldn’t be a target for his rage.
We use this assessment with all of our coaching clients to help them understand their own unique patterns of self-sabotage.
You may find it helpful. Check it out here to discover your unique saboteurs.
Once you get the results, pay attention in particular to the section on “Justification Lies” for each of your Saboteurs. The justification lies are the Emotional Payoff that we’ve been discussing.
Discovering your own unique Saboteurs will start you on the path of discovering what causes your self-sabotaging behavior…
How to stop self-sabotage
As we said above, you can’t fight enemy you can’t see…
So the very first, and most important, step for changing a pattern of self-sabotage is to discover the Emotional Payoff behind it.
Once you do, you’ll know the important role this sabotaging behavior has in keeping you safe from harm… or in giving you some other kind of benefit.
We gave you a couple simple tools above to help you figure it out.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing more tools & resources to help you change your patterns of self-sabotage.
If you want some extra help changing your patterns of self-sabotage, check out the secret brain tool we share in our new beta program –
Leave us a comment below telling us one pattern of self-sabotage you have… and the Emotional Payoff behind it.
Dr. Nita Matthews-Morgan & Josh Matthews-Morgan are the co-founders of Learn Your Brain.
They are a unique mother-son team who specialize in helping entrepreneurs and business owners master their mindset.
They’re the authors of Deliver: How to Perform Your Best When it Counts the Most.