We all make mistakes. Mistakes have consequences. We learn from our mistakes and don’t make them again. Or do we? Sometimes, especially when you find yourself doing something over and over again—being late, forgetting to send something, leaving certain people off invitations, forgetting status reports, losing important information, doing things that make the boss mad—it isn’t just a mistake. Sometimes it is self-sabotage. Shooting yourself in the foot. Failing on purpose (albeit sometimes unconsciously). Proving that you aren’t ‘good enough,’ ‘ready for the position,’ ‘at the right level.’
Each of us has a self-image that pretty much dictates our identity. I’m a mother, a daughter, an introvert, smart, good at math, an Executive, a business woman, etc., etc. When something happens that challenges that identity, we have something called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the experience of having two conflicting “cognitions”—ideas, thoughts, ‘mental models’—simultaneously. This is so stressful to us that we take action to bring them into alignment.
For example, when I wrote “good at math” above (which I am not), I went back three different times to amend it. I first put “(just kidding),” erased it and then put “not really,” erased that and then wrote “(wanna be)” in front of it. I was so uncomfortable with writing something that is so much not a part of my identity that I had a really hard time leaving it unadorned while I wrote the rest of the paragraph. If I have such a strong reaction to something so minuscule, imagine the difficulty I would have if something happened to challenge my “mother” or “business woman” or “Executive” identities.
This is why people who are laid off have such a hard time. Most of us these days identify with what we do. If we can’t do it anymore, then it is extremely painful.
Why Do We Self-Sabotage?
This is equally true of good things about our identity and bad things about it. If we think badly about certain aspects of ourselves—that we aren’t good at math, or that we aren’t smart or that we shouldn’t be at an Executive-level, or that we aren’t likeable—then we will struggle to reconcile those two cognitions. We will do things that prove, despite the fact that we just got promoted, or that we are being praised for a job well done, or that our boss likes us—that we don’t deserve the promotion, or being praised, or liked. We will self-sabotage until we are back where we are most comfortable. We will do things like miss important appointments, become unresponsive to assignments, or tell off our boss until we prove (to ourselves and others) that our self-image is right.
So How Do You Know If You’re Self-Sabotaging
Pay attention to what is going on. Are there consistent patterns that keep you from getting to where (you think) you want? Do you have the same experience in position after position, or in company after company, or in relationship after relationship? Do you get uncomfortable when people praise you or when you are considered for/get a promotion? Do you keep getting stuck at a certain level in organizations and not seem to be able to climb to the next rung, no matter what? These can all be signs of self-sabotage.
Recognizing it is most of the battle. If you see that you’re doing it, then you will have to do some really hard work to adjust your self-image. If you never see it, however, you never have the opportunity to start changing. Self-sabotage is related to your self-image. Once you change your self-image, then stopping the self-sabotage is pretty easy. You have already changed your self-image. You don’t think the same of yourself as you did at 12 or 18 or 24 or . . . You can change again, and again. You just need to be more conscious, mindful and determined to create the self-image that you want.