Not always do I want to engage in physical training. Some days, it’s a struggle to think about working out, let alone to actually exercise.
It’s easy to simply do nothing at all. I can choose comfort. I can opt for pleasure instead of pain. Why workout at all?
I choose suffering through physical training so that when unchosen suffering occurs I can better tolerate it. I exercise to exorcise metaphorical devils which lead to suffering.
I choose the devil I don’t know (the imagined outcome of devotion to effort) over the devil I do know (the self-sabotaging experience of doing nothing and not growing), because I understand how life is for me without this element of my mental health regimen.
Thankfully, albums such as Dueling Experts are available, which features two Japanese devils on its cover, to augment the healthier choices I make concerning my mental, emotional, and physical fitness. Suffering never felt so good!
Recently, I was asked, “Why does my brain sabotage situations? Why does my brain make me believe things that aren’t real?”
I think answers to these questions may be useful for others, so I’ll post my response in the form of a blog entry. Before I get started, it may be useful to highlight a few foundational blogposts which will serve as the basis for my response.
First, in Was Freud Right? I stated, “We know very little about the brain;’ whereas a brain is crudely conceptualized as hardware and the mind is its software,” it’s important to understand that the brain is essentially an organ and the mind is the function of that organ.
Throughout Was Freud Right? I elaborated on the distinction between varying levels of what is generally understood about the mind. In particular, I addressed the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious levels of mental functioning.
Second, in Self-disturbance I addressed much of what one may need to know about self-sabotage. Still, I will expound upon that blogpost in the current entry.
Last, in Mind Tricks I expanded upon the hardware-software issue by adding:
Think of smartphone components (i.e., circuits, chips, cellular modem, etc.) representing the brain. As well, the physical structure—or phone casing—is akin to the body.
Imagine the function of an operating system (e.g., iOS) with various applications (apps) as how the mind works. One may have an iPhone with iOS and various apps running (mind)—all encased in a smartphone shell (body)—which are dependent on components (brain).
Notably, it was in Mind Tricks that I demonstrated how the process of the mind impacts thinking, emotions, bodily sensations, and behavior. I accomplished this through use of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) concepts.
Specifically, I identified the ABC Model and how unhelpful and unhealthy belief systems impact our daily lives. I invite you to first read the three aforementioned blogposts before proceeding with the current entry.
Understanding that it’s the mind and not the brain that relates to the posed questions, I presume the person was actually asking, “Why does my mind sabotage situations? Why does my mind make me believe things that aren’t real?”
These questions may be summed up thusly: Why do I self-sabotage?
Many times, I’ve been asked this throughout the years. Depending on what clinical modality one practices, there may be a range of answers to the question.
Rather than simply jumping to the REBT perspective, it may be helpful to discuss what I mean by self-sabotage. An answer to why you sabotage can then follow once you understand what it is in the first place.
Merriam-Webster defines sabotage, in the current context, as “an act or process tending to hamper or hurt.” Therefore, the act of hindering progress or causing harm to oneself is self-sabotage.
Per one source, “Self-sabotage is when people do (or don’t do) things that block their success or prevent them from accomplishing their goals. It can happen consciously or unconsciously.”
A separate source adds, “The causes range from childhood issues to prior relationship effects. Other reasons for this type of destructive behavior vary from low self-esteem and coping problems to problems with cognitive dissonance.”
Yet another source states, “The most common self-sabotaging behaviors include procrastination, self-medication with drugs or alcohol, comfort eating, and forms of self-injury such as cutting.” For others, this relates to virtually any action that isn’t in alignment with a successful outcome.
According to one source, “Self-sabotage is often driven by negative self-talk, where you tell yourself that you’re inadequate, or unworthy of success. You find yourself thinking things like, ‘You can’t do that!’ ‘You don’t deserve that.’ ‘If you try, you’ll probably just fail anyway.”
One source quite frankly says, “Anytime you behave in ways which gets you more of what you don’t want and less of what you want, you are sabotaging yourself.” Having described self-sabotage (the what), I now turn to what it looks like from an REBT perspective.
Self-sabotage through an REBT lens
Where the unconscious mind is concerned, I have no definitive answers about why one disturbs oneself. Honestly, I don’t think anyone can address the why with any degree of certainty in this regard.
The reason is that the unconscious mind is presumably inaccessible to a person. Therefore, it would be absurd for me to pretend I know why you self-sabotage regarding an unconscious process to which you don’t even have access.
Rather than wasting the reader’s time with hypotheses or outright nonsense one can readily find on any given social media platform, I will instead address conscious motivation regarding self-sabotage.
People often state, “I don’t do well with uncertainty.” Because of this thinking, they frequently avoid situations, seek reassurance, and even self-sabotage in order to experience temporary relief. Unfortunately, the more one is resistant to uncertainty, the more unpleasant his or her emotions and behaviors become.
Suppose Jane Doe is uncertain as to whether or not her attempt at losing weight will lead to success. She may truly desire to shed pounds, though she doesn’t know if her efforts will produce the results she demands of herself.
Jane reasons that while she dislikes being overweight, she’s at least used to this state of being. She doesn’t like it, though she can tolerate the extra weight.
On the other hand, Jane considers the uncertainty of what failure may look like. If she commits to increasing physical exercise, modifying her nutritional intake, and flexibly incorporating cheat meals into her fitness plan—though she doesn’t lose weight—will she be able to stand it?
Jane’s anxious or fear-driven what-if narrative decreases her frustration tolerance, resulting in LFT. She reasons that rather than committing to behavior that would serve her interest and help accomplish a goal, Jane can settle for remaining overweight.
This is akin to the devil you know narrative, about which one source states, “If you say better the devil you know or better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know, you mean that you would prefer to have contact with or do business with a person you already know, even though you don’t like them, than with a person you don’t know.”
In Jane’s case, she irrationally concludes that it’s better to settle for being overweight, because she at least knows this devil. After all, attempting to confront the devil she doesn’t know may be something Jane unhelpfully determines she may not be able to bear.
Pun intended, keep in mind that Jane’s self-sabotage of her interest and goal is a conscious process. Because Jane believes she’ll fail if she tries, and fully believing she’d be unable to tolerate the experience of failure, Jane sabotages her success.
This is the why regarding the what.
Albert Ellis, creator of REBT, discussed this matter in a lecture about addiction to which one may listen on YouTube. Though his monologue addressed addiction, and not all self-sabotage relates to an inability to stop a behavior, I think the talk is relevant to the current entry.
In the lecture, Ellis stated:
“You will sabotage any effort whatsoever to give up the addiction, because the general view is, ‘Other humans who are strong and competent and adequate, they could stop smoking or drinking or whatever it is, but not poor, crummy me.’ Soon as you predict that—and it is a prediction in your head—you’ll normally get a self-fulfilling prophecy that will make you fulfill that prediction.
And then when ya’ don’t stop, you’ll say, ‘See, I knew it all the time. I’m unable to stop. I can’t stop. There’s the evidence.’ And it’s only evidence that you believe this—that you are no good for not having stopped it yet and a no-goodnik like you will remain no good forever and not be able to do anything good and strong and desirable, such as giving up an addiction.”
The Ellis video also contains other useful information related to LFT, self-sabotage, and various forms of self-disturbance. Reader, I highly encourage you to watch it if you’re interested in learning more about REBT.
Some people say to me, “Deric, I don’t think these sorts of things consciously. I don’t tell myself I should, must, or ought to quit pursuing my goals.”
Perhaps because I’ve practiced REBT for years and remain in tune with how my mind functions, I’m aware of how irrational beliefs contribute to self-sabotage. Maybe you aren’t quite there yet, reader. For you, I recommend journaling.
When addressing how to activate the unconscious mind, psychiatrist Phil Stutz has stated, “One trick of that is writing. It’s really a magical thing. You enhance your relationship with yourself by writing,” and, “If you start to write, the writing is like a mirror. It reflects what’s going on in your unconscious.”
Once you train yourself to recognize the mental pattern of self-sabotage—the what in this case—you may then be able to do something about it, which addresses the why. Without knowledge of what or why, your metaphorical devils will win in a duel for your interests and goals.
When pondering why we self-sabotage, a useful place to begin relates to determining what manner of self-sabotage you’re using. In Jane’s example, she avoids the potential of failing to achieve success with a fitness goal.
Knowing the what, Jane can then process the why. She can use the ABC Model to dispute unhelpful and unhealthy beliefs about her behavior, abilities, and her self-fulfilling prophecy related to failure.
As well, Jane can practice unconditional self-acceptance to achieve success. Jane may then understand that her mind sabotages situations and deceives her into believing things that aren’t real, such as the lie that Jane can’t achieve success.
Jane can choose to exorcize metaphorical devils, stop disturbing herself, and get out of her own way on a path to a healthier, more meaningful existence. Are you ready to do the same?
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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