Stop Shooting Yourself In The Foot: Strategies and Tips
Self-sabotage is when you consciously or unconsciously undermine your own goals and values. Your unconscious mind rules all your conscious choices.
Don’t saw off the branch you are sitting on.
– International Proverb
“Don’t shoot yourself in the foot!” I heard this warning from my grandpa when he addressed my childhood anger issues.
What does it really mean? It means: “Don’t sabotage yourself!”
Shoot yourself in the foot: “To damage or impede one’s own plans, progress, or actions through foolish actions or words.
– Farlex Dictionary of Idioms
Over my years of coaching, I’ve encountered dozens of individuals who are in mystery as to why they cannot achieve success in their life goals. Their discovery of self-sabotage always comes as a shock. It’s often accompanied by the realization that, in the past, they have blamed others (or self) for their unfortunate circumstance or believe that it was just plain ‘bad luck’.
Procrastination is, hands down, our favorite form of self-sabotage.
– Alyce Cornyn-Selby
Reality Alert: We all engage in self-sabotaging behavior from time to time.
- Being chronically late
- Fear of commitment or intimacy
- Prolonged worry
- Substance abuse
- Stress eating
It is important to note that these are not necessarily harmful. But, carried to an extreme, these negative beliefs result in self-sabotage.
Like most other creatives, I struggle with self-sabotage, self-doubt, and feeling like an imposter more often than not.
I struggle with expressing myself, because it does sometimes feel easier or safer not to.
– Jeff Jarvis
What follows is a real ‘out of box’ metaphor I have been using for years to open people up to an understanding of the power of negative belief systems. Those of you who have seen me demonstrate the following or are familiar with the power of hypnosis will embrace the concept as a superb example of self-sabotaging behavior.
If you’d like to see an example, please go to https://vimeo.com/mapes/4-1 and enter the password ‘boxclip’ This is one of 21 short teaching video clips embedded in my most recent book: IMAGINE THAT!: Igniting Your Brain for Creativity and Peak Performance.
The Hypnosis Demonstration
Having hypnotized a man, that is, put him into a highly relaxed and suggestible state, I give him the following suggestion: “When you open your eyes, you will be in a box. The box is 10 feet square and you are standing in the center. The walls are invisible and impenetrable. You will not know you are in the box until you attempt to walk out, which will be impossible, but you will forget that I gave you this suggestion.”
I then have the gentleman open his eyes. Standing approximately 14 feet away, I ask him to walk over and stand beside me. He comes toward me until he reaches the edge of the imaginary “programmed” boundary of the imaginary box and then – stops. When I ask him why he cannot walk to me, he is at a loss to give me a reason.
Attempting to motivate him, I take a $100 bill from my wallet and say, “If you walk over to me and take the $100 bill from my hand, you can keep it.” He tries harder to break through his invisible barrier but fails. Pulling out a wad of bills, I offer $200, $500 and eventually $900.
His frustration mounts. He doesn’t understand. His intention, willpower, motivation, strength, and commitment have no effect whatsoever on his desired outcome: his goal.
What can we learn from this demonstration? One thing it shows us is the power of negative belief. Think of a negative belief as being like a phobia, a fear carried to a paralyzing extreme. Imagine, for example, that you have full-blown arachnophobia, that is, a fear of spiders, which is a belief carried around by the subconscious. Further imagine that I offer you $10,000 to hold a spider in your hand. It doesn’t matter how much you want the money, you can’t possibly comply with my request.
The power of suggestion, positive or negative, is powerful stuff! That’s why this demonstration serves as a perfect metaphor for the strength and tenacity of your beliefs, your comfort zone, self-sabotaging behavior and your ‘mental box’.
It’s important you understand that there is no single reason why chronic self-sabotage happens and, secondly, at some point in life, it worked for you, at least in the short-term.
Coaching Uncovers Self-Sabotaging Behavior
In my coaching practice, I often feel like I’m playing the role of Sherlock Holmes. It’s my job is to ask the right questions and give the right processes to help uncover and examine the root causes in the gentlest way possible: What are the patterns of the self-sabotaging behavior? Do these choices happen when you get close to success in career or relationships? Does your choice make you comfortable? What is the payoff? There is always one.
What would be your guess as to ‘why’ people self-sabotage? It might be traced back to a difficult childhood stemming from living in a dysfunctional family, low self-esteem, or coping with problems to handle stress and anger.
3 Most Significant Influencers on Negative Thinking
Metaphorically, these negative programmed beliefs make it extremely difficult to “get out of the box and take the money.”
The three most significant influencers to negative thinking and behavior are:
1. Low self-esteem & negative self-image
Many people self-sabotage because it confirms their negative beliefs about themselves.
- Feeling worthless.
- Being overly sensitive.
- Feeling anxious and fearful.
- Having an ‘impostor syndrome.’
- Being obsessed with being perfect.
- Hating yourself or feeling angry or frustrated about who you are.
- Hating your body.
- Constantly feeling angry.
You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked.
Try accepting yourself and see what happens.”
– Louise Hay
2. Difficult childhood
An avoidant attachment style (Being rejected or negated by parents) makes it difficult to connect with others. Being told you are a ‘failure’ and would never amount to much creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Modeling parents’ dysfunctional behaviors.
My childhood was a period of waiting for the moment when I could send everyone, and everything connected with it to hell.
– Igor Stravinsky
3. Difficult Relationships
Difficult relationships include fear of getting hurt or fear of commitment. Unhealthy beliefs as to how a relationship should grow can be self-sabotaging. Other self-sabotaging behaviors include lack of true communication, choosing a partner who is incompatible, trying to change or control your partner, constant criticism, putting all your energy into something other than your relationship, holding a grudge.
The quickest path to self-destruction is to push away the people you love.
– Cassia Leo
Six strategies to put the brakes on self-sabotaging behavior
Strategy #1. Discover what need your self-sabotaging behavior fills.
“WHAT DOESN’T GET ACKNOWLEDGED, DOESN’T GET CHANGED!” is a mantra I’ve held for more than four decades.
So, honestly acknowledge your self-defeating behavior.
Ask yourself, “What’s the payoff? What do I get to avoid doing or saying?”
As uncomfortable as these questions and introspective thinking are, there is always an answer.
This discovery is the first and most important first step to change.
Look for patterns of behavior where you have shot yourself in the foot and thwarted your best efforts on a consistent basis. A clue for you: These patterns happens when you are close to achieving your goals.
It takes more energy than you think to self-sabotage.
A few more self-revealing questions to ponder:
- Do you really believe you deserve to achieve what you say you want? If not, then why not?
- Is your behavior congruent with your goals/values?
- Do you feel undeserving of true success? If so, why?
- Are you constantly worried about failing or looking foolish?
- Do you feel uncomfortable when you are close to success? Are you afraid of success?
By playing the investigator and letting go of all guilt and self-guilt you can recognize and let go of self- sabotaging choices.
Make the invisible, visible. Only then can you apply the following steps.
Unless we learn to know ourselves, we run the danger of destroying ourselves.
– Ja A. Jahannes
Strategy #2. Learn to recognize the “TRIGGER” that ignites your negative ‘thoughts’ and, therefore, actions.
The genesis of self-sabotage is solidly rooted in your emotional experiences, often learned in childhood.
The moment you recognize the triggering thoughts, the closer you will be to transforming your thinking.
Looking back to your youth, can you remember a time or times you felt most powerless?
Do your feel any shame? If you do, ask yourself, “What would I have to do to forgive myself?
Lack of forgiveness causes almost all of our self-sabotaging behavior.
– Mark Victor Hanson
Strategy #3. Be compassionate with yourself.
Discovery does NOT mean ‘getting tough with yourself.’ Quite the opposite.
a. Treat yourself as you would treat your best friend.
b. Perceive your shortcomings as natural aspects of the human condition.
c. View your difficulties as a part of life that everyone goes through because they are.
d. When you feel inadequate, remind yourself that others also feel inadequate at times.
If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.
– Jack Kornfield
Strategy #4. Journal for insight, empowering thoughts and exploding creativity.
This topic can fill an entire article. And I feel this strategy is so important that I will take a little liberty with its length.
Although the commitment and process of journaling can, at first, be onerous, the payoff is HUGE. I am a fan of journaling for numerous reasons. Had I not been journaling since the 70’s, I would not be writing my new book. Had I not given journaling assignments to my coaching clients, they would have not met with success.
LIFE FACT: Our minds are flawed. Everyone remembers events differently, based on their belief system (like, prejudices, dislikes). Add to that every time we recall an event; it changes how we remember. And we don’t know it.
British author/journalist/ political commentator/ broadcaster, William Woodard, wrote, “Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.”
You can keep a digital journal or, as I do, organize my journals in notebooks.
a. Organize thoughts and daily events.
The beauty of this aspect to journaling is that it requires you to think through the “how’s,” “why’s” and “why nots.” Avoid mistakes, repeat successes, and learn.
b. Set and achieve your goals.
Writing down your goals is the FIRST and MOST IMPORTANT step of achieving goals. The process of writing your goals is the first step of moving from fantasy to reality.
c. Remind yourself of past successes.
I personally get enormous “juice” from reviewing my past successes.
d. Express gratitude.
Journaling helps control your symptoms, lower stress, and improve your mood by: Helping you prioritize problems, fears, and concerns. Tracking symptoms day-to-day so that you can recognize triggers and learn ways to better control them. Providing an opportunity for positive self-talk and identifying negative thoughts and …
Expressive writing is a revolutionary act. It can be done anywhere, takes less time than a cup of coffee, it’s free, and, best of all, scientifically proven to improve how we process issues that compromise one’s quality of life.
– Dr. James Pennebaker
Strategy #5. Make a list of alternative behaviors
When you understand why you sabotage yourself, you can identify other behaviors to replace the damaging ones. Here’s how you do it:
- Your assignment is to play a detective once again.
- Study others. You can see the behaviors of people who are experiencing a similar situation as you.
- Come up with a shortlist of those you know with similar circumstances.
- Next, do some research to learn how other people conquered their behaviors. If you feel comfortable communicating with them, ask how they have handled their situation.
- Next, experiment by replacing your self-sabotaging behaviors with healthy ones.
You may need to learn how to reframe your thinking and rephrase the way you speak to yourself. If you’re stressed, go for a quick walk. Movement changes the way you feel. Perhaps you need to schedule time for your tasks, learn how to create priorities.
Bottom line: You will want to develop a new pattern of behavior that changes your thinking and acting.
Strategy #6: Implement your new strategy
It is not enough to understand, discover and plan. You MUST find the courage and take the time to implement your strategy. When I plan, I project in the future and always have a plan B, just in case things don’t work out the way I envisioned.
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
– Ferris Bueller, from the film, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”
A final thought is to stop perfectionist thinking. Aim to shift your thinking: “Strive for excellence, not perfection.”
James Mapes is the founder of Quantum Leap Thinking™, creator of The Transformational Coach™, expert on the psychology of “applied imagination,” best-selling author, highly acclaimed business speaker, consultant, seminar leader and personal excellence coach.