Do you really want to hurt me?
One of the hidden culprits behind self-sabotage is the need for perfection and control. How does this work? Self-sabotage has a strange way of helping us maintain the illusion that if only, we had put in more effort or had better circumstances, everything would have worked out as it should. Social psychologists call this counter-intuitive strategy of regulating self-esteem: self-handicapping. It’s very seductive to engage in self-sabotage because the hidden payoff is high.
My mentor, Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched, used to remind me that it’s often easier to be a perfect whole rather than a real part. It’s a short-term solution that sidesteps the more arduous but ultimately more fulfilling work of individuation and self-actualization. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it takes risk, patience, suffering, and ultimately wisdom to come the place where you can let go of self-sabotage, and learn how to be Real.
Self-sabotage originates in the internal critic we all have, the side that has been internalized by the undermining and negative voices we’ve encountered in our lives, demonstrated beautifully in Julia Cameron’s book The Artists Way. Its roots may be even deeper, serving as the protector who helped us get through an unbearable trauma as chronicled in Jungian analyst Donald Kaslched’s book The Inner World of Trauma. This critic and ‘internal sabotuer’, as British psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn termed it, functions to keep the person from risking being hurt, shamed, or traumatized in the ways they had been in the past. While it keeps the individual safe, it does so at a very high cost, foreclosing the possibility of new, creative, and three-dimensional experiences.
Self-sabotage also has its origins in the ambivalence we all feel at times about change, with its strange combination of growth and loss. One can look as far back as The Odyssey to find one of the most poignant examples of this kind of ambivalence and loyalty. When Odysseus is lost at sea and almost sure to have been killed, Penelope, his wife, puts off choosing a new suitor by weaving a burial shroud in the day and unraveling it by night. Although in this case, Penelope is demonstrating her virtuous character of being utterly devoted and faithful to her husband, we see in the ‘self-sabotage’ of her weaving, an echo of our less heroic moments of undoing our movement forward.
How do stop our self-sabotage?
First, and foremost, we must recognize its siren song. Like an addiction, we need to remind ourselves that self-sabotage insidiously lulls and deludes us into thinking that it has the answer. In fact, it is the problem masquerading as the solution! Nothing stops self-sabotage faster in its tracks than shining this particular light on it. Consciousness in this case is true power!
It also helps to recognize self-sabotage’s function. Self-sabotage is an attempt at evading the complex difficulties of being real and imperfect. It might be doing so out of a general sense of fear and anxiety (the inner critic) or a more profound history of hidden trauma. Either way, it is more constructive and helpful for us to work on this (possibly with the support of a therapist) rather than using self-sabotage as our habitual mode of coping.
Self-sabotage can also be stopped by drawing on encouraging internal affirmations and compassionate reminders of what Brene Brown calls the gifts of imperfection. There is a Talmudic saying that next to every blade grass there is an angel saying: “Grow, grow!” We need to summon that voice and use it counterbalance the diabolical voice of self-sabotage.
Finally, we need to let go of our illusions of omnipotence and perfection and see that it is only when we are real and imperfect that we can, as Rollo May suggests, create a true work of art! Then and only then, like the Velveteen Rabbit, we can enjoy the gifts of being Real!
Michael Alcee, Ph.D. is in private practice in Tarrytown, NY and enjoys the process of transforming self-sabotage into creative and transformative change. To learn more about him and his work, check out drmichaelalcee.com.