Dr. Dan: I can't seem to stop sabotaging myself. For example, when I have a big work project, I find non-essential tasks to do, like cleaning my desk or organizing my files into super-spanky shape. Then I have to rush like mad to make the deadline. I obsess endlessly over decisions, yet hours later I'm still undecided. At times I've been blind to the inappropriateness of men I've dated, even though my friends could see from the start it wasn't going to work. How can I gain self-confidence after so many faulty judgments?
Dear Eileen: The fact that you're aware of your self-defeating behavior is a big step. Once you see it, you can heal it. First, you have to understand why you self-defeat. Nearly all of us get in our own way from time to time, generally because we have conflicting beliefs or desires and don't want to let go of any of them. To cope, a part of us "takes a vacation:" we distract ourselves by procrastinating or fantasizing; deceive ourselves by rationalizing or ignoring key facts; and/or desert ourselves by living half-heartedly or feeling unworthy. The allure is the hope that we can have our cake and eat it.
For example, when you procrastinate before a big project, you lessen your anxiety by completing familiar, low-risk tasks. Then, when you can delay no longer, deadline pressure gives you a burst of energy that overwhelms anxiety and focuses attention.
Obsessing over decisions allows you to sidestep feelings of loss that may come with giving up all your options except one. Entering inappropriate relationships can lessen feelings of loneliness, even though you have to deceive yourself to do so ("He'll leave his wife for me"; "She's got special qualities others don't see").
The payoff for self-defeating behaviors is that you temporarily avoid unpleasant feelings or outcomes. The costs, which tend to surface later, include wasted time, missed opportunities, dead-end relationships, and the grief, anger, loss, and anxiety that accompany these.
Ask yourself: on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being highest), how much do you feel that you deserve success, contentment, and a great relationship? If you give yourself 7 or less, here are some suggestions:
Listen to your self-talk. Most self-defeating behavior is not deliberate or even conscious but, if you look closely, you'll see that your thoughts or feelings just prior to a self-defeating action offer clues to your conflicting desires or needs. Once you identify the conflicts, you can choose healthier resolutions.
Watch for the five Ds: self-distraction, self-deception, self-deprivation, self-desertion, and self-destruction. When they surface, ask yourself: "What were my fears and hopes?" Fears and hopes drive our behavior. Seeing the fears and hopes accompanying self-defeating behavior lets you consciously choose healthier alternatives to attain hopes and face fears.
Get support. With trusted friends or family members, share stories of self-defeat. There are many great books on this topic; you can visit my website Secrets You Keep From Yourself to see some of my favorites. If you experience abnormal anxiety or depression, seek professional help.
Get attached to your life. If you find yourself often zoning out or feel that you're living half-heartedly, it may be that you simply need a break. But it may be that you're afraid of risk. Studies have found that, as we near the end of our lives, we regret the paths not taken - our heart's desires that we didn't pursue - much more than we regret the paths taken, even if those paths turned out badly.
As Jackson Browne said, "Don't be afraid to go out on a limb. That's where the fruit is."
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