“I had a stressful day so I deserve…”
“I lost a few pounds so it’s okay if I have…”
“I exercise so I can eat whatever I want.”
“I gained a few pounds and I’m disheartened so…”
“I already ate xyz unhealthy thing, so who cares what I eat now.”
“I just need to eat healthy until (insert event or weight goal). After that I can eat what I want.”
Do any of those things sound familiar? If so, you likely have an inner saboteur. But that doesn’t mean you are destined to failure. I’ve never met anyone (including myself) who didn’t have a self-sabotaging streak. The key is to recognize it and manage it. It is part of who you are, so you can’t kick it to the curb. You’re stuck with it on this ride we call life. But you don’t have to let it drive or give directions.
What Causes Self-Sabotage?
That is the subject of whole books. But the short answer is, the voice in your head that tells you you can’t, you shouldn’t, you’ll fail, you always fail, don’t try and if you succeed, that it was luck. Every negative thing you believe about yourself is your inner saboteur speaking.
Self-sabotage gets passed from person to person like a virus. And inevitably when someone tells us not to try something and we do it anyway, we sometimes fail (that’s what happens when you’re learning). But the person uses it as evidence that they were right and our inner saboteur is born. It doesn’t take much to grow an inner saboteur.
Trying new things. Doing foolish things as a child. Being teased, made fun of and ostracized. Most of us have healthy inner saboteur by the time we are in grade school.
But finding a place to put the blame and solving the problem aren’t the same thing. So, let’s keep moving.
What is the Voice in Your Head Saying?
Do you actually listen to the words? Unless you’ve written them down it’s unlikely. Your inner saboteur communicates mostly in feelings (guilt, shame, regret, disappointment, fear, etc). And feelings don’t get translated into words unless we need to communicate them to someone else.
Unfortunately, if they aren’t words, your logical brain can’t process them. The feelings just swirl around in your emotional brain and get bigger and bigger.
What to do about Self Sabotage
As silly as it sounds, the first thing I recommend you do is give your inner saboteur a name. I call mine Harry-ette. She was given that name 25+ years ago, before I ever took a single college class (I had no idea it was a real psychology thing to do). I named her because I wanted to be able to recognize her voice and tell her to shut up!
Tips for naming your saboteur:
- Don’t choose a popular name. You don’t want to end up working with or being friends with someone with the same name as your inner critic.
- Don’t choose a name of someone you disliked as a kid. There is too much emotional baggage attached to a name that belongs to someone you know or knew.
- Do choose a name that feels right to you. Take your time. It takes some people several days to come up with a name.
- Do learn to recognize his/her voice and attach his/her name to it.
- Do share your inner critic’s name with your coach or therapist (if you have one). It will help you discuss your self-sabotaging habits in a more productive way.
Start to pay attention to what your inner saboteur is saying. You might find it helpful to journal about it (that will allow your logical brain to be involved). Do you agree with that voice? Do you disagree? Which of you is running your life?
Those can be tough questions to answer on your own. Working with a qualified professional can make a world of difference. Don’t let your saboteur convince you you’re not worth it, don’t deserve to have someone help you or that you can’t afford it.
Look out for “Irrelevant Decisions”
Everyday we make micro-decisions that feel like they have no meaning in the grand scheme. But when we look at them closely, we realize they can be our downfall. Pay attention to choices that, on the surface, don’t feel like they are related to your success in any way. Examples might include:
- Deciding to hang out with that person who always says, “You can have this unhealthy thing this one time certainly.”
- Calling the person who tells you, “You look fine. You don’t need to be worried about eating healthy.”
- Being “too busy” to eat before a meeting where you know there will be pizza.
- Being “too busy” to plan healthy meals.
- Wearing sweats/leggings or other stretchy clothing ALL the time.
- Telling an unsupportive friend or family member about the changes you are trying to make.
Little choices like these give our inner skeptic fuel to throw back at us later. When you listen to the voice in your head, pay attention to what he/she is using against you. It will help you identify where you are making “irrelevant decisions” that are hurting your success.
Are you Afraid to Succeed?
If you are like most people you very quickly answered that question with a resounding, “NO!” Maybe I shouldn’t have asked if “you” are afraid to succeed but if your inner saboteur is afraid to succeed. In that case the response might be a quiet, guilty, “maybe.” That’s okay. We can work with that.
Ruminating (letting it just churn over and over in your head) about something is never helpful, even though inner critics love to do it. But there is a game you can play with yourself called catastriphication (at least that was what my psychology prof called it).
Take the time to go to the absolute worst-case (or best case depending on how you look at it) scenario. What if you succeed? Like really, really succeed? What are the worst things and the best things that could happen?
“My friends will hate me because I’ll be healthy.”
“I won’t be able to go out with my boyfriend because he likes to eat wings.”
“I’ll be the weird one at business lunches.”
“People will think I think I’m better than they are.”
“My family won’t come over for dinner because they won’t like the food I make.”
Really go to town. Get all the stuff, crazy or otherwise, out of your head. You can’t process it if it’s stuck swirling around in your emotional brain.
You can also use this process for a fear of failure. “What if I try and fail?” Again, get anything and everything that comes up for you down on paper.
Once you have all the things written down (so your logical brain can see them), go through them one by one and ask yourself, “How likely is this thing to happen really?” Usually it’s pretty unlikely. But be honest with yourself.
Then ask yourself, “Okay and if this happened, then what would I do?” And come up with a plan. If your fears involve other people like several of the examples above, talk to those people. You might be surprised how supportive they are.
This process does a couple of things. One, it lets your logical brain say, “That’s never going to happen so I can stop thinking about it.” And/or, “If by some odd chance it does happen, now I have a plan to address it so I can stop worrying about it.”
This game works for both the fear of failure and the fear of success. But it only works if you write it down. Just thinking about it might make the situation worse. Your emotional brain and self-saboteur aren’t going to solve anything between them. It can also be helpful to work through things with a qualified and caring professional.
Self-sabotaging is a real and challenging issue. But with some focused effort, your “Harry-ette” will learn to ride quietly in the backseat on your life journey, or in the very least, you’ll be able to just roll your eyes and keep making progress.
Are you ready to overcome your self-sabotage and finally succeed at your health goals? Click here to book a jump start consult with Dr Robyn today!
Dr Robyn is a former competitive volleyball player turned psychologist with continuing education in nutrition. Russ is a former competitive bodybuilder and trainer on the Mr. Olympia Tour. They are the co-founders of Whole Food Muscle and the authors of How to Feed a Human The Whole Food Muscle Way. To work with them one on one to improve your health and fitness or to have them speak at your event or organization email them at Health@RnRJourney.com.