Is “Self-Sabotage” Real? A Common Myth Regarding Health Goals
I often hear people say that they are guilty of “self-sabotage.”
They use this in terms of relationships, dieting, work opportunities, and general happiness. It’s the idea of self-defeating behavior that prohibits a person from reaching their own goals. But is “self-sabotage” a real thing? Do we really intentionally keep ourselves from happiness?
Most often, upon further questioning, we discover that we have competing goals.
For example, a person may want to lose 15 pounds. They may have a good reason to do so. Maybe their doctor told them that they are at risk for developing a chronic condition. Or they want to be able to run around with their kids. Maybe they just want to rock a bikini (no judging)! But what if they have other goals that supersede the weight loss?
Superseding goals are things like:
- Being Supermom (or dad) For many people (women in particular), a scheduled trip to the gym or farmer’s market is often superseded by unexpected family demands. Life becomes too busy to take the steps necessary to accomplish the secondary goal because they are taking every effort to accomplish the primary goal. Way to go! You’re rocking your primary goal so well that the secondary goal is impossible. In other words, there may be valid reasons why you aren’t following through on your weight loss action plan.
- Convenience Ironically, people tend to be pretty judgmental about this one. But behavioral psychology teaches us that humans inherently take the path of least resistance. We automatically take mental and physical shortcuts all day long. This can make healthy changes more difficult (check out my interview on Summer Tomato here). Behavior changes related to food and exercise require time and attention. Yet we are surrounded by conveniences that increase palatable foods and decrease physical movement at every turn. It’s not necessarily bad to want to live a life of convenience. The key may be lifestyle choices that match your goals so that the hypothetical 15-pound weight loss is not impossible.
- Limited Time Demands: Most families have two working parents and two kids in multiple sports, lessons, and extracurricular activities. Despite the increase in conveniences, we are an over-scheduled society. Many people don’t have the “time” to find a recipe, go to the farmer’s market, select the perfect whole ingredients, come home and lovingly prepare the dish, pull their kids away from their computer or tablet, and sit down peacefully with their loving and adoring children to a mindful meal. Don’t discount the fact that you are busy while making your lifestyle goals.
- A Need For Safety: How could safety be a “superseding” goal for weight loss? Whenever we are engaging in a new behavior, even one that would make us mentally and physically healthier, we enter unfamiliar territory. This causes us to feel psychologically vulnerable. Even when these changes are positive, we are taking a risk experiencing life in a way that is outside of what feels normal. If these feelings are too intense, or if we don’t have the support to manage those feelings, we often fall back into comfortable behavioral patterns.
Does all this mean that you are doomed?
No. It means that you have to look at both your primary and secondary goals and make adjustments accordingly. If you want to eat healthier, you may need to carve additional time into your schedule. You may have to say, “No, I can’t run that errand for you on Tuesday at 11:00, because I have a Spin Class.” You may need to pull your kids into the kitchen and have them wash and peel the carrots while you prepare the chicken. When you feel uncomfortable or recognize that you are out of your depth, you may want to reach out to a loved one for support.
The good news is that these changes may inadvertently help you reach other new goals as well. Your kids may become more responsible, you may look at your conveniences more critically, and your family may become more engaged.
Or, you may realize that your secondary goal is just where it should be: Secondary. Really consider the life you want to live. What is most important to you? How do you want to spend your time and energy? Now think about your goals. Are they set by your internal value system, or by an arbitrary measure based on external factors? Don’t be so quick to accuse yourself of “Self-sabotage”. Give yourself credit where credit is due and adjust accordingly.