How are you getting on with the goals you set yourself at the beginning of the year? Are you moving steadily towards them or are you still fighting to take the first step? If you’re making progress, well done you! Keep up the good work and enjoy the process. If you’re struggling, it’s possible you’re not giving yourself a fair chance. This issue has been on my mind recently and today I thought it would be useful to have a look at self-defeating behaviour, how we can identify it and how we can transform it.
It’s a strange phenomenon that psychological mechanisms that are designed to protect us can sometimes do us far more harm than good. I’ve got a friend who hates making presentations but nevertheless is required by her boss to make them fairly regularly. The prospect of it scares her and she turns away and hides her eyes. She knows that if she prepared well in advance it would all be much less stressful but she can never make herself do that and every time it’s a last-minute panic and very little sleep the night before – which, of course, makes it hard for her to give her best performance. She feels she’s let herself down, she hates the whole thing… and so the cycle goes on. The function of fear is to keep us safe: we know the fire is hot and can burn us, the idea of putting our hands in it frightens us, so we don’t do it. Fear of fire protects us from its danger. Why is it that the only two responses we seem to have at our disposal, when the chips are down, are fight or flight? Where is the instinct to negotiate or to think things through? In the modern world, where the dangers are so much more sophisticated than they were in cave times, how come we haven’t evolved more nuanced reactions?
I have another friend who longs to find a partner and settle down but every time a man gets close to her and it looks as if things might work out, it scares her and she pushes him away. And another who hates the shape of her body and seeks solace in food. There are so many ways we can sabotage our own happiness and wellbeing.
What is the impulse to behave in a manner that brings about exactly the result we most desire to avoid? More importantly, how can we override it?
I guess it boils down to the fact that there’s something we fear even more than the situation we’re perpetuating. By asking a series of What if? questions, we can strip away the layers and get to the root of what it’s all about. It’ll take some thought, some soul-searching and some brutal honesty but it’ll be pivotal in helping you change your self-defeating habits. Once you can identify what it is you’re really afraid of, the deeper fear that’s causing you to make your own life so difficult, you can start working on overcoming it.
Q: What if you started preparing your presentation a week before it’s due?
A: I’d have no excuse if it wasn’t very good. At least by preparing in a rush I can say I didn’t have time to do my best.
Q: What if you allowed a man to get close to you?
A: He’d see the real me, he wouldn’t like the real me… he’d leave me.
Q: What if you ate healthily, looked after yourself and became the shape you want to be?
A: I’d feel sexy and I don’t know what I’d do with that.
Until you confront the primary-level fears, there’s no point in trying to change the surface behaviour. Find out what the real issue is; then you can start looking for ways of dealing with it, of allaying your base fears. Once you can slay those demons, the habits you developed to protect yourself will melt away.
A positive spin on all this would be that our self-defeating behaviour is actually a signpost, leading us to discover the fear that’s sponsoring it. Pay attention to the habits you don’t like, that sabotage you, and tune into what they’re covering up. Once you’ve named the fear at the bottom of it all, that’s already half the battle won.