Why we self-sabotage our health goals

Originally written for LawTalk Magazine, published 5 May 2017


So, you’ve set your health goals and you know what you need to do to get there.  Sometimes it seems the only thing in your way is you.

There are numerous reasons for why we self-sabotage our health goals, or life in general, and there’s countless ways we do it.  Many of these reasons are perpetuated by our inner critic or ‘critical inner voice’ according to psychologist Robert Firestone.

The critical inner voice is formed by our early experiences – we are inclined to internalise attitudes towards us by our parents or influential caretakers as well as their attitudes toward themselves.  These experiences lead us to form an idea of ourselves, which may or may not be either true or helpful.

An example of this is, if a parent always thought a child were lazy, this might manifest in a ‘why bother, I’ll never be able to do it’ attitude in the child or if a parent had confidence or appearance issues, the child might take those issues on themselves without realising it.

When we see ourselves in a certain light (eg, I’m lazy), our subconscious always ensures that we act in a way that confirms this and makes it difficult to change.  So, when we decide to make changes to our life and be ‘better’, our critical inner voice will point out we’re being inconsistent with our self-concept or self-beliefs and we then end up performing self-sabotaging behaviours that pull us into line with what we think of ourselves and hold us back from what we really want.

In my experience, the most common things behind us succumbing to our inner critical voice are:

  • Fear of change. Change is unfamiliar and unsafe and often all our subconscious wants to do is keep us safe – and safe is that which we know.
  • Fear of missing out. Our goals frequently seem to include doing something we like less and something we might not like more – less food, less alcohol, less fun, more exercise more pain. We know that we’re missing out on stuff we enjoy to get to our goals and we also know once we get to our goals we’ll have to keep on missing out on that stuff.
  • Fear of failure. The fear of trying our best and failing to reach our goals can have us not trying at all or sabotaging our efforts.
  • To find relief, reward ourselves or rebel from our stressful and busy lives, we often turn to unhealthy habits to escape or feel better about our day, our life or ourselves.  We usually blame these in-the-moment decisions on lack of willpower or motivation, but there’s typically something more going on under the surface.
  • When we believe we don’t deserve what we’re working for, we consciously or unconsciously ensure our goals are continually out of reach.

As we tune into the inner critical voice, self-sabotaging behaviours emerge.  I’m sure everyone is familiar with these, although we may not always be conscious we’re doing it.  Again, there’s various ways we self-sabotage but the ones that I see most often are:

  • Procrastination – Spending too much time in the space between intention and action, making excuses or being distracted by other things that are ‘easier’, more instantly enjoyable or rewarding.
  • Self-defeating mindset or behaviour – Often connected with a feeling of lack of control or willpower, followed by guilt, this is about making decisions that move you further away from your goals. These behaviours usually feel good in the short term but are detrimental in the long term, for example, choosing takeaways when you’ve committed to healthy eating, or finding a distraction just when it’s time to go to the gym.
  • ‘All or nothing’ or ‘black and white’ thinking – Some of us are always ‘all in’ or ‘all out’ with no middle ground. Constantly falling off the wagon and getting back on, starting a diet, failing a diet and starting again.  All or nothing thinking or striving for perfection is fraught with difficulty as it’s impossible to be ‘good’ all the time.  Its energy draining, disheartening and unrealistic.

Often we think about self-sabotaging behaviour as a problem of lack of willpower or motivation but if you’re constantly repeating the same behaviours, getting increasingly frustrated about your self-sabotaging acts and not progressing towards your goals, it’s time to consider what could be underpinning it.

When it comes to improving your health and wellbeing and meeting your health goals, lifestyle, nutrition and exercise behaviours are only part of the solution.  Limiting your focus only to these, the physical side of things, does not address the source or cause of the self-sabotaging behaviours you keep committing.

If your self-image, or what you believe about yourself, is not compatible with what you want to achieve, it’s impossible to get there.  Your self-image limits what you can do and will ensure you keep repeating self-sabotaging behaviours to keep you in line with what you believe.  So a change in self-image needs to occur for transformation to happen. Expand your self-image to make your dreams possible.

I’m not saying you don’t need to address lifestyle, exercise and nutrition habits, these are a given but your self-image and self-beliefs underlie your decisions and are responsible for your behaviour so addressing this will make it easier for new habits to stick.  Understanding how self-image drives your behaviour, and attending to changes at this level means you won’t have to continuously grapple with motivation and willpower or expend energy forcing new behaviours.

To support your goals, ensure your self-image is consistent with them by taking these steps:

  • Identify the self-sabotaging behaviours or thoughts – What are the things you keep doing or thinking that put your goals further out of reach? What are your triggers that lead to these thoughts and actions?
  • Identify the consequences – How are these actions or thoughts impacting your happiness? Every action or decision moves us either closer to or further away from our goals, the life we want to have and the person we want to be. Considering your actions in this context can bring a new clarity to your actions and help you to rethink your approach.
  • Understand why you developed these habits – Is the self-sabotaging action keeping you safe and happy in some way? Self-sabotage is sometimes about self-preservation, or keeping us safe.  Understanding why you do these things is helps clarify how you can move forward if these actions are no longer serving you.
  • Make new habits – I’ve written about making habits stick and discussed how habits are ingrained cue-action-reward loops that make life easier.  With new understanding of your self-sabotaging behaviour it’s time to get started on consciously engaging your brain to establish new and more beneficial behaviours.
  • Be mindful of your actions – Once you’ve made a plan to reprogramme your habits remember this process takes time, energy and practice so be mindful of your actions, be present in your decisions and observe yourself without judgement.
  • Remember slip-ups are not failure – Forget the all or nothing approach, we can’t be perfect all the time and we shouldn’t expect to be. One ‘bad’ decision does not mean you need to ‘start again’.

Taking a look at your inner critical voice could be what you need to break out of longstanding self-sabotaging behaviours that have been holding you back.  Addressing these matters could lead you to the level of health and life that you’ve been striving for but so far has proven to be elusive.