Self-sabotage

Why we limit our own success and happiness and how to stop

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When I was at primary school my mum organised a party to celebrate my eighth birthday. We were going to hold it in our new double garage and I planned to invite most of my class. We'd even made the decision to book an entertainer. Then, just a few weeks before, I started to panic. What if no one came or just a small handful? I’d be left sitting in my garage all alone with a weird clown and a few stragglers to observe my humiliation. I wasn’t sure if I could handle the pressure. I wanted the party, I really, really did but the fear had got to me and I asked my mum to cancel the whole thing. This was my first memory of self-sabotage. I had limited my happiness in order to protect myself from social failure.

As a grown-up, there have been other instances too. From withdrawing my application for a dream job because I just didn’t think I was posh or ‘fashion enough’, to drafting, but not sending, pitches to publications I’ve always wanted to write for, I’ve definitely been guilty of getting in my own way at certain points in my career.

For Mariella Agapiou, an established content and social media consultant, her moment of self-sabotage came in adulthood - at the beginning of her career in fashion. “The first time I remember truly self-sabotaging myself was when I had been selected from thousands to be the Features Editor Intern in ELLE UK’s 2012 Edited by the Interns initiative,” says Mariella. “I was about to complete my MA in Fashion + Lifestyle Journalism and was about to embark on my freelance career. On my second day in the office, working on what would be the October Issue, the features editor called me over and said if I had any ideas for articles, I should let her know. My Imposter Syndrome got the best of me however, and I couldn’t bring myself to pitch a single idea. Who knows where a full-length feature published in ELLE at the age of 23 would have taken me?”

In podcaster and writer Emma Gannon’s new book, Sabotage, she writes of her own experiences of similarly opportunity-limiting behaviour. With a successful broadcasting and consulting career under her belt, Emma decided that she wanted to fulfil a long-held dream – to write a novel. With a literary agent secured, she made the decision to start turning down good money projects in order to give herself time to start the book. It was risky and would mean writing the novel in secret for a year while sacrificing her time for a project that may not even work out. She knew deep down that it was what she wanted more than anything but then, like me and my party in the garage, fear struck.

“One weekend, I went to stay with my parents and I decided to get started,” Emma writes. She looked up at a print that had been pinned to her childhood bedroom wall for years. It said ‘Ssh I’m working on my novel”.

The sentiment sent her into a spiral of self-doubt and she reached for the phone, called her agent and told her she didn’t want to write the novel anymore. “I got off the phone and burst into tears. I had lied,” she writes. “I was pushing away the thing I wanted most, because it made me afraid, and now I was lying to people about what I wanted to make it go away”.

So why do we self-sabotage ourselves in this way and how can we stop it from getting in the way of our careers reaching their full potential? To find out I spoke to Lorraine McReight, a therapist, writer and trainer.

Lorraine describes self-sabotage as “a behaviour rooted in low self-esteem that makes us fear rejection and humiliation. This limits our beliefs and leads us to not feel worthy of love, good relationships and professional success”.

“Self-sabotage is driven by the unconscious, rather than the conscious mind,” Lorraine says. “It’s important to note that the prime directive of the unconscious mind is to keep the individual safe, which is of course, different to being happy. “Sadly, it’s caused by low self-esteem, imposter syndrome, fear of rejection or humiliation, loss of ego, and poor self-image. In the professional arena any of these fears are multiplied because the potential for reputational damage is perceived to be higher and/or more public”.

Lorraine explains that this can be particularly prominent in women and mothers. “For women there is societal pressure to conform to stereotypes of ‘the perfect mother’ who puts her children before herself. For men it can be a case of not wanting to admit that they are struggling, can’t cope or need support. By self-sabotaging they can avoid humiliation, failure or being discovered as incapable in their chosen role or business”.

Being honest with ourselves and what we really want from our careers and life in general is another vital aspect of combatting self-sabotage. It’s so tempting to create a virtual self on social media that appears to be killing it personally and professionally, but if you know those achievements aren’t what you really want, it can leave you feeling dissatisfied and hollow. You might have a supposedly 'dream job' that doesn't make you happy or have spent too many years pursuing the wrong path. Changing that trajectory and risking failure can feel terrifying but it may be exactly what you need to do.

Emma Gannon describes this brilliantly in her book Sabotage. “One way we self-sabotage ourselves is wanting so badly for our lives to look good on the outside that we don’t pay attention to the inside. We can receive outside validation for things that aren’t our own version of success and stick with them because we feel guilty for wanting more”.

This, she says, leads us having a mismatch between our outer and inner emotions which in turn creates emotional conflict. “Sometimes our sabotage is really trying to shake us out of old ways of thinking because we’re on the wrong path”.

To help identify when we’re doing this and shake ourselves out of these self-sabotaging habits, I asked Lorraine to break it down into action points…

· “Recognise the critical voice, acknowledge it and thank it for trying to keep us safe, but tell it that it’s not needed here. Use belief-challenging exercises that encourage you to consider alternatives to the ‘automatic’ thoughts that may be the default position. Then gather ‘evidence’ of achievements and accolades to remind you of independent positive feedback received in the past”.

· “Resist the temptation to be (or do create something) perfect; it is impossible and terribly destructive. Remind yourself that the only person expecting perfection is you”.

· “Go for it whether you feel ready or not; if you wait to feel ready you will wait forever”.

· “Forget the ‘insurance policy’ approach of thinking of the worst thing that could happen; it won’t make you feel better and any disappointments you experience will be the same whether you prepare for them or not”.

· “If you hear yourself criticising yourself (out loud or in your head) pause, and re-phrase it into something kinder; speak to yourself as you would speak to a close friend or someone you cared about.

· “Don’t wait for the ideal moment; there is only now, so go for it.”


I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s newsletter and please feel free to share it or email it forward if you did. As always, I ask for a small donation when, and if, you can. It also gives me a lovely boost on a Monday morning! There’s also a new option on my Kofi page to set up a monthly donation of £3 should you so wish.

From today and throughout November, all donations will be given to Little Village - a London-based charity that I volunteer for and is very close to my heart. Little Village provides good quality baby clothes and equipment such as nappies, cots and prams, donated by local families, to local families that need them. As you can imagine, help is very much needed right now.

Thanks for all of your support so far and if you’re a new reader, welcome.

Until next time.

Cat x

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