This question came up briefly in a workshop, and then not surprisingly the theme was on someone else’s mind in an email: Why do I self-sabotage?
It’s helpful to go to the real meaning of the phrase versus the common notion of self-sabotage as a pattern of meaningless or unintended disappointments/giving up. “Sabotage” is a deliberate action. That’s a good place to start: with the view that we are engaged in an action rather than that it is happening to us. Here the questions can begin to take a less amorphous shape. What is the plan? To whom or to what context does it belong? Where is the unspoken incentive to take this deliberate action despite our conscious plans and dreams?
The self-sabotage loop: we move toward something we want; the undertow is already at work whether or not we feel it; we begin to undermine our own ability to move toward; the possibility of reaching our goal is thwarted; and then we get angry or sad as a result. Eventually, if we are lucky, we rev ourselves up to set out again. But often we now drag along a little more weight, whether in the form of regret, resentment or greater self-doubt.
Why is it that I reach out with my right hand and then slap it down with my left? Who controls my left hand? I do. Why is it at odds with my right hand? Perhaps it is in agreement with something else that I cannot quite grasp, something old, something unfinished, something that still seems to have a place that can only be filled by me. So, perhaps the plan, called self-sabotage, is to destroy the opportunity, the relationship, that bit of shine, in order to stay behind, where my place is already certain.
The sabotage that doesn’t make sense to us – that feels like a pattern – may be a blind expression of loyalty to others in the family system who were not able to reach out and follow through on their own dreams or plans. Poverty, divorce, early death, and other types of pain and suffering put an end to them.
One way to rethink this loyalty is to see ourselves as an extension of their dreams; we are the fruit and the follow through. In other words, we cannot compensate for what was lost, but we can see ourselves on a continuum, confident that our success (in love, in work, in creative endeavor) is actually theirs as well. Rather than fix the past, we can gather all of our strength, building on theirs, and create a future that aligns with our own vision because we move in the light of theirs. Rather than abandon them, rather than stay with them, we move steadily into the wide and beautiful unfolding.