Self-Sabotage and Love

One of the themes that has always fascinated me is the idea of “self-sabotage”. Everyone has done it to some extent, but some of us are more…talented at it than others. There’s “I’m going to just have this one pizza” versus “I’ve just invested my parents’ life savings in Enron stock.

When I’m talking about self-sabotage and love, mind you, I’m not just talking about romantic love. Parents self-sabotage around children; friends do it with each other; we quite often simply do it with ourselves, with that weird super-ego and id battling it out inside our brains.

Much of the popular understanding of self-sabotage boils it down to six main reasons we deliberately put obstacles in our own way:

  1. Self-Worth: Stop me if you’ve heard or said this one: Why would anyone love someone like me? It’s a funny kind of egotistical statement; what you’re really doing is saying I don’t trust this person to make their own decisions about who they love, so I’m going to make it for them.
  2. Controlled Breakups: This is a classic in relationships: I’m going to break up with you before you break up with me. There’s a little of the egotism in that, too, but it’s also rooted in fear – the fear of being hurt, so you’re going to strike first! Unfortunately, in this case you’re striking out at the relationship, which means both of you end up hurt. But at least you weren’t blindsided, right?
  3. Impostor Syndrome: This is closely related to that self-worth step as well, but this is when you’re doing well – but you’re convinced that any minute now people are going to realize that you’re not the person they think you are. The deeper into the relationship you go, the more that fear of being called out as a fraud becomes, and so you deliberately try to minimize your profile or even pull back.
  4. The Comfort Zone That Isn’t: This is a real danger, and possibly the sneakiest one. Simply put, if you’re used to being in a bad or abusive relationship, a good relationship – or even just good relationship habits – won’t feel right. My partners and I have run into that more than once in the last couple of years, as our relationships have stabilized and we get to stop working on them quite as much and get to just enjoy them. It feels weird at first, and you have to really work to convince yourself that this is not wrong, it’s just different.
  5. Convenient Excuse: This one is rooted in pessimism, or (as some people call it) a grasp on reality. It’s when you deliberately stack the deck against yourself so that when things go wrong you can blame the circumstances, not yourself. Anytime you deliberately do something you know would be damaging to your relationship you are possibly trying to create an excuse for trouble that avoids a deeper, less obvious problem. Those deeper problems take work, though, and self-reflection, and it’s so much easier to just avoid them by causing superficial crises.
  6. The Thrill of It All: There’s a phrase common in polyamorous circles: NRE, or “New Relationship Energy.” It’s kind of related to that Comfort Zone, in that people (including me) can mistake the thrill of a new relationship for the way love is supposed to feel all the time. The thrill is great, of course, but when it fades – and hedonic adaptation means it will – we can make the mistake of thinking “the thrill is gone! and translate that into a Convenient Excuse for a breakup, so that you can get back in the Comfort Zone of NRE. It takes a while to figure out that it doesn’t “fade” as much as “change” – and that there are a whole bunch of new delights that comes with a partner who is not new, who is well known to you and who you can explore a more deep love with.

The Simple, One-Step Instant Cure for Self-Sabotage

…doesn’t exist.

Sorry. Frankly, all of these are rooted in cognitive fallacies that are, for the most part, either hardwired into our biology or else enculturated into us by growing up in Western culture. Guilt, shame, the Judeo-Christian work ethic, Capitalism, romance, consumerism, it all combines to make it almost impossible not to self-sabotage. It’s designed that way, because then people who want power over you or money from you (or both) can offer you what looks like a solution…and sometimes it will help, and sometimes it simply masks the self-sabotage for a while.

There are, however, a few things you can do to reduce your tendency to self-sabotage. I can’t say that they are especially fun, or that they are going to cause any instant (or even rapid) changes. However, they are 100% effective if done long enough.

How long is that? Well, if you’re still self-sabotaging, then you’re not done yet. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Journaling: One of the tropes of habit change: you can’t change what you can’t measure. Keeping a journal of your days enables you to look back at the things that you have done, and begin to notice patterns of behavior (Huh, every time I have a fight with my boss at work I end up binging on ice cream…). That’s when you get to start changing them.
  2. Meditation: I’m not talking guided meditation, I’m talking about the kind of meditation where you sit there and just watch your thoughts. Where you see the wild paths and distractions your brain comes up with to distract you from whatever you’re afraid to think about. You might want to dive into that stuff, or you might just want to acknowledge that it’s there; either way, just sitting is the best way to learn how to step outside of instinctual reaction and start making deliberate choices.
  3. Pay Attention: I could make this a fancy term like “mindfulness” or “gratitude practice” but really it’s just a matter of noticing the good things. Stop and look at the one you love. Let yourself really feel that quick hug; listen to their voice, take a moment to laugh with them at a joke only you will get. Anyone you love is someone that you have a deeper connection to – so revel in that intimacy, rather than letting it get into the Comfort Zone of taking it for granted.

How about you? What ways have you sabotaged your love? More importantly, since we are creatures of habit: what steps have you taken to break that cycle and find the new horizons of connection that are there when you aren’t tripping yourself up?

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