I spent most of my life stopping and starting things.
I would get super inspired to lose weight, pick up a new hobby like playing the guitar, or form a new habit like going to bed early and I would go all out, putting all of my energy into making a change. But inevitably—sometimes within only days—I would find myself sick or too busy or making excuses and I would end up back at square one.
Only this time, square one would be even more uncomfortable because I felt like a failure.
“I don’t have any willpower.”
“Nothing works for me.”
“I am not creative or talented, so I should just stick to what I know.”
Those were all things that I told myself as a result of those perceived failures.
And they became self-fulfilling prophecies.
The thing about self-sabotage is that when we are stuck in the cycle long enough, we start to form identities around it. We create stories to protect us from the sting of failure. It becomes part of our truth, and we in turn stop ourselves from trying new things because we have given up, or maybe just given in to the belief that we cannot change.
And it is so normal. You can talk to almost any person from any walk of life and they share similar experiences.
That’s not a coincidence. Self-sabotage is not your fault. There is nothing wrong with you; you don’t lack willpower or motivation, and you can create change in any area of your life.
Self-sabotage is biological. It is part of our survival mechanism. It makes us human.
But it isn’t hopeless. Once you understand it, know why and how to notice it, and shift out of it when it is happening, anything in the world that you want becomes more accessible to you.
A model for powerful change
When the majority of us decide to make a change—to lose weight and get healthy, for example—we create a plan: We buy a gym membership or personal training sessions, schedule our workouts into our calendar, and choose a plan for our nutrition, even meal prepping on Sunday.
With these actions we are addressing our behaviors and our environment, but we are skipping over three other things that form the basis of transformation: identity, values, and beliefs.
Our identity, values, and beliefs shape how we see ourselves and, consequently, how we show up in the world. Often they are formed subconsciously when we are very young as a result of things that have happened to us or how we have observed that other people respond to us.
For example, if you grew up being teased for being overweight, you likely have an identity formed around being the overweight kid. This identity then dictates what you believe about yourself and what is possible for you, what you value, and your behaviors and environment.
It is helpful to visualize this like a pyramid. When you shift the top three things, the bottom two will automatically shift to align with them. However, you cannot work from the bottom up, shifting behaviors and environment without addressing your identity, values and beliefs. This is like pulling the rug out from under yourself, and you will self-sabotage every time because of the ego.
Understanding the ego
The ego is the part of your mind that is wired for survival and is responsible for keeping you safe. For the ego, safety is found in identity, patterns, and certainty—all of which play a role in self-sabotage. The ego doesn’t recognize “good” or “bad” or whether a belief is limiting us or not; all it knows is safety. And there is safety in what is known.
If you have been operating your whole life with the identity of being the overweight kid—however uncomfortable or upsetting it may be—all your ego brain knows is that you can survive it. It is certain because you have proven it until now. Anything outside of that identity is unsafe because it is unknown. So your patterns of behavior will reflect what you believe to be true about yourself. When you change those patterns of the behavior, the ego freaks out because your identity is jeopardized, and it will throw out all the stops to lasso you back into alignment with your identity—your inner critic goes wild, you get sick or injured, you find excuses to not stick with it, etc.
Your subconscious mind sabotages your efforts because you are wading into unknown territory, and what is unknown or uncertain is unsafe for your ego brain.
Shifting your identity
So creating sustainable change and transformation in our lives requires us to first examine and shift our identities, values, and beliefs, as well as two more things: our relationship to the unknown and our relationship to failure. Here are four steps to overcoming self-sabotage to create lasting change:
Step 1: Get really clear on what you want
It is not enough to set a goal like “lose 10 pounds” and leave it at that. In order for our ego’s need for identity to be satisfied, we need to create an entire identity around it. Consider questions like: How will you feel in your body when you have lost those 10 pounds? What will be different about your habits and routines? What things will you value and prioritize? How will the other people in your life relate to you? Paint a full picture of who you will be and what your life will look like when you have achieved that goal.
Step 2: Embody that new version of you right away
Shifting our identity does not happen overnight. What we have to do is create evidence that proves to the ego that this new identity is safe. It helps to write out a script in the first person, present tense of what a day in your life feels like when you have reached that goal.
Read it to yourself daily, visualize yourself living it, and create some affirmations that begin with “I am” to repeat to yourself throughout the day (repetition is important).
Then actually take action and start embodying that new version of you—you don’t have to wait until you have achieved the goal! If that version of you prioritizes movement and exercise, then start prioritizing it now (this is the values piece). If that version of you wears clothes that make her feel sexy, start wearing clothes that make you feel sexy now. Each time that you embody a piece of that goal, you are creating evidence for your subconscious mind that it is safe, so recognize and celebrate yourself for every baby step—your ego requires it!
Step 3: Change your relationship to the unknown
When we set out to create change, there is a gap between where we are now and where we want to be. In its quest to avoid pain, our ego creates all sorts of fear-based stories about what this gap contains. You may have thoughts like, “I am going to have to sacrifice so much to do this,” “I will lose friends because they won’t be able to relate to me,” or “I don’t deserve to have this.” Those thoughts are part of your survival mechanism. We are built to see what is unknown as frightening because “anything could happen.”
But what if you chose to view “anything could happen” from a place of possibility? Because it is unknown, you have the opportunity to create exactly what it looks like. When you notice fear-based thoughts creeping in, ask yourself: “Is this really true?” and “If I believed I could create the reality that I desire, what would that look like?”
Step 4: Change your relationship to failure
Any sort of growth or change is likely going to be messy because it is non-linear. You can expect to fail. If you aren’t failing, then you likely aren’t stretching yourself. And if you aren’t stretching yourself and getting uncomfortable, then you aren’t growing. Rewrite your story around failure to a more empowering one. I like to say “I am failing forward.” It reminds me that failures are required and every single one is moving me closer toward where I want to be.
Self-sabotage is our body’s defense mechanism to keep us safe from pain, rejection, and the unknown. Now that you know why it happens and how it works, you can cultivate an awareness around it, noticing when your urge to self-sabotage pops up.
When it does, create some separation between you and the thought by identifying it as your ego (you can even name it), and then choosing to realign with your intention, the new version of yourself that you designed in Step 1. You may have to make some courageous or uncomfortable decisions, but always ask yourself, “If I were a person who already had this, what would I do right now?”
Finally, be patient. There is no timeline for how long it will take to rewrite new identities, values, and beliefs. Be compassionate with yourself if it seems like the process is taking longer than it should, and forgive yourself if you make choices that aren’t in alignment with your goal. The most valuable changes in our lives often cannot be measured or quantified, so find evidence of your progress in the way that you feel and in how often you show up like the person that you want to be.