How to stop self-sabotaging your health goals
Sometimes the only thing in the way of you achieving your goals is… you.
There are many reasons why we self-sabotage our health goals, and there are lots of ways we do it. One of the things behind this is the "critical inner voice", according to psychologist Robert Firestone.
Our critical inner voice is formed by early experiences – we internalise our parents' attitudes toward us as well as their attitudes toward themselves. From this, we form an idea of ourselves, which may or may not be either true or helpful.
One example might be if a parent always thought we were lazy, this might manifest in a "why bother, I'll never be able to do it" attitude. Or perhaps if a parent had issues with confidence or appearance, we take those on ourselves without realising it.
When we see ourselves in a certain way (eg I'm lazy), our subconscious ensures we act accordingly. So, when we decide to "improve ourselves", our critical inner voice tells us we're not consistent with our beliefs and makes changing behaviour and establishing new habits difficult.
In my experience, the most common things holding us to our inner critical voice are:
- Fear of change. Change is unfamiliar and unsafe and our subconscious wants to keep us safe.
- Fear of missing out. Self-improvement implies less of the things we like and more of the things we don't – less food, alcohol and fun, more exercise and pain. We know we need "give up" stuff to achieve our goals and maintain results.
- 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.
- Stress. To find relief, reward ourselves or rebel from our stressful, busy lives, we often turn to unhealthy habits to escape or feel better about ourselves, our day or our life. We usually blame this on lack of willpower or motivation, but there's usually more to this.
- Worthiness. 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 has experienced this, although we may not always know we're doing it. There are various ways we self-sabotage:
1. Procrastination: Spending too much time between intention and action, making excuses or being distracted by other things that are "easier", more instantly enjoyable or rewarding.
2. Self-defeating mindset or behaviour: Often connected with a feeling of lack of control or willpower, followed by guilt, you make decisions that move you further from your goals. These behaviours usually feel good in the short term but are detrimental in the long term.
3. "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 and starting again. Striving for perfection is fraught with difficulty as it's impossible to be "good" all the time. It's energy draining, disheartening and unrealistic.
You might think self-sabotaging behaviour is a problem of lack of willpower or motivation, but if you're constantly repeating the same behaviours and not progressing towards your goals, reflect on what could be behind it.
Lifestyle, nutrition and exercise are only part of the answer when it comes to achieving your health goals. Focusing on these alone will not address the cause of self-sabotaging behaviours.
Understanding your self-beliefs, how they underlie your decisions and guide your behaviour, and addressing this means you won't be continuously grappling with motivation and willpower or expending energy forcing new behaviours.
To support your goals, ensure your self-image is consistent with them by:
1. Identifying self-sabotaging behaviours or thoughts: What are you doing or thinking that puts your goals out of reach? What are the triggers leading to these thoughts and actions?
2. Identifying the consequences: How do these actions or thoughts impact your happiness? Every action or decision moves us either closer to or further away from our goals, the life we want and the person we want to be.
3. Understanding why you developed these habits: Is the self-sabotaging action keeping you safe and happy somehow? Self-sabotage is sometimes about self-preservation. Understanding why you do things may help you move forward.
4. Making new habits: With new understanding of your self-sabotaging behaviour, you can start to consciously establish new beneficial behaviours.
5. Being mindful of your actions: Habit change takes time, energy and practice so be mindful of your actions, be present in your decisions and observe yourself without judgement.
6. Remembering slip-ups are not failure: 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.
Examining your inner critical voice may help you break out of longstanding behaviours that have been holding you back. Addressing these could lead you to the level of health and life that you've been striving for but has so far been elusive.
Raewyn Ng is a movement and health coach at Mybod Health and Fitness www.mybod.co.nz