Is It Self-Sabotage? Understanding The Keys To Motivation


Understanding How Your Motivators Drive You

I often hear people say that they are “self-sabotagers.” They use this term to explain perceived failures such as procrastinating work projects, failed romantic relationships, dieting mishaps, or unmet plans. These self-defeating behaviors can prohibit a person from reaching their own goals. But is “self-sabotage” a real thing? Do we really intentionally keep ourselves from happiness?

Most often, upon deeper investigation, we discover that “self-sabotage” is actually competing goals.

Let’s use an example of a person who wants to lose 15 pounds. They may have a good reason to do so. Maybe their doctor told them that they are at risk for developing a chronic condition. Or they want to more easily run around with their children. Maybe they have an upcoming beach vacation and they want to fit into that bikini (no judging)! The motivation to reach the goal is real. But they may have other goals that supersede the goal of weight loss.

Superseding goals are things like:

  • Being Supermom (or dad) For many people (women in particular), a scheduled trip to the gym or farmer’s market is often superseded by unexpected family demands. Life becomes too busy to take the steps necessary to accomplish the secondary goal because they are taking every effort to accomplish the primary goal. In other words, there may be other priorities keeping a person from following through on their action plan.
  • Convenience Behavioral psychology teaches us that humans inherently take the path of least resistance. Our brain’s default response is to take mental (and physical) shortcuts all day long, thus making healthy changes more difficult without intentional effort. This is especially true in the quick-access environment we live in today. The conveniences of fast-food restaurants and decreased physical movement in our daily lives (desk jobs and Roombas) no doubt add to the problem at hand. While these conveniences have benefited us in many ways, they may make the added effort required with alternate choices difficult to follow through with. 
  • Limited Time Demands: Many families have two working parents and two kids in multiple sports, lessons, and extracurricular activities. We are an over-scheduled society. Many people don’t have the “time” to find a recipe, go to the farmer’s market, select the perfect whole ingredients, come home and lovingly prepare the dish, pull their kids away from their computer or tablet, and sit down peacefully with their loving and adoring children to a mindful meal. We often underestimate the amount of time and energy our new goal may require for full follow-through.
  • Decision Fatigue: Decision fatigue is a psychological phenomenon surrounding a person’s ability or capacity to make decisions. In other words, the more decisions you need to make, the worse you’re going to be at weighing all the options and making an educated, research-backed choice. When we are starting a new goal, we are faced with more decisions. With the weight loss example we may ask ourselves, “What kind of diet plan will I use,” “Should I exercise in the morning or night,” “What will I feed the rest of the family,” “What will I order when we eat out,” or “Should I eat that celebratory birthday cake since it’s a special occasion?”  With each question, you have to revisit whether your willpower is strong enough to stay the course.
  • A Need For Safety: How could safety be a “superseding” goal? Whenever we are engaging in a new behavior, even one that would make us mentally and physically healthier, we enter unfamiliar territory. This causes us to feel psychologically vulnerable. Even when these changes are positive, we are taking a risk of experiencing life in a way that is outside of what feels normal. If these feelings are too intense, or if we don’t have the support to manage those feelings, we often fall back into comfortable behavioral patterns.

Ruling Out Self-Sabotage And Evaluating Priorities

While superseding goals or our inherent reflexive habits may make change more difficult, it doesn’t doom us to repeat unhelpful patterns forever. Evaluating your primary and secondary goals and making intentional adjustments that make follow-through more likely can move you towards new goals. Take our weight loss example: you may need to carve additional time into your schedule for exercise. You may have to say, “No, I can’t run that errand for you on Tuesday at 11:00, because I have a Spin Class.” You may need to pull your kids into the kitchen and have them wash and peel the carrots while you prepare the chicken. When you feel uncomfortable or recognize that you are out of your depth, you may want to reach out to a loved one for support.

The good news is that these changes may inadvertently help you reach other goals as well. Your kids may become more responsible, you may look at your conveniences more critically, and your family may become more engaged. Another perk: as these new goals become habits, your brain readjusts your “default” pattern and your new way of living becomes easier to maintain.

Or, you may realize that your secondary goal is just where it should be: Secondary. Really consider the life you want to live and what is most important to you. How do you want to spend your time and energy? Now reflect upon your goals. Are they set by your internal value system, or by an arbitrary measure based on external factors? Through this review, you may determine that you aren’t guilty of “self-sabotage.” You may be right where you are supposed to be.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here