CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Understanding self sabotage

Still repeating the same self-defeating patterns?

Dating the same kind of controlling jerk you vowed to avoid three controlling jerks ago?

Putting off assignments until the last minute, then making sloppy mistakes in a rush to meet deadline?

Sleeping late, not going to the gym, overeating... and then hating yourself for it?

On the surface, it makes no sense. Why would anyone keep shooting themselves in the foot when clearly they can see their toes smoking?

But when you consider the unconscious -- the thoughts, feelings and motivations that "secretly" guide your actions -- even the most irrational behaviors come in to focus. Consciously, you want to complete the assignment, find a healthy romance, and stop angering friends by running late. But deep inside, conflicting desires are at odds with your conscious intentions.

Sure you want to prove yourself, but what if you unambivalently attack an assignment and then fail? What if you pursue a romantic partner who can truly nurture you -- and he walks away? It feels worse to be rejected by Prince Charming than to stick with the jerk you know isn't right for you.

I have worked with numerous people who, on the verge of important accomplishments -- or perhaps right after something good has happened -- become anxious and yank the rug out from under themselves. It may seem counterintuitive, but it sure beats getting your hopes up and having somebody else dash them -- especially if that's been a frequent experience in life. By extinguishing your own hopes, your unconscious is trying to protect you from the rejection that has already happened in the past, and that it is sure will happen again if it lets its guard down. The pain you know is familiar, and by causing it yourself, you at least feel in control. You know how things will turn out since, without realizing it, you have engineered them that way.

People often say they procrastinate because there are lazy. I like to reframe it so that they can see what they really are is frightened. They put off a daunting task because they are afraid they will not be good enough to accomplish it. Or what if they do, and still feel empty inside? Not trying is a way to keep alive the hope that things will still work out in the future.

Also, by unconsciously repeating the past -- by dating an aloof, rejecting man like father -- you hope to master the pain and come up with a new ending. If you can win over Mr. Wrong, you can finally please daddy (in abstentia) and feel worthy, powerful and recognized.

The problem is that it rarely works. Instead of mastering and changing the past, we repeat it almost verbatim. What may be required is a working through facilitated by psychodynamic psychotherapy. In treatment, you confront your unconscious belief systems and finds new ways to address them. This happens in vivo with the psychoanalyst, another parent figure likely to stir up familiar rejection anxieties, but who is also able to find new ways to respond to them. Rather than reject, he affirms. Rather than become angry, he remains curious.

So stop procrastinating and start looking inside. You may be surprised by what you find.

-- Eric Sherman, LCSW