It’s Not a Mirage, It’s Self Sabotage

A box trap set ready for your self-sabotage patterns

I’d have done very well as a trapper during the westward expansion. My skills of trapping and pattern tracking are unparalleled. Unfortunately, since it’s 2019, I’m forced to stick to self-sabotage.

I find myself in a prison of my own making far more often than I’d like to admit. I should be able to see the trap by now, but every time I climb out of the deep hole I’ve dug for myself, I cover it with new leaves and branches so the next time it will look different, and I can fall in all over again.

Recognizing Self-Sabotage Patterns

Everyone has certain moments of self-sabotage. In a world where goals and ambition are everything, It’s almost inevitable that we will undermine at least one of those myriad goals. Just look at the 8% success rate for New Year’s resolutions.

The truth is, most self-sabotage is relatively benign–we’ll just try again next year, right? When it gets in the way of living your life, however, it can become extremely corrosive.

The trap’s many guises

In a lot of ways, self-sabotage is extremely individualized. My manifestations (E.g. sleeping too late even though I know it deepens my depression) may look nothing like yours (contribute your verse in the comments), and so it might be difficult to detect. Furthermore, most of the time, it feels positive in the short-term despite it’s long-term consequences.

I started to notice that there was a direct correlation between my sabotaging behavior and my bipolar disorder:

When depressed, I moaned that I had few friends, but I turned down countless invitations to come out, and I fell into the hole.

When manic, I had tons of “brilliant” ideas for businesses, home projects, and artistic endeavors, but I couldn’t settle on an idea long enough to accomplish anything, and the branches collapsed under my feet.

It seemed to me that those of us with mental disorders may be particularly susceptible to problematic self-sabotage. Is there some sort of connection between undercutting behavior and mental health?

Negative Reinforcement Patterns and self-sabotage

One of the clues to the root of undercutting behavior in those with mental disorders comes from B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. Skinner discusses the phenomena of “positive reinforcement” and “negative reinforcement.”

In positive reinforcement, a reward is offered for a behavior (you study, you get an A). If this pattern is repetitive, you develop a habit.

Negative reinforcement is the opposite. You are motivated not by a reward, but by an avoidance of an unpleasant feeling or situation (you don’t study, you get an F). This has its usefulness. It is the reason we don’t burn our hands on the stove. It’s why we learn from mistakes. But it’s also why mental illness breeds self-sabotage.

Feels so right, it can’t be wrong

It’s a wonder I’m so out of shape with all the running I do. Granted, I do most of it from the comfort of my own couch, perhaps with a beer and a couple of chips…okay, a bag of chips.

It might seem like an example of positive reinforcement, but if you asked Skinner, he’d say that my patterns of drinking too much and eating junk food is actually avoidance behavior and thus, negative reinforcement.

Somewhere in my pre-diagnosis life, My bipolar had been sneaking up behind me for a while, and I was beginning to have panic attacks regularly. I yearned to feel better, but I had not been talking to a therapist, I wasn’t on medication, and I had learned no strategies to keep my mind from screaming.

I was desperate to get some relief. Finally, I began to self-medicate with food and alcohol, and I started to felt better. It was as if I had finally found the off switch for my mind. The painful memories, the anxiety-ridden future, the feelings of inadequacy and embarrassment and regret all faded to silence.

It worked so well to make me finally relax and let go that I did it again, and again, and again, and…well, you get the point.

For a while, it worked wonders. I had a sanctuary, and was having more good days than bad, which I hadn’t in a long time. I thought I had finally found a panacea for all my problems.

Unintended Consequences

Those pain relievers soon became pain inducers as they drove my mania higher and my depression lower, but I couldn’t stop.

I knew that I was committing self-sabotage, that I wanted to get well, but the inexorable link between those behaviors and relief from my pain drove me back into the same traps over and over.

This pattern is true for all types of self-sabotaging behavior, from picking fights in relationships, to undercutting your career, to neglecting self care. At one point or another, these maladaptive behaviors provided some sort of relief for you. Now, they are likely getting in the way of health and wellness.

While getting rid of these patterns will not solve every issue created by the past, keeping them in place will most certainly take you further from wellness.

I haven’t gotten rid of my self-sabotaging behaviors, but now I know what really makes me feel well in the long term, and what is just hiding from my pain.

We all have comforts. Have any of them become more harm than good?

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