Why do we do things to ourselves that demotivate us and contribute to a lack of success? Anyone can point these things out, but I want to go a step further. I’m a big believer all behavior is purposeful. What I mean by this is there has to be some level of benefit or we would discontinue it immediately.
The Benefits of Self-Sabotage
These are what we define as self-sabotaging behaviors. Most of us will then typically shame ourselves for doing something self-defeating. Now why we do this may not be apparent on the surface. I always encourage my clients to replace criticism with curiosity as we attempt to identify what the positive benefit is to the specific behavior. And believe me, it is always there.
I want to clarify that the motivation behind these behaviors is usually unconscious. The person is not doing it intentionally or with awareness. On one hand, you may be completely dedicated to achieving your goals, but then another part of you engages in an action that derails everything you have been working towards.
Protection From Shame and Loss
In my experience, the underlying cause of this is an effort to protect against shame, loss, or to defend your sense of self. In relation to progress, it would go something like this: you’re making positive changes and growing for a period of weeks; there is a setback or regression into a level of your old behaviors; you tell yourself you are incapable of change, and you might as well give up; you then start procrastinating or quit altogether.
I don’t believe there are any of us who haven’t experienced this pattern at some point. Probably, the most dominant thing that drives self-sabotaging behaviors is an attempt to protect ourselves from shame. I’ve written before in numerous articles about the power of shame. Shame is associated with a threat to survival. The reason we defend against it so strongly is we are literally fighting for our life.
Progress is Non-Linear
When I’m attempting to help people grow and reach their goals, one of the biggest challenges is helping them relinquish their defenses against shame. I have to do this by creating a safe relationship that allows them to reach for me or others, rather than their defenses when experiencing shame or insecurities.
One of the tools in my belt is disputing their shame-based beliefs about their lack of progress by showing them their “Rising Bottoms.” In cognitive therapy, this is defined as reality-testing. I have to build a case in which evidence of their progress becomes indisputable. Moreover, incremental, non-linear progress is also the way change truly works in every area of life.
Defining "Rising Bottoms"
Let me define what I mean by “Rising Bottoms.” I once had a business partner who taught me this model. He was much more experienced than me in this area. We were reviewing our monthly budget, and I became a bit discouraged. When starting a business he explained it can be disappointing when you start to grow, and then you have bad months.
You think, “Yes. We’re on our way,” and then you dip in revenue. He said the way to really evaluate if you are headed in the right direction is to assess whether your worst months are getting better. If so, this is greater evidence you are succeeding than your best months. This business concept is known as “Rising Bottoms.”
An Opportunity for Growth
An example of this in my work with clients would be a couple who when they are conflicted don’t speak for several days. A marker of a “Rising Bottom” would be they resumed communication after a few hours after a disagreement. Some of my clients struggling with addiction may disappear for a year or two when they relapse. A rising bottom would be they returned to treatment in a month following their most recent binge.
Progress is rarely linear (a straight line). Circumstances and internal stress will tend to cause a level of deterioration. But regression is not a lack of progress but an opportunity for further growth. There are stages of development and evolution. Occasionally, you find yourself in a situation that is a bit beyond your current ability, whether it be relationally or career wise.
There is no shame in this. If you possess a Growth-Mindset, you have a belief you can acquire any skill or talent if you receive the right guidance and put in the necessary effort. In any area you are attempting to change, resistance typically equals a temporary decline in progress. Whenever you experience a setback to growth, it just indicates this is the next level you are attempting to advance towards.
Playing the Long-Game
The area of athletics is a great example of this concept. There is no athlete that does not taste defeat or have an off day. This does not mean they are not elite. The incident provides them with information, and an opportunity, to learn more about, their nutrition, training, or mindset to continue to develop a greater skill level.
The same is true in the financial markets. Success is viewed over time, not by evaluating it on a day to day basis. My advice for you is to develop means to track your overall progress, so validation of your gains over time become irrefutable. Markers of your improvement are motivating and produce hope, which is a big emotional driver for change.
Three Simple Steps
Over the years, I have found introducing my clients to the concept of “Rising Bottoms” has been very beneficial and encouraging to them. Integrate this idea into the changes you are attempting to make and the goals you are aspiring to achieve. It will be another resource in your efforts to achieve your full potential.
I will condense this article into three simple steps for you to follow: develop safe supportive relationships that will allow you to let go of your defenses against shame and heal; create clear, specific goals for yourself with means for receiving immediate feedback on your performance; and track your progress over the long-term, specifically in the area of “Rising Bottoms.” The last thing I would add is continue to cultivate and reinforce a Growth-Mindset that will allow you to believe anything you want to acquire is possible. Good luck! I’m rooting for you.
John Hawkins Jr., M.S., L.M.H.C.
John has helped thousands of clients overcome the hidden internal blocks which had kept them from achieving their maximum potential. Furthermore, he has assisted them in gaining clarity of their true life purpose, identifying their gifts and talents, and developing lives of greater meaning and significance.