How do I end the cycle of self-sabotage?
August 2, 2012 5:35 AM   Subscribe

How do I end the cycle of self-sabotage?

So, I'm in a really bad spot right now. My husband has just moved out and is threatening divorce. I'm on probation at work and I think it's very likely that I may be fired soon. This is all because I keep doing everything in my power to make sure that I stay unhappy. I can't help myself.

My self-sabotage is usually in the form of extreme procrastination (I would call it chronic... almost like an addiction). I put off everything, but especially things that are good for me or things that I actually want to do. However, my self-destructive habits run much deeper. I lie a lot and I've cheated on my spouse. I'm unreliable. I break promises. I'm what you would call an energy vampire. You know when you decide to cut people out of your life because you realize it's not healthy to be around them? I'm that person.

But I'm *desperate* not to be. I need to turn my life around -- quickly -- in order to save my marriage, my career, and any remnants of self-worth. But I fear that this behavior is now a deeply engrained habit. I've tried to change SO MANY TIMES. I've read so many self-help books. I've been in therapy off and on for years. But nothing has convinced me at a cellular level to change. I know that ultimately the answer is that I need to improve my self-esteem. But it's so hard to do that when I'm screwing things up for myself -- and others -- on a daily basis.

A few other possibly pertinent details:
- I've been diagnosed with ADHD and biplolar type 2 and am on meds for both (although remembering to take my meds is a big challenge -- yet another way I undermine my happiness and success).
- I'm in my mid-thirties. Although procrastination has been a problem all my life, it became a real issue in college (I graduated on time by the skin of my teeth). I had self-destructive tendencies all through my twenties, but they became acute in my early thirties.
- Despite all of the above, I do believe that at my core I'm a smart, capable, and a genuinely kind person. Up until the last year or so, I've been very successful career-wise in spite of these issues. On the whole, my marriage is full of love. But my husband has just had enough of me. He says he still loves me and wants to stay married, but I need to dramatically change before he can consider it a healthy environment for him to be in.

What else can I do? Many people in my life have told me to stop being so selfish and to just get over myself. I do think that I'm probably too self-centered, but I don't think that I'm selfish (or at least I really don't want to be). And, believe me, I've tried to just "get over myself." But to no avail. I'm so, so frustrated.

Thank you for any advice.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure you'll get some good advice here, but my first instinct is that "self destructive tendencies" and "bipolar 2" equals "beyond the scope of internet advice." Have you talked to your psychiatrist about this recently? It sounds like your symptoms from bipolar are still there, which means you might want to look at changing your medication.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:48 AM on August 2, 2012 [13 favorites]

I do believe that at my core I'm a smart, capable, and a genuinely kind person.

Then try acting like a smart, capable, genuinely kind person. I don't mean that as a dig, but those "self-destructive" tendencies seem to affect other people more than you. Cheating on your spouse, procrastinating at work, not taking your medications...those are things that a smart, capable, genuinely kind person wouldn't be known for.

One of the things I've learned in cognitive behavioral therapy is that what you do on the outside can affect how you feel on the inside. So if you think of a smart, capable, non-self-destructive person and how that person would act and do things, then do them, that might help you to at least triage all the things that are going on in your life.

I also think you need to talk very seriously with your therapist, because there's only so much that advice on the internet can do for you.
posted by xingcat at 5:52 AM on August 2, 2012 [11 favorites]

But nothing has convinced me at a cellular level to change. I know that ultimately the answer is that I need to improve my self-esteem. But it's so hard to do that when I'm screwing things up for myself -- and others -- on a daily basis.

All the psychological/psychiatric issues aside, it sounds like you haven't hit rock bottom yet. Can you leave your job and go somewhere where there are no deadlines, nobody hounding you for anything or expecting anything of you, and yet at the same time nobody cares about you at all and you're not even going to eat that day unless you go out and find a way to get food?
posted by cairdeas at 6:34 AM on August 2, 2012

How to remember to take your pills.

How to stop procrastinating. Here, here, here, here, and here.

How to stop lying.

Have you tried practical steps to stop these practical behaviors? Have you read all of the advice? Has anything resonated with you? How did therapy go?

It seems like you're looking at this like "I'm a self-sabotaging, awful human being," with some level of "but underneath it all I'm a wonderful person" mixed in. I suspect that's an unhelpful perspective. You are failing to do certain things, and you are doing certain things you should not. Try to change how you act, not who you "are."

Do you love your husband? Are you in love with him? Have you always been like this?
posted by J. Wilson at 6:34 AM on August 2, 2012 [16 favorites]

People do things because in some way or another there's a pay off. You are getting something positive from whatever it is that you're doing, that's why you keep doing it.

You need to understand what it is about the results of your behavior that you enjoy so that you can make the change.

Some possibilities:

1. You like drama, and being in trouble in your relationship and at your work is very dramatic.

2. You like excitement, working under deadlines and in crunch-time is exciting.

3. You like attention, performing poorly at work, and doing hurtful things in your relationship results in attention (negative though it is).

Absolutely, get into thereapy and explore different medication, but fundamentally all of your problems stem from one source. If you discover what that is, then you'll make great strides in resolving the problem.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:42 AM on August 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

You know what it sounds to me like your problem is? It sounds like you think about short-term gratification more than the long-term picture. You cheat on your husband for a few moments of pleasure, even though it is almost certain to cause you much more grief down the line. You put off things at work because being lazy is fun, even though in the long term it's a lot more work to look for a new job. This is all short-term thinking. I don't think self-esteem is the issue here - the fact that you engage in all these destructive behaviors and still somehow think of yourself as a "smart, capable, and a genuinely kind person" indicates to me that your ego is clearly working just fine. You're just a small-scale thinker who neglects the big picture.

I have a friend who is exceptionally successful (he started out in a refugee camp, and is a self-made millionaire), and he cheerfully admits himself to be one of the laziest people alive. However, you wouldn't know it to look at him because he is all about the long-term; he's willing to work as hard as he has to now in order to maximize the amount of laziness he can have in the future. He understands the importance of long-term planning, which is something you seem to lack.

I know it's difficult because you have legitimate psychiatric issues, and I absolutely second the opinion of everybody else telling you that this is therapist-level material. However, I think that on the day-to-day level, one practical thing you can attempt is to try to be more contemplative about your choices and always ask yourself "How will I feel about this decision five years down the road?"
posted by wolfdreams01 at 6:52 AM on August 2, 2012 [23 favorites]

Work on your self-esteem by always doing your best, no matter what.

Doing your best is taking an action because you love it, not because you're expecting a reward. Most people do exactly the opposite. They only take action when they expect a reward, and they don't enjoy the action. That's the reason they don't do their best.

For example, most people go to work each day just thinking of payday and the money they will get for the work they are doing. They can hardly wait for Friday or Saturday, whatever day they receive their money and can take time off. They are working for the reward, and as a result they resist the work. They try to avoid the action and it becomes more difficult, and they don't do their best.

They work so hard all week long suffering the work, suffering the action, not because they like to, but because they feel they have to. They have to work because they have to pay the rent or mortgage, because they have to support their family. They have all that frustration, and when they do receive their money they are unhappy. They have two days to rest, to do what they want, and what do they do? They try to escape. They get drunk because they don't like themselves. They don't like their life. There are many ways we hurt ourselves when we don't like our lives.

On the other hand, if you take action just for the sake of doing it, without expecting a reward, you will find that you enjoy the actions much more. Rewards will come, but you are not attached to the reward. If we like what we do, if we always do our best, then we are really enjoying life. We are having fun, we don't get bored, we don't have frustrations.

I read this fable once that is apropos. There was a man who wanted to transcend his suffering so he went to a Buddhist temple to find a Master to help him. He asked, "Master, if I meditate four hours a day, how long will it take me to transcend?"

The Master looked at him and said, "If you meditate four hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in ten years." Thinking he could do better the man then said, "Oh, Master, what if I meditated eight hours a day, how long will it take me to transcend?" The Master looked at him and said, " If you meditate eight hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in twenty years."

"But why will it take me longer if I meditate more?", the man asked. The Master replied, "You are not here to sacrifice your joy or your life. You are here to live, to be happy, and to love. If you can do your best in two hours of meditation, but you spend eight hours instead, you will only grow tired, miss the point, and you won't enjoy your life. Do your best and perhaps you will learn that no matter how long you meditate, you can live, love and be happy."

You have a simple decision each day when you roll out of bed. You can decide that today is going to be another crap day and behave accordingly. Or, you can decide that today is going to be a wonderful day and you are going to strive to do your best at everything.

There's a concept here in MetaFilter called "Brand New Day." Allow yourself to start over. From today on, you are going to be this new person who always does their best. There's nothing in the rear-view mirror for you except your old, self-destructive life. So focus on what is straight ahead out the windshield. There are only good things out there.
posted by netbros at 7:05 AM on August 2, 2012 [21 favorites]

i would just like to add that "your best" is not perfection. it means the absolute best YOU are capable of.

YMMV but here's my take...(along with get your meds checked, esp if you think you'll be fired soon and you still have insurance)

when i was going through a really difficult time and felt like a self-centered awful person who really was kind and awesome underneath, some days it was all i could do to actually brush my teeth in the morning because i knew that's what i wanted to act like.... a responsible person who brushed their teeth in the morning. i have an electric toothbrush that has a 2 minute timer. sometimes that 2 minutes felt like years. but i kept at it. and sometimes it was my only victory for the day and i felt kinda silly, but it made me feel better, because no matter what else that day, i had brushed my teeth.

so my advice is to start small.

beating yourself up for failing is not going to help you get better at being perfect. it will help you get better at feeling like shit. and you'll resort to lies and self-sabotage cause no one wants to feel like shit.

just try to do what YOU can do...not someone else, not your boss, your perfect coworker, your husband...YOU.

take it moment by moment. it will be hard and go very slowly and feel like you're moving through molasses. you CAN do it.

(and remembering to take medication is very hard when your brain is going haywire over 8 million over things. no advice for you there, just sympathy.)
posted by sio42 at 7:41 AM on August 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

You're going to need to talk to your psychiatrist/therapist about this because you need to work on your coping skills, but I would wager that some of your problems would go away if you took your meds every day like you're supposed to. So make it hard to not take the meds.

Put on note on your bathroom mirror, on your fridge, inside your front door, in your car, get one of those pills by the week dispensers and keep in near a note. There are apps for this so get one and set up a reminder. Put another reminder on your computer's calendar everyday. Get a paper calendar that you can cross off once you've taken your pills And don't just do one of these, do them all. Taking your meds isn't a silver bullet, but it makes the other stuff easier.
posted by GilvearSt at 7:51 AM on August 2, 2012

The best advice I can give is to treat yourself with love. If there's a reason to be selfish, that's the one. Once you realize your WORTH and realize the people you love are WORTH your genuine self, can you, in time (on a cellular level) change your thought process. When you realize people depend on you, not for their selfish reasons but because they trust your good will and judgment, for some reason... it helps shift the focus on more positive traits. Be easy. Forgive yourself. Also, as someone mentioned, please take meds for your bi-polarism. It's a real mental illness that needs vigorous treatment.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 7:54 AM on August 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Part of what worked for me was finding diet and lifestyle changes to help with my issues which reduced my need for medication.

A lot of ADHD issues can be improved with dietary changes, avoiding allergy triggers, etc. You might look into the alternative med scene. Put your blinders on and ignore any strong anti-medication sentiment, judgementalism, etc. Your focus needs to be "Is there anything I can eat or drink (or avoid) that will help with X symptom?" The goal here has nothing to do with bring purist, holier than thou, rejecting meds, etc. The goal should be to get your body functioning better so you simply need less medication. That's it.
posted by Michele in California at 7:56 AM on August 2, 2012

What happened about a year ago?
posted by rhizome at 9:31 AM on August 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

"Just" getting over yourself is really very hard. So I don't think that's a good first step.

A lot of what you wrote reminds me of me a little bit.

When you are in the throes of either a depressive episode or mania, it's really hard to think straight (been there). And it's hard to feel like any steps you take will have a concrete effect. But they can! Here's what I think you should do. None of these is a guarantee, but think of it like a science experiment - try different options to find what works.

Step 0: Talk to your husband. Tell him that everything you have been going through is probably symptomatic of bipolar II and ADHD, and that you would be grateful for his help in getting those things under control. He may be more sympathetic if these struggles feel like a short term project rather than just "how it is." Or maybe not. You didn't say much about what the root problem is in your marriage.

Step 1: Figure out a way to take your meds regularly.
Bonus extra credit: Get regular exercise.

Step 2: If after a month or so of regular medication you still feel off, talk to your doctor about adjusting your medication.

Step 3: If adjusted meds are not an option or don't help, try to get a handle on your conditions through other means, such as diet, increased exercise, or alternative therapy methods.

Step 4: Through all this, don't be too hard on yourself and don't be too easy on yourself. You have seen that your actions can have dire consequences. But also recognize that in trying to improve you are not trying to be perfect.
posted by mai at 9:46 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

People are different, but I wouldn't be able to solve that many problems at once, or deal with looking at things in such a global abstract way. I would pick the most crucial thing and set a timeline for dealing with it. For me, the relationship would be the obvious thing to address first, because it is affecting someone else, someone you care about. I know your husband says he wants you to change dramatically, but you can still start with how you act in the relationship.
posted by BibiRose at 10:47 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Listen to a guided meditation downloaded from iTunes or the like at least twice a day.

That's it.

Look, right now you are stressed and everything you are about is from a place of fear and panic. Slow that process down, and doing all the stuff you need to do (get off probation at work, take meds regularly, developing self-awareness about lying and other self-destructive behaviors) will come.

Meditation. Daily walks.

Everything else listed above by other posters is likely stuff you can't handle at this moment. But listening to a 20 to 30 minute guided meditation 2x's or 3x's per day + walks or going to the gym? This you can do.

I'm not over-simplifying things, but I strongly suggest that you simplify things for the moment.

Also, Michelle in California's suggestions about diet and alternative therapies is very good, too. Like get massage! I know it seems like going for massages would be "spoiling" or rewarding yourself - but no!! Google the physical and mental benefits of regular massage, you'll understand why I am suggesting this route.

Again. You're in panic mode. This will help you get yourself physically, and therefore mentally, back under control.

It doesn't matter how you got into this state of being, it matters how you get out of it.

What you've been doing has not been working. I strongly urge you to try meditation for a few weeks, even if you don't think it is working.
posted by jbenben at 11:00 AM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're unhappy so you're doing all of these things to be happy - procrastinating, lying, cheating, these are all things that give us very short-term positive benefits - they are a form of escapism from pain.

So, currently your brain is seeking out a lot of short-term benefit and have no ability to judge long-term consequences. But then you get yourself into shit in the long-term, which continues the cycle of you feeling bad and trying to make yourself feel better.

Generally, to overcome this, what we should do is replace these negative things with positive things - in this case it can be your meds, massage, exercise, art and music, learning new things, therapy. All of these things have the ability to help us in the long-term, and many of them have short-term benefits as well (win).

But there's a part of you that wants to feel guilty and shame because you don't deserve to feel better. Okay, it's fair enough to want beat yourself up - you've done things you regret and you feel bad. But. If you keep doing that, you'll lose your job and your marriage. Will that be enough punishment for you then? Will you have been sufficiently beaten for what you've done?

At some point, you have to stop beating yourself up for what has happened before and allow yourself to get better now and to have a meaningful future.

The first steps are to take your meds and to get a regular therapist. Okay, so they're the boring things. You also give yourself other things that will be meaningful to you that will not be destructive to other people - get a massage, do yoga, paint, walk along the water, take a class - whatever it is. This is your reward for doing the things that will help you get better (and save your marriage, your job, and your life). You are a human being who is entitled to get better.
posted by heyjude at 4:46 PM on August 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would suggest that -- perhaps -- you are not sabotaging yourself. Maybe (certainly) you are unhappy in your marriage. Maybe you are unhappy in your job.

Perhaps you are not sabotaging yourself, just working against structures that are not making you happy in your life.

Maybe taking some time off from both would help? Take a couple of weeks of health-related leave, go somewhere peaceful and inexpensive, and think about your life. What can you change to make you want to be in it again?
posted by 3491again at 5:48 PM on August 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

nothing has convinced me at a cellular level to change.

There's a secret trick to this: start with the change, and the cellular conviction will follow. It's a robust psychological finding: activity precedes motivation. This means your impulsivity and self-destructiveness can be real assets! Because you're excellent at telling yourself: Fuck it, I'm gonna do it anyway.

Use that same mantra to sabotage your self-undermining schemes.
posted by feral_goldfish at 9:53 AM on August 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

You are what you do. Choose again, and change.

Raise your standards a little bit at a time. This is true of all areas of change. For example, if a person wanted to slim down in weight--say, be fifty pounds lighter--it would be ridiculously unreasonable for them to decide to do that in a month, and they might try that and would perhaps achieve as much as ten pounds at the cost of massive amounts of exercise and near-starvation diet and a lot of stress and then they would probably give up.

However, if they instead decided to eat and exercise so as to become a mere five pounds lighter every month, or even a pound every week, they would be able to reach their goal weight in a year.

It works the same with your own goals. Divide your life into four to eight areas of desired growth: relationship with your husband, relationships with friends, results at work, feeling more connected and at peace, eating better, exercising, better financial standards, etc. Choose one goal in each of the areas that you can make a small amount of progress on each day. For example, you might decide to tidy just one half of one room in your house, cook yourself food that will last you three meals, call one friend who has had a good thing happen to them just to say hello and congratulate them and hear the details (and do not complain to them or encourage them to complain to you), and finish up 5% of your back-logged work. If you did that every day for a month, you would have a tidy house, you would have eaten well, built connection with multiple friends, and you would have your work backlog all gone and actually be ahead.

Whereas if you had decided that tomorrow was the day to tidy your house completely, sort out your food situation for the next week, catch up with six people, and get your work backlog completely done, you'd probably be on the couch having done none of it.

The trick is to break down a big goal into a whole lot of small goals, and just do the small goals without being distracted by the big goals.

Every week of this, reward yourself in some small way: go see a movie, sit down with a good book, have an icecream, etc.

Given that your husband has said that he still loves you and wants to stay married, your relationship with him is probably salvageable. That said, him expecting you to dramatically change is not healthy and putting that expectation onto you will lessen the odds of you achieving it. Also, incremental change is hard to notice (which is precisely the point).

I suggest just let him know that you have decided not to dramatically change, because that won't work, but rather that you will improve a little bit every day for a month, and let him know each week what you have done in the way of improvements, and in a few months you will be much better and perhaps even in a better place than the place that he originally expected you to instantly move to.

He will decide when he is ready to come back. Accept that this is his decision to make, and whatever he does, it is worthwhile for you to change, for your own good.

Also, be conscious of your physical state; stand up straight and allow yourself to feel powerful for a moment before you start in on any task, eg work backlog or house tidying. If you feel yourself feeling sad, check if you are slouching; if you are, stand up straight again. Motion and emotion are linked, and you can move the relationship in either direction.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:08 AM on August 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

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