Has Anyone Overcome a Lifetime of Self-Sabotage?
April 8, 2020 7:10 PM   Subscribe

Hello, all. I'm writing to ask for your experience with and suggestions for dealing with a lifetime of self-sabotage -- especially during this time of quarantine, which is proving sort of a crossroads for me. I'm 38 years old, fairly bright, and talented in a number of areas. I've been able to achieve some success in the arts, academics, and with my own small business. To be honest, I'm totally sick of strangers/clients/friends being basically amazed by stuff I do, and then seeing the question in their eyes even if they don't say it (and some do): "Why aren't you, like, really successful/well known/famous for this?" A huge part of me just rolls its eyes and says they're full of it and just being nice. But I've heard it so many times, about so many different things, from so many people (including people who aren't necessarily nice) -- and I've thought it myself -- so I have to admit that something f***ed up is probably going on with me. The problem -- and it's embarrassing as hell to see this clearly only now, at almost 40 -- is that every time I get close to being *really* successful, I back down.

Now, this never FEELS like self-sabotage, which is why I guess I've kept doing it. It's felt like a lot of things, such as: boredom; resentment; despair; the certainty that I need more training/education/experience (that's been a BIG one; I have some fancy degrees from some competitive programs); external distractions (esp. relationship drama, not so much now but in the past); doubt ("Who am I to do X, and why bother?"); and just turning away from THE UNKNOWN (although it's almost certainly better than my known ways of doing things).

And, terribly, now -- there's a new tack of argument in there (and in our culture in general) that says I am now TOO OLD. I'd never believe this as it pertained to anyone else, but somehow it seems totally relevant to me! (?!)

I grew up in a pretty abusive household, came out with PTSD/C-PTSD, and have grown a LOT through mindfulness and therapy and pretty much every modality you can think of, and I'm basically a functional adult, which is fantastic.

But there's some default in me that tells me to BE INVISIBLE -- or I'll die (not logical, I know; this is old stuff). This has become totally intolerable, though, because it turns out I am a very "out there", creative person with a pretty performative personality. I'm not really stifled by this issue with friends, or in groups, or in certain establishments or settings -- it's more of a large-scale thing. There's something stopping me from taking the next steps in my artistic life as well as in my professional life. Because both of these steps would require me to be SEEN. This is NOT stage fright or shyness; I don't have either of those. This is literally some weird fear of being visible and known (and possibly liked/loved??) over a period of time.

And it's not so much that I'm afraid of failure, or even of rejection. Those things are KNOWN and (ugh) comfortable -- at least on my inside, if not on my outside. I guess I just don't know (emotionally, not intellectually) what else there is!

Something else I've thought about recently is that I don't have many friends who are actually sort of saying yes to themselves in a real way, and who I can talk to about this sort of thing. Hence this post on Ask MeFi.

If you can relate at all, please share any similar struggles/ experiences/ suggestions. Thanks!!
posted by Orlando_Vita to Human Relations (10 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Something that helped me dive into these kinds of issues is the idea of secondary gains (when used in a non-medical way).

All of these issues we have are convenient to us in some way. For example, being independent and a bit of a misanthrope is an easy way to avoid rejection, or less acutely, avoid the messiness of relationships. Being content without career advancement shields us from the extra work we might have to do if we got a promotion. Some of those might be right for us, but it really helps to take a deeper look and be honest with yourself.

This is really well explained around 8:20 in this podcast (which I kind of randomly came across - haven't listened to many more episodes).
posted by beyond_pink at 7:35 PM on April 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

I grew up in a pretty abusive household...there's some default in me that tells me to BE INVISIBLE -- or I'll die

So, that's it. You know what the issue is, as illogical as it is; this is your breakthrough. Congratulations. Embrace it, both the hurt and the wonder of it.

From here, the path forward will take a lot of discipline and determination, but those are things you've mastered already so no worries there. And it will get better, because it can't not.

But you asked for anecdotes of others who have experienced similar things. So here's my story:

My specific issue was a bit different - I kept sabotaging myself by trying too hard to reach my goal and alienating people in the process, instead of letting myself reach my goal naturally - but the mechanics of self-sabotage were the same. It all began to change for me once I had the breakthrough and realized how I'd been setting myself up to fail. This was many years ago and, looking back, I've had a steady progression away from that self-destructive pattern. It's been hard, and there have been setbacks along the way, but the setbacks were only setbacks and not catastrophic because the sting had already been defused by the breakthrough moment. In fact, I've come to excel at the very thing I used to suck so badly at. So much so that my husband, who is a very good clinical psychologist, can hardly believe my stories about what I was like before we met.
posted by DrGail at 7:39 PM on April 8, 2020 [8 favorites]

I relate to everything you say here. The c-ptsd, the variety in coping mechanisms, and the shame spiral. I think, I enjoy the high of being appreciated and admired, but I hate it when it's expected and it becomes sort of performative to the point I lose steam and start gathering worry and feelings of inadequacy instead. This is because of the very conditional nature of love I was raised with. I was recently diagnosed with adult ADHD: my attraction to highly stimulating intellectual tasks and my aversion to performative tasks that bring me no satisfaction, with my crippling fear of falling behind or disappointing, has sprinkled my life with striking lifestyle contradictions such as the one you mention here.

I don't have a way to cope with self-sabotage, I am self-sabotaging to this day, but I think even my ADHD is somehow a symptom of my realized c-ptsd after reading Pete Walker's book and I need to accept and nurture acceptance for myself and others, somehow.
posted by SkinsOfCoconut at 10:49 PM on April 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

I definitely have a similar trajectory to yours but without the actual success because I'm a chronic underachiever! From my perspective (parental emotional neglect, childhood depression, untreated ADHD) there is a comfort level with things not being great because I have conditioned myself to not expect more. This can feel like I don't deserve good things and I then find a way to minimize the disappointment that locks me into my lowered expectations.

I'm working through this and it's a structure I would like to dismantle, but all my life I have been using this as a survival mechanism. It worked okay for me as a kid and even a young adult but now, at 50, I find myself wanting to demonstrate that beyond survival, I have excelled at things.

But that instinct to stay invisible you mentioned is something I have too, and it's what protected me: from
further physical/emotional abuse, from humiliation by bullies, etc. It started out as a kind of detachment. But this safety zone does not extend to big risks because they are uncharted territory! I've never let myself just do a thing to the best of my ability, stuck with it, and pushed the envelope enough to go beyond what I know.

You mentioned your circle of people doesn't feel like a place where people are positive about change for themselves and I can relate to this as well. I've come to understand that as discomfort with the unknown to a certain extent. I quit my job six years ago to go work at a rival company after years of being overlooked for promotions. My friends who worked there could not understand why I would leave my comfortable position (it was a very secure job I could have kept till retirement) even though they agreed that I was not getting the recognition I deserved. At the end of the day, all I needed was to get out of a toxic environment, and that included the dysfunctional family we'd formed around our workplace. My friends were and are not toxic, though; that office made us into a group that buffered larger problems with a feeling of "you're down here with all of us." It's possible that you might need to get with people who are further along in their own accomplishments in order to feel supported/uplifted.

I have done. A Ton. Of therapy. I know it can work with the right therapist and I am probably going to go back in the nearish future to work on this. I think for me anyway it's a matter of jail-breaking my inner child from survival mode so we can explore all of Maslow's pyramid together all the way to the top!
posted by Otter_Handler at 4:46 AM on April 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There are hidden disadvantages to being successful. Often in order to be successful you need to ignore some extremely strong needs.

For example, being out there in public takes a lot of mental resources for someone who over stimulates easily and while many such people can sustain it in temporary bursts, or for awhile, it burns through a ton of neurological resources, and the urge to run away and hide will be lurking. If the benefits from being out there drop at all, such as with habituation or if any new stress appears, interacting with other people becomes just too much.

So while you are looking at what a successful life is going to be, you also need to look at the benefits of your non-successful life and figure out what they are and why you prefer them when you do.

The way many people handle this kind of thing is to have a season. For example if they spend four months of the year out there setting up shows and doing galleries and four months of the year painting intensively - and another four months not doing any serious art or networking at all, they can sustain a career that involves a lot of creativity and self promotion. Lots of successful people have found that setting up their life this way is necessary. This is especially true of people who do not have the advantages of money and a family that will take care of things for them. People who have to scrounge quarters for the laundry need to spend a big chunk of resources on simple self maintenance.

From details in your question a lot of this is about your ego needs being in conflict with your non ego needs. It sometimes happens that someone becomes a really good artist because doing art is something that makes them feel good. It's immersive so they practice. They practice so they become good. And then they start thinking they can use their art to meet their ego needs for connection and recognition. But unless they started doing their art and rushing to share it right from the beginning, rushing to show off their crayon drawings, and setting up an un-approved gallery show in the hall at their junior high and being a networker on Deviant Art from the age of fifteen, you know that the ego needs were not deeply interwined with the art originally, and the art has to be bent to also fill the ego needs. For many people the ego needs and the talents are not originally linked and it's hard to link them.

What you are calling sabotage - is not. At least, it isn't unless you set up a vernissage and then go on a bender and pass out at home from drinking about twenty minutes before you should have left to attend your own event, or go to a gallery interview and find yourself screaming at the astonished interviewer.

There's a very good chance that when you use the word sabotage you are doing the work of your old abusers because you internalized their contempt and you are using magical thinking to blame yourself. Most abusers can't deal with reality so they blame the person they abuse. The four year old drops a plate of spaghetti because the parent was not vigilant enough to prevent them from dropping it, but instead of saying, "Crap, I shoulda stayed beside you while you were eating, let me clean that up and I'll get you something else to eat," they say, "You little bastard! You did that on purpose! You know better than to pick up your plate!" Of course four year olds do not know better than to pick up their plate, although they can almost know it, but they don't have the logic and intentionality to ever make it their fault. The abuser deals with being a fuck-up by blaming the kid and informing them they should have met a standard that is impossible to meet. What I am thinking is that when you fail to turn your talents into recognition and career and call it sabotage you are yelling at your inner four year old and telling them they sabotaged dinner by dropping the spaghetti.

Maybe you can parley your talents into recognition. But you deserve that recognition and admiration and affection without having to be really good at anything, the same way we all do, and the same way the four year old did. And you need to also feel good about what you do already, instead of only feeling good about a future that may or may not happen.

You describe people saying "Wow, this is good!" and instead of feeling validated and admired you hear, "So you're a fuck up, because you should be famous." Maybe that is what they are saying, the same way that the abuser in your past said you were being deliberately incompetent when you dropped the spaghetti. But if they do think that or are saying that, then they are also abusers with no insight to other people, and a poor grasp of reality. Only really clueless people don't know that other people have lives and are doing the best they can with what they have.

It's not like talented work and self promotion are remotely the same skills. Your art is fantastic. Your self-marketing is not. Well, there are more people good at self marketing than at art, but developing self marketing skills and slogging through them is the part that has kept you from being famous. Looking at your art tells no one anything about your ability to self-promote and network. What their praise is telling you is that if you pick up an additional skill you've got something that they believe a lot of people would buy. But they are using magical thinking and being unrealistic if they are implying or believing that all you need to be famous is to be good at your art.

So the questions from here are why do you want to turn your talent into ego fulfillment, and why isn't it already doing that, and if you get more recognition would it even provide the ego-fulfillment you are hoping for, and what else do you need before you can work on that single minded ambition and would working on that single-minded ambition to turn talent into ego-fulfillment be worth what it would cost.

All those questions need to be answered before you can examine the things you are doing or not doing that you describe as sabotage. If you can clearly answer every nuance in my run on sentence of a paragraph above, then it's a matter of sitting down and doing the executive brain work of what can you do, when can you do it, what are the basic steps. Get a notebook or open a brand new document and start planning.

Say you decide the first step is to call the gallery and ask them about what you need to set up a show. Set a time. If you don't do it, ask yourself why you didn't do it. Too scared? Okay, then what less scary sub-goal can you do towards that goal? Go on their website and see if the information is there? Do that. Call the gallery and ask any other simple question so that you practice calling them and work on your anxiety about calling? Do that.

And if it's too hard to even think about, let alone write it down or do it, then make a time to sit and prepare to think about it, and listen to the thoughts in your head and record those. If trying to think about the plan to advance you career leads you intrusive thoughts that intrude when you try to think about it, then make a list of those thoughts: "I'm too stupid, I'm too old, My family will sabotage me... etc." Making that list is progress. Now you can then either address those thoughts as mere intrusive thoughts, or make plans to work around them. If you truly believe you are too stupid you make a plan to learn more so you are less stupid. If you truly believe you are too old, you make a plan to go further with what little career time you do have, even if it is too late to study at the Louvre and paint on the banks of the Seine and have a passionate Paris love affaire. You can still aim for a gallery show in your own town, or still work on studying reproductions of the art in the Louvre. If it's all not worth it, nothing is worth it unless you can go back in time and experience April in Paris as an adolescent, then you need to work on the grief for your lost adolescence, not your career.

But be kind to yourself. Be loving to yourself. Admire yourself. And most especially work on hearing supportive messages when people tell you that you could do big things, instead of hearing a negative message that you should have already done big things. No. You should NOT have already been famous/successful/well known. You were doing a ton of other stuff, all of which needed to be done and took priority. Yes, including when you binge watched those stupid comedy shows. When you did that you were practicing not thinking bad thoughts and practicing being happy. What you were doing was laying a foundation that made going forward possible. Maybe getting famous or successful is the direction you want to go. And maybe you will go there. But it's one of the many options you have made possible. You can work on going in that direction or chose not to go in that direction, and no matter what you do, it's not failure. There are a great many things you can do with your one wild and precious life. Aim for what makes you happy right now and what will make you happy later.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:30 AM on April 9, 2020 [34 favorites]

I would perhaps encourage you to look at things a little differently. I wonder if being really successful / really famous is something worth aspiring for. Arts: Do you really want to have to perform the same few hit songs every night for the rest of your life? Do you really want to paint basically the same painting in the same style over and over again? Academics: To be successful in academics you have to toe the line. The first time you suggest something that goes against the received wisdom of academics, you'll be called crazy and become a pariah. (After you die, they'll recognize that you were right.) Business: A small business can be a fine thing. It's nice to have somewhere to go and something to do that pays the bills. Do you really want a business empire, and all that entails? Once you're really sucessful, everyone will want a piece of you. If you're paying the bills and doing what you want, maybe that is "real" success.
posted by jabah at 6:48 AM on April 9, 2020

I have this exact problem because of childhood trauma related to sensory processing disorder/spectrum issues and inherited anxiety, nothing particularly bad happened to me and I was still traumatized by it.

I disagree with the opinions saying this isn't really self sabotage or that this current revelation will fix it, those thoughts set the exact kind of expectations you are trying to run away from. I agree with beyond_pink that the key is to identify how these thoughts are actually protecting you, and either change your life or those thoughts so this is no longer true. It seems like many people can ride the high of a big success to rewire their brain, but that doesn't work as well for those of us who are very self aware and critical.

One method I've had success with lately is called Coherence Therapy and it is focused on changing the specific self-sabotage beliefs, basically working to systematically create the kind of "aha!" moments that can be used to really change deep beliefs. There are other types of C-PTSD therapy that can do the same thing, you're going to have to try something other than normal CBT or talk therapy to deal with these issues. So this would be the incremental way to change yourself

The other option that actually does seem to legitimately work is to dramatically change your life so you can't rely on your current strategy of quasi-success. This (plus survivor bias) is part of why there are so many stories of success coming after someone has bet everything on it: when self sabotage is no longer actually safer than going all out, your brain will be happy to go all out. Of course this option has a lot more risk than the incremental method
posted by JZig at 8:41 AM on April 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

I am currently working through this issue. Although things have improved over time, family of origin issues, plus repeated childhood bullying, caused me to at an early age to disbelieve praise and support. I literally don't hear or process it the same way - my brain had the tendency to dismiss it as people "just being nice."

I respond well to talk therapy and journaling, so my therapist and I have figured out some exercises for me to do - i.e. noticing when I am doing this, stopping myself, and asking how I would talk to a friend who was hearing and disbelieving those words? Or writing down some truly positive things that people have said about me (which is VERY uncomfortable!)

I'm in the middle of a fairly strenuous education program, during which we write up interactions and provide a self-critique. Very early on, one of my colleagues mentioned that I devoted about two sentences to "what went well" and about two pages to "what challenges did I face?" The second one of those I did, the first draft had the exact same structure - and I forced myself to find and expand on the positive things and edit down the negative things until they were the same length. It was super-hard. I could almost feel my brain stretching. When I presented it, I half-expected a Hand of Doom to come down from the ceiling and smack me, or for my fellow participants to say, "Who do you think you are?"

I have no idea if any of those will work for you, but please know you are not alone! And if the Hand of Doom does show up, please tell it to get lost!
posted by dancing_angel at 9:20 PM on April 9, 2020

This book has a wonderful approach. I feel a lot of guilt over self-sabotage and it is often quite paralyzing.
The Kindness Method: Changing Habits for Good by Shahroo Izadi
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:12 AM on April 10, 2020

Response by poster: Wow. Thank you all so much for your responses. I don't think I've ever received such wisdom and kindness in response to a question (especially such a long-winded one).

I am going to sit with each of your answers and soul-search. Thanks so much.
posted by Orlando_Vita at 4:47 PM on April 21, 2020

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