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Professional Corner

How Not to Get In Your Own Way & How to Help Others Help Themselves, Too

By Mark Goulston, MD

Many people do things that aren’t in their own best interests – even though common sense warns of the consequences. Why do smart people make such mistakes? And how can they reverse the pattern?

What is self-defeating behavior?

It is any behavior that keeps people from reaching their goals. It ranges from holding a grudge against someone you care about…to being too scared to pursue a career change. Each time we engage in self-defeating behavior, we suffer in two major ways…

  • We have to put energy into repairing the outer damage – making peace with people we hurt…and/or straightening out projects that were fouled up.
  • We have to deal with the inner damage that we have done to ourselves – shame, guilt, and the resulting belief that we don’t deserve happiness. These mental messages can lead to even more self-defeating behavior.

Self-defeating behavior also undermines your credibility. People who engage in a lot of it may be pitied, but they are never respected.

What are the most common types of self-defeating behavior?

By far, procrastination is the most common. We put off tasks that intimidate or overwhelm us – ignoring the fact that they more we put them off, the harder they become.

Procrastination isn’t an issue of laziness but of loneliness. Most tasks we put off are things we’re trying to accomplish in isolation. Asking someone to help you or ride hard on you can help you focus.

When there’s no one handy to turn to, I’ve found it helpful to think about people from my past who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.

I’m motivated by my desire to honor the people who said to me, "You’re better than this. Just get it done!"

Another common self-defeating behavior is not admitting that you made a mistake. You can’t learn from a mistake – or do things differently – unless you acknowledge that you made one.

Why do people get in their way so often?

Self-defeating behavior actually starts as a way of coping. When you’re tense or upset, you grasp at whatever will make you feel better at that moment.

What makes self-defeating behavior so hard to change is that it works. You do feel better – in the short term. And the prospect of feeling better overrides your concern about consequences.

How do people get in their own way in relationships?

One mistake is to insist on being right all the time. Even if the other person agrees with you in principle, he will feel stomped on – and is likely either to fight you openly or sabotage you quietly.

Among parents, a common self-defeating behavior is failing to listen to your children. Parents feel anxious and want to regain control, so they don’t pay attention to the kid’s point of view.

If this goes on long enough, the kids will develop their own self-defeating patterns. They’re likely to become knee-jerk rebels – to prove their parents can’t control them – or so submissive that they can’t make decisions because their parents aren’t around. A better approach is to coach children about how to think through sticky situations.

What’s the best way to stop defeating ourselves?

Learn to reflect instead of react. The next time you’re faced with the consequences of negative behavior, take out an index card and write down your answer to this question – "If I could do this over again, what would I have done differently?" Carry the card with you, and look at it the next time you are tempted to do the same dumb thing.

Asking a friend to be your "sponsor" can also help. The two of you pick a habit that each wants to change. Check in with each other at least once a week to offer encouragement and hold each other accountable.

How can we get ourselves to stop and think instead of acting automatically?

The key is awareness. I recommend a simple exercise called the Six-Step Pause. You can use it any time you’re upset or under stress…

  • Physical awareness. Where do you feel the tension? Pinpoint it – a knot in your stomach…tight shoulders, etc – and give the sensation a name.
  • Emotional awareness. Attach an emotion to the physical sensation.
  • Impulse awareness. Complete the sentence, "This feeling makes me want to …" Fill in the blank with your immediate emotional reaction.
  • Consequence awareness. Answer the question, "If I respond this way, what’s likely to happen?" Think through all the possible consequences.
    • Solution awareness. Complete the sentence, "A better thing to do would be…"
    • Benefit awareness. Finish the sentence, "If I try this strategy, the benefits will be…" List as many as possible.

With practice, you’ll run through the steps quickly…and be on your way to breaking self-defeating patterns.

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Last modified: January 26, 2013