Grant Spencer

Proofing your mental wall against self-sabotage

Approx Reading Time-10Our resident wordsmith and Doctor Phil, Grant Spencer, gets real with the first world condition of self-sabotage.


“We are all descended from cowards.” A quote, paraphrased via a lecturer in first-year psychology. It is a perfect place to start an explanation of what is meant by self-sabotage.

You might immediately discard the idea of self-sabotage as pop psychology. You’ll be happy to know, however, that the basis of this concept veers away from the self-help section of the bookstore. Self-sabotage is not entirely explained by your sense of self-esteem.

The truth of the matter is that we’re all trying to avoid feeling anxious, in which we battle our acute human ability to drag every possible fear of the future to the present. It is an adaptive trait. We will be confronted with less danger and expend less energy escaping if we just get to the bad things that can happen. Unfortunately, we are still using almost the same outdated tech in our heads as we were when we were running from bears.

This means we still utilise anxiety to assist in navigating important decisions in our lives. With limited direct experiences to give us perspective on the actual physical danger in those decisions, our anxiety can really get away from us.

For example, when confronted with the job interview you covet, it slowly begins to feel like your new boss is probably the raincoated Christian Bale from American Psycho. So, what better way to keep calm than to have a half a bottle of vodka and put off the research until the next day when you have a pounding headache and you’re trying to read the wrong companies’ website on a bus that’s bouncing and braking in a rhythm that is perfect for inducing vomit. (That is if the person inhaling your booze sweats next to you doesn’t beat you to it.) This is what is meant by self-sabotage. Basically, “I don’t want to feel this anxious, how do I immediately remove it?”

The short answer or solution is that you don’t remove it. We’ll get to that later.

The more psychology takes up empirical methodology, the further away we get from pure Freudian explanations. At least, away from the Freud that you all might imagine – taking lots of cocaine and somehow leading you back to an explanation of your chosen career path as having something to do with the unfulfilled sex you wanted to have with your parents. Empiricism means that we can have a more simple explanation, based in evolutionary concepts, that still involves some of the developmental processes that Freud first threw his twisted imagination toward.

When I am speaking with clients who are stuck in the process of self-sabotage, I usually ask them about their upbringing, so we can identify what skill sets they may not have been taught. If how to self-sooth during an anxious moment was never taught, it is possible that could lead to a susceptibility for self-sabotage. For my approach with clients, practicing these skills replaces the long term goal of “healing the inner child” and instead focuses on strengthening the adult in front of me.

This helps give a broader perspective than that of motivational speakers that suggest that you’re not a millionaire because you don’t really believe in yourself. The function of this approach might actually work for some, but this immediately places a potentially dysfunctionally high load of anxiety on your sense of self. That is, “if I ever procrastinate, or if I am ever fearful and shy away from something, it is because I don’t believe in myself enough.” If self-sabotage is an attempt to avoid anxiety, then it follows that we are attempting to avoid the anxiety of confronting something important to us, the future effort that may come from investing in something difficult and avoiding the potential pain of failure.

There are many reasons why we fear, not all of them are about your character. Positive reinforcement has been experimentally proven as the most effective method of overcoming performance anxiety. This is true regardless of how many times you’ve seen the sport-movie-trope of the hard arsed coach.

Talk yourself through how you’re going to kill the interview the next day. Remind yourself of your successes in any area of your life so far. Don’t just remind yourself of these things, feel them. Swim around in the pride that you have in how far you have come so far. Now carry that anxiety with you as you start to research that new company and prepare for the job interview.

Leave the vodka though, I’ll look after that.


Grant Spencer

Grant Spencer is a psychologist in private practice who wanted to be a writer who wanted to be a rock singer. He has a BA in Creative Writing and Literature, and continues to write poetry intermittently in order to avoid the panic over running his own business.

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