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When Self-Sabotage Feels Like the Comforting Thing to Do

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Why would someone deliberately do something to hurt themselves? Something that makes them feel unworthy? Something that makes them feel useless? Why would they set themselves goals, but as the finish line approaches, move the goalposts again and again, and again, making it impossible to ever achieve their target?

The above questions bring to mind scenarios that are rather frustrating and disturbing to the average person – correct? I’d think so. Why would anyone do those self-destructive things to themselves?

I can answer that. Put quite simply: it is because it feels normal to me. There is a certain comfort in being a self-sabotager; you put expectations on yourself that are unachievable, because when you fail to succeed you can fulfill the feelings you hold close to your wounded heart. Feelings that tell you you’re worthless, unworthy, useless, deserving of pain. Although hurtful, these feelings are familiar, they have become fundamental foundations to your sense of self. These feelings are normal to you; the opposite of these would be to feel valuable, worthy, useful, and deserving of joy. Those feelings are unfamiliar. They feel more uncomfortable than most people could even begin to imagine.

I am a self-sabotager. I set the goals in impossible-to-achieve places, and should I actually manage to succeed, I will purposely reset the goalposts and end up failing. I have often sought out relationships that hurt me and jobs that will drain me of all emotional and physical energy. In short, I deliberately seek to affirm that I am unworthy of good things. I punish myself by pushing my mind and body to the point of nearly breaking.

Why? How can I explain? It makes me feel safe in a maladaptive way. If I set myself goals I can never achieve, if I tell myself first I am useless, then if or when other people notice how hopeless I am, their critique cannot hurt me, as I have already callously and harshly judged myself. I grew up with people criticizing me for almost everything I did. Self-sabotaging is a way I can “get in first” and avoid the discomfort of being surprised by belittling words. People can’t be disappointed in me more than I can be in myself. I have become my own biggest critic because it is my shield to the pain of being subjected to the coldness of others’ anger. It’s my protective instinct. “Yes, I know I suck. No, you don’t need to tell me, I can tell myself just fine!”

Heaven forbid someone should pay me a compliment. As much as I crave approval and validation, being told I have done something good fills me with dread. What if they realize I’m not as capable as they thought? What will they think of me then? I fear disappointing the person who is showing their faith in me. Out comes my self-protective instinct again. “Oh thanks, it was just a fluke though, I’m not that smart.”

So where to go from here? What does this self-reflection on the ugly truth of self-sabotaging teach me? I suppose accepting and acknowledging poor coping skills is a start at least. Understanding why I developed this reaction helps a bit too. Obviously my past has caused me to find ways to try and ease the discomfort and pain, but I am not living in the past now. My life is different.

The change needs to start with me. I need to notice when my feelings start to decay and stop the slide into self-destruction. It is important to try to find new ways to cope with my thoughts instead of deliberately setting myself up to fail. I must acknowledge that as long as I am trying my best, that is good enough. Effort has value. I need to learn to talk to myself as I would to someone else — kindly and encouragingly — to learn to love myself as I aim to love others.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo by Alexey Klementiev

Originally published: April 3, 2017
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