Supporting a Loved One Who Self-Sabotages

stop-self-sabotage-behaviorWhat, I ask you, is more difficult than watching your loved one struggle through life?  You witness them trying so hard — they are so talented, so creative — but not only can’t they make anything happen, but they continually slip deeper and deeper into despair when they repeatedly fall  short.  YOU see that they’re actually tripping themselves up, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as it were, and yet you stand by helplessly, frustrated at your own ineffectual attempts to help.  It’s futile, you ultimately concede.

And, in a way, you’re right. No one can save a person who self-sabotages but themselves. However, that does not mean you cannot support your loved one. And, this begins with understanding what is truly going on in your loved one’s inner world, exactly what seemingly beneficial role self-sabotage plays, and holding a space for your loved one as he figures it all out.  Furthermore, you can share this knowledge with them, if they are willing to hear it.

Before we move on, though, I want to point out first an important distinction and a potential trap. When I began writing this article, I started by referring to the individual who self-sabotages as a “self-saboteur.” And, while that is way more elegant and succinct language and easier to type, it is a falsehood. Here’s why:  One who self-sabotages is, very simply, an individual who engages in self-sabotaging behavior. We are not defined by our behavior. We are greater, far greater than our behavior. This is a crucially important distinction, and it crosses into all other ways that we define ourselves and other people, for better and for worse. When we define people by their actions, it becomes more difficult to see them as anything else but that. It is like using SuperGlue when putting on your clothes. At the end of the day, it would be very difficult and even painful to change your clothes! Our actions are the things we do ~ for whatever reason, but they are not who we are.

So, moving on.  The inner voice of one who self-sabotages (herein referred to as OWSS for the sake of laziness), whether that inner voice is plainly heard or not, most likely sounds a little something like this:

Oh…don’t try to do that!  It’s too hard and you’re not going to succeed anyway.  The failure will be so humiliating, and what will people think!  Better to stay home.  Here, have a box of cookies, and let’s just watch something on Netflix.

Now, this “voice” is probably not really an audible voice that one hears in one’s head (and if it is, then a whole other discussion probably needs to take place).  The voice manifests as, perhaps, actions taken (or not) or decisions made (or not made) in a mindless way.  It looks like:

  • Biting off more than one can chew.
  • Wanting something very much (a career path, a role in a play, a personal fitness, health, or weight goal) but then not taking the steps necessary to achieve the goal.
  • Retreating and/or shrinking from offers that would bring one further along toward their desired goal.
  • Making poor choices that result in not being able to do what one really wants to do (i.e., substance abuse and other addictive/risky behaviors).

You get the idea.  It looks like actually determinedly undermining what one professes to really want (and, perhaps, really does want!).

I have a confession. I am a recovering OWSS. There is a voice within me that insists I am not smart enough, not bright enough, not pretty enough, not strong enough, not powerful enough, not agile enough, not good enough, just plain not enough to succeed at the things I love to do and that I KNOW I am good at.

Where does this voice come from?  Probably many places, but it is important to understand that it actually doesn’t matter. It only matters in an academic way. Understanding where the voice comes from is not crucial to quieting the voice. What does matter is outting the voice and its uber-protective mission. (I only want what’s best for you, dear! Here, have another cookie!) Once one has outted the voice, the voice loses its conniving effectiveness. It and its sneaky ways have been unveiled, and in the light of day it no longer has so much power to trick a person into tripping herself up!

dont believeSo.  How can you help?  The steps detailed below are very helpful to OWSSes in outting their own frightened, uber-protective inner voice (what some folks refer to as the subconscious or the ego, but you’ll know it as the unrelenting stream of self-talk and running commentary, the vast majority of which, according to Byron Katie, is not necessarily true) and then moving forward on the path they so strongly desire.  To the extent that your loved one is receptive, you can support them by sharing these steps.  But, THEY have to do the work.  This is their voice and their work to do.  Working with the inner voice is doable, but they have to do it.  You can support them in it, but it is their journey.  In supporting your loved one through this transformative and potentially difficult journey, remember these things:

  • Be careful not to lecture.  Nothing says, “I don’t believe you’re up to this” louder and clearer than lecturing.  And, once lecturing starts, hearing shuts off.   Best to remember that when you are speaking, you cannot be fully listening at the same time.
  • Listen.  Listen.  Listen.  Silence is golden.  That’s where the work is.  If you and your loved one are talking and there is a silence, allow it.  I know it’s uncomfortable, be patient and open.  You are holding space for your loved one to do this work.  Don’t fill the space with your voice.
  • Validate. Validate. Validate.  What does validating look like?  (“Wow.  It sounds like that was very painful for you.”  “That must have been intense!”)  Don’t worry if you’re wrong, by the way, when you’re validating.  If you say something like “Oh!  That must have been frightening!” and it wasn’t she will set you straight:  “No!  It made me so angry!”  It’s information, and it’s not for your benefit as much as it is for your loved one’s benefit to hear herself say it.  Take the time to check in with yourself that whatever the thing you’re about to say is, it is helpful and kind and validating.  If not, keep it to yourself.
  • Empathize.  Share a time, if it seems relevant, when you had a similar experience.  Allow yourself to be vulnerable, sharing how it felt, but stop short of telling what you did about it, unless you are specifically asked.  Your purpose is not to advise.  Your purpose is to support, and those are two extremely different things.

Here are the steps you can share with your loved one (again, only if he is receptive):

  1. Do not attempt to resist the inner voice that tells you you cannot do it and don’t even bother trying.  That voice, the ego, is slippery, sneaky, cagey, and tricky.  Ignoring the voice is only a weak version of resisting.  And, resisting does not work.  
  2. Thank the voice for its attempt at lovingly protecting you from the big, bad, scary world out there.  This voice, i.e., your ego, does not want to harm you.  On the contrary, it wants you to be happy, safe, warm, and cozy (Why don’t you have another cookie?)  No thanks to the cookie, and I’ll be fine.
  3. Acknowledge that what we think of as “failure” is only one of the possible outcomes of attempting something, and that, in fact, failure is actually a myth!  It is never failure if you’ve been able to take away any piece of the experience for future benefit.  And, when you deeply consider it, you can ALWAYS take away a piece of the experience for your future benefit.  Further acknowledge that many times the cause of what you think is failure is out of your hands.  For example, you audition for a role in a play and do not get the part.  That is not because you’re not good enough but because there is another candidate who is a better fit for the role.  You are a better fit for a different role.  That’s not a comparison.  That is just what is.
  4. Identify the goal you want to achieve, making absolutely certain it is reasonable and achievable and that you really, really want it.  Then, chunk it down into its smallest possible component steps.  Write these down, and be willing to adjust and chunk down even further, if necessary.  Think baby steps.  And, remember that your main adversary is overwhelm.  Do all you can to eliminate overwhelm from your life.  And, chunking down your goals into achievable baby steps and taking baby steps one at a time eliminates overwhelm.
  5. Commit to a specific date and time by which you will have accomplished only that first baby step, thus ensuring you do not succumb to overwhelm.
  6. Lather, rinse, and repeat until all the component steps you’ve identified are complete.  Again, remember to reassess the steps if they seem overwhelming and chunk them further down so you can be successful.  (Yes, I am being purposefully redundant; I really want you to get this.)
  7. Get an accountability partner or hire a coach (ahem) to keep you on track and help you see yourself and your path.
  8. CELEBRATE YOUR AWESOMENESS!  (And, not with a box of cookies!)

So, Supporter of an OWSS, I know that this is a difficult road ahead and you may find that it is more like a roller coaster than a road, or at best, a very poorly maintained road with frost heaves and ruts and no shoulder and lousy banking.   Know that the compassion you show to others is the compassion you show yourself.   And, your demonstration of empathy, compassion, and kindness is a powerful balm to someone who is suffering.  Just showing up in this way is more of a gift than you’ll ever know.

❧ ❧ ❧

If you would like to talk more about  finding workable solutions to parenting issues and struggles, or if you have some other issue (whether parenting related or not) that you would like help solving, please contact me for a no-obligation, no-cost consultation session to see if we’d be a good fit, or even a no-obligation, no-cost sample coaching session so you can see how this thing works.   Visit the main site at to learn more or you can call me at 845 – 657 – 3111 or you can send me an email at marji AT peacefulparentwhisperer DOT com.


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