Helping Your Clients Past Self-Sabotage

By Lisa Renn APD

 Image: Lisa Renn

‘All limitations are self-imposed’  Ernest Holmes 1887-1960

In trying to understand self-sabotage, it’s helpful if you can personalise the concept of wanting to achieve something but not actually letting yourself take the steps required. You may be familiar with the concept of a partner sabotaging their significant other’s weight loss efforts by bringing home cakes and takeaway, and you may have seen evidence of a client sabotaging themselves by not taking the steps they had agreed to at your previous session. But why this occurs has very little to do with laziness or disorganisation, even though the client may be insisting that it does.

Case study: Val was a client of mine and she always used to tell me she was lazy, that’s why she hadn’t achieved the exercise goals she had set herself. I would remind her that she wasn’t lazy, she ran a household and didn’t sit around all day. Val would always disagree, until one day she didn’t. She said to me,” Lisa, I’m not lazy’, and I replied, “I know that Val.” She then said, ‘Why can’t I do this then?’

It’s often the case that you can’t really understand something until you have experienced it yourself. I had done work around motivation in the past and learned strategies to motivate people, however, hadn’t investigated self-sabotage as I didn’t really understand the importance of understanding it, until I started sabotaging myself. Then I was also asking the question that many of my clients have asked, “Why, when I really want something, am I stopping myself taking the steps to achieve it?”

Self-sabotage is wrapped up in a person’s sense of self: who they believe themselves to be, what they feel they deserve and what they feel they are capable of achieving. When goals are set to improve health, change life circumstances or career, this can threaten the understanding the individual has of themselves, to a point where it is ‘safer’ not to take any action; that is, to stay in the comfort zone.

A dictionary definition of comfort zone is a psychological state in which things feel familiar to a person and they are at ease and (perceive they are) in control of their environment; experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress.

Although most people will be familiar with the concept of a comfort zone, they may not have associated their lack of progress with being out of their comfort zone.

In the model below, your comfort zone is depicted by a rigid triangle. Putting pressure on the edges is likely to cause the structure to lose its shape which would look and feel awkward and uncomfortable; which is what it feels like when you step outside your own boundaries.

 Image: Lisa Renn

The model is made up of the central piece of sense of self – this is who you believe yourself to be – and encompasses what you feel you deserve, what you feel you are capable of and how you see yourself, that is where do you fit in? What are you ‘allowed’ to be?

The pieces that impact your sense of self are:

  • Self-image – Who do I perceive myself to be? Who/What am I supposed to be?
  • Self-worth – Do I deserve this?
  • Self-confidence- Do I trust that I am capable?

When a person is asked to stretch or change it can put pressure on their comfortable structure and starts to rattle their sense of self; it tests the boundaries of who they are. This is uncomfortable and can cause a lack of progress due to the ‘fear of an unknown outcome’. These feelings are not pleasant, so it’s easier not to take the action or step required, you can then rest back into your comfort zone, and the ‘fear’ goes away.

EG- not make a phone call, not set the alarm to get up to exercise or eat breakfast, don’t do the shopping, don’t make your lunch, don’t put yourself on a dating site, don’t lose weight…

Helping your client past this:

Awareness helping people understand their actions helps with change.

Normalising this behaviour is important as once someone can look at their situation objectively and become aware of what they are doing, they can start to do something differently. Instead of just doing the same thing over and becoming increasingly frustrated.

Reassurance – letting them know there is nothing wrong with them, and undertaking one task toward achieving their goal won’t have far-reaching consequences.

Self-sabotage is about fear and it’s something that needs to be recognised and addressed, not ignored, or be a cause of blame or shame.

Reset Focus – make decisions one step at a time- focus less on the big picture.

What I find works with my clients is encouraging people not to look at the big picture, as that is often the fear inducing picture. If I lose weight, what if I can’t keep it off, what if I don’t like who I become, what if I change who I am because of this? If I start this ‘diet’ I can never eat the things I like. Instead, look at the one thing that has been set as the task to do. For example, one walk won’t change who you are and doesn’t mean you have to do another walk. Planning a meal doesn’t mean there is an expectation that you will plan all meals. Do one thing at a time and make the decision to act, just at that time, without thought of what the implications might be. (‘The Power Of Now’ by Eckhardt Toll is a book that discusses this concept)

If you are in Western Australia and would like to learn more check out the workshop running in November. Click HERE to register

Lisa Renn APD




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