Tuesday 6 December 2016

Breathing space: The enemy within

Are you putting hurdles in your own way

Published 19/05/2015 | 02:30

British singer Robbie Williams (L) and his wife Ayda Field pose as they arrive for the screening of the film
British singer Robbie Williams (L) and his wife Ayda Field pose as they arrive for the screening of the film "The Sea of Trees" at the 68th Cannes Film Festival

My friend's mother often told her that there were two roads in life: an easy road and a hard road - "and you're taking the hard one!" she'd add.

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My friend and I would share a sly smirk whenever she delivered this armchair philosophy - we were too young to comprehend the meaning of the metaphor - but in adult years I've come to understand exactly what she meant.

Some people seem to cruise through a steady succession of green lights while others encounter countless road-blocks and diversions. More simply, some people make life easy for themselves and some people make it very hard indeed.

I've since met people that chose the hard road. They are better known as self-saboteurs and I've noticed that chaos, catastrophes and crises punctuate their existence.

Their romantic relationships are tumultuous and often characterised by infidelity, while their working relationships are obstreperous, and often end on bad terms.

They can't take criticism, despite being highly capable at dishing it out; they are procrastination-prone and they seem to be perpetually waiting for a cheque to clear in their bank account.

They sabotage their future prospects and instead choose to live in the past, reliving their one-time glories and recounting their hard luck stories.

Are they as unlucky as they claim? Not even slightly. If luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, then unluckiness is what happens when lack of preparation sabotages opportunity.

Only they don't see it that way. The self-saboteur always has someone or something to blame, or as author Dr Steve Maraboli writes: "It is as though they are holding their own breath and blaming others for their inability to breathe."

Self-saboteurs get in their own way. They create hurdles that impede their progress and find problems where there are none.

Sometimes it's easy to spot them; sometimes it's not. As Andrew J. DuBrin explains in Your Own Worst Enemy, "Some of the most adroit self-saboteurs bring failure upon themselves with subtlety and finesse".

While it's easy to detect blatant self-destructive behaviour like over-eating, it's less easy to detect when someone is thwarting their own efforts in a job interview or picking holes in an otherwise blossoming relationship.

Indeed, a self-saboteur can go a whole lifetime without realising that his wounds are self-inflicted, just as those around him can spend a whole lifetime sympathising with his misfortunes.

Self-sabotage has been described as an 'evil twin'. Actually, it's more like an overprotective mother. It is a subconscious mechanism that we develop, often after childhood trauma, that guards us against future harm. Early traumas such as disappointment, failure and rejection hit hard. The result is that some of us never really grow out of the 'I didn't want to play anyway' mentality.

A self-saboteur may profess to want challenges and success but unconsciously he fears failure and rejection. He learns to swerve away from any situation that could cause him to feel vulnerable. For every conscious intention, there is a subconscious counter-intention. Self-saboteurs need to remember that we tend to give up just before the last hurdle - and in their case, the hurdle is probably their own doing.

This is not to say that they can't be successful. They can be, but still they struggle with feelings of unworthiness. Former Take That star Robbie Williams has spoken candidly about his tendency towards self-sabotage. "For me, personally, it is because I get an awful amount of success and I don't think I deserve it and then I want to sabotage it". He also admitted that he tried to sabotage his relationship with his now-wife, Ayda Field. "I was like, 'Do something mad so I can finish with you. Just give me a hard time. Turn into a monster. Be unreasonable. When I'm grumpy, you get grumpy, this will escalate'."

This aspect of self-sabotage explains that curious sense of guilt that some people feel when they come into good fortune. At a subconscious level, they believe that everything comes with a struggle and happiness is only fleeting. They decide that it's too good to last, but by the same reasoning, surely things can be too bad to last too.

These core beliefs need to be examined in order to overcome the self-sabotage cycle. It's not so much fight the fear and do it anyway, but find the fear and do something about it. Identify the periods in your life when you felt vulnerable and acknowledge any self-protective patterns that may have emerged since.

Often self-saboteurs aren't familiar with the concept of delayed gratification. They sabotage their long-term goals by fulfilling their short-term desires. However, self-control can be learnt. Start small. Take the stairs rather than the lift. Curtail frivolous spending for a day or two. Skip dessert. These little steps will eventually build willpower and make you better able to exercise it when you're about to make a kneejerk decision.

If procrastination is an issue, try the five-minute rule. Set yourself just five manageable minutes to do a task. It makes it much less daunting, slowly builds motivation and, 99.9pc of the time, you won't want to finish when the five minutes are up. Likewise, learn to say no. Self-saboteurs are notorious for saying yes to every invite before constructing elaborate excuses at the last minute.

While the self-saboteur may believe that they are always following the path of least resistance, they are in fact taking what my friend's mother liked to call the "hard road". And why would we choose to make life any harder than it should be?

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