Working as a volunteer with young people suffering from mental illness has been an enlightening experience. In particular, it has highlighted that we all have some kind of crutch to cope with our illness; whether it's comedy, appearance, sexuality, talking too much, overworking, procrastinating, taking drugs, self harming and so on.
All mental illness arises as a result of stress. A stressor (being that which causes stress) experienced repeatedly or for long periods, leads to anxiety and depression. It leads us to doubt our Self. We lose touch with who we are especially if the stressor is experienced during the developmental stages of life. We may not understand our place in the world or doubt that we deserve to be here. Doubt so often leads to avoidance or self sabotage.
In my youth I would miss out on opportunities through fear. Fear that came from doubt; doubt that I could cope with Eustress; the good stress that arises as a result of conquering our fears. I could not even step onto the first rung of the ladder, let alone climb to the top. This meant that I dreaded certain situations, I avoided joining in or made excuses as to why I could not.
Our minds will give us a label, a tag that says "You can't do it", "You're not good enough", "You don't deserve this". These thoughts prevent us from enjoying life. They cause us to become stuck, basing all experiences on the past and therefore sabotaging our own happiness or success in meeting our goals.
These days my self sabotaging behavior comes in the form of over-eating. I don't mind admitting that I am rather obsessed about my health. I eat well most of the time but stress causes my stomach to flare up, it becomes bloated and sore and it is at these times that I choose to cleanse. But I can lose sense of my Self when I am stressed, I lose my connection to the ground and use food to ground myself. This leads to feelings of guilt which leads to the negative thoughts of not being able to cleanse, not being good enough and being undeserving, which leads to suffering.
I treated myself to a massage recently. The therapist read the tension in my body and explained that she thought I was stuck in a pattern of behavior that was not serving me well and that I needed grounding. So how did I do this? I binged... As I have been pondering this self sabotaging behavior, I decided that instead of giving myself the guilt trip which does not serve me well, I would focus on other ways of grounding. Walking meditation is always grounding, taking a walk in nature, getting some less pleasant jobs done and practicing yoga lying down; staying very literally in contact with the ground are all ways that work well. And if I binge again, I know now that it is time to get grounded. I will listen and act differently.
Self sabotage interferes with long standing goals so here are some other ways of interrupting this negative behavior:
1) Thoughts are not facts. Chose not to believe the negative thoughts. Accept that they are just your brain's way of keeping you stuck and that if you choose to consider the opposite, you can move away from this negativity bias.
2) Live in the Now! The more time we spend in the present moment, the less we dwell on the past or hope that the future will be different. Just because you had a bad experience once, does not mean that it will be the same again. No two moments in life are the same, just as no two breaths are the same. Embrace the opportunity to experience the difference, because you will instead remember this as a positive pattern not a negative one and changes will occur in your brain.
3) Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today! This saying used to really annoy me as a child until I recognised the truth of it. The more we put off getting the jobs done that we dislike, the worse it becomes. So do the difficult or challenging first and then reward yourself for the achievement with positive behavior; take more time in the bath, book that massage, meet a friend...
4) Turn towards the doubt or fear. It is so easy to avoid that which we dislike the feeling of. Everybody gets nervous, but instead of avoiding the feeling, why not turn towards it. Label the emotions, the sensations, give doubt and fear a name. And rather than letting inertia get the better of you, try to cultivate a positive coping strategy to take that first step on the rung of the ladder. Grounding is always a good place to start.
5) Acceptance. Work out what your self sabotaging behavior is. It isn't all bad. Being funny is a great thing as long as it isn't a way of avoiding the unpleasant or difficult. But if your pattern is damaging, ponder what you could do to take care of your need in a healthy way. The hardest step towards well-being is accepting that you need help. Reach out to people you trust. Don't go to those who reinforce the negative behavior by telling you that everything will be okay. Take some time to find the right person. And when you do, pat yourself on the back for achieving a tremendous goal.
Yoga and mindfulness are wonderful mechanisms by which to learn about the Self. You may need therapy of some other kind first. A good teacher or therapist will be understanding, if they are not the right person for you, shop around.