Defeating the Demon of Self-Sabotage

How we set ourselves up to fail, and how to move beyond it
By Conan Milner, Epoch Times
December 1, 2018 Updated: December 5, 2018

People are full of good intentions: to give up smoking, lose weight, finish school, or get a better job. We want a brighter future. We’re ready for the next level. So why do we still fall short?

John Collopy offers a perspective from both ends of the ladder of success. Today, he’s a proud family man who owns one of the biggest real estate franchises in the world. But before his life at the top, Collopy saw many years of serious substance abuse, multiple arrests and DUIs, and an appetite for fist fights. 

How did a violent drunk turn his life around? By looking within. Collopy’s new book, “The Reward of Knowing,” describes how cultivating a habit of introspection made him the man he is today.

“It starts with introspection. What’s getting in my way? The first thing that was getting in my way was doing drugs and alcohol,” Collopy said. “Then I had to learn how to quit sabotaging relationships because that took a lot out of me.”

Introspection is about looking closely at the thoughts you carry, and the impact they have on your life. It’s an activity that’s accessible to anyone, but it’s also notoriously elusive. When painful or hard-to-face feelings emerge at any point in the process, you’re always tempted to turn away.

But those who stick with it can make major life improvements. Introspection can reveal subconscious fears and habits you may have been harboring for years, giving you the clarity to make choices that align with your goals.

However, earning this clarity takes patience. One challenging aspect to introspection is that there never seems to be an end to it. You dig down to one layer, only to find several more lurking below.

As Collopy gained more control over his violent outbursts and hard drinking, he discovered that they had been masking something deeper: a fear of failure and low self-esteem. He recalls one therapist who characterized him as “one of the most amazing losers” he’d ever met in his life.

“Your life is so exciting and insane that I can’t believe the stuff you’ve done,” the therapist said. “But one other thing I also know is that you’re a coward. You’re afraid to find out how good you can be, and you’ve never been willing to put yourself out on the line and compete, based on your skills and intelligence. You’ve always hedged your bet by being high or nuts.”

Fear of Failure

Collopy sees some of the same fear of failure in the real estate agents who hit a wall with how much they can sell. These are individuals who have talent, determination, and a good game plan, but their efforts always seem to get derailed by self-doubt.

The reason for this failure, according to Collopy, is that they’ve been “programmed for mediocrity,” so deep down they feel like they don’t deserve to have more. They may hide their fears behind thoughts like “Success is all about luck,” or “Only jerks get rich.” But until they confront the deeper issue, they’ll never be able to escape its influence.

“I’ve seen the same pattern repeat itself again and again,” Collopy said. “She hits a certain milestone in working toward success—then a little voice inside of her starts telling her that she’s not worthy of going further, that she’s not smart enough or good enough to make more than she already does.”

Diane Petrella, a psychotherapist in Providence, Rhode Island, who specializes in childhood trauma, says traumatized and abused children can struggle with self-sabotage as adults. Like Collopy, Petrella says it all comes down to programming.

“When a person tries to reach a goal over and over again but can’t make it happen, that’s usually a sign they’re harboring some inner fear,” Petrella said.

Childhood Lessons

Our early experiences get so deeply ingrained in our consciousness because we’re like a blank slate when we’re young. At that age, we have no history or context to compare our experiences too, so we just accept them as a fact of life, and use them as best we can.

In this way, self-sabotage really starts out as a kind of self-protection.

Petrella explains that children who are treated with love and respect, understand how to love and respect themselves. Their supportive environment helps them internalize confidence, so they feel worthy of success. They are more resilient to setbacks because they believe in themselves.

However, children who are mistreated or neglected, internalize shame. On a subconscious and sometimes even conscious level, they may feel undeserving of finishing school or finding a better paying job. They may feel frustrated by their circumstances, yet they continue to keep their world small because that traumatized part of themselves still clings to the familiar.

Petrella sees this dynamic in many of the overweight women she works with who have suffered sexual abuse as children. They desperately want to slim down, but at the same time, those extra pounds help them feel safe.

“On some level, they fear unwanted sexual attention. Once they deal with the trauma they experienced, they feel safer to release the weight,” Petrella said.

Inner Tension

Karen R. Koenig is a psychotherapist and author of several books dedicated to eating disorders. She describes a pattern of inner conflict that plays out in her clients, but she doesn’t care for the term “self-sabotage.”

Koenig says people don’t typically set out to harm themselves. Instead, it’s more like they carry opposing feelings—one that desires a better life, and another that fears change.

“The positive feelings are usually conscious and the negative feelings or fears are usually unconscious, that is, we want this and also want that, we want this and also fear this,” she said.

The problem, says Koenig, is that people generally fail to make the change they want because they have their strategy for addressing these opposing voices backward. They focus all their attention on their desire for change and try to ignore their fears.

“They need to be exploring the negative,” Koenig said. “In the unconscious domain, fear usually trumps desire.”

Koenig first discovered this pattern in herself after years of struggling with binge eating and purging. “Once I understood what I was afraid of, resolved my mixed feelings, and developed better coping skills, I was able to achieve consistent recovery,” she said. “This is the approach I use with clients.”

To uncover your own inner resistance, Koenig recommends asking yourself questions, such as: What are you afraid of losing in making this change? Or, what is it about the process of change that you fear? 

“For most people, it’s failure, as they’ve failed before to consistently give up a habit,” Koenig said.

If you don’t confront your fears, your intentions for change will likely get lost in a vicious cycle of self-doubt. You eventually return to your old habits to relieve the inner tension, bringing disappointment, a sense of shame, and even more resistance next time you try to make a change.

Collopy says it’s the wound to our self-esteem that can really set us back.

“The basis of chemical dependency or any type of addiction is low self-esteem,” he said. “When you don’t feel positive about your behavior, or your opportunities, you’re going to continue to regress back into negativity.”

Consistency and Distraction

The fears and programming you’ve inherited don’t have to be a life sentence. The world is filled with people who overcome tremendous adversity, and people with tremendous opportunity who fail. We all want a life filled with advantages, but Collopy believes success is really born out of commitment and focus.

“I’m so confident that Mr. and Mrs. Average could do darn near anything if they would just apply themselves and then make the sacrifices necessary for self-discipline,” he said.

Introspective insights give us a winning chance, but it still takes work to make the change you seek. When he’s coaching people in business, Collopy says the issue that comes up most often is consistency. He says, in order for a plan to work, you have to create something you can stick with.

“It’s something you can get fired up about and do for a while because you have to do it every day,” he said. “Be honest with yourself and be consistent in implementing your plan.”

If fear of failure looms large, you may want to start small. Helen Godfrey, a licensed counselor in Houston, Texas, says one of the big reasons that our plans for a better life get derailed is because we set unrealistic goals.

Godfrey’s success and self-esteem building strategy is to “conquer the world in 10 minutes a day.” She says that if you are feeling some resistance toward a task, like exercise, building your business, or learning a language, pick a small, non-threatening amount of time you can dedicate each day to a project and then stop.

“You will be laser-focused because you only have 10 minutes,” Godfrey said. “This really works, I promise.”

Dealing With Distractions

In order to lengthen the time we keep our focus, we have to learn to mitigate distractions.

Distractions can be fun, sometimes even necessary. But they can also eat up our time, keep us from sticking to our plan, seeing the big picture, and doing what we can to further our success. 

You can cut down on your opportunities for distraction, but you can’t eliminate them entirely, and many are hard to spot. Collopy says it’s important to recognize the difference between what things you have to spend time or energy on, and what you don’t.

“If you have a family member who is a little nuts, let them go,” he said. “On the other hand, your mom may be going through something very serious that you do have to pay attention to. The difference: you have to make that call.”

Collopy said he was recently confronted with a distraction while driving on the freeway when another driver triggered his rage. Collopy cursed at the driver and was tempted by an old impulse to escalate it into violence. But, after years of practice, he’s recognized the value of holding himself back.

“I get a kick out of getting all riled up. It reminds me of when I was 20 years old, and I was going to get in a fight. And it all seemed so fun and exciting,” he said. “But based on the things that are important to me in my life right now, it has nothing to do with my goal to be happy. The more I can avoid that the happier I am and the better I am at serenity.”

“I have to keep working on that. It’s a work in progress forever,” Collopy said.