Three Steps That Will Turn Self-Sabotaging Habits Into Good Habits

Self-sabotaging habits produce the actions and attitudes that work against our getting what we really want in our careers and our lives. We often develop self-sabotaging habits as a result of dealing with bad things that have happened to us; what might have started out as a helpful response to one situation turns into a habit that we use too often, sabotaging our efforts to be productive or happy. For example, it is not unusual to drown our sorrows over a lost job or missed promotion with a few beers. This indulgence probably doesn’t hurt anything if it happens only occasionally, but doing so every time you face disappointment can lead to a whole new set of problems.

Self-sabotaging habits usually develop without our being aware of them. They are usually internal – that is, they involve mental justifications that we make so often that they become automatic – and, as such, are often confused with legitimate feelings. Self-sabotaging habits limit our ability to meet problems and difficulties with healthy, productive responses. The problem with them is that, while they feel legitimate and “right,” they lead us away from what we really want. You really want that promotion, not a problem with alcohol.

Follow these three steps to begin eliminating your self-sabotaging behaviors:

1.  Identify your self-sabotaging habit or habits;
2. Understand why you developed your self-sabotaging habit or habits;
3. Replace your self-sabotaging habits with new, healthy responses.

Let’s look at each of these three steps one at a time.

Step 1. Identify Your Self-Sabotaging Habits

Self-sabotaging habits develop as a result of behavior that seemed to work at stressful points in a person’s life. They appear to work, or at least the person believes they worked, and this belief is the power that sustains them. They become habits when a person repetitively uses the behavior that seemed to work at one point – often a crisis or emotionally important time – in many other situations. By the way, the more stressful the situation(s) in which the self-sabotaging habit develops, the more ingrained the habit is likely to become.

What are some examples of self-sabotaging behavior? Briefly, self-sabotaging habits are patterns of behavior that are essentially negative, self-destructive, or alienating, and that are over-used in situations where they are inappropriate or where they actually prevent constructive resolution of stress or conflict. Here are some examples:

Abrasiveness toward others
Anger/Hostility toward others
Smoking/Drinking/Self-Medicating to relieve stress
Negative, critical, fault-finding attitude toward others and their ideas

Now, this is not a complete list, and it’s also important to remember that behavior on this, or any other list of self-sabotaging habits, is not necessarily self-sabotaging or problematic when it is used occasionally. It’s the habit of these behaviors, especially in situations where they are counter-productive, that makes them self-sabotaging.

To identify your own self-sabotaging habits, think about things that you do that more often have the effect of making a problem worse, of alienating other people, or of having unintended consequences. What did you do that got you to that place? The answers you come up with will help you figure out what your self-sabotaging habits are. If you’re still having trouble seeing them, ask your spouse or a good friend. Then let’s go on to Step 2.

Step 2. Understand Your Self-Sabotaging Habits

The next step in this process is to understand the negative effect that your self-sabotaging habits have on your overall effectiveness. You will need to understand why something that once seemed to work has now become self-sabotaging in order to reverse the habit of over-using that behavior in the future. Let’s look at a few examples of how you can do this.

If the habit of being abrasive toward others is your self-sabotaging habit, you need to look at it from two points of view: yours and the other person’s. I’m willing to bet that your intention is to be direct and straightforward, to cut to the heart of the matter, and to avoid “dancing around an issue.” When you react to others’ comments, questions, suggestions, or (especially) emotions in this way, however, you seem harsh, arrogant, and overbearing. Abrasive. Explain this to yourself: “I like to think that I am simply being direct and no-nonsense, but my tendency to be abrasive poisons my relationships with coworkers and others. When I forget to consider how I seem to others, I make it hard for them to listen to my good ideas. They are probably too busy defending themselves to listen to me.”

More examples: is your self-sabotaging habit one of negativity and critical fault-finding? Say to yourself, “My tendency to focus on ‘what’s wrong with this picture’ deflates others’ enthusiasm and makes them unwilling to offer their ideas and solutions to a problem. It makes me unpleasant to be around and it stifles the team’s creativity and cohesion.” Or, if your self-sabotaging habit is to be insensitive to others’ feelings, learn to say to yourself, “I focus on issues and facts and that can make me seem cold and indifferent to others, especially if the issue or problem involves feelings rather than facts. Even though I am trying to find solutions, I need to watch for the cues that tell me that I am ignoring others’ feelings. I am probably ignoring my own as well.”

Once you have begun to understand how your self-sabotaging habit interferes with your productivity or effectiveness, it’s time to figure out what tends to trigger your unconscious use of this habitual behavior. There are usually trigger patterns – that is, circumstances that tend to trigger a pattern of self-sabotaging behavior. Three questions can help you find them:

WHEN? Are there certain times of the day or week when you are more likely to use that behavior?

WHERE? Are there particular situations or locations where you are more likely to fall into that self-sabotaging habit?

WITH WHOM? Is there a particular person, type of person, or group of people who seem to stimulate your self-sabotaging habit?

When you have identified trigger situations, it is easier to be prepared to override your habitual response. The reason to be aware of your self-sabotaging habit and the triggers that tend to lead to it is to give yourself a choice of how to act, and that brings us to the third step.

Step 3. Replace Your Self-Sabotaging Habit

If you want to turn a self-sabotaging habit into a good habit, it is not enough simply to be aware of the habit and to understand why you use it. The last step in this process is to create choices for yourself in how you respond to situations and stress that used to trigger your self-sabotaging behavior.

To create these choices, you must visualize different ways to respond. Start by thinking about times in the past when your self-sabotaging habit led to a result that you did not like. Ask yourself, “What could I have done differently that might have led to a better outcome?” Allow yourself to be creative, think outside the box, and be flexible. After all, you are simply thinking about ways to create better outcomes.

Next, remember those triggers that tend to stimulate your self-sabotaging habit, because they take away your choice about how to respond. When you know or suspect that one of those triggers is in your immediate future, review your options for your behavior. Remember that how you behave in any situation is always under your control (even if how people respond to you is not.) Be ready with more constructive behavior choices.

The more often you are able to choose more constructive and productive behavior, the sooner you will replace self-sabotaging habits with more constructive ones.