Blog workshop: Why we self-sabotage and what to do about it

I've started this ‘Workshop' series to introduce my readers to some valuable tools for personal development. Each post will teach the tool and guide you through a series of exercises so you can start making shifts in your life after just 30 minutes. Enjoy!

The reason we self-sabotage

Have you ever noticed how, just when you start trying to shift into a more positive way of being, things start to go awry? Your mood plummets, distractions pop up, life gets busy, and before long, you find yourself falling back into the same old habits, just like before.

It’s easy to take this as proof that you are ‘not good enough’ – to fall into a painful cycle of overwhelm and criticality, and to start making up damaging stories about what must be wrong with you, because you’re unable to buck up, figure it out, and simply DO the things that will enrich your life in the long run.

Well, here’s the good news: there's absolutely nothing wrong with you.

Hit a brick wall? Dammit, that means you're human <3

Hit a brick wall? Dammit, that means you're human <3

Resistance and self-sabotage are natural human reactions to change. In fact, there are parts of our psyche whose job it is to do everything in their power to distract and pressure you back into the status quo.

The following exploration will help you become more aware and accepting of these resistant parts – what we call the Negative Ego – and give you the skills to start interacting with them in healthier way. 

Foundational Concepts

To start, let’s explore three foundational concepts about the human psyche and living a joyful life:   

  1. As humans, we are multidimensional beings. That is, there are many different parts inside us, each with its own emotions, thoughts, and agenda.
  2. A balanced and fully resourced psyche is one where we are conscious of and compassionate towards each of the parts within us. We do not deny or judge any one part, and instead see them as valid aspects of our ‘inner community,’ each of which has a say in how we live our lives.
  3. Becoming familiar with your parts, and making conscious decisions about how to honour and balance the diversity of voices inside us, is an essential part of living a full and satisfying life. 

The part that is causing all the trouble ...

Enter, the Negative Ego!

The term Ego (as I’m using it here) refers to the part of you whose job it is to hold your identity together. It is your idea of who you are.

A healthy and supportive Ego simply acts as a filter through which we process information. E.g. What is happening? How do I feel about it? What are the consequences? What are my choices? How do I want to react? 

The Ego can morph into the Negative Ego, however, when it starts to operate from a place of fear.

Particularly in times of stress, or in the face of significant change, the Ego can feel threatened. It’s reaction in such situations is to ‘protect us’ by becoming very rigid – it fiercely maintains our current sense of self by working to restrict growth, create and maintain stress, and use fear and doubt and to keep us confused and stuck. 

If you feel strangely blocked from moving forward in life, it’s highly likely your Negative Ego has taken the reigns. In this situation, it's important to learn to recognise how it works, and how to dismantle its grip over your life.

How to recognise the Negative Ego

Listed below are just some of the ways in which the Negative Ego uses fear, uncertainty and doubt to keep you stuck in the status quo.

Which ones sound familiar to you?  

  • It focuses on the past rather than the future, and encourages you to wallow in regret.
  • It tells stories about what is or is not possible for you with the sole purpose of preventing change. E.g. You are not good enough. Everyone will laugh at you. You will fail. It’s a waste of time anyway …
  • It makes unreasonable demands (perfectionism), or blows things out of proportion (catastrophizing) to create a sense of overwhelm. 
  • It uses stories of grandeur or insignificance to distract you from action e.g. I have to be the most (successful, powerful, funny, ... ) OR I don’t matter. I'm a failure. I will never be good enough. 
  • It keeps you separate from any support or resources that might encourage change. E.g. Don’t ask your Aunty, she wouldn’t understand.
  • It avoids looking at the big picture, and focuses obsessively on the little details. 
  • It asks for guarantees of success, and refuses to take action unless given them E.g. I'd do it if I knew for sure it would be worth it. 

While everyone's Negative Ego will show up a little differently, the one thing you can count on is that it’s always a sneaky little bugger – it will play off your deepest dreams and insecurities to scare you away from even thinking about change, and actively work to hamstring you whenever you are on the edge of a big shift. 

While many older cultures have specific coming of age ceremonies to help young adults learn to deal with their Negative Ego, in our western culture it’s often left up to chance. This means that you might have many years of history of fusing with your Negative Ego, and will experience confusion while trying to distinguish it from your core self. And that’s okay.

Your Negative Ego might have been a huge part of your sense of self since youth ... and that's okay. 

Your Negative Ego might have been a huge part of your sense of self since youth ... and that's okay. 

Let this be a process. Actively allow yourself be happy with each small realisation you get from this exercise, knowing that if you stick with it, they will compound and connect to create significant shifts in your life over time. 

EXERCISE 1: IDENTIFYING THE VOICE OF YOUR RESISTANCE

Take out a piece of paper, and complete the following sentences to hear your Negative Ego at work:

  • The reason why it’s so hard for me to move forward is …
  • I’m not good enough because …
  • Before I can make any big changes in my life I need to first ...
  • Life is hard right now because …
  • In order to succeed in life I have to … 
  • No-one understands how hard it is for me because …  
  • I’ll be a failure if I don’t … 

The easier it is for you to answer these questions, the bigger the grip your Negative Ego has on your life right now. 

In addition to the exercise above, you can also review the list of Negative Ego tactics above, and note down on your paper the specific words your Negative Ego uses for each of them. 
 

Free yourself from the grip of your Negative Ego

Now that you’re aware of it, it’s time to consciously prevent your Negative Ego from controlling your choices and your life. 

The following four steps will help you do so … 

STEP 1: Have compassion for this part of you that is feeling threatened or unsure

Underneath the bluster, your Negative Ego is coming from a part of you that feels lost, scared, and deeply insecure about the future and how to keep you safe.

Have compassion for that. Bringing awareness and kindness to the parts of you that are struggling is an essential first step towards stepping out of the cycle of pressure, stress, and disconnect that keeps the Negative Ego in business, and into the sense of calm and creativity you need to thrive. 

Basically, the last thing a judging, freaking out Negative Ego needs is more judgement and freaking out. That's where compassion comes in ... 

But what exactly does it mean to have compassion? 

Compassion means being with yourself in the fullest sense. It means becoming deeply aware of all who you are without using judgement or criticism to hold yourself at arms length. 

Compassion, according to the wonderful ladies at Lucid Living, is caring born in sadness. This is such a beautiful description, because it speaks to the sadness we feel when we let down our guard and fully accept who we are. 

A common unconscious choice we all make at one point, is to avoid the inherent sadness of life by disconnecting into stress, blame, self-pity or frantic movement. 

In contrast, compassionate connection means having the courage to step into that awareness without shying away. It’s about bringing love, not only to the beautiful and strong parts of you, but to the ugly, silly, misguided, and hurtful parts of you as well.

More than that, it’s about bringing those parts of you extra amounts of love simply because they are ugly, silly, misguided and hurtful … and through that, creating within yourself the connection and healing you need and desire. 

 
Compassion: caring born in sadness

Compassion: caring born in sadness

OK, so since I usually do this kind of thing face-to-face with clients, I’m very curious how this will work as an exercise on this blog. But let’s give it a go below … 

EXERCISE 2: CONNECT WITH THE ENERGY OF COMPASSION

Read the paragraph in italics below. Go slow, and allow yourself to feel deeply whatever comes up as you read. If any critical or judgemental thoughts come up, write them down on the piece of paper you used in Exercise 1, and set them aside to come back to this exercise again … 

Allow yourself to become fully aware of your Negative Ego and how it has been running your life. Release any judgment, criticism, or shame, and bring compassion to yourself in this moment, knowing that just the act of trying is enough. 

To help you connect with your compassion, let me describe it for you ... 

Compassion is warmth and caring. It is a loving, healing energy. It is heart-centred, open-eyed, kind, and soft. It brings with it a sense of tenderness, leniency, sensitivity, and depth. 

Spend some time paying attention to the parts of you that are able to feel compassion. And even if you can't right now, let that be okay. Bring compassion to the numbness or disconnect you are experiencing, knowing whatever you can manage right now is enough. 

Let the rigid and fearful energy of your Negative Ego soften and relax under your curiosity and attention.

Your soft, loving acceptance, provides a sense of calm. You breathe out the tension you’ve been holding and allow yourself, as you breathe in, to expand with a sense of love – a love that is not there despite your faults, but because of them. Because you are confused, you are loved. Because you are struggling, you are loved. Because you are fearful, you are loved. 

From this space of loving acceptance, observe the nooks and crannies of your inner world without shying away from the shadows that exist. Whatever is there inside you – Notice it. Connect with it.

Grieve for the fact that this might be the first time you have sat down and truly noticed yourself in a long, long time ... realise that when you consciously open up to your softness and vulnerability, that you are also opening yourself up to the intimacy and acceptance you so desire. 

So give yourself compassion in this moment. Open up to the sadness of seeing with clear eyes how disconnected you've been from yourself until now. Open up to the truth that because of this disconnect and this sadness, you are loved. And within this sense of connection within yourself, you feel a blossoming of something in your soul, and turn towards it with excitement and warmth …  

Whatever you were able to feel in this exercise, be happy with it. Know that this sense of compassion is a feeling that you can come back to time and time again, whenever you are struggling.

Know also that every time you do this exercise, it will become easier for you to find the compassion you need to heal old wounds and create good things in your life moving forwards. 


STEP 2: Set very clear boundaries around what you will and will not allow your Negative Ego to say to you.

Time now to shift gears. 

You’ll notice, once you start paying attention, that your Negative Ego can say some truly terrible things about you: no-one cares about you, you are a burden, you think you can but you can’t, you’re ugly, there is no point, you have to be the best!, you will never be the best, could you be any stupider?

Notice the energy of fear and pointlessness, as well as the deep undermining of your abilities. Notice how the whole POINT of these words are to stop you from moving forward.

Your job in this case, is to start saying one simple phrase in response to your Negative Ego: THAT’S ENOUGH. 

That’s enough. Thank you for your service, but this has gone on long enough. And you can say this with compassion, but also say it with determination and strength. 

Draw a line and guard it ... with compassion, determination, and strength

Draw a line and guard it ... with compassion, determination, and strength

Because what I’m doing here, is asking you to stand up for yourself – to draw a very clear boundary around how you let this negative part of you dictate your life.

Some other phrases that might help are:

  • No I will not let you undermine my life out of fear.
  • No I will not let you continually point out all my faults.
  • No I will not let you continue to set unachievable and demotivating goals
  • No I will not let you focus on unconstructive comparisons with others
  • No I will not let you focus exclusively on what might go wrong

EXERCISE 3: TAKE A STAND FOR YOURSELF BY SETTING CLEAR BOUNDARIES

Using the sentences you wrote for Exercise 1,  construct a clear response to each of the fearful things that the Negative Ego has been telling you. Use this as an opportunity to stand up for yourself. Practice your ability to create a positive environment in your own mind, within which it is possible to thrive and grow. And whenever your Negative Ego starts asserting itself in your life, come back to your boundaries and actively respond.  

(If you are coaching with me, please bring these statements to our next session so we can review them together, or feel free to post the responses you come up with in the comments below).

One interesting thing you will notice once you start setting boundaries, is that the Negative Ego will actually breathe a sigh of relief that he/she is no longer in charge.

The fact is – the Negative Ego was never meant to be in charge in the first place. It is a ‘crisis mode’ support structure, with very few skills for actually creating and sustaining what we want in life.  

It's only fair therefore, that we stop relying on our hyper-alert parts to run our lives, and start using other parts of ourselves to create good things instead. 

Expecting your Negative Ego to do a good job of running your life, is Like expecting James Bond to do a good job of running your local council: 'So on the topic of a working rail system Mr. Bond ... oh shoot, he's commando rolled out the window again' :-/ 


Step 3: Come back to your ‘Positive' Ego

The job of the ‘Positive’ Ego is to help you navigate physical reality – to notice facts, and pass them on to you without judgement, criticality, or extrapolation.

That's it: Just. The. Facts. 

If you meditate or practice mindfulness, what I’m talking about here is 'being present to what is.' 

You don’t need to meditate in order to connect with your Positive Ego, however. All you need is 1-2 minutes to do the exercise below … 



EXERCISE 4: CONNECT WITH YOUR POSITIVE EGO

Sit down comfortably in your usual workspace and look around. As you look, notice what is there, and allow yourself to engage with an internal monologue around your environment, free of any judgements or additional commentary. 

Example:

Over there is my coffee mug. Next to it is my pen. Here is my computer. My hands are on the keyboard. I’ve written 3 paragraphs. My hands are dry. It’s winter. There is rain pattering against the window. I’m wearing a jumper. It’s 12:15pm. My stomach is rumbling. I’m hungry … 

In contrast, your Negative Ego might offer the following stream of consciousness: 

There’s my mug, I drink too much coffee. And I’ve only written 3 paragraphs today – not nearly enough! I’m so behind on my work, it’s embarrassing. And look at my hands … I really should buy a better moisturiser. Gosh it’s blustery outside. I’m sick of winter, it’s such a drag, all this rain! I wish it was summer – things are always better in the summer. Oh my God I’m hungry. But I can’t have lunch yet, I’ve barely written anything today … 

Whenever you notice yourself getting into a ‘state,’ come back to this exercise and your Positive Ego. The huge power of this exercise lies in the fact that in any given moment, you always have the option of disconnecting from your Negative Ego, and coming back into your Positive Ego instead. 

Trouble-shooting note: if you are really struggling to come into your Positive Ego, then there will be a pay-off for you to be staying in your Negative Ego. There will be a crisis that you are constructing in your mind, which usually stems from the avoidance of some fear, doubt, or realisation about yourself.

What I can offer you in this situation, is to simply keep coming back to it. Keep coming back to yourself, and offering yourself compassion. Let yourself be open to new possibilities, even if it makes you feel vulnerable, and allow yourself to explore the quiet question: what is it I’m avoiding that is keeping me stuck in my Negative Ego? 

I know this can be hard – one of the hardest things we can do is to face our Negative Ego and take the responsibility for our lives out from under it's influence. So if you need support in any of these exercises, please do get in touch. That’s what I’m here for <3. 


Step 4: Start making conscious choices based on what you want to create in your life 

Making conscious choices is such a big topic, it deserves a blog post (or entire blog) to itself. 

But there are a few simple steps to getting started. 

By distinguishing and setting boundaries around the unconstructive voice of the Negative Ego using the exercises above, you will free yourself up to imagine what you want to create in life (rather than keeping your focus on all the things you can't create or what you are afraid of).

You can start doing this getting out a piece of paper, and writing down the answers to these two questions below: 

  1. What do I want to be feeling right now? E.g. Support ( ... or freedom, or love, or connection, or competence, or confidence, or joy … )
  2. What is one small experiment I can try that will allow me to create that feeling in my life today? E.g. Instead of focusing on my faults in times where I feel stuck, I'll experiment with encouraging myself instead.

The most important thing to do when approaching the questions above, is to experiment with using other aspects of yourself rather than your Negative Ego (the part of you that is operating out of a sense of scarcity and fear). 

This means taking a leap of faith as you let go of the limiting stories that the Negative Ego has been spinning about 'can't' and 'too hard' and 'not possible' and simply step into the experience of creating some small actions and good feelings in your life that didn't exist before ... 

We all contain multitudes. What creative or imaginative parts of you haven't been allowed to play because your inner critic has been calling the shots? 

We all contain multitudes. What creative or imaginative parts of you haven't been allowed to play because your inner critic has been calling the shots? 

And that is where I will leave you. There is a lot of depth to be explored here, but I hope this blog post has provided you with a beautiful foundation on which to engage with, and set boundaries around, your frustrating resistant parts.

As always, give me feedback on whether this Workshop has been valuable for you (or not) by commenting below, or getting in touch with me directly. 

Finally: many thanks to Leza and Jeanine from Lucid Living and my coach Kathy Loh, whose ideas and concepts formed the basis of this post!

 With love and commitment, 
 - Liz Busch