How many times have you heard the old saw repeated: “You are your own
worst enemy.” While that may not always be true, what is true is that we
have the capacity to sometimes create, and certainly add to, our own
misery. Said simply, sometimes in life we actually sabotage ourselves.
Self-sabotage consists of a host of things we do that are
self-defeating. It seems the world is a challenging enough place without
adding fuel to the fires of adversity. In my career, I’ve been blessed
to observe some of the most talented and successful people of their
respective generations. I’ve also seen many promising careers and life
trajectories never realize their true potential. Avoiding self-sabotage
seems to be an important aspect of realizing the career and life you’ve
imagined for yourself. While there are many self-defeating things we do,
listed below are eight of the most common things I’ve seen. How many
1. Trying to please everyone all the time. Are you a “pleaser?” Many of
us are. Pleasers fear rejection. The first stanza of the famous 1927 Max
Erhmann poem "Desiderata" states: “As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.” But in reality, it’s simply
impossible to please all people all of the time.
Lesson to be learned: Without becoming completely self-centered, you
need to become comfortable with other people’s disappointment.
2. Thinking intuitively and acting impulsively. Nobel laureate Daniel
Kahneman spent a lifetime in research trying to convince us that human
beings are inherently irrational largely because we trust our intuition.
Yes, the maxim “trust your gut” is bad advice. Kahneman and his
colleague Amos Tversky have proven that intuitive thinking is flawed
with a myriad of decision-making biases that lead to bad decisions.
Lesson to be learned: Mind the gap between impulse and action. Slow
down, take a deep breath, and rather than employ intuitive
decision-making, use more rational, deliberate decision-making
3. Procrastination. Waiting for the moment of absolute certainty, while
seemingly rational, often ends in frustration as opportunities are
squandered waiting for the perfect moment to act.
Lesson to be learned: In reality, the moment of absolute certainty
seldom, if ever, arises. Sometimes you simply need to act. You can
almost always deal with the consequences.
4. Fear of failure. A fear of failure can be paralyzing. Procrastination
is most often fueled by a fear of failure. No one likes failure. It can
be embarrassing and even costly. What we forget is that it can teach
powerful lessons that predict later success.
Lesson to be learned: Anything worth having is worth failing for. The
most productive learning and the greatest personal and professional
breakthroughs come with a journey characterized by milestones of
5. The belief that life is a destination. How many times have you
strived to attain something or someone only to realize the happiness you
thought you would experience was short-lived. Then you quickly scan the
horizon for new destinations. You once again engage in the quest to
attain the “destination” only to, once again, be disappointed once it is
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Lesson to be learned: Life is a journey, not a destination. The moment
your brain and body stop being challenged, they begin to die. There is
wisdom to be gained from a journey that contains both success and
failure. That said, be careful not to fall prey to the “grass is
greener” effect. Envy and change for the sake of change alone are almost
never productive. As Erhman would say: “If you compare yourself with
others, you may become vain and bitter for always there will be greater
and lesser persons than yourself.”
6. Listening to the negative (toxic) people in your life. You know who
they are. They see the glass as forever half empty. They are envious of
the success and happiness of others. Sadly, there is a host of unhappy
people around. Yet, they derive a moment of respite from their
unhappiness by seeing others unhappy. To that end, they will often say
and do things that are critical, mean-spirited, or just plain hurtful to
try to make you as unhappy as they are.
Lesson to be learned: Let us return to the wisdom of "Desiderata."
“Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit…
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of
trickery.” By allowing negative people to affect you, you give them
tremendous control over your life. Is that what you really want to do?
So instead, surround yourself with people who possess a warm heart, a
smile on their face, as well as a compassionate and supportive presence.
Finally when people say or do things that hurt you, invoke Hanlon’s
Razor. Simply said, “Never attribute to malice that which can be
adequately explained by stupidity.”
7. The tendency for self-blame. Much of the world is unpredictable. In
an effort to add order and meaning to a world that often seems out of
control, we often accept the blame for things that go wrong even though
we had equally shared culpability or no culpability whatsoever.
Lesson to be learned: Take responsibility for those things for which you
are truly responsible and over which you have control. Such actions are
growth-promoting and are evidence of maturity. But jettison the rest.
Taking responsibility for the things over which you have no real control
(other people, for example) is a fool’s errand that ultimately leads to
frustration, anger, and erosion of your self-esteem.
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8. Guilt. Sometimes we make mistakes and we truly are responsible. Guilt
is a burden that can teach powerful lessons, but it can also be
punitive and paralyzing. There is a reason the windshield is large and
the rearview mirror is small.
Lesson to be learned: To paraphrase Maya Angelou, if you had known
better you would have done better. So now you know. And as Oprah Winfrey
has noted, you do not have to be held hostage by your past. Mistakes
are what you did, they are not who you are. Move on.
It’s been said that life is what you make of it. Everyone is born with
potential of one kind or another. Yet many promising careers and life
trajectories never realize their true potential. One thing I’ve observed
which separates those who seem to realize their potential from those do
not is that those who are most happy and successful are able to avoid
the eight self-sabotaging tendencies I’ve just described. As I began
with a stanza from "Desiderata," so I shall end: “With all its sham,
drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.”
© George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D., 2020.
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