Our inner saboteur is the wounded part of us that works to protect us at all times. Its motivation is the avoidance of pain. It gets the illusion of power through having a sense of control at all costs. When we find ourselves sabotaging, we might ask the question, "What is it that makes me feel powerless, helpless, out of control and with no choices?" And, "How does this behavior keep me from having to feel how I really feel?"
We don’t live in a culture that promotes the identification, expression and processing of our emotions. When it comes to disordered eating behavior, Dr. Anita Johnston explains it this way,
Disordered eating thoughts and behaviors are, by design, created to distract us from emotions that seem too painful, too overwhelming, too complicated, or too frightening to deal with directly. As awful as it may be to “feel fat”, it can sometimes be easier to keep those feelings at bay by focusing on body weight, by stuffing them down with food, by distracting ourselves with calorie counting, or by exercising excessively -- if we don’t know how to allow the full force of uncomfortable emotions to flow through us.
We live in an emotionally illiterate culture where very few of us are taught how to experience our feelings with ease. It is often difficult for us to simply BE with our feelings so they can pass on their own accord. It is even more difficult to express them in a way that honors how we really feel -- while simultaneously honoring the feelings and perceptions of others with whom we might be in conflict. So is it any wonder we would gravitate to whatever might distract us from our uncomfortable emotions? Is it any wonder that we would develop thoughts and behaviors that keep difficult feelings hidden – from ourselves and from others?
Food obsessions and disordered eating behaviors are very effective at keeping disconcerting emotions that arise from current situations or from painful memories out of our awareness. That is their function. The relief they provide, however, is only temporary, because if we continuously place our attention on thoughts about food, fat, and dieting without recognizing they are Red Herrings, those real problems to which our emotional guidance system is trying alert us never get revealed – and, consequently, never get resolved.
In order to become aware of and feel our feelings, the practice of mindfulness is very effective. This is something you can do on your own, in the moment when you notice the urge to sabotage or notice resistance to making changes. Whenever you decide to try something other than what you’ve been doing, resistance will come alive. It is normal and it is not a sign of your incapability to change, or your defectiveness. It is simply your survival mechanism, working hard to prevent you from feeling discomfort. Change is not comfortable, so there is a part of you that will push back…every time. So, we want to learn to work with the pushback instead of seeing the resistance as proof we ought not make the change we want to make.
How do we do this? According to John Kabat-Zinn, “The cultivation of mindfulness (is) a radical act ̶ a radical act of sanity, of self-compassion, and, ultimately, of love.” Mindfulness is “becoming aware of what is on our minds from moment to moment, and of how our experience is transformed when we do.” “It involves finding, recognizing, and making use of that in us which is already okay, already beautiful, already whole by virtue of our being human ̶ and drawing upon it to live our lives as if it really mattered how we stand in relationship to what arises, whatever it is.” Kabat-Zinn explains that our perceptions affect the amount of energy that we have to put into making choices about where to use that energy. For example, if we feel completely overwhelmed in life and that the efforts we are making aren’t really making a difference, this can lead to feelings of “inadequacy, depression and helplessness.” Everything feels out of our control so we end up becoming apathetic and give up even wanting to try. He explains that each of us experiences the ‘full catastrophe of life.’ This includes “crisis and disaster, the unthinkable and the unacceptable, but it also includes all the little things that go wrong and that add up.” Mindfulness helps us embrace the full catastrophe so that it doesn’t destroy us or rob us of our power or hope. Instead, using mindfulness, these experiences can strengthen us, and offer us the opportunity to heal and grow.
When it comes to self-sabotage, for me, the most important step in the mindfulness process is the noticing. This is where the practice begins. We set an intention to notice the urge to participate in the self-sabotaging behavior. Once this feels comfortable, we then notice the urge and then pause. The magic for me starts here, with the noticing and the pause. It seems such a simple concept, but in reality, this is exactly the part that part of you is going to resist. In the pause, you will hear the voice campaign. If you’ve seen The Matrix, for me, the voices are the ‘agents,’ doing everything in their power to create fear and to keep us asleep to reality, keep us stuck in the status quo of familiarity.
So, in the pause, begin to listen. What are the voices telling you? Write it down. Notice what they say, without judgment, as though you are just a reporter, stating the facts. And then, notice what you feel in your body. What sensations do you notice? Is there tightness in your chest, heaviness in your gut, constriction in your throat? What is happening in your body? Again, simply notice without judgment. If you notice judgment such as shame, guilt, fear, just notice that as well. And now begin to notice what emotions you feel. Are you sad, lonely, afraid, angry, hurt, ashamed, guilty? Again, just noticing the qualities of these emotions and allowing yourself to be with them without trying to change them or make them go away. Just simply acknowledging that they are there. Notice any blame you might have of yourself or others. Again, no judgment, just noticing. And now, notice what it is that you need. So often, when my clients do this exercise, they are feeling an empty and never-ending black hole inside of them. I'm familiar with that place as well. Maybe we all feel this? An intense emptiness. A deep longing for connection. A yearning desire to matter, that someone cares, to feel included, to be understood, to be noticed, seen and heard. Whatever your preferred method of sabotage is, the behavior or substance may feel like the only thing that is reliably there. There is a never-ending grasping for a nurturing that it can never truly give. This must come into the awareness if one is to move beyond the sabotaging behaviors.
There is a saying, “What we think about, we bring about,” or “what we focus on expands.” So, the next step in this process would be to redirect the attention. If we sit and think about how chocolate is the only thing that will make me feel better right now, eventually, that belief will win out and chocolate or ___________, will be had and soon, we will be right back where we began, with an even deeper sense of defeat.
So, this is where the intentional thought shifting practice comes into importance if change is the desired outcome. This may not be appropriate at the beginning as self-sabotage, in my experience, has been serving an important purpose of numbing the pain of life. So, we often need a lot of support in this process. If you find that you try this technique, or any of the others offered here and you continue in your behaviors, for me, that is a sign that your pain is deep and intense and it would be best to do this with a trained professional such as a hypnotherapist, who will be able to hold sacred space for you as you navigate the healing process.
As one becomes comfortable with the noticing, and then the pausing and the non-judgmental, mindful awareness of what is happening in the moment, then it may be appropriate to practice the redirecting of attention. This simply involves intentionally moving yourself somewhere else and placing your thoughts on something other than the behavior that sabotages your goals. You can shift your thoughts to what you do want in your life and choose an activity that brings you closer to experiencing that. I had to physically leave my house many times for a couple hours, until the desire to sabotage settled. This was very helpful! I tended to eat when I wasn’t hungry and really didn’t even know what physical hunger felt like. So, I’d leave my house and take my kids to the park, go for a walk, go shopping, get together with a friend (and not eat), etc…and wait until I could feel physical hunger before I ate. Redirecting attention is simply shifting your awareness away from your substance or behavior of sabotage choice. Physically move away from the situation, and put your focus elsewhere. I’ve heard it said, “Your mind is a terrible master, but a wonderful servant.” Only by mindful observation, can we take charge of where our thoughts are, rather than being controlled by and believing their illusions.
It is a well-known fact that we often need to hit rock bottom before we are inspired to move from surviving to thriving. We have to get sick and tired of being sick and tired which is the catalyst for a new experience. The saboteur is in pain. Pain is the catalyst for healing. In order to heal self-sabotaging behavior, what if feeling and processing the pain is paramount?
Light of the Moon Café, www.lightofthemooncafe.com, Dr. Anita Johnston.
Full-Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness, John Kabat-Zinn.
Maria Rippo is a Transformational Healing & Wellness practitioner with an online as well as a local practice in Bothell, WA. She is an Advanced Clinical Hypnotherapist and Holistic Coach working towards her Master's and PsyD in Transpersonal Psychology, but mostly, she is a human trying to figure out how to navigate this thing called life. This article Copyright 2016 by Maria Rippo, all right reserved. To replicate or use any portion of this article, please do so in its entirety including this text or contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.