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Self-sabotage can take many forms: excessive denial, wishful thinking, procrastination, impulsive decisions, escapism, and addictive behavior. You may overidealize situations or people, building expectations that will house only disappointment. At the other extreme, you may judge others critically or sell yourself short. You may overreact to everyday situations or feel defensive around loved ones. Or you may box yourself in with perfectionism or approval-seeking. The common factor when you don't do what's good for you is that consciously or unconsciously you are keeping something from yourself. Keeping secrets from yourself is akin to keeping a beach ball submerged. It requires constant energy. Recognize your secrets and you free tremendous energy.
Self-sabotage is a universal habit reinforced by biology, society, and individual upbringing, writes accomplished psychotherapist Dan Neuharth. Yet this habit can be broken, a goal that Dr. Neuharth shows you how to accomplish in a clear, step-by-step fashion. Written in a compassionate and validating tone, this book is packed with powerful techniques to help you conquer the fears that have stopped you in the past and act now in your own best interests, even when tempted to do otherwise. You'll learn how to make peace with lingering regret over past self-defeats, bring more of yourself to each present moment, and craft a future of greater contentment and sense of purpose.
Secrets You Keep from Yourself
The Secrets We Keep
The discovery of a deceiving principle, a lying activity within us, can furnish an absolutely new view of all conscious life.
This book will address the three components to reducing your unnecessary losses and increasing your happiness and fulfillment:
1. Recognizing when you are at risk for self-inflicted losses (Parts One and Two)
2. Understanding the self-undermining influences in your life and learning how to transcend them (Part Three)
3. Motivating yourself to choose the healthiest paths (Parts Four and Five)
WHO ARE YOU WHEN YOU'RE NOT BEING YOURSELF?
We are so used to disguising ourselves from others that we end up disguising ourselves from ourselves.
—FRANÇOIS DE LA ROUCHEFOUCAULD, DUC DE LA ROUCHEFOUCAULD
We want to know and be known for our very best. One way we identify this is to look for the best in others. You probably have known rare individuals who seem to craft their lives moment-by-moment with deliberate, positive actions. People like Morrie Schwartz of Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom's book about the seventy-eight-year-old former sociology professor who met his terminal illness with inspiring dignity and grace. How do people like Morrie live exceptional lives? What can we learn from such people about cultivating the exceptional in ourselves?
Perhaps you feel at your best when you "follow your bliss," as Joseph Campbell wrote. Who or what within you recognizes your bliss and leads you to it? Pause for a moment and recall a time when you felt deeply content. Perhaps you experienced an epiphany about your life's goals, felt at peace with the world, or intuitively knew the right choice in difficult circumstances. Think of your most intimate relationship or closest friendship, and recall an exceptionally satisfying moment. Perhaps you felt deeply connected, seen, and heard. What was the source of these moments? What made them end? How might you create them more often?
The answers on how to cultivate and express the exceptional within you are found to a large extent in how you define yourself. You have the ability to define who you are at any moment. For example, surveys have reported that:
• 25 percent of high school students rated themselves in the top 1 percent in leadership ability
• 80 percent of drivers rated themselves as better than average
• 83 percent of college students thought themselves more generous than other people
• 94 percent of university professors ranked themselves better than average at their jobs
• 85 percent of people rate their own manners as good or excellent, but only 23 percent give the same marks to others
• Individual investors at one conference confidently predicted, on average, that their own retirement savings would be twice the average size of the savings of all other investors in attendance
Flattering self-definitions like these are benign. Self-images exist on a continuum from helpful to harmful. You can view yourself as small or big, dumb or smart, unworthy or worthy, loser or winner. When you define yourself as small, dumb, unworthy, or a loser—even when you do so without awareness and are none of these—your attitudes, emotions, and actions move in accordance with this negative self-view. You can mentally negate years of love or work with a single thought. You can look at a twenty-year marriage and see only what is missing. You can look at a career of overcoming challenges and contributing to others and think, "So what?" Of course, the goodness in your marriage isn't actually lost and your career accomplishments don't actually vanish. But when you feel small, it is as though what you do counts for nothing.
The vast array of ways we define ourselves without knowing we're doing so is astounding. A fleeting first impression, when acted upon, sets in motion one course of events and excludes a universe of possible others. A doubt, once you run with it, can dictate your actions and moods. You might take a moment and recall a time when you lost an opportunity, a cherished connection, financial wealth, or happiness because you were behaving in accord with a negative self-image. Simply because of a definition.
You've probably seen this happen to loved ones. At times, they may have chosen to quit, even when you knew they could have kept going and succeeded. At other times, they may have chosen to believe in themselves, perhaps with your help, and kept going instead.
The irony is that every time you undermine yourself with a negative or inaccurate self-image, you provide evidence of your extraordinarypower. You possess an innate ability to make a convincing case for your worth, or the lack of it. You can foster your dreams as well as neglect them. You can act from self-confidence or be overtaken by worry or guilt. Most important of all, you have the ability to forget who chose one self-image over another.
How Self-deception Works
How can you deceive yourself? It seems a contradiction in terms. One analogy for how self-deception works, offered by philosophy scholar Herbert Fingarette, is to that of falling asleep. Each night you go to bed and eventually sleep overtakes you. When you awaken, you may recall what your last thoughts were prior to falling asleep, or remember your first dream of the night, but it is impossible to remember the exact moment you fell asleep. In this shift from awake to asleep, even though you are the one doing it, sleep descends upon you.
Self-deception is similar. Just as we are unaware of what is happening at the moment of falling asleep, we are unaware of the moment we enter into self-deception. Denial, like falling asleep, is experienced as happening to you. If you're aware of falling asleep, you're not yet asleep. When you see your denial at work, you're no longer fully in denial.
During sleep, magical events happen. You dream. Your attention is selective. You may stir at the sound of your infant crying, but pay no attention to city sirens or country crickets. Similarly, with self-deception, you see what you want and ignore what's in plain sight. Self-deception lives in a world of alternate realities based on "what-if" or "if-only" premises. Social psychology researchers call this phenomenon counterfactual thinking. It is, quite literally, thinking and perceiving contrary to the facts.
Counterfactualizing has benefits, or we wouldn't do it. It can give feelings of mastery, explain mysterious or upsetting events, and soothe or console by allowing you to shift blame or justify your own or others' actions. But your alternate realities may also drop roadblocks in your path.
When I began researching this book and told others that I was investigating how and why people subtly mislead themselves and unwittingly sabotage their dreams and plans, the most common response I received was, "Oh, I know someone like that." Self-sabotaging behavioris often easier to see in others than in ourselves. When we view others' self-sabotage or lack of self-awareness, we often rubberneck as if passing a car wreck. It's distressing to see but fascinating to watch. We can't believe what they're doing. We're glad it's not us. We'd shudder to think of ourselves as similarly clueless, inept, or self-destructive. We wonder why they can't see it. We may try to warn them but it often seems as if they can't or won't listen.
For example, perhaps you've noticed friends, family, neighbors, or coworkers who:
• Repeatedly enter into inappropriate romantic relationships, each time vowing that this one will be different
• Spend more time fantasizing about improbable financial windfalls, like winning the lottery, than working
• Overbook and overpromise so often that you no longer trust what they say
• Work hard to lose twenty pounds through various diets, then quickly regain the lost weight and then some
• Dwell on regrets or resentments and can't seem to move on
• Endlessly take care of others' needs ahead of their own but, in a candid moment, tell you how unappreciated they feel
• Procrastinate by submitting a job application late after hours of hard work, only to find the job filled
• Make major decisions without considering the consequences
• Automatically shun advice or a helping hand
• Ignore a romantic partner's mistreatment, or stay in an unhealthy relationship even after deciding to leave
• Overspend wildly, but get a steady stream of new credit card applications
• Yearn to have children, but choose potential mates who clearly signal they aren't interested in being a parent
Everybody Keeps Secrets
Self-sabotaging denial is universal even among the famous and powerful. Two presidents faced impeachment after sabotaging themselves. Richard Nixon tried to cover up Watergate. Bill Clinton tried to cover up the Monica Lewinsky affair. Despite each man's strengths and accomplishments, their presidencies descended into embarrassment not only because they tried to keep secrets from the public, but because they kept secrets from themselves.
Nixon audiotaped the Oval Office, then proceeded to repeatedly break the law and incriminate himself with the tapes running. What was he thinking? In wanting a record for posterity, he tied his own noose. Call it denial, a tragic flaw, or karma, Nixon engineered his march to the brink of impeachment and subsequent resignation.
Clinton had an affair, but steadfastly denied it to a grand jury, friends, and the public. Then he admitted it. How could a man so intelligent use such poor judgment in his personal behavior, lie about it, then fail to take into account the damage that would ensue when his lie was exposed?
Both Nixon and Clinton were in denial. Despite the immense power and responsibility of the office, the men who have been president and the women and men who will be president are just like you and me. They mislead, distract, and undermine themselves.
What drives this phenomenon that has brought down presidents, kings, and the rich and powerful? Self-defeating denial has the power to hurt you and those you love in ways large and small. Most of us put a premium on not hurting others. Yet we hurt ourselves with a vast array of self-defeating behaviors.
One reason it can be difficult always to act in your best interests is that behavior occurs along a continuum of awareness. At one end, you have little or no awareness of your actions or their negative consequences until afterward. At the opposite end, you know full well that what you're doing isn't in your best interests, but you do it anyway. In between, your awareness may be diffuse, for example an inkling or vague concern. It may be fleeting—a mental warning that passes quickly. You may know what to do but can't summon the motivation to act. Or you have competing motivations and can't choose.
The following table illustrates this continuum.
No matter where you find yourself on the continuum of awareness, denial plays a role. When you have no clue that you're getting in your way, your denial is total. You have little chance of avoiding unnecessary losses and no choice about the outcome. At best, you get lucky. Yet even when it seems as though you see the complete picture, something may be overlooked. Denial clouds your ability to see what you are doing, why you're doing it, and the negative consequences. As with the moment of falling asleep, something goes unwitnessed. It may be something you're distracting yourself from, pretending about, or bringing selective inattention to. Perhaps you lack a full recognition of the risks. Perhaps you silently abandon your values.
Counterproductive efforts to sidestep loss:
1. Tend to be reactive rather than chosen
2. Are more likely to arise when you don't see all your options
The remedy for both is greater self-awareness.
Self-deception Takes Many Forms
Our secrets can be difficult to spot because they take so many forms. One of the most subtle ways of undermining ourselves is what social scientists sometimes term "self-handicapping."
Steven, now a distinguished and able engineer, nearly failed his licensing exam. He initially answered the multiple-choice test on scrap paper rather than on the exam sheet. He finished with a half hour to spare and began reviewing his answers, after which he intended to transfer the answers to the official scanner-ready sheet. The next thing he knew, the exam proctor announced, "Time is up, pencils down." Steven stared in shock at his empty answer sheet alongside his answers on scrap paper.
A sympathetic proctor allowed him to fill in the answer sheet under the proctor's scrutiny, and an appeal to the licensing board eventually allowed his score, which was significantly higher than average, to count.
During the test, Steven felt that he was acting with good intentions. He wanted to be as certain of his answers as possible and hand in a pristine answer sheet without erasures or smudges. Afterward, his near-miss shook him. "I still don't know what I was thinking. If I were going to be all psychological about it, I suspect that my trial-run answer sheet might have to do with being nervous about making a final commitment to each answer," Steven says.
Why would Steven fear commitments? One possibility is that he feared the blow to his self-esteem that a failure would trigger. Another possibility is that self-handicapping like Steven's can be an indirect way of protesting against authority when we feel we cannot directly or openly say no. In addition, self-handicapping covertly carries the potential to turn daunting situations into no-lose enterprises. If you put obstacles in your way and still triumph, your victory is all that much greater. Should you fail, you have ready-made explanations to excuse or mitigate your loss.
There's nothing sinister or premeditated in self-handicapping. It happens when you haven't yet brought sufficient awareness to recognize and understand your counterproductive patterns.
Judy, a smart and competent attorney, nearly missed her shot at law school because she forgot to accept an offer of admission by the deadline. She was in her senior year of college and routinely met deadlines for her term papers and tests. She even submitted her law school financial aid package paperwork on time. But at 8 P.M. on May 15 she realized that she'd missed the law school's May 15 deadline for accepting admission offers. Only after a breakneck trip to a large city post of fice 100 miles away was Judy able to get her acceptance form postmarked before midnight to secure her admission to law school.
Sometimes self-handicapping like Judy's is an attempt to resolve the dissonance between promising circumstances and a poor self-image.Judy grew up doubting her worth and abilities. In high school she wasn't part of the "in crowd" and didn't feel particularly attractive. Although Judy ranked twenty-third in a class of 350, in her way of thinking she was undeserving of being in the same league with the very top students. Yet here she was applying to be a lawyer, a career that would surpass most of her classmates, which seemed at odds with her downcast self-image. In the clandestine calculations of Judy's unconscious, forgetting the law school deadline may have been a way to take pressure off herself.
From a logical viewpoint, it is obvious that, rather than easing Judy's stress, missing the deadline would actually create more stress. But the logic of self-defeat follows its own rules. Perhaps some part of Judy, home to her feeling undeserving, couldn't allow her symbolically to enter law school through the front door, so it orchestrated a last-minute backdoor entry.
Both Steven and Judy had no awareness of their near-misses until it was nearly too late. When you handicap yourself as Steven or Judy did, it's as though an inner trickster nimbly detours you, laying down camouflage or distractions that fog your normal awareness. The muffled warning shouts of your best self are noticed only in retrospect.
Other forms of getting in your own way are less subtle.
Roy, a stockbroker, cannot think of a single area of his life he could describe as "laid back." His lengthy workday to-do lists are matched by his lists of household chores for his days off. He cannot recall the last time he had five minutes with nothing to do. "I tell people that I'm not just a type A personality, I'm a type A-plus personality," Roy says. Yet Roy assigns himself a failing grade when it comes to attending to his wife and two children. His wife has learned that trying to initiate spontaneous romantic or family activities can be a lost cause. His daughter must make appointments with Roy two days in advance to get help with her homework.
Roy's modus operandi is quite different from Steven's and Judy's. Instead of lacking awareness about what he is doing in the moment, Roy sees the problem but believes that he cannot behave any other way. He feels a slave to his obsessive, hard-driving style.
Feeling unable to change can be a deal brokered by part of the unconscious mind. For example, saying that you are unable to change a bad habit can be a polite way of expressing a less palatable truth: that you don't want to change. Roy may derive benefits from ordering his world so rigidly. Any potential appeal of easing up may be dwarfed bythe dangers that he perceives would ensue from living more spontaneously. He may be so unaccustomed to unstructured downtime that he fears that having nothing to do would threaten his stability and sense of self.
Another reason we sometimes feel unable to change an unhealthy habit or lifestyle is that the habit is powered by deep, self-defeating beliefs like I don't deserve to have it all. We each construct our identity in childhood, unwittingly striking bargains before we understand their implications. We may conclude that happiness is a mysterious experience over which we have little influence. In Roy's case, he may believe deep down that he can be happy in love or happy in work, but not both.
Celine, fifty-four, is her own worst critic. When she stands in front of a mirror, she sees crow's feet, bad posture, and a disappointingly matronly appearance. "Sometimes when I look into the mirror I feel like a criminal in a police lineup," Celine says. She is judgmental of her actions, even second-guessing her idle chit-chat at parties and worrying that she comes across as lacking intelligence.
Just as Roy feels overwhelmed by his driven style, Celine feels overpowered by negative self-judgments. She knows that her self-criticism isn't healthy but feels unable to hold a balanced view of herself. Simply contemplating the possibility of a more positive self-image summons an internal mental "giant or ogre," as she calls it, that towers menacingly until Celine retreats to her self-critical norm.
Diminishing yourself, however painful its side effects, can have the benefit of reducing your own and others' expectations of you. If you aren't all that great, it makes sense not to tackle big challenges. Tearing yourself down keeps a psychic status quo. Sometimes excessive self-deprecation is a pattern learned in your family. Celine remembers her mother as a nonstop worrier. "She would just go on automatic and think out loud, voicing her worries about every little thing. It was like she would open a vein and bleed worry," Celine says.
Whereas Roy feels hostage to an internal overachiever, Celine feels under the thumb of an inner ogre. Both are demons of their own creation. It's not that Roy's compulsiveness or Celine's self-doubts are not real—they are all too real. These patterns take a toll. They can't simply be wished away. The irony is that both Roy and Celine feel inferior to a part of themselves.
You may not have an inner critic as dramatic as Celine's, but youmay undermine yourself without knowing it. How often do you withhold from yourself the benefit of the doubt? How often do you deprive yourself of positive experiences?
Self-definitions can also bedevil intimate relationships. With unconscious hypocrisy, we sometimes undercut our closest connections but live as though someone else is responsible.
Harold, thirty-three, and Maggie, thirty-two, have been married for three years. When Maggie's cat Tipper died at age sixteen, Maggie was teary for days. Tipper and Maggie had been together since Maggie was a junior in high school. Harold was initially gentle and supportive, but shifted his demeanor by the third day of Maggie's mourning. He told her that continuing to talk tearfully about Tipper would only make things worse. He suggested Maggie consider getting a kitten to replace Tipper.
Harold and Maggie struggle with a dynamic familiar to many couples: opposite emotional styles. "Maggie's the emotional one in our marriage. I'm the logical one," Harold says. When Maggie expresses difficult emotions, Harold feels compelled to offer solutions. "When someone close to me is upset, I feel as though I have to fix it," Harold says.
Maggie doesn't want Harold to "fix it." She wants him to listen, so she can feel a connection with him. When he offers solutions, she feels misunderstood and pressured. She then dismisses or ignores Harold's suggestions. In turn, Harold feels confused and put off.
Harold tends to not show emotions easily, partly as a result of his formal, upper-crust British upbringing. Although Harold is largely unaware of it, Maggie's emotionality stirs up all manner of feelings in him. By focusing on Maggie's problems, Harold avoids facing his own frighteningly strong emotions. Underlying his fix-it response is a belief, held mostly out of Harold's awareness and thus unquestioned, that strong feelings could destroy him. With his mind working overtime to find logical solutions to Maggie's problems, Harold has little time or motivation to get in touch with his emotional needs and desires.
For her part, Maggie has backed into a reactive posture, ever more upset about Harold's intellectualized approach. "I love my husband, but when he goes into problem-solving mode with my feelings, it's pretty damn hard to remember why I love him," Maggie says.
On the continuum of awareness of potentially counterproductive behavior, Harold is somewhere between Steven's and Judy's lack ofawareness, and Roy's and Celine's full awareness. Harold has fleeting recognitions that he does not act wisely, but most of the time he blames Maggie or distracts himself from the true cause of his anxiety.
Harold could break up his counterproductive dance by paying more attention to his motives, feelings, and beliefs. He could realize that it is not Maggie's feelings but rather his own fears of emotional overload that scare him. He could then choose to deal with his feelings—or not—but either way he would not be blaming Maggie.
Maggie could remind herself that even though Harold may do things she doesn't like, she has the choice to not take his actions personally. She could remind herself that his conscious intent is to be helpful.
The common thread is that Steven, Judy, Roy, Celine, Harold, and Maggie are unnecessarily complicating their lives. No one other than Steven and Judy caused them to flirt with career disaster. No one outside of Roy or Celine maintains their compulsive, self-depriving patterns. No one but Harold is responsible for his fix-it manner, just as no one but Maggie is responsible for how she reacts to it.
Acknowledging when you undermine yourself can be unsettling. Self-inflicted losses hurt just as much as life's necessary losses but carry an added pain: you have no one to point to but yourself. We don't always wish to know our motives or see the consequences of our actions, particularly when our motives feel dishonorable or the consequences hurt us and those close to us. It can be a challenge to acknowledge behaviors that trigger sorrow, embarrassment, or shame. You may worry that peering into your darker corners will open a Pandora's box. You have to live with yourself, after all, and each of us has his or her own comfort level for confronting unpleasant realities.
In addition, an innate dilemma of self-awareness is how you can possibly be aware of what you are hiding from yourself. In the movie Awakenings, Robert De Niro plays a patient in a psychiatric hospital who emerges from a years-long catatonic state after being given an experimental drug. The more he awakens, the more he wants to do, see, and be, much to the alarm of some of the hospital's staff. In one scene, a defensive hospital administrator confronts De Niro by saying, "Are you aware of how much unconscious hostility you are exhibiting?"
De Niro answers calmly, "If it's unconscious, how could I possibly be aware of it?"
Nevertheless, there are clues to motivations and feelings that live outside your conscious awareness. Have you ever noticed a symphony of symptoms tuning up when you are face to face with a daunting task? For example, you may suddenly feel tired or hungry, have a headache, or feel a strong need to exercise. Pleasant or mindless distractions like reading the latest People magazine or vacuuming the kitchen floor may beckon convincingly. As you contemplate starting a difficult task, you may feel resentful, confused, indecisive, or doubtful of your abilities. Perhaps you feel a compelling need to make a better to-do list before starting.
Any of these may be instances of denial hijacking your mind, body, or heart. Self-sabotaging denial is often a cement mixed of selective inattention and rationalization. Each time we skip exercising, avoid flossing, or overeat, we make a concrete decision to do so. We tend to do it so smoothly, however, that we rarely experience making deliberate choices. The same can be true for more significant lapses, like postponing saving for retirement or ignoring medical conditions.
At times denial can help you cope. For example, deciding to not think about something stressful, or ignoring someone who is annoying you. In addition, some facts of life—the extent of suffering in the world, for example—might lead to despair or emotional paralysis if dwelled upon relentlessly.
The key is learning how to distinguish adaptive or benign denial from counterproductive, risky denial. Counterproductive denial leads you to overlook or dismiss information that could make your life better. Risky denial hides potential dangers from you. One remedy for counterproductive, risky denial is to examine how you relate to yourself.
Your relationship with yourself is unlike any other relationship you have. You stand with yourself at every moment of your life. No one bears witness to your every success, defeat, pain, and pleasure as you do. Other loved ones may accompany you in body and spirit for a majority of your life, yet their witnessing is imperfect and incomplete.
Your feelings and thoughts about yourself are every bit as complex and powerful as those you have about other significant people in your life. When you are perplexed or in turmoil about your relationship with a mate, child, parent, sibling, or friend, it can be difficult to ignore. Yet when you are puzzled by or at odds with yourself, it may be easier to look the other way.
In your relationships with others, contact and intimacy, no matterhow rich or healthy, may bring doubts or an urge to distance, merge, or control. You don't tell others everything you are thinking, feeling, or doing. But how do you keep these from yourself? Where do you go to take a vacation from a 24/7 lifelong companion?
If a marriage is stale or smothering, some people seek help, end the relationship, or escape through affairs. But how do you "cheat" on yourself? How do you reject, fight, love, disdain, and make peace with yourself? Is it any wonder that we get bored, play games, fantasize, look the other way, or space out? We need the breathing room. Though many of us struggle with intimacy and judgments of others, true self-acceptance may be one of the most difficult tasks we face.
Fortunately, you don't have to uncover every self-deception—nor could you—and your remedies don't have to be perfect. Your best ally in overcoming harmful denial is its architect: you. It is within your relationship with yourself that a significant portion of the quality of your life is determined. You have within you all the raw materials you need to increase your self-awareness and reduce your unnecessary losses. Knowledge is power. Even a small increase in self-awareness goes a long way.
Creating "Wake-up" Calls
You possess the ability to awaken and start anew psychologically and emotionally at any time. As Jean Houston wrote, "We all have the extraordinary coded within us, waiting to be released." You might take a moment and recall a time when you "woke up." Perhaps you realized that you had lost course, fallen for an illusion, or hidden behind a pretense. Remember how it felt to awaken? Perhaps you felt awed, a bit disoriented, or more energetic. You engineered these moments of clarity.
One way to release the extraordinary within you is to recognize and learn from the times when you operate from less than your best self. Even a trivial instance of counterproductive behavior can teach you as much as the most costly example. All self-inflicted losses share certain principles. Recognizing those principles even in the smallest situation can help you choose a healthier course in future instances when you have a great deal at stake.
The key to creating personal wake-up calls is to recognize how you put yourself to sleep. The following exercise can help.
If You'd Like to Go Deeper: Identifying Your Customary Approaches to Challenges
This exercise can stimulate your thinking about how you tend to approach various kinds of challenges. The more clearly you identify your unique style, the more effectively you can prepare for any potential pitfalls that are inherent in your characteristic approach.
The following eight questions will ask you to generalize. Try to pick the answer that best describes your tendency in that situation, even if none of the answers completely fits for you. There are no right or wrong answers.
1. When I get overwhelmed by a difficult task, it is most likely to occur when I am ...
• Trying to get started on the task
• Somewhere in the middle of the task
• Trying to finish the task
2. When I don't pursue my desires, it is most likely because ...
• I'm unsure about or unaware of my true desires
• I feel undeserving of, or unable to achieve, my desires
• I'm too busy, overwhelmed, or distracted
3. When I get stuck, the most difficult part for me tends to be ...
• Admitting that I'm stuck
• Knowing what to do about it
• Taking steps to get unstuck
4. When it comes to my emotions, it is most difficult for me to ...
• Know what I am feeling
• Express what I am feeling
• Accept what I am feeling
5. Among the following emotions, I least like to feel ...
6. Among the following emotions, I am most distressed when I feel ...
• Out of control
7. Among the following aspects of myself, I tend to pay the least attention to my ...
• Mental life (i.e., attitudes, self-talk, thinking patterns, introspection)
• Physical life (i.e., bodily sensations and needs, physical appearance, health)
• Emotional life (i.e., moods, feelings, intuitions)
8. When my thoughts drift from the here-and-now, I am most likely to be thinking about ...
• The future
• The past
• Someplace else I'd rather be at the moment
Interpreting Your Answers
Review your answers and then look at the following descriptions of how each coping style might manifest in self-sabotaging ways. Remember, none of the choices is bad or wrong. Every way of coping with difficult or uncomfortable situations has advantages and disadvantages. Self-sabotage tends to result from choices made without awareness. By becoming more aware of your unique coping style, you can more readily anticipate potential self-sabotaging situations and be prepared if they arise.
Q1: Being Overwhelmed by Difficult Tasks
At one time or another, all of us have frozen in the face of a challenge. What is important is how readily you recognize the situation and find ways to extricate yourself.
How being overwhelmed may manifest
If your greatest resistance tends to be at the start of tasks, you may notice that you tend to think of worst-case scenarios or exaggerate expected difficulties. You may delay getting started by doing a host of less-difficult, less-necessary tasks. You may avoid putting yourself in situations that involve frequent change, instead favoring situations with a steady routine. Perhaps you seek longer-term projects that you can do at your own pace, rather than shorter-term projects that require frequent adjustments and innovation.
If you tend to bog down in the middle of challenges, you may notice that what once seemed important, even vital, becomes questionable. You may lose touch with your initial motivation or begin finding fault with the project itself. You may rationalize your lack of desire or progress, perhaps blaming others or external circumstances. You may become increasingly distracted, miss deadlines, or fall behind the pace. You may unconsciously do things that let your momentum drop. For example, skipping regular reviews with other people or scheduling important incentives too soon or too late in the project, thus leaving yourself with few tangible rewards during the long middle stretch.
If you tend to run out of steam just as you approach the finish line, you may tend to start new projects before finishing existing ones. New projects can seem fresh and exciting and draw your attention away from completing the old task. Perhaps failing to finish allows you to escape the judgment or final review of others. In social situations, you may avoid emotionally charged good-byes. For example, if you or someone you care about is moving on, you may promise to say a final good-bye before you part, yet somehow never do.
(Part Five will show you powerful tools for shaking off feeling overwhelmed at any stage of a challenge.)
Q2: Failing to Pursue Your Desires
Identifying when and why you forfeit your desires is an important part of zeroing in on self-sabotaging behavior. If fear is the stick,desire is the carrot. Desire can be as powerful a motivator as fear, if not more so.
How failing to pursue your desires may manifest
If you don't pursue your desires primarily because you don't know what you want, perhaps you haven't given yourself permission to wish or desire. You may have become used to not getting what you want. As a result, perhaps you no longer bother to think about your desires, much less try to achieve them. You may need to clarify your longings. (Possible ways to do this include reading books like What Color Is Your Parachute?, consulting a counselor, talking with a trusted friend, or making a list of the happiest times of your life and then identifying which desires were fulfilled on those occasions.)
If you feel undeserving of or unable to achieve your desires, perhaps you hold inaccurate views of yourself and the world. You may give others the benefit of the doubt but sell yourself short. You may follow a low-risk, low-reward approach, aiming low rather than pursuing what you really desire. You may notice negative self-assessments like I'm not strong enough or I'll never be ready. Such thinking patterns can arise from a history of being criticized or repeatedly being disappointed.
If you are too busy or distracted to pursue your desires, perhaps you've lost sight of what matters most in your life. This can happen all too easily in a busy life, because having too much on your plate may offer benefits. Overactivity can give you a socially acceptable method of avoiding risks. For example, if you desire something but have strong fears of falling short, your crammed schedule makes it easy to put off your desire and, thus, avoid a potential failure.
(Part Four will show you several ways to articulate and promote your greatest desires.)
Q3: Getting Stuck
We all bog down at times. When you don't recognize that you're stuck, or you cannot move forward, the underlying issue may be a fear of being criticized.
How getting stuck may manifest
If your Achilles' heel in difficult situations tends to be admitting that you're stuck, you may tend to deny problems, cling to wishful thinkingor unrealistic expectations, or become defensive in the face of questions or criticism. Perhaps you view getting stuck as a sign of weakness or incompetence, so you are reluctant to admit it when you get bogged down. By avoiding recognizing a problem, you may unconsciously hope to avoid rejection, disappointment, or feeling like a failure.
If you generally recognize when you're stuck but are unsure how to free yourself, you may tend to second-guess every solution you come up with. You may shy away from asking for help. When you do ask for help, you may "yes, but" others' suggestions. You may overlook your past successes and lessons learned in similar situations.
If you know how to move forward but just can't do it, you may be in the grip of a harsh inner critic. Feeling paralyzed, you may lose sight of any incentives and motivation for moving forward. This paralysis may manifest as attitudes like I can't, I don't want to, and It won't matter what I do. In such a downward spiral you may forget a simple truth: sometimes you have to "just do it" even when you don't feel like it. Once you get started, your energy may increase as your resistance evaporates.
(Part Three will show you how to overcome denial and resistance that can keep you stuck.)
Q4: Dealing with Your Emotions
Each of us has dozens of emotions every day, yet awareness of feelings varies from person to person. Having difficulty knowing, expressing, or accepting your emotions may reflect fears of losing control.
How difficulties with your emotions may manifest
If you find it difficult to know what you are feeling, you may have a habit of isolating or distracting yourself during emotionally charged situations. You may act out your feelings in counterproductive ways without even knowing it. This may result from growing up in an emotionally dysfunctional family in which emotions were rarely expressed or expressed irresponsibly. As a result, you may have come to view feelings as foreign territory.
If you recognize your feelings but find it hard to express them, you may hold a conscious or unconscious belief that expressing certain emotions will harm you or others. Or you may fear that you won't be able to control yourself once you start expressing a difficult emotion.You may tend to seek the perfect way of saying what you are feeling, but rarely find it.
If you have difficulty accepting your feelings, you may view emotions as "things" that are somehow separate from you. Perhaps you think that some feelings are "wrong." Yet by not accepting your emotional self, you deprive yourself of vital clues that could help you recognize and recover from self-sabotage.
(Part Three will help you understand and more readily express your emotions.)
Q5: Least-favored Emotions
Anger, sadness, and fear are the "Big Three"—the most troublesome emotions for many people. These raw, primal emotions touch our core.
How avoiding anger, sadness, or fear may manifest
If you struggle most with anger, you may hold that emotion in for too long and then explode out of proportion to the situation at hand. You may even vigorously deny that you are angry. You have probably noticed another person wearing a forced smile, even when it was obvious that he or she was fuming. Difficulty with anger may also reflect a discomfort with asserting yourself. You may view anger as an illegitimate or dangerous emotion. It is easy to forget that anger, like all emotions, is innately natural and healthy. Anger is a sign of a real or perceived violation of your rights or needs. As such, it can motivate you to protect your legitimate rights.
If you struggle with sadness, you may postpone grieving life's necessary losses. When sadness arises, you may distract yourself with activity, leave, or instead feel other emotions like boredom or irritability. You may avoid talking about situations that make you feel sad. You may downplay or even stop having expectations, hoping to avoid the disappointment from unfulfilled expectations. It is easy to forget that sadness is a natural response to emotional loss. Expressing sadness, while sometimes painful, can be profoundly cleansing.
If you deny or ignore fear, you may stick to tried-and-true activities, put great stock in superstitions, or follow habits that make you feel protected. It is easy to forget that fear, like anger and sadness, is an innate, helpful emotion. Healthy fear is a warning sign of danger.
(Parts Three and Four will help you distinguish between healthy and unhealthy responses to fear and other emotions.)
Q6: Distressing Emotions
Feeling lonely, flawed, or out of control can be distressing because all three tend to trigger a sense of being fundamentally bad or wrong as a person.
How reactions to distressing emotions may manifest
Feeling excessive loneliness may spark negative and inaccurate self-assessments, which can hasten a downward spiral in anybody's mood. This is one reason we seek to connect and be active. Yet if you will do anything to avoid feeling lonely, you may be tempted to settle for unsatisfying relationships. You may also neglect the opportunity to get to know and accept yourself.
If you will do anything to avoid feeling flawed, you may be hypersensitive when you feel criticized or judged. You may work especially hard, perhaps to the point of unhealthy perfectionism. You may be tempted to seek validation from external sources such as money, power, or beauty.
If you will do anything to avoid feeling out of control, you may compensate by becoming overly controlling of yourself or others. You may seek situations where you alone are in charge of the outcome, preferring not to be subject to a superior's rules or scrutiny. Before trying something new, you may insist on knowing all the details. You may feel anxious or overwhelmed more easily than you would like.
(Part Four will help you recognize and promote your internal strength and flexibility in the face of difficult experiences.)
Q7: Least-attended-to Aspects of Yourself
We each attend to our minds, bodies, and hearts in varying degrees. There is no "right" way to be, but ignoring your mental, physical, or emotional life can lead to self-sabotaging oversights and excesses.
How least-attended-to aspects of yourself may manifest
If you tend to ignore or overlook your mental life, you may notice that you are easily distracted or have difficulty concentrating. You may get confused easily or feel indecisive. You may feel less competent or intelligent than others and, as a result, give short shrift to valuable mental functions such as planning ahead, putting words to your experience, and making meaning of events.
If you tend to ignore your physical life, you may notice that youhave difficulty being "in the now." You may feel one step removed from your surroundings. You may pursue goals without regard to physical limitations or needs, thereby risking health problems.
If you tend to pay little attention to your emotional life, you may notice that you intellectualize feelings or overanalyze people and events. You may find it difficult to be spontaneous or to respond to the feelings of others. You may try to "think away" uncomfortable feelings. The problem is that denied emotions may eventually resurface as physical aches and pains or mental rumination.
(Part Four will show how to achieve optimal mind, body, and heart fitness.)
Q8: Drifting Thoughts
Nothing is inherently wrong with a tendency to focus on the past, future, or some other place you'd rather be. But any of these outlooks can be self-defeating if used too often or to escape reality.
How drifting thoughts may manifest
Looking to the past can help you make sense of events, learn from mistakes, and plan for the future. Yet if you dwell too much in the past, you may notice that much of your joy in life comes from reliving rather than living events. You may avoid challenges or fail to plan for the future. You may replay regrets, thus bringing old pain into the present. You may idealize past high points so much that you assume that your best days are behind you. You may find yourself mentally rewriting past events with more pleasing endings. This may serve as a way to distract yourself from current-day anxieties or pressing problems.
Focusing on the future can help you anticipate opportunities and avoid dangers. Yet too much of a forward focus may mean that you always look to the next activity and neglect to take any satisfaction from jobs well done. Living too much in the future, just like living too much in the past, may be a way to avoid feelings of anxiety from existing challenges or problems.
Focusing on someplace else you'd rather be can spark your imagination and offer new perspectives. Yet it may be a form of escapism. Fantasizing about another place may compensate for feeling a lack of control in your current situation. Too much drifting from the here-and-now can have you living in "daylight wastings time."
(Part Four will help you balance the past, present, and future in your daily outlook.)
SECRETS YOU KEEP FROM YOURSELF. Copyright © 2004 by Dan Neuharth. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
|To the Reader||xiii|
|Introduction: Do You Stop Yourself Short of Happiness and Fulfillment?||1|
|Part 1||The Secrets We Keep||9|
|1||Who Are You When You're Not Being Yourself?||11|
|How Self-deception Works||13|
|Everybody Keeps Secrets||15|
|Self-deception Takes Many Forms||16|
|Creating "Wake-up" Calls||23|
|If You'd Like to Go Deeper: Identifying Your Customary Approaches to Challenges||24|
|2||A Litmus Test for Self-sabotage||32|
|Self-awareness Tool #1||When in Doubt, Apply the Litmus Test||38|
|3||Why We Get in Our Own Way||40|
|Self-awareness Tool #2||Look for the Loss||45|
|The Benefits of Self-sabotage||45|
|4||Your "Subterranean Accountant"||51|
|Recalculating Your Subterranean Accountant's Math||58|
|Summary of Part 1: The Secrets We Keep||59|
|Part 2||How to Recognize the Early-warning Signs of Self-sabotage||61|
|5||Taming the Beasts Within||63|
|Self-awareness Tool #3||Observe Your Animal Nature||66|
|6||Caught with Your Hand in the Cookie Jar||68|
|7||Your "Usual Suspects"||72|
|If You'd Like to Go Deeper: Rounding Up Your Usual Suspects||73|
|8||Your Inner "Cast of Characters"||78|
|Managing Your Inner Characters||98|
|If You'd Like to Go Deeper: Detecting Your Inner Characters||99|
|A Word about Destructive Patterns||103|
|Summary of Part 2: How to Recognize the Early-warning Signs of Self-sabotage||104|
|Part 3||How to Minimize Your Unnecessary Losses||105|
|9||The Facts of Life||107|
|Self-handicapping Fight-or-flight Reactions||109|
|Increased Stress and Health Problems||111|
|Difficulty Coping with Limitations||112|
|An Emotional Roller Coaster of Expectation and Disappointment||113|
|Trouble Balancing Others' Needs with Your Own||115|
|Self-awareness Tool #4||Take Stock of Your Roots in Infancy||116|
|Denial of Your Mortality||116|
|The Facts of Life, Revisited||120|
|10||Your Personal "Defense Department"||121|
|Challenging Your Denial||122|
|Dissolving Your Denial||124|
|If You'd Like to Go Deeper: Unmasking Denial||125|
|11||The Truth About Fear||127|
|Fear Is a Mental Movie That Gets Stuck at the Worst Part||128|
|Fear Highlights Worst-case Scenarios Without Regard to Their Likelihood||129|
|Exploiting Fear's Weak Spots||135|
|12||Going to the Heart of Your Fears||138|
|Why Identifying Core Fears Is Helpful||142|
|Tracking Your Fears||142|
|Naming Your Fears||143|
|How Core Fears Translate into Action||144|
|13||Taking Control of Your Fears||149|
|Core Fears Are Perceived Deficits||157|
|If You'd Like to Go Deeper: Identifying the Heart of Your Fears||157|
|14||Tools for Fear-busting||159|
|Ten Fear-busting Techniques||159|
|Fear Versus Courage||165|
|Summary of Part 3: How to Minimize Your Unnecessary Losses||166|
|Part 4||Unearthing the Treasures You Keep from Yourself||169|
|15||Moving from Fear to Desire||171|
|Self-awareness Tool #5||Reclaim Overlooked, Abandoned, or Forgotten Desires||173|
|Promoting Your Core Desires||178|
|Embracing the Profound Within You||179|
|If You'd Like to Go Deeper: Clarifying Your Desires||181|
|16||Emerging from the Shadows: A Portrait of Your Hidden Self||183|
|Knowing Who You Are||185|
|Crafting a Life||187|
|Your "Hidden Self"||187|
|If You'd Like to Go Deeper: Painting a Portrait of Your Hidden Self||188|
|Building an Accurate Self-image||195|
|If You'd Like to Go Deeper: Acknowledging Your Accomplishments||196|
|17||What Matters and What Doesn't||201|
|Life Is an Open-book Exam||203|
|18||Decoding the Languages of Your Mind, Body, and Heart||207|
|What Happens When Your Mind, Body, and Heart Work at Cross-purposes||209|
|Recognizing When You're Living out of Balance||211|
|Self-awareness Tool #6||Check In with Your "Children"||212|
|Clarifying Confusing Situations and Generating Effective Responses||212|
|Achieving Optimal Well-being||213|
|If You'd Like to Go Deeper: Learning the Languages of Your Mind, Body, and Heart||215|
|Summary of Part 4: Unearthing the Treasures You Keep from Yourself||216|
|Part 5||Triumphing over Challenges and Adversity||217|
|19||What to Do When You're Stuck||219|
|Audrey: "I Get Distracted So Easily"||227|
|Harold: "When Someone Close to Me Gets Upset, I Feel as if I Have to Fix It"||229|
|Angelica: "I'm Not Happy Even Though I've Achieved Much of What I Wanted"||230|
|A Reminder about Problem Solving||231|
|20||Creating Wake-up Calls by Design||232|
|Part 1||Recognize Signs of Self-sabotage||232|
|Part 2||Cut Challenges Down to Size||234|
|Part 3||Increase Your Motivation and Enhance Your Sense of Self||237|
|Pam: "Whose Dream Is It, Anyway?"||239|
|Carlyle and Roger: "How Can We Recapture the Closeness?"||243|
|Dianne: "My Kids Think I'm Supermom"||246|
|Greta: "Even Though I Was the One Rejected, I Feel as Though It Was My Fault"||251|
|Aaron: "I Can't Seem to Handle My Finances"||254|
|A Final Task: Making Peace with Your Self-defeats||257|
|Summary of Part 5: Triumphing over Challenges and Adversity||259|
|Conclusion: Living from Your Best Self||260|
|The Goliath Principle||260|
|Don't Take It Personally||262|
|Live Beyond Comparison||263|
|Live as Though You Make a Difference||265|
|Live as You Breathe||266|
|If You'd Like to Go Deeper: Living from Your Best Self Starting Today||268|