We’ve all had a brush with self-sabotage. Maybe you procrastinated on a term paper or a big project. It could have been a commitment to moving your body 3-4 times a week that faded after a month or so of effort.
For those of us with mental health or substance use issues, self-sabotage might look like continuing to drink, even when we know the consequences will hurt us in some way. For many, self-sabotage can feel like an endless loop of negativity, especially for those of us who are trying to live alcohol-free but keep finding our way back to the bottle. Luckily though, self-sabotage in recovery is a specific behavior that can be overcome so long as we have the tools.
Lisa Savage, LCSW and founder of The Center for Childhood Development in Newark, DE, American Addiction Centers’ Lead Therapist, Todd Garlington, and Ruby Mehta, Director of Clinical Operations at Tempest give insight into how people can maintain the benefits of a sober life without sabotaging it.
First, though, we need to understand what self-sabotage is, what it looks like when you’re trying to quit drinking, and what we can do to overcome it.
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What Exactly is Self-Sabotage?
Simply put, self-sabotage is any behavior that prevents a person from reaching a goal, milestone, or accomplishment.
“Self-sabotage looks like someone achieving a level of success but engaging in behaviors that keep them stuck,” said Savage.
She continued, “People who don’t feel deserving of love might cheat on their partner. The fear that accompanies love and the possibility of rejection can cause a person to engage in ‘I’ll hurt you before you hurt me’ behavior. Being unfaithful can sometimes be reflective of a person’s fear of being loved and not being deserving.”
Another example that many trying to quit alcohol can relate to, said Garlington, is using or drinking, despite knowing the consequences. Take, for instance, having a DUI/DWI and getting behind the wheel again while intoxicated, thinking things might be different this time.
Other forms of self-sabotage when trying to moderate or give up drinking, said Ruby Mehta, Director of Clinical Operations at Tempest, are continuing to drink after a slip because you feel like you “failed” or continuing to hang out with people who don’t respect your sobriety and continue to pressure you into drinking.
Where Self-Sabotage Comes From
Self-sabotage is a behavior that can stem from a number of places: childhood experiences, trauma, mental health disorders, etc. Childhood experiences have a particular effect, though, said Savage.
“Early childhood experiences set the stage for how we see ourselves, our abilities and determine how we cope later in life,” she said. “Most often, people who engage in this type of behavior have experienced varying levels of trauma, which distorts their beliefs about themselves.”
Trauma, Savage said, can distort how someone feels about themselves, taking away a healthy sense of self-esteem. It can also make a person feel as though they might not deserve the good that comes to them. Both Savage and Garlington also point to a form of anxiety—fear of success and failure— contributes to self-sabotaging behavior as well. Guilt, too, can be a factor, Savage explained.
“Sometimes, for example, when people come from impoverished backgrounds, there is a sense of guilt that accompanies their success. They might feel guilty that their success surpassed others in their family and subconsciously thwart efforts for future growth.”
Sometimes though, we thwart our progress in sobriety and we don’t have any conscious understanding as to why. This is where a little investigation is warranted, Mehta said.
“Sometimes self-sabotage happens unconsciously, and it’s important to increase self-awareness as a first step to preventing or reducing it. Notice if the actions you are taking support your long-term goals,” she explained. “Also, look for familiar patterns, thoughts and triggers preceding self-sabotage.”
How Self-Sabotage Manifests in Sobriety
As mentioned previously, when you are trying to quit drinking, self-sabotage can look like a slip or hanging out with friends that we know don’t have our best interest at heart when it comes to living without alcohol.
It can also look like making progress up until a certain point, and then reverting back to old behaviors. Mehta uses the following example to illustrate:
“I once worked with someone in therapy who would make it 11 months without a drink and then drink again a few weeks or days before hitting a year of sobriety. This happened three times. Without realizing it, she was ascribing a certain meaning to hitting the one-year mark. Maybe for her, that meant she had to ‘do more’ or take on additional goals besides just sobriety. Maybe that meant letting go of her drinking self. Whatever it was, it was certainly built up to be something very anxiety-provoking.”
When we find ourselves repeating behaviors that are detrimental to our success it’s important to look at why and, as Mehta mentioned, increase self-awareness. When it comes to sobriety, self-sabotage can have lasting consequences.
“The obvious consequence is drinking again and falling into a shame spiral,” Mehta said. “This can be more pronounced when it’s a long-standing self-destructive pattern that you have not been able to shake. Self-sabotage can keep you from achieving your long-term goals and decrease your self-esteem.”
The good news is that self-sabotage—in life and in sobriety—can be overcome. It might not be easy, and doing so will take work and help, but with the right mindset and resources, a person can overcome their fears of reaching their goals.
“The first step in changing these unhealthy behaviors is to examine one’s patterns and actions,” Savage said. “It’s essential to look inward without judgment and with honest reflection.”
After all, you can’t fix something if you’re not clear on how it shows up, as Mehta mentioned previously. Then you name it, Mehta said. Once you’re able to name that self-sabotage is the culprit in your behavior, you can move forward in changing it.
Sometimes, we need an outside source to help figure out how, when, and why these behaviors show up. Garlington makes it clear that getting help is one of the most effective ways to work through self-sabotage.
“Seeking help from a qualified mental health professional would be where I would start, he said. “Individuals can’t often see what they are doing and could benefit from having someone else bring their attention to it in a calm, caring professional manner. Forming a therapeutic relationship can achieve this kind of enlightenment in a powerful way.”
It’s also important to take care of yourself as you go through the process of figuring out what pushes you toward self-sabotage. Part of doing so is giving yourself some grace.
“Resist the urge to judge yourself for self-sabotage. Realize that self-sabotage is often a form of protection against fear of the unknown or fear of failure. Be understanding with yourself,” Mehta said, and try to come with a willingness to learn and grow.
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For those of us who are trying to quit drinking, a support system and a host of professionals who understand addiction are helpful tools in ensuring we continue to make forward progress in our journey to living alcohol-free. Memberships to online programs like Tempest can be that support.
Overcoming self-sabotage, addiction, mental health issues, and unhealthy patterns is not easy, but so many of us have done it and continue to do it every day. Self-sabotage is just another layer of healing. It is possible if we have the desire and the resources to change.