A very common way to describe what happens when you do the opposite of what you say you want to do, is self-sabotage. I bet every single one of you reading this has said this to yourself at some point: ‘Why am I sabotaging myself??? I want to change this more than anything!’ And yet, you engage the very actions that don’t create that result: you procrastinate; you overeat; perhaps you self-harm, or self-medicate with pharmaceuticals or alcohol.
Why I don’t like using the term ‘self-sabotage’
I’m not a great fan of the concept of self-sabotage. I understand the intent: simply to describe the opposing force within that stops you from creating the results you want in your life. But any time I’ve used it, it has come along with upset: frustration with myself, sometimes anger towards myself – and a general sense of heaviness and hopelessness. It reinforces the internal fight, where one part of you wants something ‘good’ for yourself, and another part seems intent on thwarting your success. One thing I’ve learned through my own recovery, and in guiding others through theirs, is that fighting with yourself has no winners.
So if we’re not looking at this push-pull through the lens of self-sabotage, what else might be helpful?
So if it’s not self-sabotage, what is it?
Something so simple and so profound that I learned from Christie Inge some years back, is that every action is an attempt to meet a need. Yes, every action is in some way your attempt to meet a need whether you acknowledge it or not.
So, you’re not sabotaging your (whole) self, though you could say one of your goals is being sabotaged. What’s actually happening is that your self is trying to get your attention.
It’s trying to alert you to unmet needs.
- You’ve had a long and busy day at work. You come home, and there are kids to supervise, dinner to arrange and the breakfast dishes are still on the table. What you feel, is tired and overwhelmed. Your need, is for rest and space. But your mind is demanding that you keep doing more and being more to others. So you eat, even though you’re not hungry. And your need for rest and space goes unmet.
- You have an argument with a loved one – there’s name calling, things are said that hurt. You find refuge in food. What you need is to feel safe and secure in the relationship even if you happen to be having an argument. While the food provides a temporary distraction from the pain and short-term comfort, food can’t actually meet your need for emotional safety – so that need goes unmet.
- Perhaps your life is lacking in fun, excitement, pleasure, a sense of adventure – so eating when you’re not hungry is an attempt to meet that need. Food – particularly highly processed food can be like having a wild party in your mouth! Your senses are highly stimulated!
The brain is very efficient
It likes to make things automated. So if you’ve met your needs with (excess or too little) food in the past, and you did get some level of satisfaction from that (even if only that you got a dopamine hit), that will be enough for your brain to keep repeating the pattern.
One way to address this is to be the scientist of your own life and become curious about which needs you’re consistently meeting with food.
Here’s a list of needs to help you think about it*:
- Safety (emotional and physical)
- Play (fun, excitement, enjoyment etc.)
- Sustenance (food, water, fresh air, movement)
- Belonging (community, connection, understanding etc)
- Growth (challenge, purpose)
- Love (acceptance, intimacy)
- Celebration (joy, being honoured, also grieving/mourning)
- Autonomy (choice, freedom, sense of creating one’s dreams)
- Reverence (respect, appreciation, awe)
- Integrity (authenticity, self-worth, sense of acting in accordance with one’s values)
- Contribution (meaning, being of service to others)
- Rest (physical, emotional, spiritual, having a sense of flexible order)
When you’ve identified which needs you most commonly meet with food, you can think of ways to intentionally meet that need – even when you’re not in need of it at that moment. When I did this, I knew that tiredness was a need I was consistently over-riding and meeting with extra food. So I scheduled in a daily nap, whether I thought I needed it or not. It didn’t matter. I needed to catch up on rest – so whether I was tired in the moment or not didn’t matter. I had residual fatigue. This made a huge difference to everything – not just my eating behaviour!
If you know that you eat when you’re feeling lonely, then your need for belonging (and possibly play) is not being met. The idea is to intentionally build more connection with others into your life – whether you’re feeling lonely in the moment or not! Once you pay intentional attention to that need, and ‘feed’ it (with connection), in the moments you do feel lonely, you’re less likely to reach for food, and more likely to reach out to someone, or simply allow yourself to experience loneliness without extra food.
And so on!
Meeting your needs
Of course, there are other things that will get in the way – understanding which needs you’re meeting with food is one piece. That must be brought to your awareness – for without awareness, nothing will change.
But you’ll likely have a bunch of beliefs about getting your needs met – by yourself and/or by others – and those beliefs need to be brought to awareness, examined and challenged, if you’re going to be able to sustain meeting your needs.
Does that make sense?
I’ll look at this piece – your beliefs about meeting your needs in my next newsletter – which only goes out to my email subscribers. So – if you’re curious about that, do sign up.
* Thanks to Christie Inge for the list of needs – and more.