“You leave old habits behind by starting out with the thought,
‘I release the need for this in my life.’”
– Wayne Dyer, American philosopher, author and speaker
“Now, here’s where it gets really interesting,” I said. “The job of your unconscious mind is to keep you safe based upon (pause for emphasis) what you unconsciously perceive as a threat.”
I was explaining the functional differences — in layman’s terms — between the conscious and unconscious minds to a client looking to mitigate her self-sabotaging patterns of behaviour.
“Some people might consider abundance a threat while others would regard a successful relationship a threat. In either respect, your unconscious mind will work tirelessly to ensure that you’re safe by avoiding threats or removing you promptly from threatening situations.”
“But how did I learn these patterns?” she asked. “Where did they come from?”
“Many of these patterns are founded on beliefs formed in childhood,” I explained, “and reinforced over time through repetition until they crystalized into set patterns of reaction.”
Have you ever tried to overcome a particular habit yet found the habit becoming more and more ingrained? Ever wondered why — despite your best efforts — you keep reacting the same way to a particular person, place or event and end up with the same regrettable results?
It’s because many of us have deeply entrenched belief systems that sabotage our best efforts.
Self-sabotage results from a conflict between what we consciously desire and what we unconsciously hold as true or possible for ourselves.
Those unconscious beliefs and subsequent actions hold us back from attaining what we consciously desire. For example, if you unconsciously believe falling in love will end in betrayal, heartbreak and abandonment, you will derail a relationship the moment it begins to gain momentum.
As odd as it sounds, this unconscious safety mechanism is working to protect you against disappointment. Put another way, your subconscious mind is shielding you from getting hurt by pulling you out of what it sees as a potentially dangerous situation.
Of course, this is an oversimplification of a complex mental process but the fact remains, much of what we do, say, feel and experience is the result of deeply rooted systems of belief functioning below the level of conscious awareness. In my experience, self-sabotage persists because of a lack of awareness and poor self-esteem. The better your self-esteem, the more willing you become to live a life that is purposeful, conscious and ever-evolving.
The first step toward shifting and ultimately eliminating these unhealthy patterns is awareness. You must identify the thoughts, feelings and subsequent actions that lead you down the path to self-sabotage.
If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the beliefs you formed as a child – beliefs that over time can begin to control you.
The more intense the emotion at the time of inception, the deeper the belief.
Initially, sabotaging reactions may only happen with situations similar to the original triggering event.
Over time, however, assumptions are layered over the initial belief and situations only vaguely familiar to the original event trigger the same reaction. Think of our love example.
Perhaps in a previous relationship, a callous and uncaring partner lied to you and broke your heart. In a subsequent relationship, a misunderstanding might be interpreted as a lie resulting in a loss of trust and the conclusion that a broken heart is inevitable.
The least painful option is to end the relationship. It’s easy to see how generalizations are formed and how the pattern will play out.
Buddhists have a word for this unconscious playing out of self-destructive patterns — shenpa. Shenpa is a Tibetan word meaning attachment. Shenpa is often referred to as the urge or hook that triggers habitual tendencies. Once hooked, the pattern plays itself out, and only when the pattern concludes is there any awareness that something undesirable has occurred.
Call it what you will, there are methods to interrupt the pattern and initiate change.
Know your triggers.
The trigger is what causes the pattern to commence. It can be anything from a criticism, loud voice, a grumpy boss, a sleepless night — you name it.
You can begin to recognize the trigger by recognizing the familiar feelings of unease that arise just before the pattern begins. This unease is typically accompanied by the sense of being out of control.
Know what you tend to do once triggered.
The more aware you become of the habitual behaviours you engage in, the more able you’ll become to stop them.
Each pattern has a beginning, a middle and an end. The next time you feel the urge arising, identify the behaviour as your hook response. Allow the pattern to mentally unfold with awareness so that you may come to understand the thoughts, feelings and usual behaviours associated with the pattern.
Refrain from reacting. Once you recognize an unhealthy pattern and know how it typically unfolds, you’ll be in a better position to resist allowing the unfolding to occur. Of course, this is easier said than done and will take persistence and likely a little help from friends or a counsellor. Recognizing the pattern as unhealthy is a big step toward shifting it permanently.
Allow the storm to pass. With practice, you’ll be able to recognize the hook and avoid it. If you become hooked — and this is not uncommon in the beginning – sit quietly and allow each of the thoughts and physical sensations to come and go.
Study each the way a scientist might study a fascinating experiment in the lab. The pattern will eventually pass and when it does, you’ll likely find a number of valuable insights rising to the surface of your awareness.
“Habit is habit,” wrote Mark Twain, the American author and humorist, “and not to be flung out the window by any man but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.”
None of us chooses self-sabotage. We acquired and mastered these habits in our past. Fortunately, we can build a better future by building and maintaining our self-esteem today.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator.