Research Paper: Self-Sabotage Understanding Why the Client Fails to Reach His Goal

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By: Miriam D. Dancziger

Life Fulfillment Coach, UNITED STATES


The purpose of this research paper is to examine why a client may exhibit self-sabotaging behaviors which prevent him from achieving and enjoying success. It is incumbent upon the coach to understand the psychology of why the client may engage in these behaviors despite his desire to work toward his goals. With the benefit of this understanding, the coach can guide the client to correct his behaviors.

What is self-sabotage?

The World English dictionary defines sabotage as “to destroy, damage, or disrupt, especially by secret means.” adds that sabotage is “any undermining of a cause.” Thus, self-sabotage can be defined as an act done by an individual to damage or undermine himself. Self-sabotage can be recognized by the internal struggle between wanting to do something but feeling that one cannot or should not do it. (Williams, 2010)

Self-sabotaging behaviors can manifest themselves in many different ways. In extreme cases, the client may abuse drugs or alcohol in order to escape reality and harm their health. More commonly, self-sabotage takes the form of procrastination, negative thoughts, and distraction. Anything that one does subconsciously to prevent a desired outcome can be considered self-sabotage.

Self-sabotage is one of the biggest obstacles that clients face in trying to reach their goals. And yet, it’s baffling, illogical, and difficult to explain why the client would stop themselves and hold themselves back from something they truly want. There are several theories which explain why an individual would engage in self-sabotaging behaviors. Understanding these theories will help the coach understand the client and be able to coach them to overcome their self-sabotage and ultimately achieve their goals.

The Resistance Syndrome

Barbara Sher (1996), in her book Live the Life You Love, equates self-sabotage with resistance. She claims that resistance is a universal phenomenon that all humans face. Sher theorizes that resistance is a “primitive safety mechanism” (p. 123) which is stronger than desire or will. Resistance was developed in early humans to ensure their safety and survival. Early humans were safest when they resisted their curiosity to venture into the unknown, dangerous world. Therefore, resistance developed to ensure the continuation of mankind.

Resistance can be interpreted as self-sabotage, but Sher encourages the reader to understand that, because it is universal, it is not a sign of weakness. She advocates the removal of the stigma of self-sabotage by understanding that it has a function and is just a characteristic encoded into the client’s DNA. Accepting that resistance is a part of life is the first step toward defeating it.

Sher outlines several concrete strategies to overcome resistance and thereby eliminate the client’s self-sabotaging behaviors. The first step she elucidates requires the coach to help the client isolate the smallest possible step toward his goal that the client feels no resistance towards and is willing to do. For example, if the client has a goal of exercising for 30 minutes per day, he may typically encounter resistance when thinking about exercise, and end up not exercising at all. The coach should help the client identify the smallest step that he feels no resistance towards. This may be exercising for one minute, or maybe just 10 seconds. The client should complete this minimum step and then stop. The purpose of this technique is not to increase the the client’s duration over time, but rather to reawaken the feelings of enjoyment and pleasure achieved through exercising. At this point, the perceived mental danger level lowers and “the balance between resistance and action will begin to tip.” (Sher, 1996, p.134)

Sher then suggests that the client “declare his love” for the smallest unit of action. This will awaken desire for the outcome from within the client. As desire is the natural enemy of resistance, remembering how much he enjoys the process will allow the client to continue working toward his goal without awakening his resistance.

Sher also addresses the issue which arises when the client cannot identify even a miniscule action toward which he feels no resistance. She proposes an innovative strategy: She suggests that the client proclaim his refusal to do anything at all related to the goal. She explains that this outright refusal allows the client to remain in control in the battle with resistance. Sher advises the client to vocally repeat his refusal for days, weeks, or months, as long as necessary, until the resistance naturally disappears and the client can take action toward his goal.

Sher’s method of overcoming resistance as a way of eliminating self-sabotaging behaviors is an effective method because it gives the client permission to accept the undesired behaviors as universal, and, therefore, “normal.” Once the client is no longer battling with himself over the self-sabotage, he can begin to implement the smallest step toward reaching his goal in order to reawaken his desire for it. Once his desire is reawakened, the desire becomes stronger than the resistance and the self-sabotaging behaviors naturally desist. (Sher, 1996)

The Upper Limit Problem

In his book, The Big Leap, Gay Hendricks (2009) presents an interesting theory as to why clients sabotage their own success. He claims that every person has an Upper Limit, or an internal “thermostat setting” (p.20) which determines the amount of positivity and success they can tolerate in their life. He explains that this Upper Limit is established in early childhood, based on the child’s perceptions of what is expected of him by his parents and society.