Join our guest writer, Em, as she discusses her experience in ED recovery.
We can all acknowledge the existence of self-sabotaging behaviors, but why do we engage in self-sabotage? How are these behaviors serving us? How do we challenge these behaviors? Our self sabotaging behaviors can control our lives, and may be strongly rooted in fears of abandonment, failure, loneliness, imperfection, and change. Self sabotage is comfortable. Self sabotage is protective. Self sabotage and stagnation are safe.
My own recovery process has required growth, reflection, confrontation, and change in many areas outside of food and body. But, challenging the attached fears hasn't come easy. There have been many moments in which I want to give up. To take the “easy” route. To go back to what is safe- even if that safety has long term consequences. Progressing through recovery, it seems that these moments have become increasingly frequent. As I begin to see my potential. As I begin to set goals for my future self. As I am beginning to experience excitement and hope around the idea of living a recovered life, I also begin to fear what it may feel like to fail.
I was recently sitting in a group that focused on feelings of pain and hopelessness, during a time in which I was particularly struggling with finding my own motivation to continue my journey. As we discussed this further, we identified that hopelessness was, unfortunately, very familiar. However, on this particular day, that hopelessness that washed over the group seemed particularly heavy; because ‘for once, things had finally been going well’ and that pain and hopelessness were unexpected. It is much easier to manage pain when it is expected. We can tolerate pain when it is comfortably normal. If we experience joy or success, there is the fear that it cannot last forever and that the pain will return. And when it does, we will no longer be able to handle it. So we find it much more comforting to sit in the safety of stagnation-even if that means never allowing ourselves personal growth, development, or happiness.
This is all still a learning process for me. I am by no means an expert in challenging my own self sabotage and I still engage in self-sabotaging behaviors, particularly regarding my recovery, on a regular basis. But I am learning to recognize the patterns in my behavior; and I am hopeful that by becoming aware of my actions, I can continue to move toward living a fully recovered life. The key pieces to challenging my own self-sabotage have been,
I don’t enjoy repetition. I thrive in environments of constant change. I find discomfort staying in one place for too long. I seek adventure, excitement, and new experiences. This has led to an interesting life. I find joy in telling the stories of driving the Pacific Coast with our exhaust pipe attached by a bootlace, moving across the country with what could be packed in our Jeep and no plan for what was next, or going straight from a music festival to the plane back to Iowa for my wedding. But recovery has required consistency because the thrill of change makes it particularly easy for me to run when faced with the fears of recovery.
Breakfast before work. Lunch with my partner. Snacks with my care team. Recurring therapy, doctor, and dietitian appointments. Exercise clearance levels. All of this structure has now become a regular part of my life. I am accountable to my care team and my support network for meals and snacks. I have a running coach that provides a training plan based on all aspects of my recovery. I have learned that I need to find structure, accountability, and consistency to prevent self-sabotage. When I have less flexibility, there are fewer opportunities to engage. When I know what to expect, there is less fear.
Naming the Action & Identifying the Underlying Emotions
It’s easy to continue the pattern of self-sabotage when it’s done in secrecy, so in order to limit my self-sabotaging behaviors I have had to become comfortable with the idea of outing myself. Radically Open DBT and Self Inquiry (1) were key approaches during my time attending treatment. Since then, the process of self inquiry has become a foundational piece of my recovery. The intention of this practice is to recognize the presence of uncomfortable emotion, to explore this emotion further through questions, and to sit with those questions that create emotional dysregulation, without responding.
By naming out loud, ‘Yes, right now, I am self-sabotaging,’ my next action is to ask myself, ‘Why am I self-sabotaging.’ I don’t have to respond to this question; but as I reflect on the emotional response, I often become aware of upcoming changes or recent events that may have triggered a fearful or protective response within myself. Through this, I am better able to give myself grace for having a (very valid) emotional reaction; instead of engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors to avoid this unwanted emotion.
Learning to Trust Without Testing
Growing up it wasn’t okay to ask for help. Asking for help also held the potential for disappointment. And because I consistently received this message, I learned it was safer to have my needs met through action. It was safer to test whether or not my caregivers were truly invested in my wellbeing. Instead of asking for help, it was safer to show that I needed help. In my recovery, this has led to the use of self-sabotaging behaviors to express that I wasn’t ready to transition to a lower level of care. To let others know when I am struggling to do this on my own. And, as a way to ask for the support I need it, without actually having to say it.
Finding success in recovery has required me to find, and use, my voice. Self-sabotage may have drawn attention to my struggling, but I didn’t feel empowered in my own recovery until I was able to actually express that I needed more help. To say that I wasn’t ready. To voice the fear that I was feeling around changes. And to have conversations about where, and why, I was struggling. Once I found my voice I recognized my own personal values and motivations in recovery, I have been able to ask for the help that I needed. And I feel more confident in the changes occurring, because I am empowered in my own decisions.
Whether I am self-sabotaging because I believe that I don’t deserve to ask for help. Because I am afraid of success and the associated opportunity for failure. Or because I find familiarity in chaos, I am using self-sabotaging behaviors as a way to seek safety. As I continue in my recovery journey I am aware that change is eminent. Self-exploration and curiosity about my own behaviors have allowed me to better understand the unconscious beliefs my decisions are based upon. I cannot recover as the same person I was. I have goals and expectations for myself that require pushing my fear of failure. I have identified and become comfortable with my voice, finding that discomfort now sits in silence. Living my recovered life requires that I swap the safety of self-sabotage for the curiosity of self-exploration. And I am choosing to welcome this change.
(1) Luoma, J. (n.d.). What is Self Inquiry? The Practice of Mindfulness Questioning from Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Radically Open. https://www.radicallyopen.net/what-is-self-enquiry-the-practice-of-mindfulness-questioning-from-radically-open-dialectical-behavior-therapy/