Why We Sabotage Ourselves – It’s Not What You Think

On the Netflix show Gypsy, Naomi Watts (who plays a psychotherapist) narrates a pretty profound principle within five minutes of the first episode.

“I used to believe that people determined their own lives, that we are in control, commanding our futures, choosing our spouses, picking professions, responsible for the decisions that shape the course of our lives. Yet there is one choice more powerful than free will – our unconscious.”

I rewound it three times.

I thought of all the times I had sabotaged my own desires; how as an actor I refused to go in for a Broadway audition for a part I desperately wanted because I didn’t like the casting director’s attitude, how I started smoking again during the pinnacle of my health coaching career, how I would act like a crazy loon at the beginning of a new romantic relationship. The examples were plentiful and painful.

As someone who now coaches people largely on how to let go of the past so they can powerfully create for the future, I see the unconscious at play every day in my work for this simple reason…

The unconscious is the birthplace of our self-sabotage.

Let’s say we are consciously aware that we have a desire in our lives, that we are wanting to take action to move that desire forward and to physically manifest something in our lives.

Throughout the change process, we may notice that at various points we feel different shades of resistance in our bodies to that change. We start to make excuses and spin stories as to why our desires aren’t possible, aren’t valid, or need to be kept under wraps.

The more we spin these stories, the more deflated we become, the more inactive we stay. If we take any action at all, it is dampened, half-hearted, half-baked, steeped in expectation and inconsistent. The result? We don’t fulfill our desires very efficiently.

So, why would we want to halt our own progress?

This may comes as no surprise, but resistance mainly stems from fear.

We are afraid of failure, of course, but we are also afraid of succeeding. It can be very unfamiliar to a mind that remembers what it felt like to fail but doesn’t know what it feels like to experience success, as our bodies might not have experienced it yet.

In addition, our bodies become addicted to our stories and victimhood. They become addicted to our moods and attitudes. When we believe we are capable of something new, experiencing the empowerment of a perspective shift can feel foreign and unsafe.

Because our mind isn’t capable of experiencing a future we haven’t lived, it projects the past sensory experience like a movie onto the future. We believe we will re-feel (on some level) the events of the past.

And because our mind is always looking for how to emotionally and physically survive, it will look for all the negative feelings from our past in order to forecast what will happen in the future. That way, we think we know how to step over pain.

Let’s say someone wants to lose weight and get healthy for good, but after a lifetime of dieting, bingeing, deprivation and a punishing, obsessive relationship with food, they find they are experiencing a lot of resistance to taking the first steps.

On an emotional level, they may be likening this new attempt (even if it looks nothing like the old one) to past approaches, failure and pain. Their commitment to action isn’t fully present. They are dampening their efforts to prevent feeling previous sensations around it. And the kicker is that it usually ensures failure.

However, there is another (and I believe an even more powerful) reason we sabotage our desires. It lives in deeper in our unconscious…

We keep smaller problems around so we don’t have to deal with the larger ones.

The goals we tend to focus on first (in our previous example, weight loss) may indeed be based on our desires. But for many, the last 10-20 pounds would be an example of a smokescreen problem or a ground level problem. If this problem was taken care of, if it was a non-issue, if it was dissolved, there would still be something beneath it waiting to surface. Let’s call this the the iceberg problem as we are most aware of it when the ground level problem melts.

We are often more afraid of what is waiting in the wings, asking for our attention, of what we might be responsible to if our ground level / smokescreen problem was no longer a problem.

The more we stall in our progress with the ground level problem, the less responsible we are to what is REALLY asking for our attention, what our deeper selves have been begging for.

When it comes down to it, addressing the iceberg problem usually requires more courage than the ground level one. It almost always requires vulnerability and a willingness to step into uncertainty and the unknown.

It cuts right down to what our soul is asking for that we have been ignoring, the deeper human needs that connect us all. And that can’t be solved with a nutritional plan, a budget or a huge bump in our social media following. That can be a whole lot scarier than what our ego has been asking for.

What If…

A while ago, I started asking clients this question:

What if this problem wasn’t a problem anymore? What if it wasn’t “the thing” for you?

Here is what I heard:

  • “I would have to take steps to heal my relationship with my mother.”
  • “I would have to cope with my deeper feelings of inadequacy.”
  • “I would have to finally leave my marriage.”
  • “I would have to quit my job and start a whole new path.”
  • “I would have to face my past sexual trauma and abuse.”
  • “I would have to apologize or own up to something that scares me.”
  • “I would have to own up to my desire to study chimpanzees in Africa with Jane Goodall!”
  • “I would have to tell my father I’m gay.”

Sometimes the first step in moving past resistance in the ground level problem is to identify, address and understand the deeper emotional human dilemma that is waiting underneath it for our presence.

Starting to explore or take small steps in addressing the iceberg problem helps us become less afraid of its power. By comparison, the ground level problem will seem a whole lot easier to manage and we may feel our resistance starting to dissipate naturally as we no longer need it to cover up what is really going on.

A Path Forward

There is no judge or jury in the sky for how fast we overcome our self-sabotage. However, our inner guide is always there when we stop and pay attention and start to listen. It tells us what we are ignoring and what is asking for our presence.

What I have come to understand is that the more we have the courage to listen to our deeper callings and what our soul is whispering to us, the easier it is to go after what we want (even the solving of ground level problems).

If you are continuously noticing yourself standing in your own way and banging your head against a wall in a certain area of your life, if you notice an area that always seems to be a problem for you, it may be time to ask yourself an important question:

What if this wasn’t the thing taking up time and attention in my life? What would be asking for my attention?

If this intrigues you, and you are curious how to gain more awareness on your own specific sabotage, where it stems from, what it is really about for you, and how to start to break through your own glass ceiling, I am psyched to invite you to my upcoming workshop at MFF on Sunday, September 30, “The Secrets in Your Sabotage.” Last time I gave this workshop at MFF, there was a long waitlist, so time is of the essence. Don’t wait.

I can’t wait to help you dive in these waters and swim around. Our sabotage is a gift in strange wrapping paper. It can be an incredible door back to ourselves, our hearts and our truth.

Rock On & Be Well,

Join Beth for “The Secrets in Your Sabotage” Workshop on Sunday, September 30 at MFF Bowery.


Beth Clayton is a TedX speaker, health & life coach and writer. She has been featured on Tiny Buddha, Elephant Journal, Reader’s Digest and Positively Positive as well as numerous podcasts. She has led hundreds of Ninjas through her soul-based health coaching program Soul Body System at MFF before and since moving to Washington D.C.

As a coach, she continues to help people let go of past pain, condition outdated belief systems and step into a more ignited and loving relationship with their body, their mind and their most powerful resource – their inner being. You can get her free e-book, “The Secrets in Your Sabotage” at www.soulbodylife.com/free-stuff.


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