With summer around the corner, Dawn made a commitment to herself: no more sugar, alcohol, or fried food. She knew that if she could stick to those rules, she'd be able to lose the few pounds she wanted to shed.
That Sunday afternoon, as she wrote the three rules in her journal, she was excited about her plan and looking forward to feeling lighter, healthier, and more energized—it was going to be a great summer!
Fast-forward to Tuesday evening. Dawn finds herself in a restaurant with friends after work ordering nachos with extra cheese and one too many glasses of wine.
On the way home, she's hit by the all-too-familiar feelings of failure, frustration, and confusion about why she continually sabotages her healthy eating goals.
We've all been in Dawn's shoes. We know where we want to go. We know how to get there. We even feel excited about our plan—but before we know it, we're sabotaging our plans, undermining our progress, and hating ourselves for it.
As one of my clients so eloquently put it, "I have to wonder: why do I continue to be the person I don't want to be?"
Here are the three most common reasons for self-sabotage that I see in my practice as a nutritionist, and what I do to help my clients break this destructive pattern:
1. What's familiar is comfortable (even when it causes pain).
The way our brains learn is by creating neural pathways between neurons that repeatedly fire together. This means that when you do something over and over again, like brushing your teeth, an actual physical neural pathway is formed in your brain around that action and it becomes automatic. This means that you no longer have to think about how to brush your teeth. You fall into the same repeated pattern every time and that feels very comfortable for your brain.
But try picking up your toothbrush with the other hand and brushing your teeth. No neural pathways there to help you so you really have to think about how to do it. And it feels…uncomfortable.
Much the same process is at work when we decide to make changes around our eating patterns and habits. We have neural pathways in our brain around our current relationship with food. We have our morning coffee at the same time and in the same place. We order the same types of things when we eat out. We reach for the same evening snacks at the same time.
The neural pathways that have been created around these habits make them automatic and very comfortable.
Changing them requires your brain to not only abandon an established neural pathway but work to build a new one, leaving it feeling uncomfortable and longing to go back to the old, familiar pattern. And this is why we revert to old behaviors, even when they cause us pain.
The good news is that the discomfort of breaking old neural pathways and creating new ones is temporary.
Action step: Work on creating new neural pathways.
Back to our tooth-brushing example, if you spent a few days brushing your teeth with the wrong hand, even though it would require some effort and feel awkward at first, eventually a new neural pathway would form and soon that new action would become automatic and comfortable.
What this means for our relationship with food is that if we can see the discomfort as merely our brain breaking down old neural pathways and creating new ones, we can welcome it as a sign of progress and simply wait for it to pass rather than sabotaging ourselves by reverting to old, comfortable habits.
2. We're afraid of success.
As much as we think we want to reach our goals, it's very common to run up against fear and resistance as we find ourselves moving closer to them. Why? Because getting there is hard work and it's easy to view the reward as just a lifetime of more hard work.
It's like the old joke: What do you get for winning a pie-eating contest? More pie!
If the journey toward losing the weight feels like a constant struggle of missed fun and self-deprivation, part of you understandably assumes that reaching your goal and having to maintain it will mean a lifetime of more of the same. No wonder you end up sabotaging yourself!
The key here is to redefine your definition of success. If success to you is just a lower number on the scale, then the journey will always be a struggle, and reaching and maintaining the goal will always just look like more struggle—a recipe for self-sabotage.
Action step: Redefine success.
However, if you redefine success as creating an entirely new relationship with food in which making healthy choices starts to feel natural and effortless, then suddenly success looks exciting and the journey to get there worth sticking to.
3. The goal isn't clear or compelling enough.
Not having a clear and compelling vision for the healthy life and body you're trying to create for yourself is a common precursor to self-sabotage.
Imagine that you're presented with a choice between having a delicious fudge brownie that would make you feel blissful and satisfied, and not having the brownie and being miserable and feeling deprived—which one do you choose? The brownie, of course!
But, if the choice is between having the brownie and feeling temporarily blissful, or making a healthier choice that aligns with a crystal-clear vision you have for the vibrant, strong, energized, peaceful, and confident person you're becoming, well, suddenly the brownie doesn't always win.
You've stacked the deck a little more in your favor and you're far less likely to sabotage your journey.
Action step: Take time to clarify your vision.
Spend some time thinking, writing, and talking about your vision for the healthy life and body you want. Imagine every detail, think of every scenario, and envision exactly how amazing it will feel. This will give enormous strength to your resolve when you're faced with temptation and make self-sabotage far less attractive.
Self-sabotage is something we've all been guilty of, but by making some simple shifts in how we understand discomfort, how we define success, and how we visualize our goals we can leave that behavior behind.