What Do You Do When You’re Your Own Worst Enemy at Work?
Recognizing why you self-sabotage means taking a long, hard look inward.
There’s a saying about boiling a frog alive – which, to be clear, is not something I have ever attempted. The idea is that if you plop a frog straight into boiling water, it’s going to immediately jump out. But, if you put the same frog in tepid water and then slowly raise the temperature, it won’t recognize the imminent danger, and will hang out until it becomes stew.
In some ways, my professional career thus far reminds me a lot of the frog. Except in this half-baked metaphorical musing, I am the frog and my lack of self-awareness around my own destructive patterns is the water. After a few years of shooting myself in the foot, one day it hit: the water had been boiling all along, and I was the one who was boiling it.
Self-sabotage is a fascinating phenomenon that can rear its head in multiple arenas of our lives. It typically occurs when our logic-based, conscious mind knows what it wants. It tries to go after said thing, but our “Id”, the ancestral and instinctual part of our brain, does whatever it can to ensure that we don’t get there. This could perhaps be due to unresolved fears around abandonment, or another trauma resulting in a loss of self-esteem. The result is a deeply confusing tug-of-war, leaving me (and you, if you struggle with this) waffling in mental purgatory around even the most basic of decisions.
"The result of self-sabotage is a deeply confusing tug-of-war, leaving you waffling in mental purgatory around even the most basic of decisions"
There’s inherent wisdom in our “Id.” The cascading signals between the amygdala and hypothalamus were probably massively useful in assisting our early human ancestors in detecting and reacting to the likes of a sabre-toothed tiger behind the brush. But now it’s 2020, and I can’t keep short-circuiting whenever my boss asks for a status update on a deliverable that I’ve been sitting on for weeks. With nowhere to effectively channel the “fight” of my “fight or flight” I am left perpetually in defense mode, subconsciously perceiving criticisms interwoven with my livelihood and/or professional success as threats against my humanity.
The average person will spend about 90,000 hours at work over the course of a lifetime, so it’s no surprise that self-sabotaging and self-limiting tendencies will make themselves known on the job.
As a communications professional, I am typically expected to write under deadline, something that had never interfered with my performance at school. But with money and expectations on the line, I’d often find myself completely frozen, in an impenetrable fog of perfectionism, agonizing over the phrasing of an opening paragraph for hours. Or, I would give up before I even began and indulge in procrastination on a piece until, maybe three hours from deadline, I’d stop my YouTube binge of great white sharks and panic: Well...guess it’s time to write that article on health systems now, huh?
"With money and expectations on the line, I’d often find myself completely frozen, in an impenetrable fog of perfectionism, agonizing over the phrasing of an opening paragraph for hours"
Naturally, this technique would lead to some occasionally interesting but mostly lousy results, and negative feedback or confusion from my supervisors, that ranged from “You’re not very detail-oriented, are you?” to “Maybe you should work on your time management.” I’d rightfully appear careless when the reality was that I cared so much, it was nearly debilitating.
Many workplaces can often amplify existing seedlings of imposter syndrome or self-limiting behavior until they mature into fully-grown trees of anguish. Witnessing the success of others is like fresh salt in the wound for an anxious self-saboteur. At my base-self, seeing someone else receive company-wide recognition for a job well done would make the gears in my head spin. Jealousy is an ugly and unproductive response. But when it gets caught up in a raging storm of self-criticism, it tends to wash ashore every time, complete with self-judgement for being jealous in the first place. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just be happy for them? are thoughts that would inevitably follow.
"Witnessing the success of others is like fresh salt in the wound for an anxious self-saboteur"
Self-sabotage at work can look like a chain reaction: negative feedback leads to venting and solicitations of support, then oversharing leads to bonding over shared negativity or trauma, toxicity and decreased morale. The feedback loop completes when it leads back to poor performance and negative feedback, until the cycle goes on and on until maybe you get fired or just quit.
Of course, this isn’t to take the onus off certain companies and organizations that perpetuate a toxic workplace culture. That’s another conversation for another time.
Not everyone struggles with self-sabotage. Some are lucky to have had their unique gifts encouraged, to have received enough support or positive feedback to balance out the harshness, or to be naturally resilient. But for many of us, the havoc that self-limiting behavior wreaks on our lives can be virtually invisible until we choose to finally see. And once we do, it’s like poking into the matrix.
"The havoc that self-limiting behavior wreaks on our lives can be virtually invisible until we choose to finally see"
Instead of understanding that I was continually standing in my own way, I would allow negative feedback to cut to my core and affirm a deep underlying belief hatched long ago by my inner-child: You are not good enough. There’s something about our productivity-first culture that leaves little space for the sensitivity inherent in this type of vulnerable thinking. I often wonder how many of us walk around carrying the same shame of “not good enough”, but are too terrified to admit it.
Like any addiction, lack of belief, indecision, and chaos can become familiar zones of existence. Places we despise yet find ourselves returning to time and time again. By succumbing to fear of failure, not taking the proper steps to plan ahead or getting adequate rest, and perceiving setbacks as insurmountable obstacles, we indulge in self-sabotage again and again.
"Recognizing triggers and patterns is the first step toward doing the hard work and introspection necessary to catch the ways we limit our own growth"
Recognizing triggers and patterns is the first step toward doing the hard work and introspection necessary to catch the ways we limit our own growth, and to hear the story we repeat about ourselves in our head. It takes great effort to untangle years of self-sabotage, like pulling apart a tight knot of chains embedded in our core. So, what’s the path forward? I don’t know yet. It’s probably best handled in the hands of a trained mental health professional. What I do know, is that the water is starting to feel pretty warm.
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