Self-Sabotage and the Art of Becoming Real

Lessons from The Velveteen Rabbit.

Posted Jun 20, 2019

What are the origins of self-sabotaging tendencies? Let's discuss a few below:

1. Perfection and Control

One of the hidden culprits behind self-sabotage is the need for perfection and control. Self-sabotage has a strange way of helping us maintain the illusion that if only we had put in more effort or had better circumstances, everything would have worked out as it should. Social psychologists call this counter-intuitive strategy of regulating self-esteem "self-handicapping." It's very seductive to engage in self-sabotage because the hidden payoff is high.

My mentor, Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched, used to remind me that it's often easier to be a perfect whole rather than a real part. It's a short-term solution that sidesteps the more arduous—but ultimately more fulfilling work—of individuation and self-actualization. 

Like the title character discovered in the book The Velveteen Rabbit, it takes risk, patience, suffering, and ultimately wisdom to come to the place where you can let go of self-sabotage and learn how to be real.

2. The Internal Critic

Self-sabotage originates in the internal critic we all have, the side that has been internalized by the undermining and negative voices we've encountered in our lives; this is demonstrated beautifully in Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way. Its roots may be even deeper, serving as the protector who helped us get through an unbearable trauma; this perspective was chronicled in Jungian analyst Donald Kaslched's book The Inner World of Trauma

This critic and "internal sabotuer," as British psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn termed it, functions to keep the person from risking being hurt, shamed, or traumatized in the ways they had been in the past. While it keeps the individual safe, it does so at a very high cost, foreclosing the possibility of new, creative, and three-dimensional experiences.  

3. Ambivalence

Self-sabotage also has its origins in the ambivalence we all feel at times about change, with its strange combination of growth and loss. One can look as far back as The Odyssey to find one of the most poignant examples of this kind of ambivalence and loyalty. When Odysseus is lost at sea and almost sure to have been killed, Penelope, his wife, puts off choosing a new suitor by weaving a burial shroud in the day and unraveling it by night. Although in this case, Penelope is demonstrating her virtuous character of being utterly devoted and faithful to her husband, we see in the self-sabotage of her weaving, an echo of our less heroic moments of undoing our movement forward.

On the other hand, how do we stop our self-sabotage? Strategies include:

1. Recognize the undertow's pull.

First, and foremost, we must recognize its siren song. Like an addiction, self-sabotage insidiously lulls and deludes us into thinking that it has the answer. In fact, it is the problem masquerading as the solution. Nothing stops self-sabotage faster in its tracks than shining this particular light on it. Consciousness, in this case, is true power. 

2. Embrace complexity and dimension.

It also helps to recognize self-sabotage's function. Self-sabotage is an attempt at evading the complex difficulties of being real and imperfect. It might be doing so out of a general sense of fear and anxiety (the inner critic) or a more profound history of hidden trauma. Either way, it is more constructive and helpful for us to work on this (possibly with the support of a therapist) rather than using self-sabotage as our habitual mode of coping. 

3. Cultivate self-compassion.

Self-sabotage can also be stopped by drawing on encouraging internal affirmations and compassionate reminders of what Brene Brown calls the gifts of imperfection. There is a Talmudic saying that next to every blade of grass there is an angel saying, "Grow, grow!" We need to summon that voice and use it counterbalance the diabolical voice of self-sabotage.

4. Embrace the beauty of limitation.

Finally, we need to let go of our illusions of omnipotence and perfection and see that it is only when we are real and imperfect that we can, as Rollo May suggests, create a true work of art. Then and only then, like the Velveteen Rabbit, we can enjoy the gifts of being Real.