Self-sabotage shows up a lot in my Ayurvedic consultations. “I know what to do, I just don’t do it”. This is often followed up with some self-criticism about failing to have self-discipline. I see this pattern in myself too, in many areas, one current example being “I want to go for more country walks as I know it feeds my soul” but finding myself not making plans to do so.
Why does self-sabotage happen? Meet the shadow parts …
This can be understood by thinking about the parts of us which we have repressed or denied, the parts of us we have put into shadow. We can imagine the shadow as a bag slung behind our shoulder (in our shadow) into which we threw aspects of ourselves (e.g. wanting something for ourself, speaking up for what we believe, being special etc) when we realised they weren’t acceptable in our families or society. We are not conscious of these aspects of ourselves, hidden deep in the dark folds of the shadow bag. We can imagine these shadow parts of ourselves as mini personalities, mini-me’s, and they will have needs and agendas of their own.
Different agendas create unrest
We also have conscious parts of us who want to take care of ourselves in a particular way (eat well or go out for walks for example) and can see the benefits of this. We are aware of these needs and agendas, we see these as ‘our’ agendas.
It’s hard for us to ‘hear’ or ‘see’ our shadow agendas. This means the shadow parts have have no conscious voice.
If you are noticing that there is some mysterious force which takes control of you and undermines your conscious agenda by making you take ‘irrational’ decisions, this means there is a shadow part of you which has another conflicting agenda. There is some consequence of the conscious agenda which goes against the shadow part agenda. This inner, unseen conflict will create unrest and discomfort. With these competing agendas, one conscious, one unconscious, you end up not taking the actions you thought you would take and may in fact take completely contradictory actions – self-sabotage.
Let’s imagine how this could look. Here are two of an infinite variety of scenarios:
We demonise the shadow part but really …
When the decision was made to put that part in shadow, it was the best decision at the time, with the resources you had. Your older, adult self may have a lot of judgements about this part of you but if you realise that this aspect of you was hidden for really good reason at the time, it helps to see that it’s not the bad guy and there may be needs you can help it get met in a different way.
Help the shadow part get its needs met another way to avoid self-sabotage
As the shadow aspect of you was originally disowned, it remains safer for this part of you to stay hidden in the shadow. Why would it want to come out again and be rejected again?
This can make it tricky to see. Instead you may get a feeling that something is murky, that you are self-sabotaging and you really can’t see why. It’s time to shine a light on the matter, to get really curious.
Think about the RISK
“What could possibly be at risk for a part of me by doing what I want to do?” There will be a risk, however irrelevant or insignificant you think it must be. Other questions to ask yourself are: “What is the downside to getting what I want? Have I tried this before and something didn’t work out? Doing what I want requires changes in my life, could change how I view things or how others view me. Would everyone in my life like these changes?”
Discovering this risk can point you towards a shadow part of you whose agenda is for that NOT to happen. In the examples above, the risk for Mary to get healthier could be that she might really shine, really stand out in the world and that has previously been dangerous. For Yusuf, the risk of asking someone else to help him could be that he’ll become dependent on someone else and lose his hard-won independence.
These risks will by their nature be hard to see, as they are in the shadow realm. A way to see a bit more clearly is to think about when you were young, what would have happened if you had shone brightly or been very dependent? Through this curiosity, you can discover a part of you that is finding what you are doing risky. It is risky because it stops them having their needs met (from our examples, the need to be hidden or independent).
Meet that need in a new way
When you realise that there is a part of you that is finding your agenda risky, you can see if there is a way of meeting the need of that part in another way. For this, having an inner dialogue is often useful, you can even sit on a different chair for each part. Mary could talk to that part of her which feels scared of her shining, showing understanding that it was dangerous in the past but now life is different. Yusuf may have a discussion with the part that doesn’t want to be dependent, showing understanding of why that was scary in the past but now as an adult rather than a child, he is safer to let himself be dependent now and again.
You can easily get help with self-sabotage
This can sometimes be hard to do alone as the shadow aspects of ourselves are very happy and safe in the shadow and can be slippery to get hold of. If you find yourself in situations of self-sabotage, working with a Shadow Work practitioner will help. Shadow Work practitioners have tools to shine light on and get a firmer grip on the slippery parts. You can do this with one-to-one Shadow Work coaching or with group facilitation, either with me or other qualified Shadow Work practitioners.