The Joys of Self Sabotage

Synopsis: today we take a walk through the joys of self sabotage — our propensity to get in our own way — and discover a few things we can do to stop ourselves

self-sabotageAll sabotage is self-sabotage

After I wrote the first article in my return to blog-writing, our friend Henry Staron sent the following, via Facebook (follow me on Facebook, and/or Twitter).

I have a topic — self sabatage. Why is it as soon as I get close to a desired goal or get a first taste of success something happens to pop me back to square one? I do not think I am the only one who seems to repeat this process, so I would like your thoughts on “breaking through” these roadblocks I construct…

god, I love questions! And the rest of you reading this, do understand that your questions almost always become my articles! Ask away!

Anyway, there’s something interesting going on in this question — namely, that how we block ourselves and how we resolve the blockage are both expressed. Read Henry’s question again, and see if you see it.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

OK. let’s start with the last clause of sentence 2: “…something happens to pop me back to square one.”

From a Zen perspective (my favourite approach,) nothing is ever happening to us… there is no “something.” By this I mean that the things we confront have no intrinsic meaning.

So, sure, “things” may arise — obstacles, threats, dilemmas, even outright ‘sabotage.’ But none, intrinsically, has the power to stop us. We provide the interpretation, and that creates the “brakes.”

Here’s a little Zen story about that:

During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived — everyone except the Zen master. Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn’t treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger.

You fool,” he shouted as he reached for his sword, “don’t you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!” But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved.

And do you realize,” the master replied calmly, “that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?”

Now, we all tend to have a “yeah, right” reaction to stories like these, because, like the villagers, we have spent our lives kowtowing to the “blustering general.” We confront an obstacle, and rather than see it for what it is, we generate fear and loathing.

In the third paragraph, Henry writes, “…so I would like your thoughts on “breaking through” these roadblocks I construct…”

And there is the truth of the matter.

Our dilemmas, all of them, are self-created, which is why it’s called self sabotage.

So, a few things to do when confronting self-sabotage:

stop!Get me off of this roller coaster!!

1. Stop. One therapist/supervisor I had told me to literally say “Stop!,” preferably out loud. I still do, although mostly now I just say it internally. The purpose of the “Stop!” message is to use it to exit the emotional drama we have spun up — the “this is awful, this is the worst, woe is me” stuff.

When we are in the midst of drama making, it can be difficult to see what we are doing to ourselves… “it… it… all seems so real!” So, we get caught, right up until we choose to unstick ourselves. And then, it’s hard to remember why we got caught in the first place. This is the reason for yelling Stop!


eye_compassion.jpgAs any fool can plainly see…

2. Look. Internally and externally, we want to look dispassionately at what we are doing to ourselves. Once we’ve exited the panicky feeling, we can more clearly examine what we are creating for ourselves. This is done by taking a step back, having a breath or several, and evaluating without drama.

Now, sometimes — rarely, actually — the ‘threat,’ like the general in the Zen story, is real, and is standing right there, waving a sword. Even so, “woe-is-me-ing” is non-helpful, and why we “stopped” ourselves in step 1. A real threat needs a direct response.

The rest of our obstacles, 95% of them, are illusions tossed up by our egos to keep us from doing things differently. In other words, our looking shows us that nothing is really happening. Or better, nothing bad is happening.

You likely know the story of Thomas Edison, and how he tried over 1000 things as a filament for the light bulb, before discovering what worked. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

Yeah, sure.

No, really. How very Zen. The idea of the work taking a 1000 steps was the mind-perspective Edison used to keep going, as opposed to the self-sabotage of declaring himself a failure.

I would like to imagine that his process was to experiment, note his results, then wash, rinse, repeat. This worked for him because his eyes were set, dispassionately, on the goal of ‘create viable electric light bulb,’ rather than on his endlessly changing feelings.

The process of looking allows us to see how we get in our own way. We see our pattern(s) of self-sabotage, which are of course unique to us, and ubiquitous to humanity. We all do it, and we all do it our own way.

That we self-sabotage doesn’t mean anything. Unless we refuse to see.


listenI am speaking up!

3. Listen. As we quiet ourselves and “just look,” at the same time a small voice will become audible, and it will say, “Wow, here I go again. I sure do like creating drama for myself.” I call this voice The Watcher, and even wrote a booklet about how to nourish this voice. (Downloadable for 99 cents from here.)

I began that booklet by mentioning one aspect of my own nature, which leans toward melancholy, and has touched ‘suicidal’ a few times in my life. My next article is going to be about choice and change, so stay tuned, but let me say at this juncture that none of the self-work I have done has changed my nature one iota. I still get melancholy / depressed.

However, what I learned to do is to listen to myself when I’m making myself melancholy. I hear myself “awfulizing” the situation, and positing dire solutions. I treat the part of me that does this with compassion, while also letting my Watcher steer my actions toward healing and resolution.

So, I acknowledge without judgement my tendency to sabotage myself, I respond with compassion, and then I urge myself to take one step away from the edge of the cliff. For more on doing this, see this article.


take the next stepThe floating foot of fate…

4. Cross the tracks. The discipline of stopping, acknowledging, listening to, being compassionate toward, and then acting in the direction of the original goal is something we must endlessly repeat. We are using this approach to stop what doesn’t work (getting in our own way) and substituting what does (the first step on another approach to the destination.)

Again, this is a ‘wash, rinse, repeat’ thing. We need to apply this pattern each time we screw with ourselves, because of course we will. Moments of enlightenment are always followed by “life,” by chop wood, carry water — life goes on, and things, (and our dramatic reactions) re-occur.

Once we see that this “is as it is,” we can choose to stop berating ourselves for not “getting it,” and just “get it” this time.

Besides, life is like school. We learned to add, and mastered it. That mastery, however, did not lead to stasis, but to multiplication, algebra, calculus, etc. In a similar way, we learn to be self-compassionate, then bump our noses against the next obstacle. Rather than keep the drama going, we can halt our headlong rush into misery. Thus, the wise soul sees each bump as an opportunity to learn something new.

It’s embracing the “predictable unpredictability” that is the nature of living, without fearing the usually imaginary sword that seems poised to run us through.

What it is is what it is, and then we make a choice, and something else is.

Stop. Look. Listen. Cross the tracks. 1000 times. Did the light bulb go on?


About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

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