I recently read this amazing piece in The New Yorker by Pulitzer Price winning author Junot Díaz titled "The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma." In this autobiographical article, Díaz described how his early experiences of sexual abuse followed him throughout his life and contributed to the destruction of many meaningful romantic relationships. He reflected on his self-sabotaging behaviors and recognized that deep down, he was afraid of facing his trauma, afraid that he was broken and unlovable, and afraid to hope for something better. I felt both deeply empathetic for his pain and validated by his experiences. The root of self-sabotaging behaviors in romantic relationships is often fear and insecurities as a result of past traumas, difficult family dynamics, and experiences of abandonment, enmeshment, or neglect. The topic of self-sabotage is so broad and complex that I am going to divide it up into several blog posts. In this blog post, I will focus on how to identify self-sabotaging behaviors in ourselves.
"Super ironic that I write and talk about intimacy all day long; it’s something I’ve always dreamed of and never had much luck achieving. After all, it’s hard to have love when you absolutely refuse to show yourself, when you’re locked behind a mask."
- Junot Díaz
The function of self-sabotaging behaviors is to avoid more pain and to protect us from future disappointments. This gripping, suffocating, and yet intangible fear makes so much sense when it is seen as a coping and survival strategy. However, the outcome of self-sabotaging behaviors is often more pain because we use these behaviors to keep ourselves away from the very person that we desperately want to be close to. I have done my share of self-sabotaging behaviors that includes blaming my partner for his shortcomings, setting impossibly high standards for the relationship, picking fights, committing time and energy to other people or projects instead of spending time with my partner, pushing my partner away to "test" his commitment, etc. Díaz self-sabotaged his relationships by having affairs with other people. Other self-sabotaging behaviors in relationships can include abusing substances, dating people who are unavailable and/or don't treat you well, not fully committing to the relationship, holding grudges, not taking responsibility for your part in the dynamic, comparing your current relationship to an ex, avoiding conversations about the relationship, trying to control your partner, giving the silent treatment/stonewalling/withholding affection, chronic lying, avoiding conflict, focusing on being right all the time, and the list can go on and on. (I want to point out that self-sabotaging behaviors can vary on a spectrum from we-all-do-this-sometime to abusive. If your behaviors are abusive to your partner, it's time to seek help from a mental health professional.)
Sometimes the motivations behind the behaviors are buried so deep in our subconscious that we might not even be aware that we are self-sabotaging our relationship. Therefore, one of the first steps in addressing self-sabotaging behaviors is to identify them.
First ask yourself, "Is my reaction to my partner out of proportion to the current situation?" In the book "Getting the Love You Want," Dr. Harville Hendrix talked about the differences between our "old brain" and our "new brain." Our "old brain" (the limbic system and the brain stem) regulates our basic bodily functions and the fight/flight/freeze mechanisms. The old brain is constantly on the alert for safety and danger. The important thing to know about the old brain in relationships is that it functions without an awareness of time. This is why when past wounds are triggered, it feels like the wounding is happening to us right now. In contrast, the "new brain" (the cerebral cortex) has the ability to plan, make decisions, think logically and linearly, organize, anticipate, and analyze. If your reaction to your partner is out of proportion to the situation, that's a good sign that some of your past wounds may have been triggered and you are now acting out of your old brain. For example, if you become excessively jealous of your partner spending time with their friends and family, it may be that you are reacting to some past trauma rather than the present moment. These reactions that comes from deeper fears, if unacknowledged and unaddressed, can lead to self-sabotaging behaviors.
Then ask yourself, "Is my behavior bringing me closer to my partner or pushing them away in the long term?" When we become triggered or reactive in our relationship, we can feel, act, and think ways that push our partner further away. When we are activated, it is easier to express emotions like anger and frustration toward our partner rather than express the more vulnerable and tender emotions such as fear, sadness, and loneliness. For example, when my partner came home later than expected one evening from having dinner with a friend who was visiting town, I was seething with anger and gave him the silent treatment. Instead of expressing the more vulnerable feelings of fear of abandonment or sadness, I went straight to the more protective emotion of anger. The anger only pushed him further away, which was the opposite of what I wanted. Sometimes our self-sabotaging behaviors can bring our partner closer in the short term but it is ultimately harmful to the relationship in the long term. For example, avoiding conflict might create harmony in the relationship in the short term but unresolved issues might resurface later and create more damage to the relationship.
Finally ask yourself, "Does my behavior align with my values?" Often, our self-sabotaging behaviors are misaligned with our values, characters, and beliefs. For example, after fights with my partner, I often wondered, "Where did all that anger come form?" I am not generally an angry person nor do I want to be one. Our self-sabotaging behaviors can leave a bitter taste in our mouths because they can bring up a lot of shame and guilt for acting in ways that are not aligned with ourselves. The shame and guilt may be good sign that self-sabotaging behaviors are at play. However, try not to get stuck in the muck of shame and guilt. Remember that this self-sabotaging part of you is just that, a part of you. It is not the whole of who you are.
We all have our own reasons for why we engage in self-sabotaging behaviors and it may be helpful in the healing process to understand your "why." Do do so, you can read some great books on family dynamics and trauma (check our my Recommended Reading page for some suggestions), talk to your partner, friends, and family to get feedback on your behaviors, and seek help from a therapist to uncover past wounds that may be driving the behaviors.
We created this blog to share information about living a healthy, happy, and fulfilling life. We are constantly learning new things and making mistakes along the way. This blog is our way of chronicling our discoveries, musing, and lessons learned as people and professionals. We invite you to come along on our journey of self reflection, discovery, and thriving with challenges. We also hope to exchange wisdom and enlightenment from you, our readers.
The information provided in this blog is not a substitute for professional mental health treatment.