martha beck
Illustration: Dan Page
Do you have a talent for self-sabotage? (Sure, you're on a diet, but another doughnut won't kill you, right?) If so, Martha Beck can help you defeat your own worst enemy—that would be you—with a simple three-step plan.
Rose is a strict vegan who eats only whole, organic food...except when she drives to 7-Eleven to suck up sweets like an industrial Shop-Vac. Anya is an ambitious, conscientious employee who has a knack for oversleeping, procrastinating and spacing out on appointments when something important is happening at work. Cissy, an accountant, prides herself on squeezing every penny until it screams, yet frequently goes on shopping binges that keep her in permanent credit card debt.

Perhaps you, like these three women, have a few counterproductive habits—like staying up too late, playing computer games instead of paying your bills on time, leaving food where it could attract bears. If you ever find yourself asking, Why, why, why do I do this to myself? consider this: You're sabotaging yourself, all right, but probably not in the way you think. In fact, many bad habits are your subconscious attempts to deal with a deeper self-sabotage, one you may not realize exists. To eliminate the counterproductive behavior on the surface of your life, you must correct the self-betrayal you're keeping buried.

Your Very Own Rat Park


Several decades ago, a Canadian psychologist and professor named Bruce Alexander became interested in myriad studies showing that heroin and other drugs are ferociously addictive. Many of these experiments involved lab rats (rat and human physiologies are similar); the research showed that rats, once given heroin or other opiates, routinely doped themselves to oblivion.

But Alexander noticed something so obvious, everyone else had overlooked it; namely, that all the rats in the experiments were kept isolated in cages. And then he had a radical thought: Maybe (follow the logic closely) rats don't like being alone in a cage. Maybe they dislike it so much that when locked inside, they'll desperately distract themselves with whatever is available. Hello, heroin!

With this hypothesis in mind, Alexander and his colleagues went on to build a veritable spa for rodents—a large, clean, wood chip–strewn enclosure they called Rat Park. Alexander then took rats out of their cages and put them in Rat Park. He also offered them a choice of plain water or sugar water laced with morphine. The rats in Rat Park most often chose plain water.

The Rat Park studies profoundly influenced my view of what many people call self-sabotage. I believe that most of us live in cages of our own creation. Ignoring our actual desires, we try to do what we think is right (or good or healthy or admirable—pick your poison). Sometimes this arrangement works. Sometimes it doesn't.

Picture yourself as two beings in one body. The first is a miraculous, intricate animal, one whose world view focuses on food and frequent cuddling. Concepts like cholesterol levels, mortgage payments and PowerPoint presentations mean nothing to it. It's all about joy. The second being is a brilliant logical thinker, almost like a high-powered computer that processes abstract concepts with ease.

When your animal and computer selves are after the same goal, the two-beings-in-one arrangement works wonderfully. Say you're a morning person and you work the morning shift. No problema! You know broccoli is good for you, and you love broccoli. Hooray! But when your computer self tries to force your animal self to do something it doesn't inherently enjoy, you run into trouble. Self-sabotaging trouble, to be exact. In fact, self-sabotaging is almost always your animal self rebelling against not-so-much-fun conditions imposed by your computer self. The computer self builds a sort of cage of obligations and beliefs. Bad habits are your animal self's attempt to ease its distress while living in that cage.

Consider Rose, a working mom caring for her elderly father. When she's out of physical and emotional energy, her body suggests a 7-Eleven run to comfort itself with sweet, fatty food. Anya's animal self dislikes sitting in an office all day. Oversleeping is her animal self's form of relief and protest. Cissy is married to an unexpressive man who travels constantly. She shops, sating her suffering animal self with new possessions, when she feels most alone.

When the animal self feels caged, it fights back and, ultimately, wins. Rose knows everything there is to know about healthy eating, Anya is a doggedly hard worker and Cissy has a thorough awareness of how to manage money. But their animal selves are operating on a deeper evolutionary level, sabotaging the plans that don't contribute to basic happiness. The animal self's urges are powerful and nearly impossible to resist.

The only effective, long-term way I've ever eliminated bad habits, in myself or my clients, is by freeing the animal self from its cage and creating for it something closer to a safe, comfortable Rat Park. If you cease to betray yourself in fundamental ways, the self-sabotage on the surface simply stops. Here's how the process works.

Step One: Figure Out What's Really Going On


To soothe your animal self, you must first become aware of your inherent desires and the times in your life when you're disallowing them. Begin by getting a pen, some paper and half an hour to sit still. Then make a detailed list of things you plan to do tomorrow. List actions both small and large: showering, making breakfast, carpooling, feeding the goats, acquiring a corporation, holding up a liquor store—everything on your agenda.

Now think about the bad habit you're trying to break. Feel the compulsiveness that accompanies it. Relax your breathing and read over your to-do list. As you imagine performing each activity, notice how much you feel like engaging in your self-sabotaging behavior. Put a number by each item: zero if it doesn't make you feel the least bit tempted to indulge your bad habit; ten if it makes you jump right up and rush to the fridge, a bar, a slot machine or wherever you go to self-sabotage.

This exercise can bring you face-to-face with some scary truths. Someone you call a friend might turn out to be mainly a binge buddy. Your job may make you want to smoke all sorts of things. Calling your mother may trigger your desire to gamble. Beneath the familiar urge, you'll find a sensation of constriction, one that may feel like weariness, sorrow or terror. Instead of beating and deriding your animal self for feeling this way, move on to the next step.

Next: How to release yourself from the cage

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