Illustration: Guy Billout
It's not like I'm shooting myself in the foot," said Whitney. "It's more like I'm using my entire body for target practice. With guns in both hands."
Whitney's problems began when economic chaos hit the advertising company where she was an editor. As Whitney cut redundant prose from ad copy, her company cut redundant workers all around her. Whitney herself had always been a perfectionist who loved her work, but after the downsizing, her performance nose-dived. She began to forget meetings, sleep past her alarm, accidentally forward highly personal e-mails to her boss. On the day she absentmindedly shredded a presentation she was about to deliver, Whitney came to see me.
"Do I have early-onset Alzheimer's?" she asked desperately. "Maybe ADD? A brain tumor? It's got to be something medical."
Meanwhile, another client of mine—I'll call her Olga—was going through something similar in her relationship with her husband. "Jack is my life," she told me. "I couldn't go on without him." Yet Olga made as many stupid mistakes at home as Whitney did at work. "I forget I've promised to pick him up after work," she told me. "When he says he needs space, I follow him around begging him to talk, and when he wants to be close, I shut down. What's wrong with me?"
Maybe you've had an experience akin to these, a truck-with-no-brakes run of errors and foul-ups that wreak destruction in your life despite frantic efforts to regain control. In the midst of such madness, it can help immensely to know that there's a name for your pain. You may be using something psychologists call a counterphobic mechanism, a tendency to slide toward, not away from, something you fear. Those of us who use plain English might call it self-sabotage—and it can ruin your life. As counterintuitive as it might seem, these subconscious reflexes can be helpful. In these officially Troubled Times, it behooves us all to be aware of them and use them consciously and skillfully.
Anticipation, Anticipation Is Making Me Late...
"One of my theories," says the evil Count in William Goldman's classic story The Princess Bride, "is that pain involves anticipation." He then leaves the captive hero, Westley, chained next to the Machine, a torture device the Count has promised to use on Westley later. An albino dungeon-keeper offers Westley a way out. "You deserve better than what's coming," he says in a moment of compassion. "Please let me kill you. You'll thank me, I swear." Only Westley's superhuman fortitude keeps him from accepting.
The Count's theory about anticipation is right on the money. And self-sabotage is the mind's way of accepting the albino's offer. Like Whitney or Olga, we may screw up in precisely the places we want most to succeed, not realizing that we're subconsciously trying to force a resolution, to stop the anxious feeling that's hanging over our heads, to lose the job rather than continue to worry about a pink slip. To resolve the situation, we must first recognize that we're using counterphobic mechanisms. And that means punching through denial.