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
Step Two: Release Yourself from the Cage
Once you're aware of your self-sabotaging triggers, it's time to deploy your brilliant computer mind—not to stifle your animal self, but to let the pair work together to create a life that feels freer and more nourishing. Considering each self-sabotage-inducing item on your list, ask:
1. In a perfect life, would I do this thing at all?
2. If so, what would I change to make it more enjoyable?
3. If not, what would I rather do?
Let your imagination roam as you consider the last two questions. Think of alternative activities that aren't just concepts but images, pictures that make your animal self perk up, relax or both. Don't limit yourself to what's logical, doable or even possible. Dreaming it doesn't mean you have to do it, but guess what—if you never dream it, you'll never do it.
Step Three: Build Your Rat Park
Now, starting with the wildest-dream scenario from step two, begin making changes—even tiny ones—that allow your life to more closely resemble your animal self's ideal environment. Your personal Rat Park doesn't need to be built in a day. Just envisioning it will give your animal self hope and reduce its need to sabotage your agendas.
For example, overscheduled Rose noticed that she went nuts with the sweets whenever she tried to keep up with stay-at-home moms at neighborhood parties. She finally decided to skip social events she didn't like and immediately felt less compulsion toward Krispy Kremes. Anya wasn't prepared to quit her onerous job, but she asked her boss whether she could do more work outside the office and found that she had much less trouble keeping appointments. Cissy addressed her loneliness by joining a Wednesday night knitting circle, and soon her need to shop dwindled. Give the animal self a little love, and incredible things occur.
Bruce Alexander helped a few would-be hard-core addict rodents avoid a life of dependency by guiding them out of a miserable situation and putting them in an environment that felt normal and natural to them. All it took was a bit of time and compassion to give those animals the type of sanctuary that nature designed them to thrive in.
That's all you have to do to ease your own self-sabotaging tendencies. Begin caring compassionately for your animal self. Even before you've made much headway toward creating your own Rat Park, you'll feel bad habits begin to lose their compulsive pull. If you keep working your way toward more enjoyable days, deep self-betrayal will begin to diminish, and those bad habits may cease entirely. In hindsight, what you once called self-sabotage may appear as wisdom—the unlikely spark that led the way to a happier life.
If you cease to betray yourself, the self-sabotage in your life simply stops.
Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One (Martha Beck Inc.).
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