Right on the heels of a lack of willpower, the next most popular explanation for not following through on what we set out to do is self-sabotage.
This catchall phrase refers to any behavior that is inconsistent with your conscious intentions or goals.
Maybe you do some things you’d prefer not to do, such as:
- Overeat when you’re trying to lose weight
- Sleep in when you want to go to the gym
- Fail to study for an exam you want to pass
- Procrastinate or distract yourself instead of completing a project that matters
But that doesn’t mean you’re sabotaging yourself.
What all definitions of the word sabotage have in common is the element of deliberateness.
Merriam-Webster defines it as “the act of destroying or damaging something deliberately so that it does not work correctly.”
Dictionary.com says it’s “any underhand interference with production, work, etc….as by enemy agents during wartime or by employees during a trade dispute.”
Vocabulary.com notes that it occurs “when you ruin or disrupt something by messing up a part of it on purpose.”
Sabotage, by definition, isn’t accidental or an unfortunate side-effect. It is intentional. So in order to sabotage yourself, you must engage in counter-productive behavior on purpose.
This is dicey right off the bat because purveyors of the self-sabotage myth claim it originates in the unconscious. It is “hidden from our everyday thoughts,” according to one self-help author. But if we do something because we’re “unconsciously compelled” to do it, as a psychologist wrote, then it can’t be intentional or deliberate.
Conflict Doesn’t Imply Sabotage
It’s true—and inevitable—that we have competing or conflicting beliefs, goals, and intentions. In Incognito, David Eagleman says:
Brains…are built of multiple, overlapping experts who weigh in and compete over different choices. As Walt Whiteman correctly surmised, we are large and we harbor multitudes within us. And those multitudes are locked in chronic battle.
When the hostess at a party offers chocolate cake, you find yourself on the horns of a dilemma: some parts of your brain have evolved to crave the rich energy source of sugar [System 1], and other parts care about the negative consequences, such as the health of your heart or the bulge of your love handles [System 2]. Part of you wants the cake and part of you tries to muster the fortitude to forgo it.
Brains can be of two minds, and often many more. We don’t know whether to turn toward the cake or away from it, because there are several little sets of hands on the steering wheel of our behavior.
This does not imply that the part of your brain that craves sugar, System 1, has an intention to undermine System 2’s attempts to manage your health. Your brain doesn’t work that way.
Eagleman proposes that the brain is best understood as a team of rivals and adds:
Remember that competing factions typically have the same goal—success for the country—but they often have different ways of going about it.
Now we’re getting somewhere—and we’ll get even farther (couldn’t resist) at the next MONTHLY MEETING OF THE MIND (& BRAIN). We’ll examine some of the assumptions underlying the self-sabotage myth and find out what’s happening in your brain when you do what you intend to do—and when you don’t. If you’re in the area and able to attend, please join us!