Marcus Cauchi

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Why do we repeatedly do what does us harm or doesn't serve us, even when we know by doing what we've done before we'll get the same result?

Self-sabotage is rife in life, in business, in sports and in families to name a few. Experience tells me that the starting point of self-sabotage comes from toxic beliefs that were never true, aren't true any more or aren't true in 100% of cases.

Can you tell me what causes you have observed for self-sabotage in your lives or the lives of those you engage with?

If you could structure your responses around the following framework:

1. Issue or presenting symptom
2. A specific example to give context
3. Impact

And if you have learned how to replace old patterns with good patterns of thinking or behaviour:

4. How did you replace your old pattern/script or work around your self-sabotaging behaviours?

  • Sep 5 2011: Dopamine addiction.

    Researchers have discovered that there is only one addiction and it’s to dopamine, a neurotransmitter manufactured in our brains.

    The current list of addictive drugs (heroin, nicotine) and behaviors (gambling, video games) are only triggers. In all cases, addictions are about scoring dopamine. In the future researchers will (hopefully) work past the self-deception and denial (two symptoms of addiction) keeping them from extending the list to include the most destructive dopamine-induced needs and behaviors, including meat consumption and the pathological obsession with acquiring power, approval, esteem and money (which can be used to buy drugs, power, approval, and esteem).

    Addiction is a dehumanizing brain disease that increases self-deception and denial and suppresses logic, reason, and empathy. That’s why heroin addicts don’t care about destroying their health or the moral implications of lying, cheating, and stealing from friends and relatives.

    The stronger the addiction, the less addicts care about logic, reason, honesty, or truth and the more they obsess over returning to their favorite dopamine trigger(s).

    With all addictions, the first step is the hardest = honesty/admitting to addiction(s).

    Admitting to fear/power, approval, esteem and money addictions are complicated by at least three factors:

    1) Admitting to addictions = serious blow to esteem = major dopamine withdrawal = increase in denial and avoidance of facts.
    2) The last thing most addicts want to do is give up their favorite dopamine triggers.
    3) In societies controlled by addicts, many of the most destructive and addictive behaviors are considered normal, acceptable, and even admirable.
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      Sep 5 2011: Charles, thank you. I'm by no means an expert, and have only read secondary sources, but the research certainly does point to dopamine as one source to look for answers to my question.

      I'm not sure of the protocol on here, but I always appreciate a good read and value recommendations to qualified sources from others who share my passions and interests. You may be interested to read:

      Brene Brown - I Thought It Was Only Me
      Margaret Heffernen - Willful Blindness
      Hannah Holmes - Quirk
      Harriett Braiker - Who's Pulling Your Strings
      Dan Ariely - Predictably Irrational
      Nassim Nicholas Taleb - The Black Swan
      Johan Lehrer - How We Decide
      Michael Shermer - How We Believe
      Richard Wiseman - 59 Seconds
      Edward De Bono - How to Have a Beautiful Mind
      Jason Fried - ReWork

      I'm not qualified to validate the science, but the patterns throughout these books affirm what I see and experience daily in my life and in the lives of my clients and friends. Maybe I'm looking for what feels familiar myself, but I know as someone who has battled with falling prey to temptation (dopamine addiction).

      I do however have the ability to reason.

      Credit cards are toxic for this reason. Low short term interest followed by crippling interest for many years is a bad deal. But can my need for instant gratification (amygdala) be rationalised away (neocortex). It seems to depend on how I ask myself the question.

      If I buy this on my credit card I can pay it off later, can't I?


      If I buy it now but can only pay for it in cash will I be happy losing the money to have this object now?

      When faced with the choice of charging my trophy purchase to my anonymous, deferred pain-payment credit card or paying with the bundle of cash, it's easy to skim over the pain later. In my work and in my life I find that my decisions are usually more strongly motivated by my fear of losing instead of my pleasure from gaining. Buying decisions seem to be routinely governed by this dynamic to the tune of 2:1.

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        Sep 11 2011: Oh and don't forget the robust work of neuroscientist Susan Greenfield.
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    Sep 6 2011: Time to read Freud's "The Psychopathology of Everyday Life". He was the first to detect the psychological structure he called the "Internal Sabateur" and eventually linked it to the Death Wish.

    I think we do stupid things because we are existentially insecure from the time of our birth, acutely if subconsciously being aware of mortality. Think of the absolutely total vulnerability of the infant and tell me that that "first lesson" is somehow forgotten or rendered benign. It is that foundational fear of extinction that makes us grip and cling, not only to the mother but to all subsequent ideas even if those ideas refer backwards, to a previous time and experience, and don't reflect the necessary present path.
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      Sep 11 2011: Freud says so much that is catchy and some has stood the test of time. Unfortunately, research has no support to give his concept of a 'death wish''
      I do like your conceptualization of vulnerability.
      Jessica, above, talks about facing only our directing our own lives and the idea that we are fearful of being great. Perhaps this is so. Reality would suggest though that not everyone can be numero uno in any given endeavour and I wonder if the great fear is that we recognize that others have more endowments or more drive than we do. In a world that rewards finishing in first place it might be humbling and frightening to realize that we are just average people. This recognition might be just the thing to get us off the torture rack, though.
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    Sep 1 2011: Because conditioning is a principle based on contingency: if an act has beneficial effects immediately, and only bad effects later, the association is not made, and we repeat the ac, because we are conditioned to do so

    (Just one example, but sufficient to answer to your initial question)

    If you go further on this simple paradigm, shifting the reward system should help eliminating harmful acts (It does quite often)
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    Sep 12 2011: I like to describe the solution as a prison break (from the sabotage), either by expounding the power of our hearts to care beyond our own or by receiving the great care of others (usually loved ones).

    I think that one of the main problem is the lack of respect and value we put upon ourselves or the same uncaring opinion of others of ourselves that we may be unknowingly consenting to.

    Every single human being is of great worth, value and power. The truths of science continue to confirm this and the core ideas of religions affirm it. I think it is high time we continue to converge our ideals and expound our awareness and consciousness to the principles and truths that are way bigger than our own selves.

    We are all destined for greatness and I think that anything short of it is what causing our problems.
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    Sep 11 2011: Freud, for all his Victorian sexism, made crucial discoveries, and, more importantly, modified his ideas as new data came to him. His was the first attempt to hypothesize an unconscious mind, let alone map its structures and their workings. The Death Wish may not be the foundation of the Internal Saboteur, but the Internal Saboteur is a fact that doesn't go away easily, as the substance of your question indicates.

    There is certainly an inhibitory factor to our desires for achievements. God knows it's a factor in my life. I still can't understand how I recently threw away my good motorcycle repair manual and kept the iffy one, the exact opposite of my intention. Freud explains much of this in his "The Psychopathology of Everyday Life",a book I'd recommend to everyone. The bottom line is that we all labor under the weight of repressed trauma that can find its way to the surface. It is important to realize that mental electrical currents operate at 20,000 times the speed of speech and thought. So our waking consciousness would appear to be in hyper slow motion to any info processing and computations, social or otherwise, going on in the subconscious realms.

    Until the Freud file is reopened by sociologists, we'll face the same errors and manipulations and vulnerabilities we've faced for the past 10,000 years. None of the feel good bandaid pop psychologies can touch this situation. Neo Freudians now feel that we are composite beings, having integrated the personalities of everyone we have ever personally known, met or seen in media, with heavy emphasis on the parents, of course. But the earliest layers of consciousness of the infant have to include utter vulnerability, from the first cry, the first sense of cold, the first missed feeding, the first fall or accident. The threat to existence is probably more primary than the satisfaction of suckling. The vulnerability is BACKGROUND to the satisfaction which is FIGURE. Backgrounds are always primary.
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    Sep 11 2011: I like the clarity of a common example.
    1) Over eating tied to anxiety mitigation.
    2) Food, particularly sugar, provides a hit of chemicals which calm the brain and eating is a distraction from focus on the source of anxiety.
    3) Reduction in anxiety is a physically reinforcing release from anxiety. It works so we repeat the action.

    The problem arises when the first goal- maintaining body weight conflicts with the more immediate goal of anxiety reduction. We have to remember that our 'bad' behaviours do serve us in some way. Thus changing those patterns requires that we meet the fundamental need in a new way so that we can achieve both goals.
  • Sep 5 2011: Just brainstorming, can it be because: The goals that we're striving for or the habits we're trying to get rid of, deep inside, in our understanding of grand scheme, just can't get evaluated with certainty. For example, myself, most of time, when I'm trying to achieve a goal, I am set back very often because, I don't have a clear understanding of more fundamental questions which makes me doubt the validity of my goal. When I am unsure about the reality I am experiencing; life and death, suffering of people; my goals become minute, unimportant. And sometimes the only reason I can hold on to them is, I feel that without achieving at least some of them, I will be in such a state that I can be of no use even when the time comes at which I'll be understanding things more clearly. But I want to believe that there is a perspective, which will give me an understanding of the life we’re experiencing with details and set me goals which are aligned with that understanding of the whole picture.
    Any thoughts?
  • Sep 4 2011: However, I think the question behind your questions may be much thornier and complicated: Why do people (all of us, I'm convinced, at some point or other) self-sabotage?
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      Sep 5 2011: It is. You're right Sarah.

      There is no simple answer to this simple question.

      I feel it is a mix of emotions, habits, values, hormones, brain function and experience.

      Experience and deep practice, perfect practice seem to shed some light on how we can get better at making consistently good and moral choices. But they require attention ( see Rapt by Winnifred Gallgher, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and The Element by Sir Ken Robinson).

      My girls' gym has this on the wall. "You don't rise to the level of your dreams. You fall to the level of your training and your practice".

      It seems universal. The Fear of the future. It motivates so many of us to stay stuck. We paralyse ourselves with fear and go into a subroutine that offers short-term relief: rabbit in the headlights, over analysis, taking reflex action, passive aggressiveness, defensiveness, aggression, risk taking, drug taking, promiscuity, drunkenness, gambling, passivity. And we seek what feels familiar.

      That's is a thorny question. I see real examples of those I meet who show great resolve, personal courage and act as examples and role models I want my for my children, that I'd like to emulate. I believe the evidence and the way(s) is(are) out there.

      I also believe we should ask ourselves better questions even when we don't like the answers we night get back. Precisely because we don't like the answers. T`o mis-quoute the Rolling Stones, "You can't always get what you want, and it might be just what you need".

      I suspect there is a lot in asian philosophy, mediation and martial practices that mirrors this process as I sense this is a path to a secular version of enlightenment. Can anyone shed any light on this line of thinking?
      • Sep 5 2011: I love that we're all talking about this! So often people (including me) prefer to focus on insignificant things because we're so afraid of the big questions.

        I think that thinking hard and trying hard to get it right will get us farther than we'd get otherwise (the "deep practice" and "true beliefs" you've mentioned), but my experience with flossing leads me to believe that it won't get us all the way---at least, not me.

        The fact is, all people (even the worst of us) have a fundamental sense of right and wrong, what will yield good things for ourselves and others, but even the best of us is unable able to completely live up to it. Although we can dull that voice by habitually ignoring it and bending ourselves further and further from what is true and straight and good, we can never completely silence it.

        Have you considered the Eden narrative? Mankind created flawless but not complete (designed to grow), interdependent with each other and creation and dependent on an independent but loving God, and all relationships wholesome and fulfilling. But through a crucial bad decision, every part of human nature was irrevocably tainted (including the "emotions, habits, values, hormones, brain function and experience" you mentioned). When we fell, all creation fell with us. Death, suffering, pain, and sorrow invaded the world, never to be eradicated although we struggle to beat it back with philosophy, medicine, counseling, religion, friendship, the arts, etc.

        This rings true to me: If we had been created bent, we would have no concept or longing for the straight. Are we all straining to hear the echoes of Eden?
  • Sep 4 2011: I've seen what you describe as self-sabotage so many times and in so many places that it was initially difficult for me to find a specific symptom, example, and impact---but let's try my inability to floss often enough.

    Like most people, I have teeth and gums, which I employ as a vital tool to eat and speak, and therefore have a concrete interest in preserving them. I pay to visit a dentist twice a year, and take off work, and pay money for dental insurance. Every visit for as long as I can remember, the dentist and hygienist have told me that I need to floss as well as brush my teeth twice daily. Yet, although I understand the value of flossing, have experienced the negative consequences of not flossing (mild gingivitis), have ample access to plenty of dental floss and enough time and dexterity to floss twice daily---I do not floss twice a day. In fact, I can't remember the last time I flossed more than once a day.

    I have tried---and am currently trying---to floss twice a day. Here's what I did:
    - thought conciously about flossing and its positive impact on my health, finances, beauty, etc.
    - considered the possible obstacles are to flossing (floss that I dislike [it comes apart when I use it], forgetting to floss, running late and skipping flossing, not having floss handy when I need it, the uncomfortable strangulation of my fingertips as I floss, the goal of flossing twice a day too big of a change to accomplish at once, etc.)
    - tried to remove or lessen those obstacles, including considering alternatives (unfortunately, I find the expensive waterpik even more annoying, messy, and time-consuming than flossing)
    - considered ways to motivate/reward myself for flossing twice a day including accountability, rewarding myself with praise when I floss (boy, this sounds lame, but it's true), etc.

    I've used this kind of process in the past with different goals, not always successfully, but I think success is more likely when I employ it than otherwise.

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    Sep 2 2011: Maybe sometime the desire to achieve something is so strong, much stronger than the controlling ability of our brain. And it seems that it is unlikely to kill or weaken the desire. So we might have to train our self-controlling ability and make it strong enough. Some wise guy said to us before, those brave men do feel the fear, but they choose to move on instead of giving in. In a word, the same objective facts, people have many approaches to deal with them. And how to be strong in self-controlling? People should learn it hard.
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    Sep 2 2011: Because our brains evolve more slowly than our environments (cultures and societies) do. "Harm" is not the intent.

    And to answer your question about what I do to self-sabotage: I stopped. It was not productive, or fun. (But I still eat a little chocolate.)

    It's a little more involved than that ... but not much.

    As for what others do? I'll leave that one to you.
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    Sep 1 2011: In my opinion, we repeatedly sometimes do what does'nt serve us well because either we've not given up on proving to our selves that "it has to be" or because we're afraid or unclear of how Perspective can alter our approach. I believe that with a different perspective anyone can avoid this kind of "dog chasing tail" situation. A situation that i've been into myself was in college and struggling through a core class for my major. I had dropped the class and re-took it, but the method of approaching the subject never changed, until it was interfered by a study group. Before i joined the study group i would study in the same manor, repeat the same exercises, and always hope to do better. But of-course hope and technique go hand in hand, if you have the right technique or even a good start, you'll go long way. But with simply hoping or expecting different results each time without another set of eyes, then you're just gambling.
  • Sep 12 2011: 1. issue: Disordered eating
    2. thought process "I'm not hungry, but I have such a strong desire for a sandwich that I'm going to eat one anyway. I don't know where the desire came from, but I have to have that sandwich." After eating the sandwich: "I hate myself for eating something when I am not hungry."
    3. impact: weight gain in excess of a recommended BMI

    And if you have learned how to replace old patterns with good patterns of thinking or behaviour:

    4. How did you replace your old pattern/script or work around your self-sabotaging behaviours? Identified what caused the desire for a sandwich: numbing myself from a feeling I didn't want to feel. Then I learned how to identify the feelings. Then I learned how to OWN the feelings and process them with my brain rather than by numbing myself. The desire to eat (numb myself) when I am not hungry is still there, but now I choose a different response to the desire to numb.
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    Sep 12 2011: if i deny my body water, he gets thirsty.
    if i grant my body water, he is rejuvenated.

    if i deny myself permission to change my beliefs, i feel unadaptable and powerless.
    if i grant myself permission to change my beliefs, i feel adaptable and more powerful.

    for me self denial is self destruction.
    with respect this is only my perception, based on my perspective.
  • Sep 9 2011: Bad habits are enjoyable. While we are enjoying ourselves we choose not to think of the consequences. So it goes on and on.
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    Sep 9 2011: Mr. Cop (who commented prior) gets closest to the truth of the answer to this question. Of course, what I'm about to say and what each of you has said is rooted in beliefs.
    Have you noticed that when you have set out to answer this question, it spirals into many fascinating and quite dramatic explanations? I used to think like that, too, so I'm not judging; I'm saying there's a way out. The truth is we don't want to admit how clever we really are at coming up with ways to NOT DO what we said we would do.
    Mr. Cop makes a good point about conditioning. To it I would add that we can condition ourselves differently if we choose to.
    I've been studying and developing integrity for five years and I LAUGH at the presposterousness of the drama I used to and still do invent so I don't have to do the most basic of things- get up on time, follow my diet, get in bed on time (it's 11:42pm now- hello!), etc, etc.
    WHY do I do these things when I KNOW this is not what I really want, what would make me happy?
    Because if I didn't self sabotage or distract myself, then there would only be the pursuit of my dreams to deal with. And that's awful scary, now ain't it? Likewise, if we could manage to conquer our daily habits (workouts, diets, fidelity) and get them to create the results we really want, then it's only onward and upward from there.
    Yes, it's true. Each of us is individual, but some things are universal- like trying to get yourself "off the hook" for believing you are powerful enough to redirect your own life. It's about a desire for a LACK of accountability that comes from a fear of being the great, wonderful and expansive individuals we were each born to be.
    Anyway- that's my two cents. I know I'm being brief, but since my company helps people answer this question every day, I had to chime in.
    And I'm off to bed! Goodnight.
  • Sep 8 2011: I have four self sabotaging behaviours, eating too much, biting the skin around my nails to make them bleed, picking spots so that they take longer to heal than they would have had I left them and worrying about the future.

    Why I have them I have no idea and I have tried to find out to no avail. In general I think it probably has a lot to do with living in such a modern complicated fast paced world in which we haven't learnt to keep up with emotionally and depending on environment and genetics we find something that gives us immediate relief.

    The way I have learnt to deal wtih them is to work out what happens immediately before I engage in the behaviour and deal with that. So preventition is what I am talking about which of course I can only do now that I have become aware of what I do, when I do it and how. So for example I worked out that I bite the skin around my nalls because it feels rough which I sensed with my other fingers or my lips. Solution : keep skin around nails soft and smoothe. I still bite the skin but to a much lesser extent.

    I also try and work out something simple I can do (Wiseman 59s) to prevent self sabotaging. When it comes to overeating I make sure I start the day with seeds, porridge etc., to stop worrying I use conscious connected breathing (C Sisson - Rebirthing made easy) and the spots I have worked out is much due to what I eat so if I eat better then I have fewer spots to go at. All sounds quiet simple really doesn't it.

    I don't believe there's one easy cure for everybody but I do believe it is about self awareness, taking one small scalculated step at a time and never giving up even if you appear to be going backwards.
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    Sep 5 2011: Thank you all for your interesting contributions. I've identified some patterns borne out in recent research that are consistent with my understanding and experience.

    I routinely catch myself making terrible choices, I know at a rational, logical level aren't good for me. Worse still, I, without exception know deep down how my choice will affect others or those I genuinely want to serve. Someone else will pay the negative price (deferred consequences) for my positive payoff (short term gratification). From flossing to paying by credit card for goods you don't want but the imagery or the offer was too shiny resist.

    Was it my amygdala being hijacked? Is my lack of self-control something I can learn to reprogram?

    Thomas, you're in good company. Aristotle's elegantly simple, “We become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions." And as someone who has to swallow my own medicine I know how tough doing that is for me so I have a lot of empathy for others who don't share your resolve & get tempted.

    Being distracted by some sweeter treat or shinier muse goes some way to to helping resist temptation. Imminent proximity to the potential loss I might suffer seems to motivate me far more greatly than the potential gains I might enjoy. I act as the polar opposite of the rational consumer. I'm absolutely not a rational being. I'm usually a slave to my habits and my emotions. I'm drawn to what feel s familiar like a moth to the flame, confusing danger with succour, addiction for relief, deeper loss incurred by greater risk taking in the vain hope that my luck may overcome my increasingly blinkered bad choices. I know when I have my views disproved, I've found (irrational) reasons for my old (wrong) beliefs to be reinforced, as if letting go of them is too painful.

    I'm happy with who I am. I'm not happy with all my choices. I'm able but my choices are often mind-numbingly, earth shatteringly stupid. Just me?
  • Sep 1 2011: I wonder if there is anyone out there that this is *not* too personal a question for?