TED Conversations

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?


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  • 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?

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