Why does your client self-sabotage their success?

What can we do when our clients self-sabotage? We see them making progress towards their goals and then it’s like they hit a self destruct button. How can we understand what is happening for them and, more importantly, help them realise why this pattern keeps occurring?

So often, they notice themselves building great things in life, only to sabotage it the moment they are about to get what they want.

In this post, we will look at 3 things:

  • The solution to another problem
  • How to discover the bigger problem
  • An example case study for illustration

The SOLUTION TO ANOTHER PROBLEM

The client may feel crazy that they do this. They are not. They are perfectly rational. Their self-sabotage makes sense. Yes, it is a problem. But it is also the solution to a much bigger problem.

What would you prefer? A problem, or a bigger problem? We would all choose a problem instead of a bigger problem. That’s not craziness. That makes sense. It’s what every protection racket in history has relied upon.

Think of the gangster who tells the shopkeeper to give them $100 a week or they’ll be beaten and their store will be burned down. A hundred bucks a week is a problem. But it’s a problem they choose in order to prevent the bigger one.

Psychologically, this is typical. We make choices that make sense somehow. We choose one problem because it prevents an even bigger one. Our job as therapists is to first help the client realise what that bigger problem is.

We need to discover the underlying protection racket that is at work.

How to discover the bigger problem

There is a technique that comes from Motivational Interviewing that I repurpose in my practice. It helps me understand the truth of the client’s problem very quickly.

Motivational Interviewing asks the client 4 things:

  1. how does the status quo serve or benefit the client?
  2. what are the costs of the status quo?
  3. what is the downside or price to be paid for changing?
  4. what are the benefits of changing?

The underlying reason for your client’s self-sabotage is held in their answers to questions 1 and 3.

There will be a lot of answers given here. Collect them in a list. Notice those that seem heavier or scarier.

Unpack answers that hint at something deeper. For instance, if the client says a benefit of self-sabotage means that they won’t have to feel happy, ask what would happen if they did feel happy. There needs to be some exploration to find the fear or problem.

Likewise, if the client says that a benefit of self-sabotage is that things are easier somehow, find out what makes it easier. Ask what would be hard otherwise. Find the fear and the things that feel risky for them within their answers.

You can sum up the full reason for their self-sabotage in a statement like this:

If I allow myself to get the thing I want
Then this terrible consequence (their answer from questions 1 and 3)
So I self-sabotage
Even though I long for it to go well
Because anything is better than the terrible consequence

Let’s apply the same logic to the protection racket mentioned earlier.

If I allow myself to keep all the money I earn
Then the gangster will burn my store down and violently attack me
So I pay him $100 every week
Even though I long to use that money to make my family’s lives better
Because anything is better than having my business destroyed and maybe even being killed by the gangster.

Crazy? Or does it make sense?

A CASE STUDY to illustrate

This case study is fictional for illustration purposes. Nonetheless, you will no doubt recognise some of your own clients in this depiction.

Stephen is a man in his 30s. As a child, his parents were overbearing and suffocating. He has grown up to become a successful professional. Yet romantic relationships have proven difficult. He has no problem attracting a partner, but he notices that he self-sabotages the moment things get closer.

When asked the Motivational Interviewing questions, he listed some benefits of keeping things as they are. He says he can maintain his own autonomy. He says it feels safer because he is able to keep some boundary between himself and others.

When asked what the cost would be if a magic wand could give him the closeness he wants, he notices a fear of losing himself in the relationship. He would cease to be himself and the other person would overwhelm him.

As such we could construct this sentence:

If I allow myself the love and closeness I crave
Then I will lose my identity and the other will take over me completely
So I do things that create distance and ensures the other moves away from me
Even though I long for love and closeness with them
Because anything is better than losing myself like I did to my parents.

Suddenly, this puzzle that had plagued him for so long was clarified. It made sense to him. When relationships got too close, his nervous system would become agitated.

He feared it would result in the same overbearing overwhelm and loss of self that he had experienced as a child. So he did something to sabotage the closeness in order to create some distance. It was no longer puzzling.

A RECAP

Self-sabotage is not crazy. It makes sense. Like someone in the grip of a protection racket, it is both a problem AND a solution to a bigger problem. Stop paying the hundred bucks and life gets even worse than now. Protection rackets are a good metaphor because self-sabotage is a protection against something even worse.

We can repurpose the Motivational Interviewing questions to explore what the client is protecting themself from. As the client connects to the ways that staying the same serves them, they clarify what is happening for them. Likewise, as they explore the fears and dangers with getting what they want, they see why they ensure they don’t get it.

The self-sabotage not only makes sense, but the underlying protection is brought into awareness.

From there, you and the client both know the target learning to be changed. In Stephen’s case, his nervous system reacts to a loving partner as if they were his overwhelming parents. A bodily response to an old psychological injury is taking place.

We can use memory reconsolidation to overwrite those old responses that are no longer helpful today. This allows Stephen’s nervous system to assess his potential partners in the here and now. He can now feel safe with people who will not harm him. (See 3 steps to memory reconsolidation for more info.)

He finds that, after the work is complete, love and closeness is easy. The nervous system response that was causing him to panic and create distance is now gone. His nervous system is able to assess the true safety of this potential partner. If safe, he can allow himself the love and closeness he has always longed for. The self-sabotage is no longer required and so no longer occurs.

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