5 common self-sabotaging statements

(not really me, of course. click thru for meme.) I originally titled this post "Shit My Clients Say That Drives Me Crazy," but let's be real -- self-sabotage is something we all do to a degree, not just people in therapy. As a therapist at a residential treatment center, I have understanding and compassion for the fact that my clients are not in a place in their lives where they can easily access inner strengths and coping skills that work well for them -- or they wouldn't be in treatment. (And a lot of the time, when I hear the stories about their childhood or trauma history, it makes complete sense why they have trouble doing so.) Of course, I believe that they absolutely have those inner strengths already, and the capacity for learning and using tools for communicating and coping well. They just need guidance to learn how to uncover and access all of that.

They also have to work toward practicing self-compassion (or call it worthiness, self-acceptance, or whatever you prefer), because without some level of belief like they deserve a good life, all the coping skills in the world won't help, because they won't use them. Finally, they need to be open-minded to feedback that can sometimes be difficult or painful to hear. (For example, clients who easily fall into the "victim" stance or have beliefs of entitlement aren't going to get very far if they don't start to own up to those pattern when others point them out.)

That said, I am human and I get frustrated hearing the same self-sabotaging statements again and again. I work with my clients to see when they're recreating that cycles of self-sabotage and become more aware of how the language they use impacts their emotions and behaviors. Below are 5 of the most common self-sabotaging statements that I hear and how to begin working with them. (Excuse the mild ranting below... I can't rant to my clients but I can on my blog!)

  1. "I need to figure out _______." There's a client right now in my group who says this a lot, and she hasn't yet caught on to my repeated redirection (either that or she just enjoys tormenting me). As they say in AA,"Self knowledge avails us nothing." I couldn't agree more. Sure, sometimes gaining insight into your past or present can be helpful or healing, and there's a place for that. But when I repeatedly hear people say things like, "I just need to figure out how to get out of my head" or "I need to figure out why I'm so anxious," I just want to go all Yoda on them -- there is no "figure out," there is only "DO." Another favorite phrase about this one is that "too much analysis leads to paralysis." Is it possible that your overthinking/overanalyzing are part of the problem? Probably. Which leads me to... __
  2. "I'm working on it." (Or even better, "I really need to work on _____.") WHAT DOES THIS EVEN MEAN? Okay sorry for yelling, but really. What does it mean to be "working on" something? What are you doing differently that's going to give you a different result? This statement is so incredibly vague, but it also gives the illusion that you are doing "something" and therefore should expect results. What I have found with this is that it might mean that a client has discussed her patterns of entitlement or passive-aggressive communication (or whatever else it might be) in a therapy session and has more insight about them and where they come from, but just like with #1, insight only takes you so far. I am not a classically trained behaviorist by any means, but I do use several variations of behavioral therapy (primarily ACT and DBT) and I firmly believe that real change requires specific, realistic behavioral goals. Of course, for perfectionists or black-and-white thinkers, this can get a little tricky because we can map out exactly what we need to do and then hold ourselves to too-high standards or say "well I didn't do it exactly as planned, screw it." So, it helps to have a therapist, coach, or accountability partner in your corner when determining the specifics of how you want to work toward behavioral goals... but for the love of all that is holy, don't let yourself off the hook by saying "I know I have this problem so I'm working on it" without knowing what that really looks like for you. What would I be able to see you doing differently today if you really were "working on it"? __
  3. "I'm really not present." Ok, I have to be fair on this one in that some of my clients struggle with varying degrees of dissociation related to PTSD, have full-on ADHD, are withdrawing from substances, and/ or are just starting to give their bodies the nourishment that they really need. So especially in the beginning, I completely understand why they have trouble focusing or being present in groups. But especially at times like right now, when the majority of clients in our group have been with us for over 30 days, I really have to watch my frustration when I read them a freaking beautiful poem (requiring not even 3 minutes of attention) and afterward it's clear that only two of them were actually listening. (Normally I'll give them copies of things to read along because it helps, but come onnnnn) Then they'll say, "yeah, I was totally somewhere else" or "I'm just really not present today" and I really have to use my DBT skills (just breathe, non-judgment, non-judgment...) because what I really want to say is, "Do you think that I am just naturally this 'on' all the time? No, it takes a serious amount of effort for me to be 'present'! I certainly am not 100% of the time and I will totally own that, but I have to have the intention and make the conscious effort to bring myself more fully present into situations, conversations, etc. many times a day." Like I said, I know there are people who have circumstances that make it even more difficult for them to focus, so I get that, but for most people who repeatedly say "I'm not present" or "I'm just in my head" and are not doing anything for themselves to improve that (like even a 5-minute daily mindfulness practice, or using something sensory like Play Doh to stay more present), I have difficulty being very empathetic. Then it's back to #2... so what are you doing? There are so many amazing free resources out there for mindfulness practice, so dig in! __
  4. "I just need to get rid of my (fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, etc.)." This is a really tough one because it's counterintuitive for most people and certainly on a cultural level. I could write a whole post about this (and maybe I will!), but for now I'll get straight to the point: There is a very good chance that your repeated attempts at trying to squash or avoid your uncomfortable thoughts/feelings is not only not helping you, but is also creating more problems. This is pretty obvious when it comes to blatantly self-destructive behaviors like excessive drinking or drug use, bingeing, purging, restricting (used to dampen fear, sadness, anxiety, etc.) -- and less obvious but still just as true with other "control behaviors" like shopping, Netflix bingeing, obsessive phone-checking, etc. Now, I'm a huge fan of Brené Brown's work on shame resilience, and I don't think that shame actually serves anyone (guilt for actions out of line with your values, maybe, but not "I am bad" shame). But the idea that you have to wait until a magical day when you no longer have "not good enough" thoughts until you can act your dreams? Good luck with that. And guess what the definition of a panic attack is? Anxiety about your anxiety. I'm not saying it's easy to deal with anxiety or to stop wanting it to go away, but just that the way you approach it will impact how successful you are, and fighting anxiety typically doesn't work. I also love Kate Swoboda's work over at Your Courageous Life on embracing fear as part of courageous action ("Hating your fear is a total waste of time.") What would happen if you started putting more of your time and energy into what you want more of in your life, instead of what you want less of? __
  5. "Easier said than done." When I read badass-life-coach Andrea Owen's comments on "easier said than done" recently in her book, I shouted out (um, internally) a big HELL YES, because she is so right on with this. So I'll just let you hear it from Andrea directly:

    Here’s my response today about, “It’s easier said than done”: NO FUCKING SHIT. That is the most obvious statement that has ever come out of my mouth and I vow to you and Jesus that I will never say it to anyone again. It always seems to follow up a piece of wisdom or advice about life or healing or moving forward. So, here’s a news flash: LIFE IS HARD. HEALING HURTS. MOVING FORWARD IS SCARY.

On that note, go forth and remove these phrases from your vocabulary! If you want change in your life, do something different. If you don't know where to start or need help, ask for it. I know of tons of great resources that I can share with you!  

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.