The surprising reason for self-defeating behavior

Photo by Shiromani Kant on Unsplash

Have you struggled to relate to advice books that tell you all you need to do is adopt new habits or take certain steps to stop self-defeating behavior?

You desperately want to believe success is that easy. And tweaking your habits may have worked for a while…but you always come back to your setpoint of self-sabotage.

That’s because there are hidden reasons why we hold ourselves back.

For people from a supportive background and loving family, challenges feel good, a normal part of the discomfort you must endure to move forward in life. They are not looking out for threats or wondering whether their needs will be met.

For those of us who had a less than ideal journey to today, however, that same challenge feels like the rock of Sisyphus. And that’s why we give up more easily and engage in self-defeating habits.

You see, the traumatized brain does not want to play and explore or see where things go. Instead, it wants concrete answers. It wants to get things over with and does not want to make mistakes.

The traumatized brain does not want to play and explore; it wants concrete answers. Click To Tweet

Survival brain and self-defeating behavior


Some people call this survival brain vs. learning brain. Psychologist Dr. Jacob Ham describes the concept in his brief video directed at classroom educators.

He says learning brain is open to new information, comfortable with ambiguity, and sees the big picture. People with learning brain feel peaceful, excited, playful, and curious about what they’re going to learn.

People with survival brain, on the other hand, are hyper focused on threat. They can’t tolerate ambiguity, want clear answers, and think in black and white terms.

Survival brain makes people feel panicky, obsessive, and afraid of getting things wrong. As a result, they do not feel calm and open to learning new things, but want to end the ordeal as quickly as possible.

In five minutes, Dr. Ham helped me understand why I felt unsafe unless I controlled every outcome. He also explained why I found it so hard to tolerate works in progress and could never relax until after tying up all loose ends.

If you’ve read advice on why you keep holding yourself back with self-defeating behaviors, you may have learned some version of “you’re weak, you lack discipline, or you need to believe in yourself more.”

What Dr. Ham’s talk shows us is that it’s likely you’re stronger than most. It’s just that all your resources have gone into survival and there’s little left over for less life-threatening challenges.

It’s likely you’re stronger than most. It’s just that all your resources have gone into survival. Click To Tweet

Based on the household challenges you may have endured in childhood, many people we consider successful would wither in the face of what you’ve had to go through. In other words, it’s not your fault.

How to know if you have hypervigilance from childhood trauma

Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash

It’s natural to experience an elevated sense of anxiety when a threat arises. Then your system quickly calms down when the danger subsides. Hypervigilance happens when this feeling becomes your normal and your system has an impaired ability to calm itself.

If you grew up in a home with emotional abuse and neglect your system became flooded by these episodes of arousal because of the constant threats. Both abuse and neglect can make a child feel unsafe because of the lack of protection and care.

Symptoms of hypervigilance

A child who faces attack or has to look after itself does not get a chance to relax. Therefore, hypervigilance can lead to the emotional dysregulation many of us experience. It’s so exhausting to live in this state all the time that sometimes we explode.

A child who faces attack or has to look after itself does not get a chance to relax. Click To Tweet

It also leads to isolation because you’re less likely to feel triggered when you’re by yourself. Hypervigilance makes it hard to form connections. You can barely carry on a conversation without wondering how this person is perceiving you or whether they are safe.

So you wear a social mask and try to appear normal. It’s why you feel most alone in a room full of people and often can’t wait to leave a social situation so you can let your shoulders down.

It leads to numbing out with drugs and alcohol. Feeling nothing seems better than living with the constant flood of cortisol (stress hormone) that comes with this elevated sense of threat.

If you startle easily or overreact to stimuli, that may be a symptom of hypervigilance. When a siren goes off, do you clutch your heart, stop dead in your tracks, and fight to recover while everyone else hardly notices?

If you startle easily or overreact to stimuli, that may be a symptom of hypervigilance. Click To Tweet

Hypervigilance causes disease and illness in the body because of the toll this endless state of stress takes. It’s one of the reasons those of us with six or more ACEs (adverse childhood events) can see our lifespans cut short by 20 years.

How to cope


What can help heal hypervigilance is being kind to yourself. Love yourself in spite of your heightened state of arousal and remind yourself it’s not your fault. Negative self-talk only makes things worse.

Focus on your breathing to help you stay present and grounded when you start to panic during a conversation or other social situation. Give yourself grace and leave to regroup even if it’s only for a few minutes.

Talk to someone about how you feel, whether it’s a trusted friend, trauma-informed coach, or other counsellor. Join a support group for people suffering with these symptoms such as ACA or another one that suits you.

Move, go for a walk, or otherwise shift your energy to get unstuck. Changing your scenery and getting into your body and out of your head can offer relief from the pain of hypervigilance.

How to stop hiding your core gifts

core gifts
Photo by Ekaterina Shevchenko on Unsplash

I recently read a book called Deeper Dating. In it, the author says the things we hide are our greatest and core gifts.

If you’re a sensitive person, for example, you may have tried to develop a thick skin. But what if your sensitivity is your gift to the world?

Often, when we grew up without praise or encouragement from parents, we have a hard time accepting ourselves. If others failed to understand or support our core gifts, we suppress them to fit in.

But hiding core gifts in an effort to find acceptance is self-abandonment. And, besides, it never works. You come across as inauthentic and untrustworthy and you never become the person you’re meant to be in the world.

When you hide your core gifts, you attract people who will never make you feel supported because they don’t know the real you. Instead of seeking acceptance from others, the key is to accept yourself.

When you hide your core gifts, you attract people who will never make you feel supported because they don't know the real you. Click To Tweet

So, how can you begin to express your core gifts when you’ve been hiding them all along? How do you start to accept yourself when you’ve been self-abandoning for years? Here are 4 ways.

1. State your opinions.

When you disagree with someone, say so. When you stay silent or lend tacit agreement because you fear conflict, that’s self-abandonment.

You’re putting someone else’s need to be right ahead of your own need to be seen and heard. This ensures you’ll keep attracting people who don’t know the real you and you’ll continue to feel invisible.

2. Express your emotions.

core gifts

If you grew up with emotional neglect like I did, you may not trust your emotions. Maybe your complex PTSD has made you dysregulated around feelings.

The first step is to actually feel these feelings instead of denying them or distracting yourself from them. Really sink into them at first by journaling and/or sitting alone with them.

Once you’ve become more comfortable with your feelings, begin to express them to others. This will help you accept others’ emotions as well. Emotional honesty is an important part of relational intimacy and shows the real you.

3. Do what you want to develop core gifts.

Do you spend a lot of time fulfilling obligations that bring you no joy? Stop that. Make sure you’re doing more of what you love than what you hate.

Of course, responsibility is part of life but resist the habit of becoming over responsible. Putting others’ needs ahead of your own is a common outcome of unmet childhood needs.

Putting others' needs ahead of your own is a common outcome of unmet childhood needs. Click To Tweet

Parent yourself by taking care of your own needs first. Make a habit of asking yourself throughout the day what you need and giving it to yourself.

4. Invest in yourself to uncover core gifts.

You may resist spending money on yourself unless it provides a return on investment. But you are worth investing in and your mental health is the best ROI.

Depending on your resources, you may consider coaching, therapy, a retreat, or some other form of self care. If you spend money on others easily but have trouble doing the same for yourself, reconsider.

When overcoming a lifetime of self-abandonment, you may need help to uncover your core gifts. Invest time in self-knowledge through books or by spending more time on your own. Be patient with yourself as a lifetime of hiding takes time to transform.

How to be kind to yourself

kind to yourself
Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

When you’re going through something hard are you kind to yourself? Or do you berate yourself for feeling the way you do?

Instead of self-kindness when you’re feeling bad, you might try to prop yourself up with fake positivity. This only adds shame to the bad feelings. Why not try soothing yourself instead?

Kristin Neff, the foremost researcher on self-compassion, asks us to consider why we are so much meaner to ourselves than others in the same situation.

For example, when your friend tells you about a struggle they’re having, do you criticize them for not having it together? Or do you listen with empathy and reassure them with words of kindness?

Probably the latter. But when it comes to our own suffering, we refuse to give ourselves the same level of compassion.

The inner critic can be brutal and it might seem like she never takes time off. This critical voice is often the internalized echo of parents who criticized us when we were children.

The inner critic can be brutal. This internal voice is often the echo of parents who criticized us when we were children. Click To Tweet

If you never had your emotional needs met, it becomes difficult to know how to be kind to yourself as an adult. You simply have no frame of reference for self-love.

So, what are some of the ways you can be kind to yourself when self-soothing feels strange or impossible?

kind to yourself

1. Sleep

Allowing yourself to get enough sleep is a key way to demonstrate self-kindness. That’s why I’m not a proponent of the get up at 5 am to crush the day mentality.

Seven, eight, or nine hours sleep each night is essential to your mental health and well-being. Don’t buy into the lie that you’re lazy if you sleep more. We are more efficient on more sleep, so it’s actually the responsible thing to do.

2. Feel your feelings

If you grew up with emotional neglect you might avoid your feelings rather than facing them. Such neglect makes us view emotions as something bad or scary but they have a lot to tell us.

If you grew up with emotional neglect you might avoid your feelings and view emotions as bad or scary, but they have a lot to tell us. Click To Tweet

Instead of judging how you feel, simply observe your emotions. You can do this by sitting alone or writing about how you feel in a journal.

Try not to rationalize or minimize your feelings. That means feeling them as they are rather than comparing them to others who have it worse.

3. Be kind to yourself by meeting your needs

This might be hard at first because you may not know what your needs are. Start by taking note of what feels good to you. Which sensory experiences make you happy?

Do you like certain smells, tastes, or the way something feels? Rather than waiting until you’re so depleted you run to unhealthy coping mechanisms, ask yourself throughout the day what you need.

Maybe you need a nap. Or a warm bath. Or to give yourself a hug or snuggle a soft blanket. Smell some essential oils. Watch a funny show (instead of binge-watching 20 and zoning out to avoid your feelings).

What other ways can you think of to be kind to yourself?

The social stigma of going no contact with toxic family

toxic family
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

If you’ve had to go no contact with toxic family, you know the strength required to protect yourself this way. Often decades of internal work go into reaching such a drastic conclusion.

If you’ve dealt with toxic family you know it’s tantamount to having your head held underwater while drowning. Instead of throwing you a life preserver, or even ignoring you, they throw you a boulder.

As a result, you can rarely become the person God (or the universe) put you on earth to become. Therefore, detaching from unsafe family becomes a matter of survival and a spiritual battle for your life.

Gaslighting abounds within the toxic family. They call you crazy for displaying normal human emotions. They deny your reality, tell you you’re wrong to feel the way you do, or reinvent the past.

Gaslighting abounds within the toxic family. They call you crazy for displaying normal emotions. They deny your reality or reinvent the past. Click To Tweet

If you haven’t heard of gaslighting, it’s the way your family throws you under the bus to avoid dealing with their problems. They make you the problem to maintain their dysfunctional status quo.

They deny that anything bad has happened to you. Often, they make you believe you’re overreacting or selfish for wanting to be seen and heard or have your needs met.

Social stigma of detaching from toxic family

toxic family

I heard a dating coach tell his students that it’s a big red flag if someone has a troubled relationship with their family. This is an example of the social stigma attached to making the brave move to protect yourself from toxic people.

In addition to the pain and isolation of detaching from your abusers, you endure the social shame of being someone who “can’t get along with their family”.

After all, the common denominator is you, right? Your family seems to get along with each other and as they’ve told you, you’re the only one with a problem.

This is where the spiritual battle comes in. You may be the family scapegoat and that’s a biblical concept. You are the spiritual bearer of your family’s sins and they will keep piling on you until you take a stand for yourself.

You may be the family scapegoat and that's the spiritual bearer of your family's sins. They will keep piling on you until you take a stand for yourself. Click To Tweet

It’s a lie that truth hangs with the majority. Most often, the one who stands alone is the truth teller. Think of the boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes. Jesus. Any whistleblower you can name.

As someone with the courage to stand up to your abusers and choose the truth you count yourself among the esteemed company listed above.

Most likely, you have been persecuted for refusing to go along with a lie. The lie of toxic family rules and roles. The lie that expressing emotions means you’re crazy. And there is no shame in that.