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.

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