Why We Engage in Self-Sabotage – and How to Stop

We all do things we don’t want to do – filing taxes, emptying the dishwasher, and raking an autumn’s worth of leaves off the driveway.

But I’m not talking about chores. I’m talking about those things we do that we do on a molecular level we Do. Not. Want. To. Do.

Go out on a (second…and third…) date with a loser.

Stay in our dead-end job.

Pay for another round of drinks for friends who always “forget their wallet.”

Spend time with people who make us feel bad about ourselves.

As a mental health professional, people are always asking me – even before they get to my couch – “Why do I keep doing stupid shit?” They want to know how to stop self-sabotage as if they were the ones to have invented it.

But, it’s not just them and it’s not just you. It’s our evolutionary heritage.

To understand that situation where you’ve got a big decision to make and two competing voices in your head (one of which is bombarding you with negative self-talk), you’ve got to go back millions of years to our Neanderthal ancestors.

As they scrambled for food and fled predators, selection pressures favoured those who excelled at seeking pleasure (food and sex) and avoiding pain (death). No room for navel contemplation here.

Flash forward to the Homo sapiens, but don’t be too quick to forget the caveman. Even though we’ve evolved the ability for higher cognition, we haven’t shed our instinctive functions, must-haves like breathing, eating, moving, sleeping, and basic emotions.

But it’s not all upside.

Our human brain is still part animal. Let’s visualize it as a lumbering elephant, poised to stampede at the first hint of danger. The main difference from our Neanderthal brethren is that our elephant has a rider – our cognitive mind – that can steer this well-meaning pachyderm onto the path it most desires and away from whatever form of self-sabotage he’s lumbering towards.

That’s the operative word: steer. The cognitive brain isn’t just pulling some puppet strings. The elephant – or, as we at Shift call him, the Walnut – is a formidable partner. (Notice I said, partner, not enemy…)

That’s a good thing. Although the modern Walnut doesn’t have to spend all of its energy keeping you alive, it preserves the hair-trigger features from earlier evolutionary phases. His job is to remove your pain points – including social pain – and to do it fast.

Focused on survival, the Walnut takes a “better safe than sorry” approach. Our ancestors didn’t have the developed cognitive mind to extract information from their surroundings – they just learn something once and then go on autopilot.

If Caveman Susie walked by a cave and a sabertooth tiger leaped out, she would have the same get-me-out-of-here reaction every time she saw a cave-looking type opening. Better safe than sorry, even if it means living her whole life without ever being able to go indoors.

Now, however, our brain is like a car with two drivers. One steps on the gas at the first sign of danger, while the other rationally evaluates your surroundings.

The trick is to find the right brain for the right job: When you are being chased by a T-rex, hire the Walnut. But when it’s time to decide whether to quit your partner, try for a little bit more gray matter.

Notice it’s not about silencing the Walnut. Our evolutionary history isn’t something to flee. Going numb to his signals is as dangerous to our well-being as it is to give him free reign.

Our goal is just to avoid an overly activated Walnut. We don’t have predators, but we do have limiting beliefs – negative thoughts about ourselves and the world that we internalize during childhood. Limiting beliefs stem from non-nurturing elements, threats our Walnut perceived – sort of like Caveman Susie – and then continues to generalize to successive experiences.

For example, if we don’t have a secure attachment with our primary caregiver, we may internalize the belief “I am not worthy” or if we experienced violence (an actual war or aggressive household behaviors), we may believe, “I am at risk.”

When we’re in our developmental phase, we may truly have been at risk – so our Walnut was helping us create a protective strategy. However, as we grow up, the danger has passed – only now we’re wandering through the world with limiting-belief-colored glasses.

So how do we take those glasses off? 

ShiftGrit Psychology & Counselling - self-sabotage

Here are a few tips to calibrate our Walnut for the most optimized life:

  • Know when he is active. 
  • Evaluate if the threat is real. (There can be good reasons for the Walnut to be sounding the alarm – but probably not if someone took your parking spot.)
  • Learn your ‘triggers’ (i.e. the things that make your body feel that “ugh” feeling). 
  • Practice mindfulness regularly, so that when you feel the trigger, you’ll know how to clear your mind. Deep breaths send safety signals to your brain, calming the Walnut down. 
  • Distract him – preemptively. A Walnut is like a toddler, so appease him with healthy distractions: Call a friend, relax in a sudsy bath, or sweat it out at the gym. Just don’t wait until you’re already at a nine. The Walnut is sensitive to emotional states (like boredom) and physical states (like sleepiness or hunger). Proactively relieve stress by getting enough rest, socialization, and physical exercise
  • Don’t hate on him. The reason we call him a walnut is because it’s neutral. (And also, no one wants a peanut brain… ) He’s got stuff to say, even if he doesn’t always have the words. Figure out what he needs. 

Once you know when to give the walnut the keys and when to send him on his little nutty way, you’re more likely to stop engaging in self-sabotage and clear the runway to achieve your goals.

Even if you do the work to up our game, you’re still going to be around others who have not yet cracked their evolutionary psychology open. No matter: You’ll be well-positioned to understand when others are being held hostage by their Walnut and make a choice about how – or whether – to engage.

If you want to cut the cord on sabotaging behaviour, knowing how the human mind works is the first step. You can adopt lots of strategies to wrangle the Walnut, but life optimization requires more mental bandwidth.

At ShiftGrit, we’ve developed a unique protocol to help identify and remove your limiting beliefs on a subconscious level, allowing you to work with, not against, evolutionary biology.

Play nicely with your Walnut. Your life depends on it.