Have you ever wondered why you self-sabotage your nutrition goals? Or maybe it’s not so easy for you to recognize, but you understand that perhaps you’re subconsciously self-sabotaging.
Either way, let’s talk about the forms of self-sabotage, WHY you do it, and how to work through it.
Self-sabotage, by Heathline’s definition, refers to “behaviors or thought patterns that hold you back and prevent you from doing what you want to do.”
Let’s unpack that definition.
Behaviors are ways we act. This could be driving home by roads that deliberately skip your fitness studio. It could be leaving so little “you time” in your calendar that you can’t even make it to the grocery store. It could be choosing not to pack your walking shoes if you want to incorporate more joyful movement.
Thought patterns are habits of thinking a certain way or perceived assumptions that are not always rooted in truth. For example, a negative thought pattern could be thinking “I will never hit my goal to run a 5K.” On the contrary, it could be a thought pattern of overconfidence, such as, “I don’t need to plan ahead, I know I’ll be fine to make a decision on the spot,” even though on the spot, you’re overwhelmed and end up making a decision you aren’t as happy with.
There is much truth to Lao Tzu’s quote:
If we assume Lao Tzu’s wisdom happens in the order he presented, then the root of self-sabotage comes down to those thoughts which then become our behaviors.
Now that we’ve really dived into the definition of self-sabotage, let’s talk about the different forms of it. This is not a comprehensive list – there are MANY forms that self-sabotage can show up in our daily lives. However, this is a starting point to help you identify with the forms that seem most relevant to you.
If you procrastinated on your homework growing up, this might be for you! Self-sabotage by way of procrastination can interfere with our health and fitness goals in several ways. Maybe you’re procrastinating making a meal, to the point that you get over-hungry and just eat whatever is in front of you and easy to grab. Perhaps you procrastinate a task by eating. “I could do this right now, but let me grab a snack first.” This second example is usually the most common when the task is daunting or overwhelming – we avoid it (see #4) by putting it off and doing something else.
Are you so trapped in your mind that you’re basically paralyzed from taking action? This might be your form of self-sabotage. You’re so focused on getting everything just right that you don’t even start. Every detail has to be meticulously thought out before a single action can be taken. It’s related to perfectionism in a sense, but this form of self-sabotage specifically keeps you trapped in your mind and prevents you from taking action. Think of this (yes, “pun” intended here!) as you continuously thinking through what foods are best for you to the point that you never start incorporating these foods. Your brain space adds a level of complication and prevents you from getting things done.
You assume something will happen and determine your feelings before it even does. Let me give you an example as a military spouse. You assume your spouse will be assigned to a duty station you aren’t going to like. You immediately decide – consciously or not – that you’re going to be miserable, struggle to make friends, and face obstacles in finding a job among other things. This assumption prevents you from taking actions like pursuing new opportunities – whether that be to make new friends or find a new job. You settle with unhappiness and assume things won’t change. When you operate based on how you think a goal will go, you fail to deal with reality. If you assume you’ll never hit a certain benchmark (like walking or running a certain distance), you might not even try to get there.
If you are an avoider, you might be living the Ostrich Effect. Simply put, the Ostrich Effect is you burying your head in the sand to avoid facing some negative information. For example, you feel like something is going on with your health, but you’re scared of the negative, so you don’t go get it checked. When it comes to your nutrition, this could be knowing that you need to make a change but choosing not to work with a registered dietitian so that there’s no light shed on negative habits you might have.
If anyone has ever described you as a control freak, this might be your primary form of self-sabotage. You are trying so hard to control the situation that when you don’t have control, all hell breaks loose. We see this frequently with people who follow a meal plan then get totally derailed the minute they can’t control their meal – whether that’s because they’re at a social event, had an emergency come up, or have to grab a meal on the go. This need for control contributes to all or nothing thinking as well – if we can’t control it completely, then we can’t control it at all so I might as well give up.
Man, do I see this a lot! Remember when we were talking about thoughts becoming behaviors? When we are constantly self-criticizing, we do not leave space for ourselves to thrive. If you consistently tell yourself that you aren’t good enough or you’re incapable of reaching a goal, that criticism takes over and we start to believe those thoughts and embrace behaviors that reinforce them. This low self-esteem can prevent us from taking more action. For example, if you constantly criticize your body shape and weight, you might be unwilling to try out a group fitness class. Furthermore, incremental improvements are dismissed because they only count if you achieve the larger goal.
This is, by far, the most common form of self-sabotage I see as a dietitian. This is sprinkled into the other forms but can also be a type of self-sabotage on its own as well. All or nothing thinking forces us to live in a black and white fantasy. For example, if you can’t completely follow a meal plan, what’s the point of getting one in the first place? On a day-to-day basis, maybe you overdid it at breakfast. All or nothing thinking says, “Well now my whole day is ruined because I went overboard at Christmas!” Perhaps you’re going on vacation and you won’t be following your same routine. All or nothing thinking says, “Since I can’t go to the gym 5 days this week, I might as well not work out at all.”
As with any nutrition-related goal, the first step is self-awareness. First, you need to become in tune with yourself and your personality. What forms of self-sabotage do you experience the most? Perhaps you start by just identifying 1 or 2 and looking at the flip side of those.
For example, if you are a procrastinator, maybe you proactively build time in your calendar for tasks so that you discourage procrastination by specifically setting time aside.
If you are an avoider, maybe you challenge yourself to branch out and face something today. It doesn’t have to be massive! Maybe it’s just asking a friend for help instead of avoiding a problem. Maybe if you avoid activity, it’s asking a friend to go on a walk. Maybe if you avoid going to the grocery store because it overwhelms you, you plan a grocery pickup order.
Whatever your forms of self-sabotage are, know that you are in control and have the power to overcome them through small, simple steps. Change doesn’t have to happen overnight. In fact, change doesn’t happen overnight. Be okay with this knowledge and slowly take steps to challenge your forms of self-sabotage so that you can thrive when it comes to your health.
Mary-Catherine LaBossiere, MPH, RD, LDN is a military spouse, registered dietitian, and the owner of Defy Nutrition. She started her career working in obesity and diabetes clinical research while earning her Master’s in Public Health. Mary-Catherine then transitioned to working in behavioral health. Now, Mary-Catherine is a full-time entrepreneur who helps women eat like human beings and develop healthier relationships with food. She is on a mission to empower women to ditch diet extremism and focus instead on sustainable habits. In her free time, she loves being active and exploring the outdoors with her husband and their dogs.