I gave my honors composition students an assignment at the end of our unit on psychology: connect a piece of modern psychological research to one of the theorists we’d just studied in the unit. I love assigning projects that I know will produce diverse, fascinating writing; if there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s a stack of papers that are all about the same thing (hey, would you want to read 60 papers comparing and contrasting McDonald’s and Burger King?). I wasn’t disappointed; my kids produced some of the most insightful and original writing I’d seen in a long time.
One of my favorite papers from one of my most talented students connected an article from Psychology Today with Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. The article (which you can read here) was about the ways we self-sabotage; in other words, the ways we keep ourselves from doing the things we really want. The student argued that the people who self-sabotage most egregiously are the people who lack what Gardner calls “intrapersonal intelligence”: a knowledge of who we are, what we want out of life, and how to achieve it.
I’ve heard the term self-sabotage before, but I’d never given it much thought. It just didn’t make much sense. Why on earth would we get in our own way? We’re always looking out for number one, right?
The article claims that there are four ways we self-sabotage:
1. Procrastination. Well, I guess that makes sense. We all do it, right? We sit there juggling long-term needs with short-term rewards, and more often than not, instant gratification wins in the end. We hate ourselves for procrastinating, we rarely find it rewarding, but we all do it. Sometimes, it’s just laziness. But more often I think it’s avoidance–we know that getting down to business means confronting some of the most difficult, frustrating, or painful aspects of our lives. It also means risk. It means opening ourselves up to the possibility of failure, and we are programmed to avoid failure like we’re programmed to eat and sleep. It’s a basic, God-given instinct. Overcoming procrastination is often more than a mere act of the will; it requires a whole shift in mindset.
2. Dodging emotions. This one could be aptly renamed “emotional procrastination.” We sense a strong emotion bubbling just under the surface and instead of giving it to the light and dealing with it, we hastily shove it back deep down into the recesses of our psyche. Strong negative emotions are never fun to handle. We need time, energy, and focus to process things like grief over the loss of a loved one, disappointment over the death of a dream, or anger at the irrational behavior of a colleague. But I think that dodging emotions ultimately ends up being more of an act of self-sabotage than procrastination. We tell ourselves that stuff doesn’t affect us, that we’re fine. Sooner or later, however, we have to pay the piper. Those repressed emotions pop up in the most unexpected and inconvenient ways, and we suddenly wake up to find ourselves in the midst of a train wreck we just caused. It’s not an easy mess to clean up.
3. Extreme modesty. Sometimes I struggle with having enough confidence to do what needs to be done; other times, I drastically overrate myself and end up surprised when people don’t jump on my bandwagon. However, I know people who suffer perpetually from extreme modesty, and it truly is an act of self-sabotage. Prideful, arrogant people are incredibly annoying to be around, but overly modest people are just as bad. You know the type: “Nobody loves me…I’ll never amount to anything…I’m worthless.” I know that these are genuine feelings, but unfortunately, they’re also disastrous feelings. Lack of confidence leaves you shut up at home wondering what you could have done with your life.
4. Addiction. The big addictions come to mind first: drugs, alcohol, sex. We tend to think that if we’re not tangled up with any of those things, we’re not addicts. The truth is that I think most of us have something we’re addicted to, something beyond the basic necessities that we’ve become dependent on to keep us happy. Addiction deadens the mind, weakens the will, and poisons the soul.
My students surprise me almost daily with their boldness and candor. This student’s paper gave me a lot of food for thought regarding the ways I undermine my own life. But overall, I really don’t see how these things apply to my life. Well, I guess I should get to the dishes now…I don’t know, maybe I’ll do them later. Dirty dishes make me so ANGRY, but I’m just not going to think about that right now. What good is my life anyway–I can’t even succeed as a dishwasher.
Whatever. I’m going to Facebook now.