How Therapy Can Help You Make Positive Life Choices

pexels-photo-mediumIn my last few posts, I’ve talked about self-sabotage—what it is and why some people are particularly susceptible to it. In my experience, people who self-sabotage fall into two broad categories. Some experienced significant abuse in their childhoods. Others experienced significant neglect. In this post, I want to talk about how early experiences of abuse can cause self-sabotage later in life.

What is Self-Sabotage?

I described self-sabotage in an earlier post , so I’ll just do a quick recap here. I often refer to self-sabotage as “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” It happens when people undermine themselves just when they are about to achieve something they want, such as

  • Getting a promotion at work.
  • Committing to a relationship.
  • Finishing a class they need to graduate from school.

People who self-sabotage usually blame external circumstances when things don’t work out. However, when failing to achieve what you want becomes a pattern in your life, external circumstances are never the whole story.

Understanding how you are sabotaging yourself is the missing piece of more satisfying life.

How Do Victims of Abuse Self-Sabotage?

Let’s look at an example. Again, this is a disguised composite of people I have worked with and not an actual individual.   

A client of mine had a father who was moderately successful but never fully realized his ambitions in life.  The father had a very competitive relationship with his son. He needed to feel that he was better than his son at everything from sports to academics to work.

My client was very successful in school and in his career, but he was persistently wracked by self-doubt. He felt that he wasn’t good enough. Why? It turned out, he felt as though his own success made his dad feel bad about himself. Furthermore, my client wasn’t at all aware of these feelings. They were completely unconscious. These unconscious feelings manifested themselves as self-sabotaging behavior. Every time my client experienced some professional success, he would do something to undermine it. He was completely mystified by this behavior and used it to justify his father’s idea that he was incompetent.

Like most adults who grow up in abusive households, my client couldn’t connect the dots between his feelings and his behavior until we were able to make sense of it together. As is the case for most adults in this situation, one of the main motivations for his self-sabotage was trying to protect an abusive parent. My client sacrificed his own success and well-being on the altar of his father’s vulnerability.

There was an additional motivation for my client’s self-sabotaging behavior, too. One that is common to people who grow up in abusive households.

Abused children usually take on the identity of the “bad kid” in the family. Every time my client tried to change his self-sabotaging behavior, he felt very anxious and alone. He quickly undermined himself in some way. As we explored these feelings, he realized that succeeding (and no longer being the “bad kid”), felt like losing his father’s love and his own place in the family. This terrified him. He didn’t know who he was if he wasn’t the person his father needed him to be.

The major focus of our work in therapy? Helping him break free of that idea.  Allowing himself to define for himself, make positive life choices, and be who he wanted to be in his own life.

So What Can You Do to Make Better Life Choices?

In order for people to make better, more positive life choices, they need to understand why they make bad choices. This is easier said than done. It involves reexamining an identity that has taken a long time to construct. Because the reasons for making bad choices are usually unconscious, people are usually unaware. They don’t know how and why they created identities that lead them to make bad choices. Psychotherapy is the best way to grasp why you make bad choices and gain the confidence to make better ones.

How Do You Address These Issues?

Click here to learn more about making better life choices with Dr. Jane Rubin, Licensed Clinical Psychologist.

Jane Rubin, PhD., is a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California. She works with individuals in Berkeley, Oakland, the East Bay and the greater San Francisco Bay who are who are struggling with depression and anxiety. She also specializes in working with people who are trying to find meaning and direction in their lives.