Understanding Why We Self-Sabotage

If we genuinely want to show up for our best selves, why do we self-sabotage ourselves?

It just might be another part of being human.

As I wrote in my previous post, suffering and pain are part of our human condition. Fortunately, our brains can help us thrive in the face of adversity, practice self-compassion, and become our best selves. We know this through positive neuroscience—the study of positive psychology using neuroimaging techniques to help explain the neurobiology of how we perceive situations and, ultimately, how we react to them.

We are inundated with information or situations that evoke primal core emotions designed through evolution for our survival before modern civilization. Whether we react with happiness, gratitude, sadness, sympathy, or any other emotion, we vary wildly in how we respond to people and situations based on our upbringing, what we experienced in early childhood and adolescence, and even our genetic inheritance from our parents. One A.P.A. study led researchers to conclude that happier people can better notice opportunities while still observing threats, inferring that active positivity does not inherently mean you’re oblivious to concerning situations. This is important because we so often conflate happiness with naiveté as an excuse to avoid pursuing new opportunities, which reveals many people’s core state of self-sabotage.

The Research

Happier people with high positive affectivity are typically open-minded, pleasant, and helpful. They have high energy and enthusiasm, are alert and active, and face adversity with confidence in their ability to overcome obstacles or conflicts. People with high negative affectivity typically experience nervousness, guilt, fear, disgust, contempt, or anger when facing a stressful moment or conflict. It’s clear which of those two we’d all prefer to embody, so why are we so prone to self-sabotage when it doesn’t genuinely serve our best selves?

With fMRI studies, researchers find that our amygdala responds to emotional stimuli according to our affective style. If we have a more positive affect style, we are less reactive to stimuli and can better regulate our emotions, making our disposition more positive. If we have a more negative affect style, we are more reactive, less able to regulate emotions, and our nature tends to be more negative.

According to researchers, our affective style results from our genes, attachment style, adversity in early life, and mental health. Though genetics and formative experiences aren’t something we can change, we can learn to control and shift specifically how our brains respond to situations and emotional stimuli away from our self-sabotaging old programming.

I’ll dive more into ways we can counter self-sabotage in my next post. In the meantime, if you have questions about dissolving your self-sabotage impulses, please let me know. I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me here and on LinkedIn.