You’re excited about the track you’re on, whether it’s eating healthy or exercising more, and you’re seeing some real progress. But then, just when you feel like you’re working the plan and finally getting traction, you’re derailed by bad choices.
Maybe you revert to a sugar-packed, processed-food lifestyle that lets those lost pounds find their way back. Or maybe those personal training sessions you adored for the results they gave are now sitting, unused, in your trainer’s account. What happened?
There are many reasons your momentum might screech to a halt — work or family pressure, chaotic schedules or health issues could come into play. But sometimes, none of those are a factor. That’s when it’s likely you’re involved in some self-sabotage.
“Many people want to meet diet and exercise goals, but then they don’t stick to the plan to get there,” says Simon Marshall, PhD, a sports psychologist and co-author of “The Brave Athlete.” He notes that unlike some sporadic moments of laziness, the act of doing something that directly opposes your goal is self-sabotage because you’re actively taking steps to make the problem worse.
Here are some signs you may be facing your toughest opponent yet when it comes to positive change: yourself.
Often, people feel a sense of friction when they choose behaviors that go against their nutrition and exercise goals, Marshall says, but the brain is wired to reduce internal inconsistencies. So what happens is the saboteur aspect of your brain begins piling on numerous justifications for why you’re making these less-than-ideal choices.
“Your brain stacks the debate in favor of the side that seems the easiest when it comes to effort,” he says. “That leads to messages that sort of overpower the other side.”
For example, if your nutrition has gotten off track, you may continually start telling yourself eating healthy is impossible with your work deadlines or that you can’t be expected to cook all the time or even that you hate vegetables. With fitness, you might be emphasizing that you need more sleep instead of gym time or that your muscles require more recovery than your trainer claims.
Once you start coming up with more and more excuses about why you can’t keep progressing toward your goals, your brain may start emphasizing that your choices are a positive thing, notes Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD, author of “Habits of a Happy Brain.”
She notes the stress of wanting to reach your goals can sometimes feel like a threat, and self-destructive behavior may bring a sense of safety and comfort from that threat. The more often that’s reinforced, the stronger that connection is.
“Your brain can ‘learn’ that a cookie relieves a threatened feeling,” she says. “Each time you eat a cookie in a bad moment, the circuit builds. Soon, your brain expects cookies to relieve threats. You don’t think that consciously, of course. But the thought of not eating a cookie starts to feel unsafe.”
Similarly, you can reinforce the belief you’ve been doing such good work with nutrition or fitness that you “deserve” a break through poor food choices or multiple rest days, Marshall adds. That makes your self-sabotage feel more like self-care, and the more often it happens, the firmer that belief becomes.
As you reinforce the sabotage as a “break” from your goals, it’s likely to become your dominant behavior, rather than an occasional cheat meal or non-exercise day.
As sabotage becomes the norm, everyday stressors can create a sense of urgency, Graziano Breuning says. That leads to feeling like you need to “do something” to relieve that stress — and that often means falling back on strategies that have been working toward that end, like eating unhealthy foods or spending the night in Netflix-binge mode.
After a while you may feel your goal has become impossible to achieve. But instead of setting a different, more realistic goal, you could just increase the justification process.
If you’re finding yourself in a pattern of sabotage-related behavior, that doesn’t mean you have to live with that eternal struggle.
“Fortunately, we have inherited happy chemicals as well as threat chemicals in our brains,” Graziano Breuning says. “Negativity is curiously good at stimulating happy chemicals.”
The first step is to see your behavior as self-sabotage and to resolve to “fight back” to get back on track, advises Marshall. He suggests revisiting your original goals and seeing if they’re realistic and genuinely achievable and then setting a very specific time frame for achieving them.
From there, he says listing actions to get the results you want will be helpful for beginning the “brain reset” that’s required. That might mean being consistent with keeping a food log and promising yourself you’ll record everything you eat, not just the good stuff. Or it could be getting a new fitness tracker and increasing the number of daily steps or workouts.
The combination of achievable goals, a schedule to get there and actions to make it happen can reduce self-sabotage habits, he emphasizes. What doesn’t work is blaming yourself. That can lead you right back to the behavior you don’t like.
“This isn’t about feeling like a failure,” Marshall says. “Blame and loathing will achieve the opposite of what you want. Instead, it’s about being smart and finding better solutions. Use self-reflection to see where your subconscious gremlins are and understanding that they’re trying to protect you from discomfort.”
Most of all, he adds, know that self-sabotage is extremely common, and it’s normal to have those feelings. But have a plan to “hack” your brain out of sabotage, and you’ll be less likely to see those behaviors stick around.