There are many ways in which we engage in this irrational behavior - and many reasons. For some of us, it is a way to avoid doing something we know we should do, but don't really want to. For others, it's a way to stop ourselves from having to deal with negative feelings. But whatever the reason, we end up doing ourselves more harm than good.
Take procrastination for example. We have probably all experienced this force of nature at one time or another. When we should be working on that work project or school paper, we find ourselves more strongly drawn to our Facebook pages or that Netflix series we heard was really good. Experts describe procrastination as the gap between our intentions and our actions. We want to succeed at work or school, but feel overwhelmed by the task at hand. The problem is, in order to act, we must choose to do so.
Behavioral experts describe three basic reasons for procrastination: 1) to avoid doing something we find aversive; 2) because our intentions are weak and vague; and 3) because we're easily distracted and highly impulsive. The first one probably makes the most sense and is the easiest one to catch ourselves doing. If we hate writing, for example, it would make sense that we would put off writing that term paper until the last possible minute. In the second instance, there may be a gap between knowing we have a task or series of tasks to complete and figuring out where to start. In the case, a lack of confidence or feeling of overwhelm may be getting in the way. In this instance, learning how to break a big project down into smaller pieces is a good skill. It takes your focus off the scariness of the big picture and allows you to take just a small chunk at a time.
The third reason boils down to our inability to really estimate the time a task might take. For instance, we may assume it will only take a minute or two to go through our email, but then end up bogged down by the task for several hours. It's important to remember that there is only so much time in the day to work on our goals, so prioritizing our tasks can be essential.
So, how do you stop procrastination? Simply put - just get started. If the task at hand is more than you want to deal with right now, then just do one piece. As an example, if you hate writing that term paper, for now, just do the title page and the works cited portion. Getting yourself moving often helps keep you motivated to continue. Set yourself a hard and specific deadline and if necessary engage others to help you stay on track. Also, eliminate distractions - turn off Facebook. Work in a room away from the TV and make a rule that checking email comes after your goal for the day has been reached. You can also work in rewards for getting unpleasant tasks done.
Another way that we self-sabotage is by allowing ourselves to escape negative emotions. Everyone does this some of the time, but some people make it a habit. Examples of behaviors that provide escape are comfort eating, substance abuse, excessive shopping and to some extremes self-injury and cutting.
With the exception of self-injury, most of these behaviors are not damaging if only done once in a while. But overtime, comfort eating and shopping sprees can land people in some very uncomfortable situations. Thus, creating more instances where engaging in these behaviors would be necessary. A vicious cycle indeed. In these instances, people quickly decide to give up on long-term goals for short-term periods of feeling good.
In these situations, it's a good idea to keep a record of stressful situations and how you handled them. This way, it becomes easier to spot patterns such as what types of situations and what behaviors go with them. Once these behaviors and their triggers come into your awareness, you can actively work to change the way you behave - replacing unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones.
Another way in which we sabotage ourselves, is that we listen to our internal, negative beliefs. These are beliefs that developed throughout our lifetimes, but most likely started in childhood. They were caused by negative experiences that left behind a negative message. Examples of such beliefs are "I'm not good enough" or "I'm a failure." Oftentimes, these beliefs lie just below the surface of our consciousness, so they sabotage us without our knowledge.
But think about it, if your underlying belief is "I'm not good enough" then it stands to reason you might not want anyone to confirm this by thinking your paper stinks or your presentation is lousy. You may sabotage relationships in order to prevent being the one who's dumped. When you behave in some way where you wish you could stop but don't know why you're doing it, it's usually a sign that there is a negative belief in play. In these instances, if you stop and ask yourself what you might be believing about yourself in this instance you might learn what message is guiding your behavior.
It's also good to remember that self-sabotage is not an act, but a process. It begins long before the behavior that gets us into trouble. But with awareness, comes the ability to fight back and hopefully win the battle.