This is the sixth of a series of eight articles on ‘Productive Thinking’. The series aims to address the challenges that Muslims face on many different levels when it comes to productivity. These levels include: the mental, emotional and physical levels. This series will tackle thinking and mindset on the mental level; negative emotions like anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, fear, etc. on the emotional level; and habits on the physical level. (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 7 | Part 8)
This article will cover the concept, patterns and reasons for self-sabotage, a hindrance to productivity.
What Is Self-Sabotage?
Self-sabotage is any thought, feeling, action and/or behaviour that holds you back from achieving your goals. There is usually a conflict between your conscious desires and your unconscious patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour.
Sometimes, it seems like there is something holding you back from reaching your goals and succeeding. Sometimes, people might even think they are being affected by magic or that someone is sabotaging their success.
Manifestations of Self-Sabotage In Your Life
Self-sabotage can occur in your work or profession, i.e. you do not go for that promotion or position you know is going to make a difference in your life. It could also affect your studies or business, when you do not put yourself out there or market your products and services that you know people need and can benefit from. It could be in your health where you keep starting and stopping, again and again, that exercise schedule or meal plan, thus preventing yourself from gaining muscle or shedding those last few kilos.
Just when you are about to have a breakthrough, something happens that forces you to start all over again. It is that resistance in starting a project or typing the first paragraph. It is that sleepiness and yawning that takes over you every time you sit down and work. You keep over-eating. People keep calling you, they keep interrupting you. Things keep getting in the way.
But no, it is you who keeps getting in your own way. It is you not saying no to the distractions. It is you not saying yes to opportunities and breakthroughs. It is you not making those decisions that need to be made.
“And whatever strikes you of disaster – it is for what your hands have earned; but He pardons much.” [Qur’an: Chapter 42, Verse 30]
You are not to blame and it is not your fault, but you are responsible. Make sure you understand the distinction between blaming yourself and taking responsibility. Blame and guilt are not healthy, responsibility is.
Nobody can change things for you; it has to come from your heart and from the inside. Once you make that commitment, take on that responsibility and decide that you are not willing to settle for mediocrity anymore, Allah will help you change anything you want.
Are You Displaying Self-Sabotage Patterns?
The following are just a few common patterns of self-sabotage:
- All the unconscious fear (See Part 4)
- Wanting to always be right
- Tolerating mediocrity and Level 3 Living (See Part 2)
- Not telling the absolute truth
- Focusing on secondary goals
- Doing things alone
- Reinventing the wheel
- Not saying ‘No’ to distractions
- Not saying ‘Yes’ to opportunities
- Controlling people
- Critical judgement of self and others
- Creating dramas and stories
*Make sure you understand the difference between striving for perfection and striving for excellence (ihsan), which is what we have been told to strive for.
Perfection is for our Creator alone, and only He is Perfect and His Book is perfect. We are not, and will never be perfect. But we can be excellent! Our imperfection is perfection in itself because that is the way Allah created us. If He wanted us to be different, He would have made us different. That, though, is a whole other discussion in itself.
I used to be proud of being a perfectionist.That was my identity: I am a ‘perfectionist’. This changed when someone I admire said: “You’re not a perfectionist, you’re an ‘imperfectionist’ because all you ever look for are imperfections, in things, in what you do, in people and in the world.”
Perfectionists do not have high standards, they have no standard. This is because their standards are so high that things are unachievable, so they might as well not have any standard. Moreover, perfection is subjective: Perfect according to whom? What is perfect for you might not be what others want and vice versa. There are many people who do not care about the small details over which you are obsessing.
“There is no worse sickness for the soul, O you who are proud, than this pretence of perfection.” — Rumi
Why Do We Self-Sabotage?
Outlined below are some reasons why we self-sabotage, but this article will focus on the first one:
Before we continue, just note that some people might say that there is no such thing as self-sabotage, because behind every action or behaviour is a positive intention and that is a valid point. For example, procrastination is not self-sabotage because there is a good intention behind procrastination: to avoid disappointment and keep us safe from whatever fear lies behind the procrastination. Our unconscious is programmed to protect us and it always wants the best for us. We all have psychological needs that we want to fulfil and we can fulfil them in resourceful, sustainable above-the-line ways (Levels 1 and 2 — see Part 5) or we can get there by destructive below-the-line ways (Levels 3 and 4 — see Part 5). Self-sabotage can therefore be seen as fulfilling our needs and experiencing our values in below-the-line ways.
Our values guide our decisions and, hence, ultimately our destiny. If you are not getting the result that you want and not living the life that you want, then most certainly, your values are not aligned with your desired outcomes, goals and desired life.
Therefore, your values need to be aligned with your life vision and goals. Value elicitation and alignment is an important process to go through. I recently worked with someone who used to procrastinate and play small (regarding her business). It turned out that she was unconsciously equating “business success” with “no time for family” because her dad was always absent from home when she was young, and making time for her family was a value at the top of her list. As a result, she was unconsciously sabotaging her business success to fulfil her family values. The way to stop that is to elicit all her values, prioritise them, install them and align them with her goals.
Being unclear about your own values is the main reason why it is so hard for many people to make simple decisions: They do not know what they stand for and what is important to them. When you know what is most important to you and know what you stand for and what you are about, decision-making becomes much faster, easier and effortless.
What Are Values?
Values are words that represent what are important to us. They are usually unconscious and are linked to our beliefs about what is right and wrong, good and bad. Examples: Peace, security, family or money. Each one of them is of varying importance to different people.
Means Values vs. End Values
There is a difference between means values and end values. Using the examples above, the first two, peace and security, are ‘end values’ because they are emotional states we want to experience and that are important to us. The last two, family and money, are ‘means values’ because they are the means through which we choose to experience certain emotional states.
Example: Let’s say you ask some people what is most important to them and they answer ‘family’. If you then ask them ‘What does family give you or allow you to feel?’, they might say ‘love’. So, love is what they are really after, but family is a means through which they experience that love.
The same applies to money as a means value. Some people are after security through money; for some it is the ability to contribute and make a difference; for others it is power they want to experience as the end state. So, money is just a tool to allow you to reach your end.
The same goes if your job or profession is what you value. For some, through their work, they achieve significance and accomplishment. For others, it is satisfaction or for some, it might be connection with people, and so on.
When we gain clarity about our values and determine what is important to us, and identify our end values, the means are not that important anymore. We can then consciously design our vehicles or means to meet our end values. Problems arise when we confuse the means with the end.
‘Moving Towards’ vs. ‘Moving Away’ Values
‘Moving towards’ values are what we want to experience, and ‘moving away’ values are what we want to avoid feeling. It is important to be clear on your ‘moving towards’ and ‘away from’ values, so you know what you want to experience and not experience. This is important because human beings will do more to avoid pain than they will do to gain pleasure. For example, would you rather have one million dollars or lose an arm? I do not know about you, but I will keep my arm, thank you. And I think it will be the same for 99.9% of people. The pain of losing an arm is greater than the pleasure of gaining a million dollars (unless maybe one has a sick child that needs treatment worth a million dollars).
So, if you do not consciously decide what you want to move towards, then your ‘moving away from’ values could be the source of your self-sabotage. If you want to give da’wah, but your fear of rejection is stronger than your values of contribution and compassion for people, then you will avoid talking to people.
Examples of ‘Moving Towards’ Values
- Being connected to Allah
- Health, energy, vitality
Examples of ‘Moving Away From’ Values
There are also rules for both your ‘moving towards’ and ‘moving away from’ values. Rules are what must or must not happen for us to experience our values.
Examples of Rules for ‘Moving Towards’ Values:
Of course, we perform fard prayers and everything else, but what I am asking here is what is your rule for you to experience the emotional feeling of being connected to your Creator?
Compare the above rule with this one:
For me to experience connection with Allah , I have to pray all five fard prayers on time, with all the sunnah and nawafil prayers, all in complete khushu’, and I have to read five juz’ of Qur’an with perfect tajweed. That is going to be quite challenging for you to achieve on a daily basis to get your spiritual connection with Allah ! Keep it simple.
Examples of Rules For ‘Moving Away From’ Values:
For me to experience rejection, people have to chase after me and throw shoes at me, while screaming with red angry faces, “NO!!!! No!!!!! We said NO!!!!! GET LOST!!!”
Compare this to my old rule for experiencing rejection:
I used to experience rejection when people do not pay attention to what I was saying or look at me sideways. What are the chances of that happening if I am talking to a roomful of people? Probably even before I start talking!
The point here is to make it as easy as possible for you to experience ‘moving towards’ values and make it nearly impossible to experience your ‘moving away from’ values.
Real Values vs. Aspiring Values
Real values are what make you happy and congruent. Aspiring values are what you think you should be feeling, would look good, are what other people expect of you, and are usually set by your social environment. We took on the latter values because we never really consciously thought about them and ended up being stuck with them.
To identify your current real, operational values, rather than the ones you want to impress others with, look at your results. Think about the way you have been living your life for the past few weeks and months. What were the tangible results?
If you said contribution is important to you, how many hours have you spent during the past two weeks doing things for people you care about, sharing, donating your time and money to charities, volunteering at different organisations or mentoring people? If the answer is a big fat zero, then it is your aspiring value, something that sounds nice but you do not really care about or have not consciously decided yet to incorporate it into your life. You are not living your value.
The same goes for other values such as connection with your Creator, health, vitality, love, growth and gratefulness. How much time did you spend last week reading His book, talking to Him, exercising, eating healthy, spending time with family, learning something new or doing something that is outside your comfort zone, journalling or reflecting on His blessings?
At this stage, we are mainly concerned about awareness, because values exercises can take hours. In the meantime, just be aware that if you are in pain and feeling guilty about not taking certain actions, then they might not be important to you and you need to be okay with that. What are the values that are imposed on you? Often, society and friends dictate the things we should want or the career or profession we should pursue.
Once you have established that awareness, you can start to consciously decide on what is important to you and consciously find ways of living those values.
To sum up, we have learned what self-sabotage is and saw how value conflicts lead to self-sabotage. In the next article, we will look at different behaviour styles, another main cause of self-sabotage, and move on to practical strategies that will help you overcome self-sabotage, In sha Allah.
Now that you’ve gained a better understanding of self-sabotage, are you able to identify how it manifests itself in different areas of your life? Can you think of a situation where you did not achieve your goal due to self-sabotage? Which subtype of value conflicts do you need to work on the most? Please share your thoughts and experiences below!