Self sabotage

Self sabotage – supporting students who get in their own way.

Whether it’s a habit of distraction, procrastination, perfectionism, avoidance, or a punishingly harsh inner critic, we have all worked with students whose potential is as abundantly clear as the capacity they have to get in their own way. And in the run up to exams and deadlines, it can be painful watching the slow car crash of damaging behaviour patterns preventing these young people getting traction over the task of preparing. This article is all about how we can help and get a better momentum going behind the changes needed. 
 
In my work as a professional coach, I have worked with so many young people who have busily run around the hamster wheel of ineffective change, only to land right back where they started. And the scripts they’ll have about their situation are heartbreakingly self-defining. ‘I can’t focus…’, ’I’m just a perfectionist…’, ‘I’ve always been this way…’, ‘It’s just the way I am….’

The truth is, that the last 20 years of neuroscience have shown us clear evidence of the plasticity of the human brain throughout life – how we use it, shapes it. And these beautiful brains are especially malleable in adolescence. So one of the things that really energises me working as a coach – both with adults and especially young people – is that lasting, meaningful change takes work, encouragement, support…but once made, it can be a lasting transformation for the better.

In my work as a professional coach, I have worked with so many young people who have busily run around the hamster wheel of ineffective change, only to land right back where they started. And the scripts they’ll have about their situation are heartbreakingly self-defining. ‘I can’t focus…’, ’I’m just a perfectionist…’, ‘I’ve always been this way…’, ‘It’s just the way I am….’. The problem is when the habit of playing small takes hold, it can be a couple of short hops into long-lasting learned helplessness.
The truth is, that the last 20 years of neuroscience have shown us clear evidence of the plasticity of the human brain throughout life – how we use it, shapes it. And these beautiful brains are especially malleable in adolescence. So one of the things that really energises me working as a coach – both with adults and especially young people – is that lasting, meaningful change takes work, encouragement, support…but once made, it can be a lasting transformation for the better. 
So an effective intervention with a teen can avert the downward spiral to self esteem, that accompanies self-sabotaging behaviours, usher in a more positive ‘broadening and building’ mind-set which reinforces a sense of agency and robust autonomy. It   can prevent the perfectionist burning out at university, or mid-career, or when life’s challenges step up…
So why is it so hard to help where these tendencies are at play? Often as teachers and educators, we speak from the head, to the head. But the answers don’t often lie there. If it was as easy as saying ‘just get started’, ‘just do the work when it comes in…’ they’d have done it already. The problematic behaviour is the tip of an iceberg. And it’s worth taking a peek at what’s going on beneath. 
I’m not talking about going all Sigmund on them…but as the psychologist Marshall Rosenberg penned as a maxim of Non-Violent Communication – ‘All behaviour is a communication. It is a skill not yet learned, or a need not yet met.’ Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Amazon.co …www.amazon.co.uk › Nonviolent-Communication-Language-Marshal…  And this applies to inner conflict as well as conflict resolution in relationships.
The pattern of sabotaging behaviour that has established in your student, has a meaning and a purpose. It is likely to have a root in some form of anxiety or other. Many self-sabotaging behaviours are avoidant (flight or freeze) or aggressive (fight) in their essence…so the amygdala is involved… And it is worth seeking to understand this because we can talk head-to-head and problem solve to our heart’s content – but it will go no where because the instinctual, emotional power of the amygdala will hold top trumps….
Changing destructive habits means engaging with the pre-frontal cortex, cognition, and reward system. https://charlesduhigg.com/books/the-power-of-habit/ But the amygdala is the often over-looked interference that detects danger in unfamiliar or risky situations and protects from both physical and emotional pain which results in self-protecting behaviour with damaging side effects. This is where we need to start as a point of ‘due diligence’ around problem behaviours….And where coaching techniques pay dividends. This is what my clients are investing in – structured listening and questioning that will provide a new way of looking at a problem, and help embedding the emotional resources to keep going. 
 

I’m always happy to come and deliver workshops in schools or businesses that expand on the background and the whys…My sessions offer a combination of science and practical advice in order to inform, empower, and spark the right conversations…in the meantime…here are approaches that work:

  1. Get the student to explore the impact of the pattern of behaviour that is problematic. Don’t skate over this and only look at the practical implications. Get them to reflect on the emotional toll, their feelings, the effect on their energy, zest, motivation. How does it impact on them – and on their relationships? Get them to use a more nuanced range of vocabulary to identify their feelings about this with accuracy. See what insights come. This is going to form part of the ignition for change. 
  2. Ask them what values are at stake for them in this. Be patient and help them to articulate this with some precision.
  3. Be curious. What do they remember about when this behaviour started? The origin story may reveal something about the drivers of it. There is a reward of some sort – going back to Marshall Rosenberg – what need is the behaviour serving? Naming it is the first stage towards taming it…
  4. Get them to develop a vision of what life would be like for them if they were able to change the destructive elements of their behaviour. Get them to be as detailed and precise as possible…build the vision of what it is they want – and why that is important.
  5. Get them to think about what it is they can do to move towards that vision. Think about how the new behaviour shifts can become routine – again, being specific about when, how they’ll create a positive habit.
  6. How can they remove the obstacles to making the changes? How can they hold their vision in mind or call it to mind at key moments when their motivation might fluctuate? How can they make the changed behaviour easier, more convenient to do? 
  7. How can they make themselves accountable to themselves for making the change? Eg a month to view calendar with tick scoring to see patterns, to appreciate continuity.
  8. How can they celebrate? Savour the small steps and mark milestones. 
  9. How can they wire in their sense of the benefits of what they are achieving along the way? So that the choices they are making around the change are positive choices?
  10. Whether the above take place in one, two, or three supportive conversations, follow-up can be brief and celebratory, checking back in with values, vision, sense of reward. We’re all like Velcro for the bad, and Teflon for the good. As Rick Hanson would say, help them ‘Grow the good’. Ad·www.audible.co.uk/Hardwiring Happiness Audiobook | Rick Hanson | Audible.co.uk

Other relevant articles / links:
https://hbr.org/2019/12/how-to-break-up-with-your-bad-habits
https://hbr.org/podcast/2019/12/the-right-way-to-form-new-habits
Judson Brewer: A simple way to break a bad habit | TED Talkwww.ted.com › talks › judson_brewer_a_simple_way_to_break_a_ba…
…and a book by Dr Judy Ho – Stop Self-Sabotage.https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=2ahUKEwim9bnroOLnAhULHcAKHQ6IC-kQFjABegQIARAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.co.uk%2FStop-Self-Sabotage-Motivation-Harness-Willpower%2Fdp%2F0062874349&usg=AOvVaw3v-Jd4430yWRJvRzGETGTTGood luck! Wishing you and your pupils traction With the challenges they face. 
What other challenges are you working on right now? What would you like to see in a future newsletter? Get in touch! Are you, yourself stuck in self-sabotaging thoughts or behaviours that you’d like to change. If you feel you’ve tried everything yourself, you might want to give coaching a try. Get in touch: 
Coachingandtraining@emmagleadhill.com
 
With love and gratitude,
Emma.

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