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Self-Sabotage: How We Make Our Greatest Fears Come True

Sandy had been in more failed relationships than she wanted to count. 

Her new one with Artie was going to be a success, though.  Whatever had crushed those previous relationships was not going to happen to her again.

Sandy could see that Artie really loved her.  He was not going to leave her like so many of the others.

To this day, she could not quite figure out what, if anything, she had done wrong. 

She could not help feeling that most men just were not trustworthy.  They seemed to want to use women and then abandon them. 

Nope, it wasn’t going to happen again.  She had found someone she was pretty sure was not another heartless “user loser.”

The first month was really great.  The relationship was amazing. Sandy and Artie could talk about anything.  They made love passionately.  Sandy could feel the commitment developing. This was the one that would lead to marriage! 

There was just one tiny little problem. 

Sometimes, when she called Artie, he didn’t sound quite right. She knew it was ridiculous, but she wondered if some other woman was with him. 

It kept happening. Sandy was embarrassed, but one day she took a little car ride over to his house just to see if anything was going on. 

She wasn’t going to barge in or anything. She was just doing a routine check-up, like a visit to a doctor to make sure everything was ok. 

The shades were down. There was a car in front of the house. It wasn’t Artie’s.   Sandy decided not to say anything, but she knew she had to watch for the signs that he was two-timing her.

Things still were going great in the second month, but sometimes, when she was Artie, his mind seemed to be not quite with her. 

What exactly was he thinking about? She asked him. “Work,” he said.  He was sorry, or so he said.  She knew he had a demanding job.  But was he really thinking about work? 

She kept thinking about the closed shades and the car in front of his house.  She felt something was wrong.

One day, when he was visiting, Artie took a trip to the bathroom. She knew she shouldn’t, but she did a quick cell phone check.  How couldn’t she? 

He had left his phone right on the living-room table. What she saw shocked her. 

There was a woman’s name on the call list, and there were texts, although she did not have time to read them.  She knew who it was, though—Julie, Artie’s supervisor. 

Unfortunately, things were beginning to come together.  Artie was having a relationship with Julie. 

Artie came back; she was still looking at his phone.  Artie looked puzzled at first.  “What are you doing?” he asked.  Sandy was taken aback.  She had spent too much time looking at the phone. 

“You’re seeing Julie!” she blurted out.  “I know what’s going on!” 

Artie looked at her.  His face was red with rage.  He grabbed his phone.  He walked out, phone in hand. 

Sandy tried to reach Artie to discuss what happened. He would not take her calls or return her texts. It was over.

Another relationship had bitten the dust. Another day, another man walking out on her.  She could not believe how faithless men were.

Artie was not seeing Julie.  The phone calls, the texts—all were work-related. 

We all have the potential for self-sabotage

The story of Sandy and Artie is about one woman’s fears of faithlessness and abandonment, but the story has a broader message than that.

It is that we all have deep within ourselves ingredients of self-sabotage.  Different people have different ingredients, but we all have them.

Often, our fears are of what we are afraid may come to pass.  So, we try to take steps to avoid those fears being realized.

But expert self-saboteurs act in ways almost to ensure that the fears do, in fact, come true.

What differs among us is whether we allow our fears to coalesce into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sandy went through with Artie what she had gone through with other men before.  She feared faithlessness; she feared abandonment.  She was hyper-vigilant to even minuscule signs of possible faithlessness and possible abandonment.  She sought clues that a man would cheat on her and then abandon her. She even manufactured clues.

The car in front of Artie’s house was not Julie’s. It was not some other girlfriend’s. It was a neighbor’s—one whose house had other cars in front of it, leading him to find the nearest parking space.

To stop the cycle, identify your greatest fears

The question we all have to ask ourselves is what our greatest fears are.

Are we afraid, like Sandy, of being abandoned?  Are we continually finding clues of abandonment, or if we do not find them, are we manufacturing them?

Are we afraid of being exploited?

Are we afraid of getting into a relationship with a con-man (or con-woman)?

Are we paranoid that our partner is interested in us for all the wrong reasons?

Are we afraid that our partner will try to dominate us?

It does not matter what the specific issue is.

The question we all have to ask ourselves is whether our fear is inadvertently leading us to self-sabotaging behavior—behavior that makes our fear come true.

In essence, we make happen precisely what we were trying to avoid.

The cycle of self-sabotage

How do we create these ugly self-fulfilling prophecies?  Regardless of the fear, the series of steps tends to be roughly the same.

  1. We have a fear.
  2. We are hyper-vigilant in guarding against the realization of this fear.
  3. We therefore look for evidence that the fear is coming to pass.
  4. Events happen in our relationship that, like so many events, can be interpreted in multiple ways.
  5. Because of our hyper-vigilance, we fit the events into the schema for the fear we have. They may or may not fit in naturally—but we do a little massaging here, a little there, and subconsciously force the behavior of our partner to fit our schema.
  6. We view the behavior of our partner as showing that our fear was justified. Indeed, precisely what we were afraid of seems now to be coming to pass.
  7. We take steps to counter the fears. We may tell our partner or potential partner that we know what they are up to; or we may act as though we know what they are up to; or we may take defensive measures to block what we perceive as our partner’s danger to our wellbeing.
  8. The steps we take lead the partner or potential partner either to act in the way we fear or to react in kind against us.
  9. The sequence of actions leads to systematic degeneration of the relationship and possibly to recriminations.
  10. The relationship deteriorates badly or fails.

The problem, of course, is that sometimes our fear is justified.

But when a fear is strong enough, it does not take much for us to see it as being fulfilled.

How to prevent self-sabotage

What can we do to guard against our repeatedly self-sabotaging?

Here is what I would recommend:

  1. If you trust your partner or potential partner, work with them to identify your fears—what Dr. Jeffrey Young calls our maladaptive schemas. Or maybe you already know what they are.
  2. At the first sign that a maladaptive schema may have been activated, talk to your partner about the behavior that has activated it. Explain that you realize that your schema may be the source, but you have to understand what they did and why they did it.
  3. See whether you can accept their explanation. If you can accept the explanation, good.  If you can’t, you have to decide whether you need a psychotherapist or a new partner!
  4. If you are having the same problem with partner after partner, you really should consider therapy. You may be setting yourself up for self-fulfilling prophecies from which there will be no exit unless you better understand yourself and take action to guard yourself from yourself.
  5. Realize that, even if you can get through one potential self-sabotaging situation successfully, it all may happen again. You have to be vigilant to avoid doing the same thing again and again!

Good luck. As always, we’re here to help!

Identify Your Greatest Fears

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