Conclusion: Own Your Life, by Owning Up to Yourself
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” – Aristotle
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates
“I finally feel like I own my life!” Michael and I had been working together for over three years when he uttered these words to me in one of our weekly sessions. As he spoke these words for the very first time, a self-satisfied grin flickered across his face. I met his smile with one of my own—because I knew Michael’s story well…and I knew what he was feeling at that moment. Michael was a Self-Saboteur: For decades, he built habits, behaviors, and perceptions based on the idea that his life circumstances were out of his control—he could neither take responsibility for what happened to him, nor did he believe that he had the power to enact change. Suffice it to say, when we first began working together, humility was not one of his strong points. But as he sat in my office that day with a joyful look on his face, he was finally able to put many of those self-sabotaging patterns behind him. Michael finally felt empowered to take over the reins of his life and begin to navigate a more effective course.
Self-sabotage is a phenomenon that touches us all, in ways both universal and uniquely our own. Unfortunately, our compulsion to repeat self-sabotaging behaviors can be so subtle, pervasive, and quietly destructive that many of us spend our whole lives enacting toxic tropes without ever becoming fully conscious of them. But if we never come to fully understand these kinds of habits, we will never fully understand why we’re hurting. I’ve written my Self-Saboteur series with one goal in mind: To help you heal. Today, as we conclude this series and head into a new year, I want to share with you one last story… the story of how Michael broke free of his past to reclaim his present—and his future. It’s my hope that his journey will help you reclaim yours as well, in 2018 and beyond.
Michael was forty-five years old when he entered therapy. Like so many others in this series, on paper Michael’s life looked like a success story from the outside. After his hard-partying college years, he began to distinguish himself in the world of high technology, married a coworker, and fathered three children. He loved being a father and husband and was able to find much joy in these areas of his life—but Michael’s professional life was marred by a series of minor setbacks that left him depressed, anxious, and suffering from a multitude of physical symptoms.
“I’m terrific at my job, but I can’t seem to get my bosses to realize that,” he said, describing his struggles with authority figures at work. “I explain to them how the job should be done, and they just won’t listen. Maybe I come across as angry, but I’m always right. I can’t believe several of them fired me over that; I was just trying to improve those places.”
Mid-way through our work together, he settled into a position with a large government contractor, hoping that his IT work would stand out there. Instead, he only became more depressed. The enormous indifference of the federal bureaucracy and the outright opposition to and criticism of his initiatives by government employees served to further his opinion that nobody recognized his talents—in fact, they weren’t even interested in finding out what they were.
As I’ve mentioned in my prior series, Self-Saboteurs typically engage in three repetitive behavioral patterns, either consciously or unconsciously:
- Narratives that we play in our heads (with thoughts and feelings) about why someone important is behaving in certain ways, which are often based upon past relationships, and may have nothing to do with the current relationship in question.
- Repertoires of behavior that we enact, that are comfortable and familiar, and have been learned over the years, but may worsen our prospects in the present.
- Reflexive Responses to various emotional “triggers” that take place in our day-to-day lives.
Unbeknownst to him, Michael was enacting self-sabotaging repertoires based on flawed narratives—and to beat back his depression, we would have to fix those misperceptions once and for all.
Michael’s narratives began in childhood. His parents divorced when he was a child, and he never saw his dad much afterwards.
“My mother took on a series of live-in boyfriends, and they never cared much for my sister and me,” he told me early on. “I never felt like I belonged at home after the divorce. Yeah, I know—typical sob story, but that’s why I’m here.”
Michael’s early life was joyless, except for his remarkable athletic abilities, which brought him the admiration and camaraderie of coaches and teammates. He majored in computer science in college but his hard partying resulted in missed classes and poor grades. He barely graduated—in part, because of low self-esteem and the unconscious belief that he was not worthy of success. These feelings had developed in childhood as a result of his father’s abandonment and the frequent criticism and abuse from his mother’s boyfriends.
Michael’s narrative was that he was not good enough for his father and not valuable to his mother or her boyfriends—and his repertoires of behavior grew out of this perception. He unconsciously reenacted relationships with supervisors that reminded him of his father’s indifference and the criticism and devaluation from his mother’s boyfriends, by failing to ever consider their point of view, and through his persistent arrogance, and defiance toward authority figures. Through difficult and painful work in psychotherapy, Michael was able to grieve the parents he longed for but never had. His sessions were filled with sadness and anger as he worked through these feelings and expressed his deep longing to be liberated from the bonds of his childhood relationships. As he worked through his angry feelings, he was able to cast aside his patterns of self-sabotage. He began to take responsibility for his actions, recognized how he sabotaged one former position after another and how he unconsciously selected uncaring and authoritarian company cultures that replicated the dynamics of his family of origin. After three years of intensive work, he felt more confident and free to explore his passions.
What do many self-saboteurs have in common? The notion that they don’t have a say in their circumstances: That things just “Happen” to them, that they don’t have the power of self-determination. We don’t always have control over our lives, but there are many aspects we can learn to control. With hard work we can determine the way we think of ourselves and our self-esteem, and we can detoxify the poisonous influences of our past traumatic memories.
One of the most important teachings that I try to instill in my patients is that if their story is not serving them, they have the power to change it. And when we work together, it is my duty—and my honor—to do whatever it takes to help them through this challenge. Misperceptions hold us back and hurt us in ways that are difficult to discern. But you don’t have to be a Self-Saboteur. In this new year, filled with an abundance of new possibilities, I hope you resolve to serve yourself (and those you care about) better, instead.
If you would like my help to turn these insights into a New Year’s Resolution, click here for a no-cost download of the first chapter of my book, Becoming Whole (located in “Step One”), including a workbook to help you begin to end your career as a Self-Saboteur!