Un-mastering the Art of Self-Sabotage

by Janelle Harris

It was 1:30 in the afternoon but in my little corner of the world, it might as well have been 1:30 in the wee hours of the morning. I was wading through pages of content and research I’d compiled for a paper I was writing for African Aesthetics, a graduate class I needed to pull out an A in to keep up my sparkling 4.0 GPA. My professor was a stern little man with zero tolerance for BS—I could only recall seeing him smile once and I think that was more of a grimace of politeness than genuine glee—and he made one thing clear. Anybody who didn’t have the project on his desk in his office by 4 p.m. could forget about getting any kind of grade, much less that much-desired first letter of the alphabet.

Now mind you, he had handed down the assignment a good three weeks before it was due. But I am a habitual sufferer of that most classic form of self-sabotage: procrastination. So while I piddled away those 21-odd days leading up to the big deadline doing only Lord knows what, I could’ve been working incrementally towards getting ‘er done and done thoughtfully, carefully and introspectively. Instead, I found myself flipping through books and printouts like a raving madwoman, typing the first incoherent thought that came to mind in order to make page count rather than impressing him with my wit and insight. For almost 24 hours, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t shower and—I ain’t too ashamed to admit it—I didn’t even brush my teeth.

I drove like a Dale Earnhardt groupie to campus in what I slept in, hair sprazzled all over my head like brown cactus spines, and made it to his door at 3:48. He wasn’t even there.

We all have at least one personality quirk that can be filed squarely under the self-sabotage category. It’s easy to get in a habit of blaming circumstances, situations and people for halting progress in our lives when in actuality, it’s that trait (or two or three) that deserves the bulk of the blame. That’s a hard pill for anybody working toward a bigger goal to swallow. You can plan and make vision boards and jot down as many courses of action as your Papermate can pump out, but while you’re waiting for success, you need to get clear about things you’re doing to slow down your own progress.

You have an issue and you’re not taking the steps to correct it. There are too many self-help books, too many support groups and—don’t be too proud—too many licensed therapists to be carrying around baggage from bad relationships and negative experiences that mentally and emotionally bind you. Black folks, for whatever reason, consider it a badge of honor to absorb as many hurts as life can throw at us. But bottling that mess up only works to be a hindrance. You’ve got to figure out why you do what you do in order to stop doing it. I’d lay across somebody’s couch in a hot second if it meant the difference between a life of accomplishment and a life of cyclical craziness.

You engage in self-destructive behaviors that you’ll beat yourself up for later. You swore up and down you weren’t going to do it again. Made your friends and family hold you to it. Vowed that you’d learned your lesson that last time and there was no way you were going to get caught doing the same bullcrap anymore. You have to recognize your triggers when you’re about to start sabotaging yourself. If your thing is sleeping with the same dude who’s dogged you out a thousand times, take a pause before you hop in the shower for your pre-booty call scrub down to notice what you’re about to do and make a different decision for yourself. There’s always time, even in the middle of the same ol’ same ol’ routine, to stop setting yourself up for your own disappointment. You ain’t going to do nothin’ but use that as a continual excuse to keep doing it over and over (and over).

You stall out before you even start. Just do it already, dammit. Make a move. You’re waiting on the planets to align but you’re wasting time because they’re never going to be exactly where you’d like them to be. I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve learned the hard way that procrastination is a flagrant waste of time. It’s jacked up plenty of my plans and thrown an unnecessary wrench in the progress towards things I passionately claimed to want. But I had to learn that that kind of behavior is a crutch to keep me from stepping into something new. Move on. Move up. Chile, just move.

Do you ever sabotage yourself? How do you deal with it? 

  • LN

    I am guilty of all of these. Love this piece.

  • ArabellaMichaela

    I have done this, big time. Lessons I wish I had learned when I was 21 that could have prevented self sabotage are: 1) don’t take things personally because what people do and how they treat you is not about you, it’s about them, 2) don’t be afraid to ask questions or to ask for what you want, 3) words have power. Think before you speak, and 4) people are “energy.” Your body emits what you feel. You can’t conceal this. Other people don’t respond well to negative energy. So, try to have a positive outlook.

  • Ella

    One of my New Year’s resolution was to incorporate a Booker T. Washington work ethic into my daily routine (he was big on preparation). Initially, I was doing really well and figured I could slack off just a little. HUGE mistake. I’ve never really got back into the groove. I’ve been taking baby steps and I realized I slack off before my changes becomes a habit. So to combat this I continue my tasks until they are done. If i stop, I won’t finish until the last minute.

  • Chelley5483

    Wow this piece totally resonated with me on too many levels. One of my biggest issues is when I’m doing the “right thing” I start feeling myself a little too much and in turn feel like I should reward myself with my old bad habit, you know, just once, because I’ve been doing so good. Self sabotage at it’s finest. Procrastination and my need to feel invisible around others are up there on my list too.

    I constantly find myself wondering where I’d be if not for my ridiculously bad habits.

    So feeling you on this Ms. Harris…

  • ImJustSaying

    Great article! I’m guilty of this too. Procrastination gets me way too often and I was just up till 1am writing a Rough draft for an 8AM class the next day. Also there’s a visual write up for all of you I DID SO MUCH YESTERDAY people.
    Check it out as further inspiration to keep going

    http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/06/this-is-why-ill-never-be-adult.html

  • http://verityreign.com Verity Reign

    Love this! I especially feel ArabellaMichaela on “don’t be afraid to ask questions or to ask for what you want…”. I used to have such a hard time with this, but now I’m getting more comfortable with making my needs and desires known.

  • Nkem

    Being a college student with this habit is very hard to overcome. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed and then plunge into procrastinating more. The bad cycle. This was really inspiring to keep going…slow progress is still progress is what I tell myself.

  • http://www.notacookie.com Laneé

    “I’d lay across somebody’s couch in a hot second if it meant the difference between a life of accomplishment and a life of cyclical craziness.” I loved this article and that statement. Black people seem to be so scared of therapy because we don’t want other people in our business or we can just go to church or we don’t need someone telling us what to do…the list can go on. We need to let go of this notion and if we feel that we need therapy in order to live a better life then we shouldn’t be ashamed to do so.

    I’m also a heavy heavy procrastinator and a professional at self sabotage, I’m a constant work in progress and try to get better at these things everyday. I would be much further along in life if I just got my ish together. I’m just now figuring out why they say “the first step is admitting you have a problem” because once you do the next step is to figure out why, then figure out a solution.

  • Lauren

    I just love this piece. I needed this.

  • http://www.whatnowandwhy.com Arnebya

    That moment mocks me. That moment where I could/should/need to make a different decision, go a different route. Whether it’s having a glass of wine (or another, or another) that will soon have me asleep, all intentions for that evening be damned, then crying the next day about what I didn’t get done BUT I HAD SO MANY PLANS FOR LAST NIGHT!, I need to make a choice. Life be hard, yo. The problem is, I don’t know how to make that transition. One well lit path is beckoning me to do the usual. One path a shade lighter and with friendly trees and outstretched hands, maybe, is offering middle ground. And one path is lit bottom to top with neon signs saying this way, stupid, this way, move away from all that is holding you down, that you KNOW is holding you down. And yet, I still turn my back on this road because bright light, bright light.

  • http://gravatar.com/solfresh solfresh

    As soon as I can afford a therapist or career/life coach, the check will be written in 2 milliseconds. After a while you need an outside perspective that’s a professional to really get into the meat of your issues and find out why they exist.

    My self sabotage tends to be my overactive mind and fleeting emotions. My dream is to be a published writer. Last year I put in the work with one blog for months writing because I loved it not because of the money. Surprisingly, I was offered to be paid. In grand fashion, I stopped writing for them. The excuses were endless. One was I had to focus on getting a real job. I will say fear of stepping up was one cause of me running away.

    I ended up not writing for months and beating myself up for it. I’ve since gotten over my fear and started writing again. I even pitched some work to a few sites although it was rejected, I’m still glad I got back up again. Now I just need to continue putting in the effort until I get a yes.

    It’s crazy how the things we say we want can scare us enough to run away when its in front of us.

  • http://motionandrest.wordpress.com Steph…In Motion

    I’ve been crippled by all 3 at one time or another. Fortunately, I’m a check-list junkie who actually gets enjoyment from crossing things off my list. So as long as I can break a project (external or internal) down into smaller pieces, I’ll gain some momentum once I get started.

  • http://www.rohtopia.com Lisa | Rohtopia – raw organic happiness

    Admit it, you were thinking about me when you wrote this piece!
    Seriously, this is an exact description of how I do – or rather, do not – do things.
    Self-sabotage is a bitch, and realising the reasons can be hard and sobering.
    This is where self acceptance steps in.
    It is ok to be scared, unsure, insecure, doubting.
    (Btw, I recently read: Doubt has killed more dreams than failure ever will. Sounds true to me..)
    Yes, I want to be that successful, all achieving, efficient, sportive, eating-healthy-only etc person.
    But right now, I am not – yet.
    And it is ok, the way it is right now.

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