From the board­room to your best friends, you’re all about women em­pow­er­ing women. But how much do you have your own back?

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - Words ALEXAN­DRA JONES illustration MARK BOARD­MAN

When it comes to your goals, are you self-sab­o­tag­ing?

Pour­ing my­self a glass of Pinot Gri­gio, the size of which would prob­a­bly be best de­scribed as ‘stu­dent mea­sures’, I tell my friend about an im­por­tant meet­ing I have the next day. ‘I’m so ner­vous!’ I ex­claim, in a tone that be­trays how tipsy I am al­ready. ‘Bet­ter not stay up too late, then,’ he sug­gests, clink­ing my glass with his. We laugh a laugh that says this is ad­vice I will al­most cer­tainly ig­nore. That was me eight years ago. I was

22, work­ing as a PA to the di­rec­tor of one of the UK’S big­gest book pub­lish­ers and I dreamt of be­com­ing a writer. And yet I was about to scup­per an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity that had been handed to me on a plate. In an act of kind­ness, my boss had of­fered to in­tro­duce me to some agents on the un­der­stand­ing that I ‘im­press them’. The night be­fore, I went out for a drink to take the edge off my grow­ing nerves. One turned into two, which turned into 4am. I woke up with a hang­over so po­tent my head felt like the in­side of a blender and I couldn’t so much as turn on the shower let alone turn on the charm. I re­mem­ber the re­lief on the agent’s face when the meet­ing came to a nat­u­ral end just 20 min­utes af­ter I first mum­bled hello.

Why did I do it, when I knew that with ev­ery sip be­yond that first anx­i­ety-eas­ing glass I was fuck­ing up the best chance I had of get­ting what I wanted? I couldn’t tell you back then. Now, I’ve got a lit­tle bit more of an idea. As a Bri­tish woman in 2018, I have the sup­port of other women; we are post #metoo and the gen­der pay gap has been un­masked if not yet un­done. But, some­thing is still hold­ing me, and pos­si­bly you, back. If it isn’t the pa­tri­archy, the prob­lem is some­what closer to home, star­ing at you in the mir­ror. From go­ing for that pro­mo­tion to get­ting around to run­ning that half-marathon, why are we all stand­ing in our own way?


You don’t need a PHD in psy­chol­ogy to see that get­ting buzzed the night be­fore a po­ten­tially life-chang­ing meet­ing is a clas­sic case. While it’d be easy to put it down to age and life stage there’s ac­tu­ally sci­ence be­hind my sab­o­tage. ‘Psy­cho­log­i­cally, hu­mans don’t want to put them­selves in un­com­fort­able and po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions,’ ex­plains char­tered coun­selling psy­chol­o­gist Dr Sarah Craw­ford. Part of the prob­lem is that, on a neu­ro­log­i­cal level, we can’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate life-or-death fear from meet­ing-a-fu­ture-boss fear. The brain’s emo­tion pro­ces­sor, the amyg­dala, re­sponds to fear by send­ing a dis­tress sig­nal to the hy­po­thal­a­mus, the com­mand cen­tre of the brain, which trig­gers the re­lease of stress hor­mones adrenaline and cor­ti­sol, prompt­ing your body to en­ter fight-or-flight mode.

Sud­denly, your whole body is telling you to get out of what­ever sit­u­a­tion you’re in – rather in­con­ve­nient when ‘get­ting out’ could equate to ‘get­ting fired’. ‘Ra­tion­ally, you might un­der­stand that noth­ing too bad could hap­pen,’ ex­plains Dr Craw­ford. ‘But to your brain, fear is fear; it puts ob­sta­cles in your path to keep you in the known, “safe” place and away from the thing you’re afraid of.’

If my fear keeps me up to 4am the night be­fore an im­por­tant meet­ing, for Emma Richards, a 29-year-old fi­nan­cial an­a­lyst, it man­i­fests in the form of pro­cras­ti­na­tion. ‘The big­ger the dead­line, the more Net­flix I watch,’ she says. ‘And then I re­ally hate my­self for it when I’m rush­ing to fin­ish the night be­fore my work is due. I just can’t seem to stop. It’s the way I self-sab­o­tage most.’ This is a clas­sic case of fear-driven self-sab­o­tage, ex­plains Dr Craw­ford. ‘Putting some­thing off un­til the last minute means that, if it doesn’t go well, you can say, “Oh well, I didn’t try that hard any­way.” You’re avoid­ing the po­ten­tial pain of fail­ure, but ul­ti­mately dam­ag­ing your chances of suc­ceed­ing.’

By scup­per­ing your chances in this way, you’re also tak­ing back con­trol of a sit­u­a­tion that feels too much like it’s down to chance, ex­plains Dr Mark Win­wood, di­rec­tor of psy­cho­log­i­cal ser­vices at AXA PPP Health­care. ‘When some­thing feels over­whelm­ing or un­achiev­able, it can feel eas­ier to con­trol your own fail­ure than face the pos­si­bil­ity of that fail­ure tak­ing you by sur­prise.’ It sounds fa­mil­iar. Back to my ben­der. I’d landed that PA job mid-re­ces­sion, and it had been hard to come by. So when a dream sce­nario was handed to me on a plate, it felt too good to be true. It felt eas­ier to in­sti­gate the po­ten­tial fail­ure and give my­self a le­git ex­cuse for scup­per­ing the op­por­tu­nity with a hang­over, than it did to stay home, prep hard and go into the meet­ing fully pre­pared. Be­cause what if I did all the work and still didn’t do well?


If self-sab­o­tage for some peo­ple is mo­ti­vated by fear of fail­ing, for others, it’s a fear of success; a re­fusal to ac­knowl­edge your own vic­to­ries even in the face of over­whelm­ing ev­i­dence to the con­trary. Hazel Gale was 30 when she be­came a world cham­pion kick­boxer. ‘I won two world cham­pi­onships in one day,’ she re­calls. ‘But af­ter­wards I re­mem­ber ly­ing on the bed in my ho­tel room, star­ing at the ceil­ing and feel­ing rot­ten. This was the thing I’d worked to­wards for years; the thing I’d trained three times a day, six days a week for. But I couldn’t stop telling my­self that the vic­to­ries didn’t count. Or that I didn’t de­serve them any­way. Straight af­ter, I was back in the gym, train­ing ex­tra hard so that I could get a real win the next time, one that I ac­tu­ally de­served.’

On the face of things, it seems a hell of a lot more pro­duc­tive than my ver­sion of shoot­ing my­self in the foot. But fail­ing to en­joy your hard-won suc­cesses is just self-sab­o­tage in dis­guise. Take run­ning a half-marathon.

The fear-mo­ti­vated sabo­teur might do zero train­ing and stay up late the night be­fore, so they have the per­fect ex­cuse for a poor per­for­mance, but the per­fec­tion­ist-sabo­teur might never sign up in the first place be­cause they don’t want to risk get­ting a bad time. The out­come is ul­ti­mately the same: balls­ing up your chances of cross­ing that fin­ish line.

‘Per­fec­tion­ism is much more com­mon these days and it’s partly fu­elled by so­cial me­dia and the pressure to “live your best life”,’ ex­plains Chloe Brotheridge, au­thor of The Anx­i­ety So­lu­tion (£12.99, Michael Joseph). It makes sense. In­hale the mes­sage that you can do any­thing you put your mind to enough times – be it reach­ing the top rung of your lad­der, own­ing a home or be­ing in the per­fect re­la­tion­ship – and the goal posts soon start to feel out of reach. ‘A re­cent study found that since 1989 “so­cially pre­scribed per­fec­tion­ism” (feel­ing as though we have


to be per­fect to please others) has in­creased by 33%,’ she adds. ‘The study sug­gests that a cul­ture that en­cour­ages com­pe­ti­tion could be partly to blame. Women ar­guably find so­cial con­nect­ed­ness more im­por­tant and are there­fore more prone to wor­ry­ing about what other peo­ple think.’


It feels like there’s some­thing else go­ing on here, some­thing big­ger than your in-built fear sys­tem; some­thing cul­tural. There is, says Hazel. We are all much more con­cerned with self-im­age than we used to be. Why wouldn’t we be when our lives – or at least, a fil­tered ver­sion of them – are out there for all to see. It’s some­thing Hazel has ac­knowl­edged in her­self. It was only when she trained her­self into ill­ness and ex­haus­tion that she re­alised she wasn’t be­ing driven by a love of her sport like she thought, but by a fear of look­ing weak among her peers and com­peti­tors. It was a re­al­i­sa­tion that led her to re­think her goals and, ul­ti­mately, walk away. She’s since re­trained as a cog­ni­tive hyp­nother­a­pist and has re­cently pub­lished her first book, Fight: Win Free­dom From Self-sab­o­tage (£18.99, Yel­low Kite). ‘We all hold cer­tain be­liefs about our­selves that have been there since child­hood, and for many peo­ple it’s, “I’m not good enough,”’ Hazel ex­plains. ‘We self-sab­o­tage to make sure these be­liefs re­main true. I was be­ing driven by the fear of ap­pear­ing weak or like “a loser” in front of my peers. By the time I re­alised I was only pur­su­ing my fight­ing ca­reer be­cause I was wor­ried what others would think of me, I was in a re­ally de­struc­tive cy­cle of neg­a­tive thoughts.’

I get it. Like Hazel, I seem to thrive on neg­a­tive self-talk. De­spite the less-thanideal out­come of that meet­ing, I’ve suc­cess­fully carved out a ca­reer for my­self in writ­ing by earn­ing a liv­ing as a free­lance jour­nal­ist – one that I think 22-year-old me would ap­prove of. And yet, when I’m in the grip of self-doubt – be it over a dead­line or that my work isn’t good enough – in­stead of get­ting to the root of the prob­lem, I’ll get lost down a worm­hole of other peo­ple’s success, and wind up feel­ing worse than be­fore. ‘Com­par­ing your­self to others doesn’t just rob you of joy, it can also stunt your progress,’ says Hazel. ‘I en­cour­age peo­ple I work with to look at the thing they’re crav­ing and use that to fig­ure out what they want. If you’re jeal­ous of some­one else’s sta­ble re­la­tion­ship, work on your own; if you envy some­one who’s get­ting recog­ni­tion in their ca­reer, per­haps that’s the thing you need to work to­wards.’

But if so­cial me­dia is to blame for mak­ing us all more en­vi­ous of each other, it also de­serves credit for en­cour­ag­ing in­tro­spec­tion. Two words: self-care. These days, a big meet­ing in my sched­ule is likely to be pre­ceded by a stu­dent mea­sure of camomile tea and a 9.30pm bed­time. If the self-care move­ment has taught us one thing, it’s that our in­te­rior lives de­serve as much en­ergy as our so­cial lives.

I’m still stand­ing in my own way. But

I’m do­ing so with a self-aware­ness I didn’t have be­fore; I’m try­ing to recog­nise that voice in my head that says, ‘Oh, what’s the point?’; and I’m be­gin­ning to un­der­stand that it isn’t just about achiev­ing your goals. Just the act of go­ing to the gym, pick­ing the healthy op­tion or hav­ing an early night has in­trin­sic value, ir­re­spec­tive of what the out­come is. The tak­ing part counts, too.

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