YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY
From the boardroom to your best friends, you’re all about women empowering women. But how much do you have your own back?
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?
GOING FOR GOLD
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
‘SELF-SABOTAGE IS A WAY OF TAKING BACK CONTROL OF A SITUATION’
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.