Here’s the #1 mindset question I’m asked as a mindset coach: How do I stop doing what I don’t want to do? We often refer to these behaviors as self-sabotage, and in fact, this topic is even mentioned in the Bible.
If we know how we want to act, then why do we act in opposing ways? Why do we know the truth, but we aren’t able to live it? This can be so frustrating!
Let’s talk about why self-sabotage happens from both a brain science and a Biblical perspective, and share ways to break free from self-sabotaging behaviors.
WHAT YOU'LL LEARN:
- [4:41] The brain science behind why we do what we don’t want to do
- [11:43] The Biblical perspective on this war within ourselves
- [17:29] We have the power to rise above our biology and decide on our focus
- [21:15] How to stop engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors
- [31:26] Getting to the root of our triggers to promote long-term mindset shifts
[4:41] The brain science behind self-sabotage
First, let’s talk about why self-sabotage happens from a brain science perspective. To start that conversation, we need to back up all the way to understanding how a thought forms in the mind and how it relates to action.
So, if we say we want to spend time with God every day but for some reason it just never gets on our schedule, this goes back to the thought that is driving that behavior. We may have a thought, and it can be a deeper thought or more of a surface level thought, but typically this is a subconscious thought that is happening. When that thought has an emotion attached to it, it becomes a belief. We sometimes refer to this as a limiting belief, which can be any sort of belief that has been more entrenched in the mind. If something is repeated enough, it will cause you to take actions based on that belief.
That first action is a decision. So, because we believe ‘this’, we decide to do ‘that’. From that decision, we take an action forward. That action forward leads to the result, in this case a self-sabotaging behavior, such as sitting on the floor in the pantry eating a whole box of Oreos, or whatever it might look like for you.
So, what do we do about self-sabotage? How can we break free from self-sabotaging behaviors?
Understanding how a thought is formed is key to understanding the brain science behind why self-sabotaging patterns happen. We have to understand this struggle (cognitive dissonance) that is happening between our subconscious mind and our prefrontal cortex.
For context, the prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that is right behind our foreheads. It is the logical center of the brain, and home of our executive functioning. It is where we consider what is right and wrong and where we decide what we want to do. It is the cognitive-thinking part of our brain. The subconscious mind is the part of our brain that controls the automatic responses in our bodies. It houses a lot of our emotions.
We can think of it as the supercomputer that streamlines all of the processes to keep the brain running efficiently so that the brain doesn’t have to logically think about how to drink from a water bottle, for example. The subconscious mind stores this data and we see evidence of this through things like muscle repetition. When we are in a situation that requires a specific action that we’ve done thousands of times before, the subconscious mind sends that information out to the muscles (or wherever it needs to) for the patterned action to happen.
The same subconscious patterning often happens with our thoughts. The brain is made to be efficient. It is made to run on as few calories as possible because its number one goal is to keep us safe and alive. The brain is always trying to streamline things, including our thought processes. If it hears something coming in, and that something is repeated over and over again – whether it’s a worry, or a thought about someone else – every time that thought is repeated it digs a deeper groove into the brain. That thought becomes more and more entrenched. The neurons grow stronger connections the more we think these thoughts. As we begin to repeat things, the subconscious mind gets more streamlined.
So how does this apply to self-sabotage and self-sabotaging behaviors? When we get into states of frustration or stress, the brain will kick into a mode of protection. It often shuts down in some places (most notably in the logical mind–the prefrontal cortex) and reacts automatically to stimuli by operating from more “primal” areas of functioning as seen in the subconscious mind. If we are in pain, fearful, or experiencing a physical or emotional threat, the brain turns the prefrontal cortex offline. The logical mind no longer functions, and the more primal brain takes over.
This process can be thought of as amygdala hijacking, as the amygdala is the part of the brain that controls emotions. When we are super stressed, the brain will seek relief. We want comfort, pleasure, and something to take away the pain we are feeling. The streamlined subconscious mind will go to its first and strongest association, which will be different for different people. Some will seek pleasure in food, others in shopping, or sex. It depends on how we have programmed our minds without even knowing it throughout the years. This is what the brain will lean on and move toward in times of stress, which results in self-sabotage behavior.
I had a client who would consistently come home from work, go straight to her pantry, and eat seven or eight of the little packs of fruit gummies. She was struggling with why she did this self-sabotaging behavior, so we helped her to really understand the brain perspective of what was happening inside her biologically. There was some sort of trigger behind the self-sabotage, and her brain was seeking comfort or pleasure; something to relieve the tension she was feeling. She relieved it (at least, superficially and for the moment) through eating fruit gummies. We’re going to go into more detail later on about ways we can tackle this, but this self-sabotage situation was a clear cut example of the subconscious mind taking over the logical prefrontal cortex.
[11:43] The Biblical perspective on this war within ourselves
Now let’s talk about this war between the logical and the subconscious parts of our brain from a biblical perspective. The Bible talks about a very real battle that goes on in our mind, and I’m going to share Romans 7:14-25. This is Paul speaking about his experience with this battle. It is 2000 years in the future so we don’t want to make too many assumptions, but I want to share some of the things that could be happening in Paul from neurological, human, and biblical perspectives.
“So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[a] I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.”
The spiritual component happening here is that we are in these human bodies that are tempted to sin. We have desires that are contrary to what the Spirit wants, and there is a war within us all the time.
Looking at Paul’s situation, some of the things he may be needing or feeling in those moments could be brain-based. That may be why the things he had seen as sins or things that were sin were things that somehow his brain had equated to comfort. We know the persecution that Paul went through, so he might have leaned on those self-sabotaging behaviors (he sees them as sin) as a way to escape the pain, frustration, or loneliness. Most of all, from this passage, we learned that it’s sin, living in us, that does what we don’t want to do.
As Christians, however, we are not just supposed to let everything that comes in bombard us and affect us, including sin. We have a responsibility to stand up and say we will not put up with this. We have a choice as to what to think about. We have a choice about what we will do. As we learn in the scriptures, we have the ability to tap into the mind of Christ.
1 Corinthians 2:16 says, “For, ‘Who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to teach him?’ But we understand these things, for we have the mind of Christ.”
Hebrews 8:10 says, “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
God’s word is written in our hearts and we have the power, the discernment, and the wisdom of God through the Holy Spirit in us.
Conversely, for those who don’t know God, 2 Corinthians 4:4 says, “Satan who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God.”
Titus 1:15 says, “Everything is pure to those whose hearts are pure. But nothing is pure to those who are corrupt and unbelieving, because their minds and consciences are corrupted.”
[17:29] We have the power to rise above self-sabotage and our biology
If we have the law and the mind of Christ in our hearts, we have the ability by God’s power to rise above and to respond differently to the feelings, urges, and desires that are warring inside us.
When we began this discussion on self-sabotage I shared first about the brain, because I wanted us to clearly understand the biological process happening here. I also want us to understand that we have supernatural forces inside of us that give us the power to rise above our biology. So let’s look at this a little bit further and talk about how we have the power to decide what we want to focus on.
Ephesians 4:17-24 says: “With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. They have no sense of shame. They live for lustful pleasure and eagerly practice every kind of impurity.
But that isn’t what you learned about Christ. Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.”
We need to let the Spirit renew our thoughts and attitudes. We have the ability to tap into this power of God to renew our thoughts and attitudes and to decide that we are not going to engage in that way of living anymore. We are going to separate ourselves from that, and we have a choice of what we are going to focus on.
Romans 8:5-6 says: Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace.
We have these two warring factions inside us, and we’re not going to always get it perfect. Paul exemplifies this. He was a man of God. He knew Jesus. He had the Holy Spirit inside him. Paul was a very strong spiritual leader, but he was still a human and he had this battle happening inside him which resulted in these self-sabotaging behaviors.
I am sure there are times when he made the choice to listen to the Holy Spirit and to let his sinful nature be put to death so the Spirit could control his mind, as we all do. We are all continually growing in that. As we grow deeper in Christ, as we let our roots sink down deep into Him, it becomes easier and easier to do this – which is why it’s so important to have God’s word in our heads.
It’s so important to have the Holy Spirit speaking to us and to have God’s truth inside of us. I look at my daily time in God’s word as ammunition against self-sabotage: It’s how I keep my mind full of truth for when I am tempted to do what I know I’m not supposed to do.
Psalm 119:95 says, “Though the wicked hide along the way to kill me, I will quietly keep my mind on your laws.”
Isaiah 26:3 says, “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you!”
And of course, those famous lines in Philippians 4, “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”
That is what creates the peace in us, so we can choose to focus on the things of God.
[21:15] 4 steps to stop engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors
I know I have just shared a lot of information about the brain and Biblical sides of these behaviors. It helps us to understand why we get into these situations where we do what we don’t want to do. We have a sinful nature and we are tempted to go that way because of our sinful nature, but we also have the power to overcome that through Christ.
Our biology may work against us at times, because the subconscious mind wants to take over to help us find security and safety. We just want those gummy bears when we’re stressed out, right?
So what do we do to counteract this process? Let’s talk about some options for healing in this area.
To make progress in our ability to break free from self-sabotage, it starts with getting to the root of why we have these self-sabotaging behaviors – whatever it is that we do that we don’t want to do. There are five specific things we can do to be able to understand, find healing, and get some peace from this dissonance happening in our heads.
STEP 1: Notice the thoughts behind the self-sabotaging behaviors. We can notice without judgment, shame, or condemning ourselves for these self-sabotoging behaviors. We can notice that we are struggling with self-sabotage and, from a very nonjudgmental, loving, and kind perspective, begin to understand what might be at the root.
Christ gives us this same loving, compassionate-filled perspective when He looks at us. We can wonder about why the self-sabotage is happening or what we could do differently. We can think about when the self-sabotage happens, what some of the self-sabotage triggers are, and what exact self-sabotage behavior we are tempted to take.
When we turn to self-sabotage, we can ask ourselves, “What are we really wanting in that moment?” We usually can’t discern that in the moment because the prefrontal cortex or the logical mind has been turned off. The subconscious mind has taken over and it needs relief or pleasure. It isn’t considering right versus wrong, it just has an overwhelming desire for comfort. So the question about what we really want in that moment probably won’t actually be answered in that moment. We will have to answer it after it happens.
However, we can put ourselves back in the situation and ask ourselves what need we were trying to satisfy through the self-sabotaging behavior. Did we need stress relief? Were we avoiding pain? Did we want to feel comforted, known, or loved? A similar question would be, how is that self-sabotaging behavior (that thing we’re doing that we don’t want to do) satisfying a deeper need? How is it causing some relief from that deeper pain?
When the temptation to self-sabotage strikes, it’s almost like there is an alarm going off inside our system. We can do two things with a smoke alarm. We can push the silencing button to say, “OK fine. I heard you. Stop going off and stop alerting me.” Alternatively, we can address the reason why it’s going off.
With these self-sabotaging behaviors, whatever we are doing to create that false pleasure or comfort is like pushing the button on that alarm. It stops the beeping for a few minutes, but the best way is to get to the root of what is going on and to replace the battery. We need to come up with a different way to respond.
STEP 2: Acknowledge why the self-sabotaging behavior makes sense. Next we need to acknowledge why it makes sense that we are stressed or in need of comfort.
For example, it makes sense that we are super frustrated when we walk in the door at 5:00 pm, the house is a disaster, and no one has done the dishes again. Having that loving, self-compassionate, gentle conversation with ourselves allows us to tell ourselves that we are experiencing something hard. We have to be able to hear ourselves and how our emotional selves need to be able to hear that and have that understanding. So often the emotional self just wants to be known and heard, and we are quick to tell her to be quiet. That is not what God says about us and we don’t need to believe it, but before we can get to that place we have to have compassion.
Acknowledgement of why the pain is reasonable is often the step we don’t take when looking at self-sabotage, and this is the step that sets us free from these self-sabotaging behaviors. So many of us feel alone, forgotten, or misunderstood. We have to start with acknowledging why our feelings make sense. There are plausible reasons for our triggers.
STEP 3: Discern what’s true and not true about the thoughts causing the self-sabotage. We need to think about what we control, and what we do not. This question has a lot to do with surrender, and with deciding what we are in charge of or responsible for. We have to consider what we have done to contribute to this problem.
Sometimes we have to be honest about our own involvement here. We are not always innocent victims. We also need to think about whether the situation is something that we cannot control, or if only God will be able to fix, handle, or change it. We have to discern what is in our hands and we need to have an honest conversation with ourselves about that.
STEP 4: Decide on a healthy coping strategy (instead of self-sabotage) for the pain. This behavior of doing what we don’t want to do can show up in many areas of life, so we can pick one area of self-sabotage at a time to address. Again, the game plan is not something we figure out at the moment because our logical mind is not online at that time. The subconscious mind is online instead. After it happens, though, we can put ourselves back into that situation and think about what we could have done to get to a different outcome. We need to consider what we were really looking for, and what we can put in place to achieve or attain that.
Over this entire process, we can involve God and ask the Holy Spirit for help overcoming these battles in which our flesh works against what our spirit wants. We need His wisdom to know what is really happening in us. We need His words of comfort to help our souls understand that we are heard, loved, and taken care of. God is so faithful to answer His people. He wants to help us, and maybe this will allow us to depend on God in a new way. We can grow in Him in a new way.
[31:26] Getting to the root of our triggers to promote long-term mindset shifts
The long-term approach, of course, is to really get to the root of these triggers. Quite often, these roots are very deep. They are connected to a lot of things. When we talk about them in coaching or in the Christian Mindset Makeover™, we can pull them down to some very core needs that we all have and how our subconscious minds have answered some key questions around love, worth, and being enough. When we have answered those needs in a certain way (often through self-sabotage), our brains will continue to use those same self-sabotaging behaviors to dull the pain or to momentarily get our needs met.
It is really important for us to take our behaviors all the way back to our thoughts. We need to understand the subconscious thought patterns that are driving our actions. When we talk about renewing our minds, we might think we don’t struggle with a lot of negative thoughts or situations. The question, however, is what are we doing that we don’t want to do? Do we struggle with people-pleasing? Overthinking? Overworking? Our struggles are driven by these subconscious thought patterns.
When self-sabotage is present there is a really good chance there is some sort of core broken soundtrack under there – not because we are bad or evil, but because our brains have learned to respond to situations in certain ways in order to feel worthy and good about ourselves. If those things aren’t in line with what God has, then it is understandable that we will have self-sabotaging behaviors that are contrary to what God wants. They are being driven by subconscious thoughts that are contrary to God’s ways and promises.
This is a huge conversation, and if this is something you are struggling with then I would highly encourage you to join me in the Christian Mindset Makeover™. We have an entire curriculum to address this, and we take you through nine weeks of lessons as we work through this process of understanding how the thoughts got there, how they line up with God’s truth, and how we have been a part of creating these processes in our heads. We work through what we need to do to fix them, and how we need to line up better with God’s word. Then we create a brain priming, which is a subconscious rewiring based on brain science of these core broken soundtracks that are running the show and causing us to behave in ways we don’t want to behave. It is a rewiring that works on the same principles that put the information there to begin with, so we use brain science to help heal our brains.
The content itself is on demand, so you don’t have to show up at a meeting with me and learn the content. The exercises and homework are also in an online portal along with the content, so you can work at your own convenience. There is also a live element, where we can interact on live Zoom calls twice a month, a private Facebook group, and via email. The Christian Mindset Makeover™ program was formed from my coaching practice, and I highly encourage you to check it out.
As we continue in this series, next episode we are going to talk about another big question that many of us struggle with. I’m excited to share that with you, and I’ll see you back here for that conversation!
OTHER PODCAST EPISODES ON SELF-SABOTAGING BEHAVIORS:
- Ep 7: Mindset Matters: Managing Your Inner Critic
- Ep 22: Mindset Matters: How to Change Your Perspective & Change Your Life
- Ep 134: 6 Self-Sabotaging Behaviors That Keep You Stuck in Toxic Thinking
- Ep 138: 10 Bible Verses on Managing Emotions That Every Christian Needs to Know
- Ep 144: Creating New Mindsets for Fresh Starts _ New Beginnings in the New Year
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