There is a fable that goes around coaching guru circles on the internet about the good wolf and the bad wolf. In the story, a grandparent tells their grandchild...
“There is a bad wolf and a good wolf inside of each of us. The bad wolf feels sorry for itself. It is also angry, proud, greedy, dishonest, and feels guilty and inferior. Whereas the good wolf is loving, peaceful, hopeful, joyful, kind, show empathy, speaks the truth and has compassion for others.
When the grandchild wants to know which one wins the battle, the grandparent wisely answers, “The one you feed.”
This story is a good way of understanding self-sabotage, it's the bad wolf at feeding time. It's those thoughts we have, and the actions we take that only serve to undermine ourselves, making us feel stressed, miserable and out of control.
Here are 5 common ways we self-sabotage at work (and feed the bad wolf)
1. We try to read other people's minds
Despite what those magicians will have you believe, mind-reading is something we all do. All too frequently. It happens when we assume we know what other people are thinking or how they will react. We let this justify our beliefs that an email was passive-aggressive or that a passing comment was a snide remark, without looking to understanding the full context.
Generally, this kind of thinking is never accurate or positive. It usually involves assuming that others are thinking badly about us, or that they will react negatively to anything we might say or do.
When we let ourselves fall into this trap we find ourselves stuck and fearful; our levels of stress increase and our relationships at work suffer. We mistake other's intentions and paint pictures of our co-workers that just aren't true. And all because our imagination took us down a path of low trust and fear.
2. We let our emails run the show
When we constantly check our emails or team chat we are often also putting things off or become distracted. We tell ourselves it is much more important to keep on top of the constant demands of emails over and above the ever-mounting to-do lists we have.
Usually, there are underlying reasons for doing this. Sometimes we put things off because we are afraid we're not being good enough, other times we tell ourselves that it's not due for quite a while and we have plenty of time only to end up scrambling at the last minute to meet the deadline.
The problem is when we constantly fail to deliver on expected tasks our reputation begins to suffer and this may result in poor reviews and negative feedback.
3. We think we aren't good enough
Have you ever experienced that feeling of worry that your work isn't good enough and never will be, or that somebody will find out and expose you for this? Or been worried that people at work just don't like you?
Worries like this lead us to live in constant fear of failure or of not measuring up. We compare ourselves to others and always It's the kind of fear-based thinking that undermines our confidence.
We end up believing we need to work extremely hard to produce perfect work. And even though we work incredibly hard, our quality of work might be impacted by this lack of confidence which in turn creates a feedback loop of failure reinforced by our negative self-perception.
4. We normalise busyness
In today’s environment more and more of us are feeling overwhelmed, we are pressured to be productive and constantly on and on top of things. Our language is filled with words and phrases like “there is so much to do”; “I don't have the time”; “there are so many conflicting priorities”.
When we are in the 'busyness' mindset we are constantly giving off messages that may lead us to be passed over for opportunities to be involved in interesting projects, or to take on work that could lead to other job opportunities.
On top of this, too much self-sufficiency at work can lead to the perception that we are not good at working within a team which in turn creates a feeling of isolation.
5. We fear things will be worse than they are
Catastrophising aka thinking that things will turn out badly is a big cause of unnecessary anxiety and stress. It may be the fear of change or inability to think positively about the future. The more spectacularly wrong, the better when it comes to this kind of thinking.
This leads us to become afraid that if we do go for what we want, we will fail and that failure will be catastrophic. So instead of taking action, we spend our time trying to work out a plan that will avoid failure. The problem with this is that no matter how good we plan, we cannot predict what will happen. We might be mind readers, but we're not all clairvoyants...
Anything is possible and when we go round and round, planning and replanning, never taking the step to move forward, we get stuck. So we stay in our comfort zone and never take action to create the work-life we want.
How to feed the good wolf (and stop self-sabotage)
Eliminating self-sabotage is a journey to becoming more self-aware and self-reflective.
A good place to start is with mindfulness.
That is the habit of being present and aware of what we are thinking, feeling and doing. What we need to understand is that all self-sabotaging thoughts are ones which take us either to the future or the past.
A good habit to develop is to bring ourselves into the present by asking ourselves 'where am I? when am I?'. Getting into the habit of bringing ourselves into the present and continuing to be present by focusing on the job at hand is a good practice that will reduce stress and give us options for what we would like to do next.
Recognising that we can do nothing about the future or the past by ruminating over what might happen or what has happened is the path to self-sabotage is a good first step.
Then, whenever we catch ourselves self-sabotaging we can use the habit of self-reflection. That is, taking time out to look back on our day and learning to celebrate what we have achieved; reviewing what went well and what didn’t go as well as we would have liked and considering how we would approach these things if and when they happen in the future. This practice helps us feel good about our achievements. When we get into this habit we are developing the important skills of internal self-approval along with self-acceptance that things are never perfect together with a way of continually improving as we use our imagination to practice how we will do things differently in the future.
To learn more about what's causing you to feel stressed, take this quiz.