When the pandemic first hit and we were placed under a stay-at-home order, many of us took the opportunity to make some bold and positive changes to our previous lifestyle habits and behaviors. What we had suddenly was time, way more time. The question was: What to do with all of it?

We got all fired up about beginning a new diet or exercise program, implementing a new meal plan, exercising on a more regular basis. Maybe if you were working from home, you started by creating a system to have a better work-life balance, or maybe you were one of those people who really wanted to have better communication with your life partner, kids, family of origin, or maybe even a deeper connection with yourself and your spiritual essence?

Then what happened? About three weeks in, your commitment began to fray, internal anxiety increased from rampant social and economic anxiety, and the positive changes you had implemented flew out the window. The trigger could be exhaustion, a fight with your significant other, feeling caged in at home, being furloughed, cranky kids, or the general uncertainty of the current world crisis that pervades every corner of our psyche and the media.

And as a result, you start skipping workouts, bingeing on desserts, picking arguments, and what is often the most damaging behavior: cutting yourself down with a litany of cruel and negative self-talk.

As a coach, this is the No. 1 area in my work: helping my clients break the toxic habit of self-sabotage! Self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors cause us to create obstacles that prevent us from functioning at our best and derails our ability to achieve success in any arena of our lives. 

And with urgency, I ask, what better time than now to release this destructive pattern, especially at a time where we need people to be functioning at their highest and best?

But first: Why do we do it and how do we make it stop? Research shows self-sabotaging behaviors are largely unconscious. We always act, create, manifest and attract according to our self-concept, or who we believe ourselves to be. Many times self-sabotaging actions stem from fear. Fear of failure, rejection, change, other people's opinions and even fear of success!

Next time you are feeling that creeping urge to self-destruct and blow up your diet and workout plan, or speak unkindly to yourself or others, hold up an imaginary STOP sign in front of yourself and implement this five-step process below to keep you on track:

1. Reflect on your emotional state. Are you feeling sad, angry, stressed, jealous, lonely, unworthy, fearful, celebratory or happy? That's right, even in our happier moments, we can abandon our goals. It's important to acknowledge these feelings so they can be validated and dealt with instead of buried and ignored. Once we confront our real feelings, we can consciously choose to fulfill our needs in ways that support our goals.

Helpful tip: Write down the emotions in the moment so you don't forget. Or make a statement to yourself like, “Wow, I am super stressed right now!” I find that once I say these statements out loud, I often find an immediate shift in my state. Often, I find myself bursting out laughing! I know it's strange, but it is a coping mechanism I have developed to work with changing my state, and it really works. Laughter truly is the best medicine.

2. Ask yourself "why." Now that you've uncovered the underlying emotions you're experiencing, the next step is to figure out why they are bubbling to the surface. What is it that you believe of yourself for this self-defeating pattern of behavior to occur? Is food your only consistent form of pleasure leading you to binge? Did you grow up in a home where underlying anxiety was rampant? Do you not feel validated at work, and you have been sucking those feelings in and not expressing them? And most importantly, what is the intention behind the self-defeating behavior?

The bingeing or or other self-defeating behavior may be happening to help you cope with stress, to experience feelings of comfort, companionship or relief. Often, just acknowledging these emotions is enough to set yourself free.

3. Choose another course of action. Self-sabotaging can be a difficult habit to break free of. We tend to revert back to a familiar behavior, no matter how detrimental it may be, if we do not have an alternative plan in place. Once we define what it is we are really craving, we can home in on some tactics to divert our attention elsewhere.

For example, a change of scenery or talking to a friend can alter our perspective on a situation that has stressed us out. Sometimes, all it takes is a 10-minute walk around your neighborhood to recalibrate. Replace late-night snacking in front of the TV with reading in bed. If you're feeling unworthy or unloved, then pamper yourself with a hot shower, journal or ask someone in your house for a neck massage. Self-care is not a luxury — it is a necessity! You deserve that level of self-care.

4. Find an accountability partner. When motivation wanes, one of the greatest things we can do is ask for help. To ensure long-term success, it's important to have someone to check in with, such as a coach or online group, a therapist or any other objective person that can call you out and hold you up to the highest version of yourself.

Sharing our challenges, visions and goals with others tends to help us to stay committed to the course. It encourages and reinforces our desire to reframe our negative thoughts and recognize potentially unrealistic expectations. Promising to meet a friend for a workout (even through Zoom) or joining a weekly online group in an area that interests you can be a fantastic way of ensuring we show up to be our best self. It's much more difficult to think about skipping a workout or a group when we know it also means letting down our friends and people who are holding our dreams for us. Mutual commitment has been the key to my success, and I can almost guarantee it will be instrumental to yours. Give this a try! 

5. Think beyond you. Sometimes, we get stuck on ourselves and think the world notices all of our flaws with the magnitude that we do. We forget that we are human and allowed to make mistakes. Many of us compare ourselves to others and fixate on the differences and flag them as perceived shortcomings.

Our inner critic is constantly yammering away, pointing these things out to us, but he or she has forgotten one important detail: We are all meant to be different! We are each on our own journey in this lifetime. When you get down on yourself, think about who else may be watching and learning from you — your kids, your clients, your friends?

Instead of self-loathing, imagine what it would be like to be an inspiration to your community. When you complete that 30-day fitness challenge, do work that is actually fulfilling, and find yourself laughing more with your family and friends (even at yourself), you will certainly trigger feelings of belief and enthusiasm in others and may even drive them to take action. How cool is that? 

Helpful tip: Think about someone who inspires you, and try to emulate his or her character traits.

Remember that nobody is perfect and that your health and lifestyle goals should be flexible. Don't fall into the trap of black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. Putting an end to self-sabotage starts with believing in yourself and knowing you are capable of a life beyond your wildest dreams. 

I see that for you. Now, go make it happen! 

Kate McKay, an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, motivational speaker, author and business consultant, resides in Newburyport. Contact her at kate@kate-mckay.com, and check out her new podcast at https://bit.ly/katemckay.

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