You’re sitting on the couch, mindless TV is on, and you’re playing on your phone. You’re scrolling Facebook or Instagram, or you’re playing whatever casual game that has you hooked. You’re feeling blah. You feel lazy. Your body is becoming one with the couch.
Yet you know you’ll feel so much better if you did get up and cook a good meal (instead of falling back on takeout or cereal or something easy). You know that you’d feel better if you went for a walk or did some yoga. You’ll feel so good if you do the dishes and can see a clean kitchen. You know that what you’re doing right now isn’t what you want for yourself.
Today I want to talk about an interesting phenomenon that happens when you start to improve your life. When you’re trying to set up good habits and improve your health, there are times when you’ll start procrastinating and distracting yourself. It’s frustrating. The phrase “self-sabotage” feels all too accurate.
And yet, you keep scrolling on your phone. You keep playing that game. The show that you were half interested is over and some other show is playing – one you don’t even like. But you’re still stuck to the couch.
You want to do something. You want to have stuff done. But at the thought of doing anything, a voice in your head kicks up a fuss. It’s like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. I call this inner toddler syndrome.
What’s really behind the feeling of self-sabotage?
The details of the situation may change but that feeling of, “I don’t wanna,” persists. It sucks you back and before you know it, it’s time for bed (not that you want to do that either).
Imagine that some part of your mind is a toddler. It doesn’t want to do what it’s supposed to do. It doesn’t want to be told what to do. If something is “good for us” or “healthy” or “work”, it wants nothing to do with it.
I notice this most when I’m overwhelmed by all the things that need to be done, or when I’ve been trying to do too much. In both of those situation, the inner toddler can get you into a rut. And that rut is what I think people are talking about when they talk about self-sabotage.
If you want to get out of this rut, there are two different and opposite ways you can get past this.
- Give yourself the night off, guilt-free.
- Do something anyway.
I’ve used both of these strategies at different times. And being able to move past that inner temper-tantrum with both strategies. It depends on the situation, and what the “something” is.
Give yourself some time off.
And if you’re not taking any time to rest, when you have no space to breathe, it’s natural to procrastinate. Taking time off can help you in the long run but there’s one key to this strategy.
You need to let go of the guilt.
You cannot fully rest unless you let yourself give up the feelings of guilt and shame. If you are beating yourself up over not being productive, you’ll feel as overwhelmed and tired as before.
For myself, the best way to let go of the guilt is to think about what has been going on in my life over the past couple weeks. Have I been travelling a lot? Has there been a lot of stressful things happening? Have I been sick? Have I had trouble sleeping? How do I feel in my body?
If I’ve been through a busy period or a time when I’ve actually been getting a lot accomplished lately, then I know I’m due for a night off. And in this case, it’s seems easy to let go of the guilt.
It gets trickier though when you can’t see the results of being busy or productive – for example when you’ve been sick or going through some sort of stress. It’s difficult to let go of the stress if you think that other people think you’ve been lazy.
By the way, this is one way a good mental health counsellor, health professional, or friend could help you. They can help you see the bigger picture.
I know this first hand.
This past December and into January, I had some health issues arise. I couldn’t do near as much as usual, and I felt like all I was doing was laying on the couch. The good days made the bad days feel even worse. Because of that, I had this inner toddler syndrome going on a lot.
But my nurse practitioner helped me, by reminding me that there has been a lot going on. So, of course, I have to take a couple sick days. Of course, I won’t be able to do as much as I’m used to.
Having this reassurance let me redirect my thoughts a little. I shifted my focus from trying to “get shit done” to trying to set myself up to get a good nights sleep. It is something that I knew would help, and it seemed to be a little bit more in my control.
I moved as much as I could. Some days I couldn’t go for a walk or do a full yoga session. But I could do a couple of body-weight squats or hold a plank for a couple of seconds. I could keep the muscles from being sore from not using them and didn’t take a lot of energy.
I even started doing a loving-kindness meditation as I lay1 in bed at night. I repeated the mantra in my head and I let my mind wander to whoever came to mind2. As I started to fall asleep, the mantra seemed to sort of echo in my mind. I would lose my place so I would restart with whatever phrase seemed right. Before long, I would fall asleep.
Sometimes, the opposite approach is what you need to help get you out of a negative spiral and silence your inner toddler:
Do something anyway.
It’s kind of like the definition of courage. Courage is feeling scared and doing it anyway. Getting shit done is feeling lazy but doing it anyway. 🙂
As my health issues have become less pressing, this has been my strategy for getting out of the rut. I write a detailed list of what I want to do – I remind myself while I make the list that I don’t have to finish the list today. I remind myself that I am making the list so that once I get some momentum, I don’t have to stop to think about what to do next. Once I’m done making the list, I pop in my headphones and turn on some music that makes me feel like dancing.
I find this to be especially effective at work when there are other people around talking about things. I find that to be very distracting, so the music cuts that off. It also seems like I’m drowning out my own random thoughts. There is only enough space in my head for the work and the music.
Plus the music boosts my mood and my energy. I even find myself shifting and dancing a little as I go through my day. It would be worth doing even if it didn’t help me get more stuff done. 🙂
A tool like the Pomodoro technique can come in handy as well.
Attitude is everything.
These strategies can make a big difference in your life. Both have been really helpful lately. But they can easily become another thing to feel guilty about, beat yourself up over, and rebel against. You could overthink the decision of which strategy to choose.
The key to nudging these strategies towards being more helpful is (maybe you can guess what I’m going to say) compassion. Can you treat yourself with kindness and gentleness? Can you remember that these strategies are only there to help you?
Failing that, try flipping a coin and go with it. Heads – do something. Tails – take a break. See how the next 30 minutes or so goes. Do you feel better or worse than before you flipped the coin? If you feel better, then go with it. If you feel worse, do the opposite now. (And if you rest for now, later see what you can get done, and vice versa.)
When you find yourself scrolling mindlessly, distracted by the TV… wishing you could bring yourself to do the kinds of things that will make you happier and healthier… wishing that you were the kind of person who… There are two major strategies that you can use to calm your inner toddler that wants to throw a temper-tantrum at the idea of doing something.
- Give yourself some time off.
- Do something anyway.
By putting these strategies in place, you’ll ensure that you’re getting enough rest, and you’ll also be sure to get the things done that you need to. Both are necessary, and both can help you get out of “self-sabotage” mode.
And remember, an attitude of compassion will allow these strategies to actually make a difference in your life, and allow you to live the good life.
Be kind, everyone, especially to yourself. And I’ll be back next week with another article.
You are reading this because you are interested in improving your life. That means we have something in common. I’m still working on what the Foundations for the Good Life is all about, and I’d love for you to join me in this journey. I’d love to build a community with you. With people who are trying to figure out what “the good life” means, and how to set up their life to make it possible for them.
If this interests you, join the newsletter to be the first to know about updates, new articles, and to try out tools as they are developed and improved. I hope to connect with you soon.
- I went down a mini rabbit-hole trying to remember the correct grammar for the word “lay”. In case you’re interested, this article covers it. :)
- Loving kindness meditation is a type of meditation. The instruction is to repeat a series of well-wishes while envisioning different people. Here’s a guided meditation from Leo Babauta of Zen Habits if you’re curious.