Do you find yourself sabotaging your efforts to improve your health? Lots of us do. Especially in PCOS and other chronic health conditions, there are connections to self-sabotaging behaviors.
We might do this purposely, but most of the time it is unconscious, something we didn’t really intend on doing but, nonetheless, find ourselves doing.
It’s that critical moment when we’ve been “good” and make a split second decision to be “bad”.
And this is where the problem begins.
Placing a morality on our choices is one of the most common and damaging ways we self-sabotage, because in doing so, we connect our actions with our perceptions of our own character.
We are essentially telling ourselves that what we eat (or don’t eat) says something about how good or bad a person we are.
The root of this issue is often low self-worth or self-esteem. This is something common in chronic health issues, particularly PCOS. Studies show that those with PCOS are more likely to have poor self-esteem, low self-worth and history of complex trauma, all of which can impact how well we are able to stick to lifestyle changes and how vulnerable we are to emotional inputs of food.
Those with PCOS are more likely to have disordered eating behavior and to use food (and the restriction of it) to punish or reward themselves.
Interestingly, a new study also showed that those with PCOS score higher on markers of hope, transcendence, and perspective- meaning that many of us get to a place where we make the best out of a tough situation, find the silver lining, whatever you want to call it.
I’d say that this experience holds true for what I’ve seen with myself and in practice, especially as those with PCOS age, they tend to assign a deeper meaning to their health struggles that helps get them through the tough parts of the condition.
But the self-sabotaging does tend to continue and the big question is, how do we stop it?
Here’s what seems to help my clients the most.
First, recognize that there may be deeper fears holding you back from truly actualizing your goals. Burying our heads in the sand can make it easier to blame the problem on the diet we are on (it’s not sustainable, I can’t enjoy my social life, etc), our family or social obligations (my husband doesn’t want me to eat like this, it’s a wedding I have to have cake, etc) or our authority figures (my therapist or nutritionist just doesn’t get me).
Sometimes these complaints are real. I see many clients who have seen some truly horrendous nutritionists and doctors, have taken some awful diet advice, and generally been led down frustrating paths by authority figures. I’ve seen many unsustainable diets and many people unnecessarily cutting out food groups long term.
But. Ask yourself honestly if the problem is actually the situation, or is this a common thread for you? Do you get excited to make changes and then fail to follow through again and again? Do you seem to always find reasons to stop pursuing your goals?
One of the most common forms of self-sabotage I see is the client who desperately wants to change body composition. They mask that goal with the goal of being more healthy or improving their symptoms, but really, they want to be thin. That desire for thinness is a nice dream- they project onto this thin ideal a life that they wish they had now. Maybe they think being thin will bring them love or acceptance or that the thin version of them will have the career or lifestyle they want.
The problem is that their idea of this thin person is a fantasy and as they get closer and closer to actualizing the dream, they realize that their life circumstances will only truly change if they change them, thin or not. Being thin won’t solve all of their problems and the insecurities they have now will continue, just in a thinner body. This causes them a great deal of shame and fear, leading to a cycle of losing weight, but never enough to truly embody their ideal, then regaining it again and again.
I can relate to this myself, as a middle school aged girl I was quite heavy and imagined life would be so different if I were thin. I was bullied and felt lonely and outcast, so much so that I have very few memories of that time in my life and those that I do are typically unpleasant.
But later in my teens, I was able to shed that extra weight. It’s true, I was treated much differently- the stigma against overweight people is very real- but the way I felt about myself didn’t change. I still felt lonely, outcast, and fussed and worried over my body shape constantly.
At our core, many of us are aware of that fundamental truth, and rather than allow ourselves to feel the pain of it, to seek a trusted professional and truly work on these deeper issues, we allow ourselves to live out a cycle of sabotage over and over again.
I alluded to another form of self-sabotage earlier, as well and this is the issue of who and what we are doing this for.
So often when I ask my clients why they want to work with me, they mention similar things- they want to be there for their family, they want to have energy to play with their children. Many of these goals seem noble and from the outside look motivating. But the reality of client work has taught me that these external goals are never enough.
Women, especially are conditioned to believe that self-sacrifice is a virtue and martyrdom a goal (if this is you, I suggest Glennon Doyle’s Untamed for a start on the pathway out of that thinking) and they believe I’ll look at them weird if their goal isn’t for some noble purpose.
I’ll tell you honestly who tends to meet their goals in one on one work: it’s the people who tell me consistently that they’ve hit rock bottom, they are tired of feeling this way, and they’ll do anything to feel better again. This is a motivating goal, one that can overcome the urge to self-sabotage, the others are not- especially when and if those very family members they are doing this for are the ones urging them to hit the drive through instead of cook, and this happens frequently.
Third, remind yourself that food has no moral value. Your worth has nothing at all to do with what you eat or how well you stick to any program. Working on the deeper psychological reasons why you may be connecting these two things is one important way to stop self-sabotaging.
True change comes from one very real place- a person who is motivated by themselves and their deep desires alone and who is actively working on healing the inner patterns and traumas that have kept them chained to the self-sabotaging behaviors in the past.
Having help on that journey helps a lot, that’s where a nutritionist and a therapist come in. But the real work is work done internally.
Obviously, we can seek a trusted professional. I work one on one with clients on these very issues and my team does a good job of holding people accountable to themselves. Finding a great therapist, particularly one trained in trauma and EMDR is also helpful.
But there is a lot we can do on our own. I have a lot of books that have helped on my path that you can find in my amazon store (here)- the power of now, Untamed, and The Body Keeps the Score are favorites of mine.
I also highly recommend meditation practices, even and especially if you don’t like or aren’t “good” at meditation. Ones that particularly focus on self-worth and inner child can be so healing for PCOS. I love the Calm app for this and there are also lots of free ones on Youtube.
Journaling and free writing have also been very important tools for me. So much so that I’ve begun offering free weekly journal prompts on my instagram and I hope you’ll follow me and participate there.
There are many reasons people self-sabotage and these are just a few, but they are some of the most important in my life and work. I wish you the very best as you begin your journey into better health and if I can help be that guide for you, I’d love to help you on your journey.
I did a podcast on this topic recently as well, you might enjoy listening to it if you’d like further depth: https://www.buzzsprout.com/226456/episodes/10486720