How to Maintain Healthy Habits and Stop Sabotaging Yourself

Parent and child

“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” ~Buddha

About two years go, I felt horrible about myself and where I was in my life: single, struggling to lose weight, miserable in my job (and no clue what to do about it), and unfulfilled in general.

I kept trying to bully myself in order to be the person I wanted to be and have the things I wanted to have.

I kept saying to myself, “I can’t believe you said/ate/did that. There’s something wrong with you” and giving myself strict rules to follow, only to break them with the same self-sabotaging behavior sometimes minutes later.

I thought the only way to get myself where I wanted to go was to strong-arm myself there. But that only made me rebel against myself more. I waffled between overindulging and being stingy with myself emotionally, physically, and financially.

One day I came across a picture of myself at five years old. I looked at that sweet little girl and realized no parent would allow someone to treat her the way I was treating myself—or allow her to do the things I was letting myself get away with.

I looked at how I was living and saw how broken my relationship was with myself.

I was permitting myself to do things no sane parent would allow their child to do while simultaneously yelling at myself for “being bad,” which any parent or child knows is the most ineffective form of motivation or cause for behavior change.

This caused me to wonder: why do we allow ourselves to have the unhealthy habits we don’t allow in children? Why do we find it easier to make rules for ourselves than it is to follow them?

I finally learned how to heal this relationship with myself and begin “parenting” myself in a healthy way.

By honing your self-parenting skills and doing this out of love and affection, you’ll be able to overcome these self-sabotaging behaviors and stop the self-bashing, creating a loving relationship with yourself that supports you to achieve your desires.

1. Identify your behaviors and habits.

Take a moment. Listen to the ways you speak to yourself, the way you feed yourself, your hygiene and sleep habits. Which of your habits and behaviors would you not allow your (inner) child to do?

Here were a few of mine:

  • Speaking meanly to myself
  • Thinking mean thoughts about others
  • Eating candy before healthy food
  • Staying up late when I’m tired
  • Having bad table manners—eating while standing up, out of the package, staring at a computer screen or watching TV

Often, the mean thoughts and the behavior are tied together. We identify these habits and behaviors as “self-sabotage” and then mentally beat ourselves up for it.

If you catch yourself in the vicious cycle of doing something that deep down you know you shouldn’t and then mentally berating yourself for it, it’s indicator that something big is going on below the surface.

2. Identify the repercussions of the behavior.

You’ll probably notice that these behaviors and habits take you away from attaining the things you deeply desire, like having a body you love, a job that fulfills you, and a great relationship.

In every moment, we are taking action that either moves us toward or away from the person we want to be and the life we want to have. The very behaviors you keep permitting yourself to do are the ones that are keeping you from what you want most.

Get clear on how the actions you’re taking and the thoughts you’re thinking are in direct conflict with your happiness.

3. Understand why you developed these habits.

Look closely and see if the behavior or thought pattern originated as a way to take care of you in some way. It might be counter-intuitive or irrational, but that doesn’t matter.

For example, one of my self-sabotaging habits was eating chocolate at ten in the morning. I thought it was just about the sugar rush, but the overwhelming need to eat it every day pointed to something deeper.

When I really looked at it, I saw that by mid-morning, the realization that I had a full day ahead of me, doing work I didn’t want to do in a place I didn’t want to be in, made my heart sink with sadness.

I reached for the chocolate for a jolt of pleasure, a way to escape the reality.

The intention was positive; I was trying to take care of myself by giving myself comfort and some joy. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the healthiest way to give myself those things, and it came with the undesired effects of weight gain and sugar crashes and deepened a cycle of self-bashing.

As adults, we know the consequences of engaging in a particular thought or pattern but often do it anyway. The motivation is always moving away from pain or increasing pleasure.

It can be hedonistic—many unhealthy behaviors feel good in the short-term (the sugar rush, the comfort, the satisfaction) but have long-term detrimental effects. It can also be rebellious—there’s a thrill to “breaking the rules.”

Identifying where you get pleasure in engaging in self-sabotage can be immensely helpful in overcoming it.

Realize that there is no self-sabotage, only self-preservation. Acknowledge that this action was a way to keep you safe, happy, and loved in some way, even if it was misguided or currently no longer serves you.

This was an unconscious way of parenting yourself, and now that you recognize it, you can begin to consciously parent yourself in a way that supports the person you want to be now.

4. Create “house rules.”

Parents make rules because they can see the consequences that the child doesn’t have the perspective for yet.

Looking back at my childhood, there were a lot of things that were non-negotiable that ultimately created healthy habits.

One example is that we sat down as a family for dinner, every night. I never thought there was another way, and subsequently the habit of sitting down to dinner was ingrained.

Think back at your childhood and the “house rules” that guided your behavior. Would it be helpful to reintroduce some of them into your life? Should you adopt some of the “house rules” you have for your children?

If you have a particularly hard habit to break that you know is detrimental to your well-being, consider making it a “house rule.” When something is non-negotiable it removes the inner dialogue where we bargain with ourselves and makes it a lot easier to stick with it.

Be sure to create your “rules” out of loving affection, not meanness or to punish yourself. Add a “because.” Even as kids, “because I told you to” was not a valid excuse.

So look back at what you identified as the repercussions of your behavior to inform why the rule is in place and the desires you want to move toward.

For example, one of my “house rules” became not eating candy before lunch. Whenever a chocolate craving hit, I told myself “You don’t eat chocolate before lunch because it will make you feel icky and makes you feel bad about your body. Have chamomile tea instead.”

5. Hone your self-parenting skills.

Look back at your relationship with your parents and your children and identify the parenting techniques that worked the best for you. I’ll bet it was a mix of being strong and consistent in enforcing the “rules” while also being kind, patient, and understanding.

Use the good  techniques you identified to make sure you stick to your rules. In addition to making them non-negotiable and adding a “because,” be sure to reward yourself when you’ve resisted temptation and followed your own rules.

Be infinitely patient with yourself, as you would be with a child. If you slip up once, instead of throwing everything out the window, have a conversation with yourself.

Understand why you did what you did. What did you need in that moment? Figure out how to give it to yourself and reinforce why it is so important to follow the “rules.”

What are your new “house rules”? How can you parent yourself in a way that is supportive and nurturing?

Photo by skyseeker

About Martine Holston

Martine Holston left her dream job to “retire” at 30 and build her dream life, and now teaches people how to do the same (Do this free exercise to take the first step).  Follow her on Facebook and Twitter to see what “retired” life looks like.

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  • Honky Tonk

    I could go through this article picking wonderful quote after quote, but the one that hit me the hardest, was:

    “Identify where you get pleasure in engaging in self-sabotage… [and] realize that there is no self-sabotage, only self-preservation… [that] this action was a way to keep you safe, happy, and loved in some way, even if it was misguided or currently no longer serves you.”

    I had never considered that I get some kind of pleasure/kick from my Self-sabotaging behaviour. I have always failed to see the disguised love that motivates my negative self-talk. But under inspection it is clear that my Self-criticism and judgement, although misguided and unskillful, is in fact a genuine attempt to make positive changes in/for me – a loving act indeed.

    I think this insight can help me to stop trying so hard to force change in myself – which is usually harsh and threatening ‘motivational’ criticism and judgement – and transition to a more positive, encouraging and patient relationship with myself.

    So, much to contemplate.

    Thank you!

  • Martine

    So glad this was helpful for you! It was a big aha when I realized that everything I do has a positive intention – but that intention might now be misguided or outdated. It makes it so much easier to let it go.

  • Fiona

    Thank you so much for this wonderfully insightful and illuminating article. I feel like it could have been written for and about me. I have been frustrated so long by my apparent inability to choose healthy, positive habits over self-sabotaging ones, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your specific, concrete suggestions of sane and humane ways to address this. You have offered me a clear way forward that feels intuitively right to me, and I’m so grateful.

  • Sonia

    I found this article helpful up until the point the author begins discussing “house rules.” My childhood never consisted of rules of any sort, other than respect and kindness. My mother prides herself in her rebellious nature, and raised us to be extremely free thinkers. I know I’m not alone when I say that structure and discipline were not an integral part of my upbringing. Maintaining healthy habits has been an ongoing battle BECAUSE I never had these things growing up. That being said, I did find some value in the article. However, it really did not speak to those like me in giving us a sound basis for change other than what I’ve struggled to learn throughout my adulthood (which has been extremely difficult AND rewarding).

    For people like me, we tend struggle with authority. Rebellion, it seems, has become a part of my identity. It’s extremely difficult to let that go. We tend to beat ourselves up for different reasons — reasons that go back for generations because we are left with the problems of our fathers, mothers, grandparents, etc. I really loved this article at first because it addressed one of my biggest problems, but I was very disappointed towards the end. I praise the intentions of the author, and am grateful that there are people out there sharing their insights. I was just surprised at how narrow the audience was, considering I love this site and have found it EXTREMELY helpful in the past.

  • Sonny

    I didn’t think the article was suggesting you should treat yourself the way YOUR parents did (which could be terrible for many people) but to treat yourself like an archetypal parent figure.

    If anything, I’d think giving yourself an inner “mom” monologue would be more helpful for those who don’t have an outside source of gentle discipline.

  • happysprout

    Great article – I really enjoyed reading it. Made me think about a lot of things and it added some extra value to some things I am working on in my life.

    This is something I been working on a lot lately – to treat my body with love instead of hate and fear. If you treat your body with love I truely believe that you will start losing the extra weight you are carrying around, stopped being so stressed, getting better relations to the people around you and start feeling more happy. To treat you body with love could be eating more healthy, do more exercise, do yoga and meditaion, but it could also be allowing yourself that piece or chocolate and enjoy, allow yourself to go out and have blast with your friends without counting every calorie you consume and tell yourself that maybe you are not perfect but you have some damn good qualities.

    I is not always easy to feel good about yourself and treat yourself right, but treating yourself out of love instead of fear, is a good thing to start focus on.

    Thanks for making that more clear to me 🙂

  • Melanie Hope

    Thank you

  • Melanie Hope

    Thank you Martine for your words, they resounded very deeply with me. I have a hard journey ahead due to making some wrong life choices, and this article has helped provide some insight and comfort. Thanks again x

  • Rebecca

    I agree with Sonny. If I treated myself the way my parents did growing up I’d wind up right where I am already, feeling guilty, being self abusive, and generally not being kind to myself. I’m not saying my parents were horrible monsters, but their parenting methods did not work for me. I’ve often lamented how I never got the kind of love and affection I needed growing up. To me, this article was providing insight into how I can give myself the loving parenting I didn’t have. Which will be a challenge since I didn’t learn how to do that growing up.

  • Jessica

    I really relate to this article and am so glad that I read it. I am working on a lot of self-examination and identifying my inner critical voice, while all the while trying to parent a 7.5 and a 3 year old. So often do I find myself reflecting on the way I treat myself (unhealthy habits) and wishing that my mom still “limited the number of cookies I could eat in one day”. I’ve come to realize that I can still have that by self-parenting and actually guiding myself as “mother”. No more sneaking sweets, if I don’t want my own kids sneaking sweets — just an example of the many situations where I would like to practice what I preach. My challenge: be as gentle with myself in the moments when I’ve stumbled, just as I would urge my own children to do the same. Thank you for this article!

  • destineejoy

    Way too many good quotes in this post!

    ” The very behaviors you keep permitting yourself to do are the ones that are keeping you from what you want most.” stuck out for me

  • Martine

    I’m so glad you found it useful Fiona!

  • Martine

    I love what you are saying here, and I completely agree. If you think about motivating someone to do something, yelling at them and degrading them isn’t the way to do it – you ask respectfully and kindly. Especially if it’s something scary, they need to know they are safe and loved first. Why do we think treating ourselves in a harsh, judgmental way will lead to the change we want to happen? It’s so interesting, and I’m glad that you are on the way to treating yourself with love instead of fear and judgement.

  • Martine

    What a beautiful mirror to have your daughter to show you how to self-parent! Whenever you’re wondering how you should treat yourself in a situation, you can look at her and think, “would I treat my daughter this way?” How profound is that? And what a great opportunity to self-parent yourself and be a model to your daughter! Wishing you all the best on your journey.

  • Martine

    Sonny and Rebecca are right. I didn’t mean that you should replicate how your parents treated you (unless that is helpful). No matter how old we are, we need guidance and support. As adults, we need to supply that for ourselves. What I was trying to say in the article was that learning how to self-parent from a loving place is fundamental to achieving healthy habits and patterns in any area of your life – and feel loved and supported no matter what. Learning how to self-parent is also a great way to heal old wounds. I hope that this is helpful!

  • Jessica

    Great advice and profound, indeed. Thank you again Martine – and thank you for your reply!

  • Miesha

    Thank you for this wonderful article.

  • rabenatz

    I have a similar problem with using the parenting I experienced as a guidance to parent myself. Because my parents didn’t do a good job and are the main reason for my anxiety, self-hatred, negativity etc. issues. I guess what would work for me is to identify what would have been good for me as a child, the way I would want to parent a child and then treat me in the same way. Because the way I treat myself and talk/think to myself I wouldn’t wish onto my worst enemy.

  • Jason Holborn

    “I reached for the chocolate for a jolt of pleasure, a way to escape the reality.”

    Well, this was a big wake-up moment for me in life, too!!! 🙁 Personally, I had to realize that I was a drug addict to sugar, using it to escape reality, as you say.

    Many people find it hard to accept the idea of me using sugar as a drug, and so it is extra cool to read your words here, they speak to me and bolster my intention 🙂

  • Love the “house rules” concept!
    How much easier those impulsive decisions will be when it simply comes down to saying, “Nope, I just don’t do that because it doesn’t serve me.”
    Thanks so much for this takeaway.
    Much love!

  • Shulk

    There are times I wish I was never even born. As a person with Aspergers I’ve dealt with plenty of confrontations and people that didn’t have the patience for me. I’ve always been afraid every day of my life since I was sent to a foster home for 3 days as a toddler. I’ve nearly gone towards the path of Alcoholism at 22, & now its been 8 years since then. I haven’t gotten over my fears of people and as such I pretend to be happy, when in truth I’m depressed as hell, and feel like people just wouldn’t get it. Most days I don’t even wanna get out of bed, and deal with this world. My experiences in life has shown me that humanity is dishonest and hurtful. I know its bad to hold in a belief like this,but its become so automatic just like me and suppressing my emotions. I’m 30, and realizing my friends & family are moving ahead of me. One by one my friends are getting into relationships, and eventually getting married. I’ll never get married, maybe I’ll one day kill myself.

  • m

    my cousin has aspergers. there is always hope. I promise things will get better. you’ve survived this far and you will keep surviving. I am sure there are people that care about you. don’t give up <3