“Life will bring you pain all by itself. Your responsibility is to create joy.” ~Milton Erickson
Sometimes, there comes a point in our lives when we need to let go of something painful, whether its guilt or a toxic relationship, but it’s equally difficult to let go and hard to live without. So we get uncomfortably stuck in the middle of two realities: where we are and where we want to be.
But do we really want to let go of the pain? Or is letting go so scary and unfamiliar that we’d rather hold onto it?
I’ve always been inclined to obsess about things, fixating on what I couldn’t have, even though this has hurt me, and I’ve also put myself in many self-destructive situations. For a long time, letting go of bad things that happened and toxic relationships was difficult for me, for a few reasons:
1. I had allowed myself to become used to pain, after dealing with my fair share of hurtful situations, and I was scared of change.
2. People with a similar proclivity for darkness appealed to me because I connected with them. And although our connection felt like I was filling a huge void in the beginning, the same thing that connected us ultimately drove us part. Unfortunately, because I wasn’t practicing self-compassion at the time, my compassion for others going through darkness was also limited.
3. Because of my comfort with pain, I considered crumbs of happiness to be “enough.” I was intimidated by people who asked for “more” in their lives.
As an adult, I take full responsibility over my choices, but I know a lot of these things go back to my childhood. Although my parents did their best, they often shamed, invalidated, and criticized me whenever I experienced negative emotions.
This isn’t entirely uncommon, as many parents unintentionally repeat the same hurtful behavior their parents inflicted onto them.
Over time, like many others in this situation, I began to internalize this shame.
I began to believe something was wrong with me, simply because I was intense and my family didn’t have the capacity or interest to teach me how to navigate my strong feelings. So I began to distrust my emotions and to hate myself to the core.
This carried into my adulthood, where I found it difficult to believe that I was enough and that I deserved more than pain out of life.
Recently, for the first time in my life, I found myself forced to deal with my self-defeating tendencies head-on in a situation that really challenged my letting go skills.
I was in a relationship where I was deeply, head-over-heels in love with a man who I thought was my soul mate. He was everything a person would want—intelligent, deeply sensitive, compassionate, and handsome.
The problem was, he was sinking further and further into drug addiction the longer we stayed together. I guess he didn’t feel he deserved love either, and the warmer we were with each other, the more he had to punish himself for it.
Eventually I had to choose: Do I save him or save myself? In an ideal world, both would have happened and we would have gone riding off into the sunset together. But this was the real world, and the effects of his addictions and refusal to help himself were making me severely anxious, depressed, and physically sick to my stomach.
When we feel like we’re caught in the cycle of endless pain that we attract and we don’t know how to get out, we are faced with a spiritual emergency. We can fall into a deep depression, or we can choose be gentle with ourselves and try to heal from it.
If you’ve struggled with this as well, here are some things you can do to break your pattern.
1. Reconsider your relationships with people who frequently self-sabotage.
Challenge yourself to examine who you surround yourself with. Would you say most of your friends self-sabotage, as well? And more importantly, do they do it in a way that triggers your behavior? For instance, if you go out with a friend who tends to drink themselves into oblivion, are you then put in compromising situations where you are also likely to make questionable decisions?
If so, the solution wouldn’t necessarily be to cut these people off, for they are obviously hurting and still capable of growth themselves. Sometimes you need to move on, but if you think the relationship is worth saving, you can practice compassion while also setting boundaries so you don’t enable them or set yourself up for failure.
In my personal life, I’ve had to set boundaries with my godmother. She and I were always very close when I was growing up, as I spent almost every weekend with her exploring museums, restaurants, and antique shops in Los Angeles.
She was always a bit self-deprecating, but it was more of a quirk than a real problem. A decade later, when she was in her mid-fifties, she fell into a really deep depression and stopped going to work.
She clearly needed help, and so my mother and I did everything in our power to help her. Despite our efforts, a year went by and my godmother was still in self-destruct mode; she refused to leave her house, work, take her medication, or go to therapy.
Because I was spending so much time investing her recovery and she still wasn’t getting better, I began to feel extremely guilty and depressed, which then triggered me to get hospitalized.
So despite the fact that I love her dearly and was very sad that she had given up on life, I can only visit her every couple weeks now and instead of every day. I’ve communicated to her that although I love her, I need to focus on healing myself before saving anyone else.
2. Re-examine your worldview.
If you find yourself perpetually self-sabotaging, this is a great opportunity to examine your belief system. You may have values or thoughts that fuel your hurtful habits.
For instance, some of us may hold the belief that life is meaningless. Some of us believe we deserve pain. Whatever the reason for these beliefs, it’s important we recognize them and take small steps to challenge them.
In 2012, I went to spend the summer at a yoga retreat in Hawaii. The program promoted wellness and self-care through daily yoga classes, sharing meals together, practicing transparency, and more. I felt a strong sense of resistance to all of this because I perceived that living a life dedicated to inner peace and self-exploration was too self-indulgent.
I obviously didn’t use the opportunity to connect with the people there that were trying to heal. Although at the time the experience wasn’t particularly impactful to me, it did challenge my thinking and over time I came to see self-love as necessary and not just self-indulgent.
3. Pinpoint the habits that lead to your behavior.
Self-destructive behavior manifests itself in the smallest of ways, such as dismissing compliments or turning down opportunities you don’t think you deserve. The sooner you become aware of how you are slowly eroding any chance of happiness in your life, the sooner you can reverse it.
Habits that I had to learn to let go included choosing emotionally unavailable partners, indulging my eating disorders, cutting, moving around from job to job, and putting off pursuing my passions.
When trying to change a habit, the best approach may be trying to make small steps toward change so you don’t become discouraged. Change can be difficult for all of us, and that includes changing deeply rooted old habits.
4. Choose to accept more love in your life.
This may be the hardest thing to do, especially if you feel you’re unworthy. But remember that by continuously choosing destructive situations, you’ll never have the opportunity to expand your worth. And so you’ll have to risk a bit of a new experience so you don’t get stuck in this cycle of self-loathing and self-destruction.
Since you can’t control the love you receive from the other people, the best place to start is with self-love. Things like saving money, working out, and indulging in your hobbies are all acts of self-love.
You will eventually begin to experience more happiness because of the positive opportunities you’ve allowed yourself to experience, and then it will feel a bit more natural to open yourself up to more to others.
5. Find an outlet for the uncomfortable feelings that may come up for you.
It was around college that I began to suspect that I was extremely self-destructive. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I perpetually put myself in situations that were harmful to my well-being, while others around me seemed to be content making better choices for themselves.
I knew a part of me wanted happiness, love, and success, so why was my behavior the complete opposite?
I would skip class, hang out with people who did drugs, pursue men who didn’t respect me, judge people that were nice as “boring,” and seek chaos. I was desperately unhappy, but my fear made it difficult to really commit to changing.
What helped me personally was converting my inner turmoil into art. This allowed me to validate what I was feeling and also provided a creative medium to communicate my inner experience with others, thus freeing me from my loneliness.
It was only after completing a few writing projects that I was proud of that I began to build more self-worth. (I actually wrote a poem about self-harm, if you’re interested in checking it out.)
Although self-destructive behavior may always be an inclination for you, there are always things you can do to challenge yourself so that you have a shot at creating more positive experiences in your life. What works for you when it comes to overcoming behavior that sabotages your happiness?