Life Coaching

Using Imagery to Avert Self-Sabotage

You decide to bake – and then eat – chocolate chip cookies knowing they’ll derail your diet. You log onto Amazon to get lightbulbs and watch yourself buy clothes, luxury skin products, and some new books knowing these unplanned purchases will throw you off budget.  You yell at your partner or co-worker knowing you’re causing damage to the relationship.  

Why do we do these things with awareness, yet do them anyway?

Perfectionism, Habit, and Fear of Vulnerability as Obstacles to Success

Common reasons are perfectionism and habit. And a way to avoid the vulnerability that can come up when we want something we don’t yet have.  

Perfectionism can lead to black and white thinking, punitive rules, and self-judgment.  If you eat cookies, you might tell yourself you’re a failure.  If you overspend, you might avoid spending on anything you enjoy.  If you yell at someone you care about, you might convince yourself you’re not lovable.  

None of these thoughts are helpful. In fact, they’re counterproductive to your goals.  And you may think, why bother when I can’t do it right anyway?  

And what about habit, how does that play into self-sabotage?  We like ease and familiarity.  Doing the same thing over and over takes less work than doing something new.  Plus if we change our habits, it can be uncomfortable.  Maintaining your habits can prevent a sense of withdrawal, deprivation, or anxiety.    

Why Simply Focusing on a Goal Can be Counterproductive

But isn’t the goal motivating enough to change your behavior?  After all, aren’t thoughts of wearing more clothes in your closet, buying your first home, or feeling more connected in your relationships good reasons to do what it takes to achieve these goals?  

Keeping the end point in mind correlates with success, right?  Not always.  Yes, visualizing the benefits of a goal can increase motivation.  At the same time, visualizing can backfire if doing so highlights the gap between where we are now and what we are aiming for which can result in doubt, being critical of yourself, and self-sabotage.  

Imagery as a Tool in the Moment of Challenge

So what’s the solution?  Bring imagery into the moment rather than focusing on the more elusive long term goal.  Write down your plan.    

Let’s say you notice you think about baking cookies when you’re feeling lonely. That’s great data.  Think of someone in your life who is kind and welcoming.  Now imagine yourself calling that person instead of grabbing the butter, flour, and sugar. When you feel lonely, a phone call is an alternative to baking an eating.  

Let’s say you browse on amazon when you believe you can’t keep up with the demands of your kids.  Imagine yourself pausing and writing down all of the things that are going well and reminding yourself parenting is a process. When you’re overwhelmed, you have another option besides retail therapy.  

And let’s say you yell at someone when you’re feeling unheard.  Imagine yourself taking a deep breath and, if possible, removing yourself from the situation so you can get a fresh perspective and plan a useful conversation for another time. You’ll know yelling is not the only reaction available to you. 

Ultimately, the alternative response will offer a positive, accessible, an immediate reward that is in keeping with achieving your long term goal.

Know Your Triggers and Default Responses

We tend to know the triggers – and our reactions to those triggers – that keep us from achieving our goals.  It’s useful to identify both, without judgment, so we know what we need to solve for.  

Too often we aim for lofty goals with an idealized path to get there.  We know achieving a goal is not always easy, but we tend to ignore what specifically will be hard for us.  Imagery of what the actual obstacles will be and what we tend to do when we run into our personal challenge areas allows for a concrete plan to overcome the obstacles.  

It’s not always easy to follow through with an alternative plan and break the familiar habit.  But using imagery to formulate a specific action in response to a specific trigger can give you clarity about what actions will support your goal, confidence to follow through, and, ultimately, the success you’re aiming for.


If you’d like to dive deeper into any of this, I invite you to sign up for a complimentary discovery session with me to explore how coaching can help you achieve your goals – and to make the journey what you want it to be. 

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