On average, we have tens of thousands of thoughts a day, but we don’t register most of them. We tend to ignore the most repetitive, persistent thoughts, such as the ones that take us through our morning grooming ritual or our daily commute. What we do is so driven by habit that we don’t have to think ourselves through every step. To feel how this works, try brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand. Odd, right?
However, there is another type of automatic thought that is not so mundane. Yet these self-sabotage triggers become so habitual that our minds hardly notice them—similar to the types of thoughts that take us through our daily routines. We only become aware of their consequences via behaviors that lead to dead-end jobs, chronically poor health, unsatisfactory relationships, and broken dreams.
Self-sabotage doesn’t come out of nowhere, although it may seem as if it does. The way you think about yourself and your situation has a lot to do with how you engage in self-defeating behavior. Imagine one of those old cartoons where a character who was faced with a decision would have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other shoulder trying to influence them. Try as they might, the character often became influenced by the devil whispering into their ear even if they didn’t want to be swayed that direction. Our negative thoughts are not necessarily evil, and sometimes the voices are nearly imperceptible, but their influence can be no less widespread and powerful, leading you to act in ways that may not be in your best interest or don’t align with your goals and values.
Another way those negative thoughts are kept under the radar has to do with how our brains function. Our brains are constantly trying to conserve energy and resources, so that there will be enough juice available if and when something really impactful happens that demands our attention and necessitates big-time problem solving. New studies have shown that when animals are exposed to a barrage of similar stimuli, inhibitory cells that are more energy efficient take over, leading to a decrease in excitatory cells that are activated when the stimuli are novel or unique.
Translation: the processing of old, repetitive information gets automated and the brain prioritizes processing new information with every resource it has. This brain truth has been used as a life hack by world leaders and business moguls. Some have helped their brains to conserve precious energy by wearing the same outfit or eating the same lunch every day, automating decisions that are less consequential so they don’t suffer decision fatigue when they are faced with major issues that can impact hundreds or thousands of people.
Your brain’s tendency to default to routines can be extremely helpful in many circumstances, but the same beneficial mechanism can also suppress the recurrent thoughts that erode our self-concept, behaviors, and how we interact with others. The brain ignores this negative chatter, thinking, Hey, that’s nothing new, allowing these thoughts to persist and wreak havoc below the surface. Our minds strive for cognitive consonance.
We want to achieve harmony between thoughts and actions, and hate cognitive dissonance, which occurs when we think one way and act another. When we have negative thoughts, our behaviors typically follow suit, and that’s when we can find ourselves acting against our own best interests. In fact, we experience mental discomfort when we hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values in our minds simultaneously.
We also feel this disconnect when we do things that contradict our beliefs and when we are confronted with new information that challenges any of our deeply held beliefs. Our minds prefer to confirm what we already know, a phenomenon that psychologists call confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias happens when we have a preconceived notion about something and then use that preconceived notion to make determinations about a situation or person. This applies to other people as well as ourselves. For example, if you believe that you are a clumsy person, then your clumsiness, not the uneven pavement, is to blame when you trip.
Confirmation bias also plays out in larger ways. If you hold a belief about a political party, you are much more likely to seek out information and other people who support that belief. You will generally pay less attention to information that contradicts your stance and when you encounter opposition, you are more likely to ignore it or even become defensive.
We often avoid information that causes mental discomfort or dissonance, or we take new information that threatens our existing beliefs and change it so it fits in with our current ideas and behaviors.
Research shows that when we experience the unpleasant psychological discomfort of cognitive dissonance, we want to reduce those uncomfortable feelings as quickly as possible.
Once in a while, we might ditch confirmation bias and actually try to change our existing view to adapt to the new information, but that switch is a lot less common, because it takes a lot of work and our brains are trying to conserve energy (yes, you will hear this over and over again!). Sometimes, we don’t even notice the confirmation bias process because it has been automatized by our brains. This can drive self-sabotage, especially when new information could actually cause us to take a closer look at our current behaviors and change the ones that aren’t working.