This morning, over my usual cup of cold brew coffee, I realized that I’ve inadvertently allowed my fears to govern my life.
For the past two weeks, along with my most recent attempt at following a ketogenic diet and fasting intermittently at the same time, I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster of a journey of self-discovery. It’s not the first time; I explore my inner world pretty regularly, but it only occurred to me recently that I have been avoiding parts of myself that I was scared of confronting. I suppose it’s me trying to protect myself from, well, myself. The self is multifaceted, after all.
This desire to understand myself better stems from my wanting to not fail once more in my attempt at losing weight. I’ve been failing at it for more than half of my life, after all, but I never quite completely understood why it happened. I only attributed it to my lack of self-control and willpower, which I learned is something everyone only has a limited supply of. I tried changing my environment, by clearing the house of tempting carbs, yet I still actively sought them out when I was away from home. I kept making excuses and putting off keto. I kept saying I’ll start tomorrow, next week, next month, always wanting a clean slate and thinking it would make a difference. What I didn’t realize was that a change in external circumstances won’t make any significant and lasting impact if nothing changed internally.
Self-Sabotage and Low Self-Esteem
This journey began when my husband and I fought over my inability to stick to my diet and how this is keeping the both of us from our dream of having kids.
I have insulin resistant PCOS, and the only diet that has resulted in some weight loss is keto. But I love carbs. Pizza was my favorite food. So were french fries, chicken nuggets, ramen, and, yes, white rice. I also lived for dessert—ice cream, cake, anything sweet. I had a post-it note on my work computer that said, PCOS or Keto? You choose. Still, I would ignore it and give in to my cravings for apple pie or pasta or McDonald’s chicken nuggets aka the best chicken nuggets in the world.
But I was also tired of feeling guilty over choosing to do what I knew was wrong. Every time I had carbs, I felt like I was cheating on my husband with food. When we fought over it yet again just this month, I decided to post on a PCOS-Keto support group on Facebook I’m part of and ask for help. One member suggested therapy and mentioned self-sabotage, and that comment kick started the internal pilgrimage I am currently on.
Self-sabotage. Why haven’t I thought of this before? It’s not like I didn’t know the word; I just never considered it to be something I was guilty of. And here I thought I was plenty self-aware!
I’m not a psychologist or anything, but psychology is something that has always interested me and is a subject I think I read about more than any other. Mostly this was because there were several low points in my life where I thought I might have been depressed, but did not have access to a therapist, so I mostly just read to understand what I was going through. I do not advise resorting to this if you have the option of getting professional help. It can be extremely dangerous as you might end up self-diagnosing and believing things that aren’t true.
I almost always approach problems in two ways: communicating with my support system and problem solving. That is, I turn to books or articles written by experts for answers. I don’t know if you can call this intellectualization, but I tend to be very emotional, so the only way I know how to detach myself from my feelings is by viewing them through a lens of objectivity and reason. What better way to approach problems than with scientific inquiry, right? 😅
So I started reading about self-sabotage and how to overcome it. I learned that people self-sabotage when their conscious and subconscious minds are at odds with each other. In my case, for instance, I know consciously that I should not eat carbs because doing so only makes my PCOS and insulin resistance worse and that it will cause conflict between me and my husband. However, my subconscious, which is made up largely of thoughts I’ve absorbed these past thirty years by virtue of conditioning and socialization, tells me to ignore these warnings and go for the sumptuous slab of carrot cake, only to be engulfed by feelings of guilt and shame afterward.
Emotional eating, impulsive buying, avoiding tasks and procrastinating, giving up too soon on what seem like great ideas—these are all self-sabotaging behaviors. When I told my husband about this, he asked for solutions, but I told him I haven’t found any yet because I’m still at the stage of understanding the problem.
I did find suggestions, of course; the internet is teeming with them, after all. As with any self-destructive behavior, I believe recognition and acknowledgment are the first step towards becoming better. That said, I began thinking and writing down the different aspects of my life that I have been subconsciously sabotaging—relationships, career, health, and money.
I discovered that self-sabotage is linked to low self-esteem. To holding negative beliefs about yourself and acting accordingly. While I was aware that I still lacked self-confidence in many situations, I was convinced I loved myself plenty. Turns out my idea of plenty wasn’t enough to keep me from fucking things up for myself.
I learned that I did not know how to show myself compassion. I was my worst critic—the worst things anyone has ever said to and about me came from me. I constantly berated and called myself names, thinking doing so would make me try harder at what I intend to do. But it has never gone that way. All that ever did was make me feel worse and even more disheartened.
For many years, I hated myself. I hated myself for being fat, for not being attractive, not having the boyfriend of my dreams, not being able to draw and write as well as other people (some of them were my friends), not making much money, not succeeding, and not knowing what I want. Naturally, when you hate yourself this much, it makes it difficult to live with yourself, which, in my case, had led to harmful thoughts.
And it’s not like I haven’t tried working on my self-esteem. Some people probably even think I’m pretty confident. But that’s really just my Aquarius ascendant flaunting itself. 😂
When you have low self-esteem, you diminish your worth and thus find it difficult or even impossible to love yourself entirely. I loved myself enough to break up with toxic boyfriends and to keep myself safe from harm, but I always thought it was contradictory of me to say I loved myself without taking care of myself properly. Low self-esteem also results in having low self-confidence, which further leads to numerous problems.
But realizing I suffer from low self-esteem was not enough. I wanted to dig even deeper and find out why I even struggle with it in the first place because I felt like, unless I get to the very bottom of the issue, I wouldn’t be able to resolve it for good.
So I asked myself questions. A lot of questions. Some I found in books and online, some just popped up in moments of introspection. I documented pretty much all of my answers by journaling, which is a common suggestion in cognitive behavioral therapy and something I’ve been doing for years to help me sort out and make sense of my thoughts and emotions.
Searching for Answers
One suggestion I tried is visualizing what I want to see if I can get a clear picture of it. I had to think about its benefits and why I want it to begin with. When I did this exercise, I chose better health as my primary goal. I wanted to take things one by one instead of attempting to overhaul my entire life like I always have and end up failing yet again.
I had to think about the smallest commitment I can make towards getting what I want and I wrote down giving up carbs, which may not be the smallest per se, because I can still break it down into much smaller commitments, however it was one thing, and I thought that was good enough. While answering the question further, I realized I have gotten so used to struggling that it has become embedded in my comfort zone. I’ve always been that girl who struggled with weight, with body image, with anxiety, with romantic relationships, with school, with money—I can do this all day. It’s almost as if I didn’t know what it was like to not struggle, and thus I seek it out subconsciously. See? Self-sabotage.
This led me to discover, via the keto subreddit, fear of success. I wondered if other people on keto struggled with self-sabotage, so I searched the sub and discovered I wasn’t alone. Someone commented on one post and mentioned fear of success, how prevalent it is, and how a lot of people don’t know about it because we are more familiar with the fear of failure. It’s makes more sense, after all.
Fear of success was so counter-intuitive that I had a hard time grasping it. The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines fear of success as
a fear of accomplishing one’s goals or succeeding in society, or a tendency to avoid doing so. Fear of success was originally thought to be experienced primarily by women, because striving for success was held to place a woman in conflict between a general need for achievement and social values that tell her not to achieve “too much.” It is now thought that men and women are equally likely to experience fear of success.https://dictionary.apa.org/fear-of-success
Because success is so uncertain and unfamiliar, it becomes frightening. This revealed I didn’t know myself as well as I thought I did, and it shocked me. I couldn’t understand how I have come to fear success when, growing up, I thrived on praise for my achievements. But I realized that this contributed to my low self-esteem. Praise is external validation. I strove to be an outstanding student because I wanted my parents to praise and reward me. I wanted people to think I was intelligent and talented, so I studied hard and joined as many clubs as I could.
In high school, while I neither studied nor worked on getting good grades anymore, I still did things to convince people I was good at something. I believed in myself then, so I wonder if college is what changed the game. When I entered UP Diliman, I discovered I wasn’t exceptional. Everyone around me was smart enough to pass the UPCAT. All of a sudden, I was mediocre at the things I thought I did well enough to believe I was better than my peers—writing, drawing, singing. I always talk about college as a humbling experience. But as much as it was eye opening, it also caused my self-esteem to shrink. I suppose I wasn’t equipped to deal with that realization in a constructive way and thus failed to cope effectively.
My self-loathing was well documented in my journals, both online and offline. After talking to my husband about my past, I thought I’d reread posts on my college blog on the now defunct blogging platform i.ph, some of which are still accessible via the Wayback Machine. On that blog, I publicly scolded and talked shit about myself and how worthless I was as a friend, as a daughter, as a girlfriend, and as a student. It wasn’t the first time I revisited those posts, but the perspective was different this time around. I wasn’t just doing it for nostalgia’s sake, but to understand myself better.
How does this all tie up? Well, low self-esteem makes you feel unworthy of good things. Success is a good thing. Put two and two together and there’s the answer. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve gained clarity about many things in my life that I sometimes questioned, but never bothered to confront because it induced emotional discomfort. But this self-exploration has got to be one of the most important things I have ever done for myself. Through it, I have gained insight on the root causes of my biggest challenges and for the first time, I truly believe I am capable of overcoming them because I’ve found strategies that I think are feasible. But it all boils down to one thing: rewiring my brain.
Not long ago, I tweeted something along the lines of the first step to becoming a better person is accepting and acknowledging that you’re a piece of shit. I guess this is why I’m so fixated on finding out why I behave the way I do instead of immediately trying out proposed solutions. Journaling is immensely helpful, so I try my hardest to write every day in my Hobonichi Techo. I have a separate journal for specific exercises from the book I’m reading called The Healthy Mind Toolkit, which was written specifically to help people navigate and overcome self-sabotaging behaviors.
I also discovered a fantastic podcast called Unf*ck Your Brain, hosted by Kara Loewentheil, a feminist master certified life coach who used to work as a women’s rights lawyer (you sold yet?). I’ve so far listened to less than ten episodes, but it has been incredibly mind-blowing. What I love most about it is how her approach is devoid of the you’re-beautiful-and-perfect kind of positive affirmations widely associated with life coaching and instead teaches you ways to change your thoughts based on cognitive psychology and *gasp* feminism!
Have you ever heard of self-compassion? And if you have, can you confidently say that you practice it? Because when I first encountered self-compassion a week ago, my first thought was how?!
And then it hit me. I don’t know how to show compassion for myself because I wasn’t taught how to, explicitly or otherwise. As a young girl, when I got low scores in tests or grades below 90, it was because I didn’t study hard enough, or worse, because I was stupid. A memory I vividly remember is from when I was eleven or twelve years old. I was studying for the Philippine Science High School entrance test and my dad was tutoring me in Math, aka my worst enemy along with Physics and myself. 🤣 I was always scared of my dad because he was a lot stricter than my mom and his punishments were harsher too, so imagine me having to study for fucking Math with him as my tutor. I was on edge. I couldn’t get an answer right to a question that must have been simple to him (I mean, he was a high school Math teacher at some point! 🙄) so he smacked me in the head and I was left to study with tears streaming down my face. Recalling this memory is still so painful that I feel like crying.
In my college blog, I wrote about how my family made me feel like something was wrong with me that needed to be corrected. I mentioned how my mom and her younger sister often scolded me for letting myself get fatter and fatter and, as a consequence, look worse and worse.
For years I couldn’t say out loud that I was beautiful. It took me years to learn to say thank you when I get complimented for anything, but still feel a tinge of embarrassment and, sometimes, doubt on whether or not the other person meant what they said.
I second guess myself all the time because I’m almost never sure that what I say is correct. I feel inferior when around people whom I think are smarter than me. I suffer from impostor syndrome, which cost me my budding career in art. I was constantly anxious over what people thought of my work, and of me, by extension, so the easiest thing to do, really, was stop creating. I hardly ever write anymore because I have no confidence in my writing. Never mind that I am a published author. Never mind that I learned to draw and paint without formally studying. Never mind all the things I’ve managed to accomplish by working hard. Thanks for coming to my pity party. 🤣
I love Unf*ck Your Brain because it doesn’t discount how badly socialization and patriarchy fuck us up in the head and how this influences how we behave. That said, I want to make it clear that I don’t blame my parents at all, because they, too, have been conditioned and socialized to act in ways that aren’t always positive. Also, Kara’s cerebral approach is similar to how I deal with my own shit, so I think it’s suitable.
Writing on this blog is one more way of trying to work on my improving my self-esteem and confidence. I want to share stories about myself and my life without worrying about what people might think or say. I want to be someone who has the courage to face her fears and to step out of her comfort zone, not someone who allows her fears to influence her decisions and define her life. The thought of posting this on a public blog makes me feel uneasy, but that’s what being brave is all about, right? Doing something in spite of fear.
So here’s to freedom from slavery to our own minds, and to treating ourselves with more kindness and gentleness. Cheers.