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How to Break Free of Any Self Defeating Cycle

Self-sabotage is a real thing, and it’s something many of us do way too often. We make one mistake, feel guilty, and ‘accidentally’ dig ourselves into a deeper hole. It’s like the guilt forced us to do things that made us feel even worse.

If you’ve felt stuck in any type of self defeating cycle, this blog will show you all you need to break free of it.

Why Break Free?

Mistakes are inevitable. Even if our every action is well-intended, we’re bound to upset someone at some point. It’s a part of being human.

When these mistakes lead to self-sabotage, we end up harming ourselves and others more. It’s the classic “downward spiral.” If it goes unchecked, we’ll become more and more upset and distressed.

So, let’s be real here. Do any of us really want that?

Even if you feel a critical voice saying “you deserve it,” the real answer is still no. We all want to be happy, empowered, and fearless when reaching towards our dreams. Self defeating cycles cause us to feel the opposite of this: ashamed of ourselves, lacking control, and terrified of making any mistake.

When you’re free of self defeating cycles, you’ll be free of perfectionism. You’ll honor and accept the mistakes you made. It will be easy to correct what you can and let go of what you can’t. The guilt you feel will be minor and won’t make you feel like an inherently bad person. You’ll confidently run into healthy risks, even when you know there’s a chance you might not succeed.

How close are you to living a life you love? Take the quiz here!

So, What is a Self Defeating Cycle?

Simply put, a self defeating cycle is where one mistake inspires so much shame that we continue to do actions that harm ourselves or others. This leads to more shame and more mistakes. The cycle keeps feeding itself.

If you’ve ever noticed a pattern of getting upset, feeling down about yourself, then acting out and feeling more guilty, you’ve been caught in a self defeating cycle. No worries, though! These are incredibly common. They’re even more common for those of us living with mental illness.

I’ve been caught up in the throughs of these patterns before. The most recent one arose when I won a scholarship to Marie Forleo’s B-School program. At first I was elated and proud of myself-talk about an achievement! Then, as the business course began, I found myself slacking off, ignoring emails, and distancing myself from my business.

I was caught in a cycle of having more business responsibilities, feeling overwhelmed, and ignoring my responsibilities because of that overwhelm. Then I felt even less capable and more overwhelmed and the cycle continued. 

This totally confused me. I love this work! Why was I self-sabotaging?

Every self defeating cycle begins with a trigger. It’s some action or thought that sets off a chain of events. For me, this was winning a scholarship to a business course.

The good news? Once you catch this trigger, you can stop the downward spiral.

Behind Every Self Defeating Cycle is a Limiting Belief

A limiting belief is a false belief we have about ourselves or the world that limits, distresses, or hurts us in some way. For me, the new business responsibilities awoke the beliefs “I can’t handle all of this responsibility” and “no one with severe mental illness can successfully run a business.”

All limiting beliefs are false. They are things we told ourselves in the past to cope with or understand our circumstances. At the time, they might have been essential to our survival, but now as we are choosing to grow, we have to face these beliefs and transform them into something empowering and true.

A trigger in any part of our life can awaken a limiting belief. It might be something difficult we experience or it might even be a great opportunity. In fact, some of the sneakiest and most painful beliefs arise when good things happen in our life. Have you ever self-sabotaged a good relationship or career opportunity? There was probably a limiting belief that triggered a self defeating cycle and led to the subsequent sabotage.

First thing’s first. Here with me, at Uncover Your Joy, it’s a safe and validating space. It’s okay that you made past mistakes and it’s okay that you got stuck in a self defeating cycle. This blog is here to empower you, not distress you more.

All limiting beliefs have an intense hold on us and they take work to overcome. It’s okay if it takes time. Healing is a process. I’m here with you every step of the way.

Related reading: Self Love is a Process, and That’s Okay

Important Things to Know About Limiting Beliefs

The beliefs behind these cycles can be elusive. The example I gave you earlier took me about a week and a half to figure out. I’ve had others in my past that have taken years. This delay typically happens for one of two reasons.

One, you’re not ready to uncover the belief yet. Sometimes these are intensely painful and can even bring up traumatic memories. Trust your mind, it knows when it’s best to reveal this belief.

Two, you’re not willing to do the work to face it. Discovering all limiting beliefs takes both perseverance and dedication. You have to be willing to face this discomfort and really dig into this belief, understand it, and figure out how to change it.

If you’re not yet willing to do the work, there’s no shame in that. Sometimes we need to take a break from uncomfortable growth, mend ourselves, and resume at a later date. If you’re not yet ready, that’s perfectly okay. Keep reading, though, since the skills I’m about to mention are something you can use when you are ready!

Discover the Limiting Belief Behind Your Self Defeating Cycle

There’s a simple exercise to overcome these self defeating cycles and illuminate the belief inspiring them. It’s called an “ABC.” (It actually includes the letters A, B, C, D, and E. Guess it sounds better just to say ABC, though!)

This exercise is something used in coaching, therapy, and self-help environments, so it’s been trusted by many. I’ve used it countless times in my own life and it’s never failed me. The best part of this is that you only need to know the consequence of what is happening to figure this entire self defeating cycle out. So, if you have an action you want to change, try this out.

What the ABC Letters Mean

A: Activating Event. The situation, feeling, or trigger that set off this cycle and awoke the limiting belief.

B: Belief. The limiting belief behind the self defeating cycle.

C: Consequence. The behavior or feeling you want to change. Essentially, the self defeating pattern you can actually see happening in your life.

D: Dispute. This is all about listing why the limiting belief is false! Argue against it, write down facts that disprove it, and explain dozens of reasons why your mind should stop trusting this limiting belief.

E: Effective Belief. Here’s the transformative part of the exercise, where you create a new belief that is true and beneficial. An “un-limiting belief,” if you will.

Strangely enough, this exercise starts by answering C. Then you’ll answer A, B, D, and E. By the end of this, you’ll know what triggered the self defeating cycle, the belief behind it, and how exactly to overcome it all.

An ABC in Practice

You know that self defeating cycle about my business I mentioned earlier? Here’s what my own ABC would look like. Even though it’s in alphabetical order, I answered C first.

A: Winning a scholarship to Marie Forleo’s B-School and beginning the program

B: (1)”I can’t handle all of this responsibility” and (2) “No one with severe mental illness can successfully run a business.”

C: Ignoring important business responsibilities and procrastinating.

D: (1) I’ve handled more responsibility in the past. Being an RA at college, getting an A in all my classes, going through a Title IX report, and a serious personal crisis all at once was a heck of a lot harder than this. Also, I know I can handle all the work if I break it down into smaller tasks, write down what I need to do each day, and stick to that schedule.

(2) Those of us living with a severe mental illness are freaking awesome! We accomplish so much every day. Yes, I do have symptoms that can throw off my day and make it harder to work, but I wouldn’t be able to dream of a great business if I knew I couldn’t achieve it. How I run my business might be unconventional, but unconventional can still be successful.

E: (1) “I am handling all of this responsibility and I’m doing a great job at it!”

(2) “Every day I prove to myself that I am strong enough to run a successful business while living with a severe mental illness.”

If You’re Stuck, Here are Some Tips

If you’re struggling to uncover a limiting belief, try tapping into the emotion of overwhelm, distress, anger, or whatever discomfort you’re feeling. Then listen to how your mind pushes you down and criticizes you. It’s a good thing if you feel some shame when hearing these thoughts-it means you’re onto a limiting belief!

If you hear more than one limiting belief, that’s great! You’re going to empower yourself even more by overcoming all of them. Just write them all down, and answer D and E for each one individually.

When brainstorming ideas for the dispute, try to look into your own past for arguments against the limiting belief. How have you personally proved this belief wrong?

Above all, remember that there’s no time limit to this. It might take three minutes or it might take an hour. You may even need to set it aside overnight and come back to it the following day. Work at your own pace, you’re doing it just right.

Empowering Yourself with New Effective Beliefs

The most important part of this process is beginning to integrate the new effective belief into your mind. This is where the real work is done. It’s this action that will make a real difference in your life.

There are a bunch of ways you can reaffirm these healthy beliefs. You can say them to yourself before bed and first thing when you wake up. You can repeat the belief like an affirmation a couple times a day. Maybe you have a friend remind you or you set up calendar reminders with the new belief as the ‘event.’ There are even meditations you can try where you release previous beliefs and replace them with new healthy ones.

Figure out what works best for you. Like all parts of healing, overcoming limiting beliefs is a process. You might find yourself falling back into a self defeating cycle and, if you do, that’s okay. Just keep trying, review what worked and what didn’t, and begin doing the work again.

There’s No Need to Be Perfect

We’ve held onto our limiting beliefs for years. In most cases, they stem from early childhood or from times when we faced trauma or serious hardship. Of course these impact us and of course it will take time to free ourselves from them!

Think of creating a new belief like this. Every river has some sharp pebbles, the kind that could cut your foot if you step on them. These are like limiting beliefs, pebbles that still have a sharp edge.

Over time, the water erodes this stone and softens it. Eventually, it feels smooth and comfortable under your feet. This is a new effective belief that formed from the limiting one. It’s no longer sharp and painful-instead, it’s an integral part of the riverbed.

Every time you do some work to overcome this limiting belief-be it an affirmation, reminder, or meditation-you are working like the water in this river. It may not seem like you have much power when you begin, but slowly you will notice the self defeating cycle softening. You’ll notice just how far you’ve come and how beautiful the new belief is. Slowly, but powerfully, it becomes an integral part of your life.

This entire process is about growing. It takes work and there will be times when you may not want to keep trying. Just do your best and, with every step you take, know you are one step closer to getting out of this self defeating cycle.

Here’s the first step you can take: Practice an ABC exercise on your own, then write down the new effective belief you came up with in the comments. Also, be sure to add one way you’ll begin integrating this into your life!

Related Blog: Overcome Adversity Through Love and Compassion

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  1. Donna DeRosa

    This is very inspiring. Thank you for the ABC method.

    • Arien Smith

      You’re very welcome! It was a pleasure to share.

  2. Audrey Jackson

    I learned ABC in social work theories class. But I like D and E. I also read the one about rejecting love. I think it gave me more insight about me. Love affirmations! They really work.

    • Arien Smith

      Thank you! I’m so glad these were insightful and inspiring for you. D and E I feel make SUCH a big difference too!

  3. Audrey Jackson

    Do you have any books. I would love a few for my office. I plan on being a marriage and family therapist.

    • Arien Smith

      Ah, someday I would love to publish a book, but I unfortunately don’t have any yet! I do have a few eBooks and PDFs I could send you to print for your clients, though, if you email me at [email protected]


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March 15, 2017