Sunday, 24 April 2016

Self Sabotage

Lovely J - reader, e-mail friend, and fellow breast cancer survivor, sent me this fabulous article by Martha Beck on self sabotage (click here).

Martha's thinking is based on the famous 'rat park' experiment.

(Johann Hari's TEDD talk on addiction was inspired by the same game changing rodents. If you haven't seen it yet, go to my post: Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong).

Rat park was an experiment designed by a Canadian called Bruce Alexander.

He looked at the myriad of studies into heroin and opiate addiction, where rats, given the opportunity, would drug themselves into oblivion.

Eventually they'd ignore all the food and water until, pretty quickly, they died. Game over. Ex rats.

Alexander noticed something significant: in all these experiments the rats were on their own in small, featureless cages.

So, Alexander designed Rat Park, a rat nirvana. He put lots of rats in it with loads of fun stuff to do, and gave them a choice of water or morphine.

Most of them chose the water.

(I suspect that if I'd been in that cage, however much fun I was having, I still would have wanted to party with the morphine from time to time. I would have been rebel rat).

Reading about this experiment was Martha Beck's lightbulb moment. She says:

The Rat Park studies profoundly influenced my view of what many people call self-sabotage. I believe that most of us live in cages of our own creation.

Ignoring our actual desires, we try to do what we think is right (or good or healthy or admirable—pick your poison). Sometimes this arrangement works. Sometimes it doesn't.  

Martha reckons that we fall back on our bad habits (drinking, smoking, overeating, shopping, whatever) when our conscious self is fighting against our inner desires.

In effect, we're sticking our rat-self in a cage and not letting it near the rat park. All this does is make our inner rat rebel and dive for our bad habit of choice, as a sort of ratty f**k you.

So, for us, the greater the divergence of our actual lives from our perfect rat park, the more likely we are to reach for the booze.

I get this. I also think it becomes a vicious circle, because the more we drink, the less likely we are to create a stimulating and varied rat park. Over time, our cage becomes increasingly dull and empty.

Instead of doing anything constructive about the situation, we shrug our shoulders, feel a bit sorry for ourselves and pour another drink, just like the self destructing rats with the morphine water in the original experiments.

So, how does Martha suggest we break the cycle of self sabotage? How do we get out of the cage and into the park?

She says the key is to make yourself aware of your inherent desires, and when you're disallowing them.

So, sit down with a pen and paper, and write down all the things you're planning to do tomorrow, big and small.

Then, think about drinking, and what triggers the addict voice in your head.

Read through the list carefully, think about performing each activity, and how much it makes you want to self sabotage.

If it doesn't make you want to drink at all, give it a zero. If it immediately makes you want to dash to the nearest wine shop and drown in booze, give it a ten.

This exercise will reveal some scary, and helpful, truths.

You may find, for example, that your evening bubble bath and your yoga class are zeros, but calling your ex-husband, and meeting your friend Chloe, are tens.

Martha suggest that you take each self-sabotaging item on the list and think:

1. In a perfect life, would I do this thing at all?

2. If so, what would I change to make it more enjoyable?

3. If not, what would I rather do?   

Let your imagination run wild. Dream. Be adventurous. Create your perfect Rat Park in your mind.

Then keep that amazing place in view, and make as many tiny changes as you can over time to get yourself closer to it.

Do more of the zeros, and jettison the tens, or adapt them to make them more manageable.

Because, as Martha says, If you cease to betray yourself, the self-sabotage in your life simply stops.


Happy, sober Sunday to you all,

SM x


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  2. I am going to church in an effort to add other rats to my rat park. Isn't it amazing what can happen when you send a blog out in the universe? I happen to know it's Compassion International's day of adopting, so I will do that too. One good turn deserves another. ; )
    -- Finding a Sober Rat Miracle

  3. This is so helpful. My Rat Park would simply be a tidier house, I think. I identified so much with the feeling of constriction. But I think this could apply to other behaviour as well as the addiction stuff - never being able to get out of the house on time. I started my list this morning and am adding to it through the day. I'm going to keep it up for at least a week to identify patterns and to give me a sense of structure. I feel much more positive doing something (writing the lists etc) than stopping myself doing something. Thankyou.

    1. 'Tidier house...' And the procrastination that leads to not getting out of the house on time.....Are we related!?

      Like the idea of writing down EVERY single thing in a coming day, rather than just the two or three to-do's. Could lead to some interesting thoughts/revelations, I'm sure.

    2. I've found recently that when I am having a real "head in the sand" moment not knowing how to deal with some knotty decision that writing down all the options (however daffy) without judgement somehow helps in moving toward resolution. This feels a bit the same, but more long term.
      And part of my "issue" is feeling out of control. I like the feeling of slowly moving towards resolution. Marie Kondo I am sure is relevant here!!

  4. I really needed to read this! This is exactly what I'm dealing with right now, evaluating what I do, why, how it makes me feel, what I need to change or drop, etc.

  5. I drank because I was isolated...eventually that changed, but the drinking continued and it ended up creating isolation,,,I am now rebuilding old friendships and working hard at creating new sober's a whole new rat park dream is full of diverse, clever, funny, and warm humans....something I denied myself for many years...xx