Self-Sabotage in Trading. What Exactly is it? How do we Overcome it?

As most traders quickly learn, trading is guaranteed to connect you with all of those ‘emotional skeletons’ residing deep in the depths of your unconscious mind waiting to be activated. These emotional skeletons in the closet are like ‘sleeper’ secret agents waiting to be triggered by some event or emotion. In this post we are going to explore how these ‘sleepers’ contribute to a common trading behaviour pattern that usually losses you money and that is definitely psychological in nature; this is the behaviour pattern we call ‘self-sabotage’!

What is self-sabotage?

There are various definitions of self-sabotage but the simplest for me is: “Self-sabotage is one or more unhelpful behaviours that prevent you achieving a desired goal or outcome.”

I like this because it clearly states that self-sabotage is simply a behaviour or action designed to prevent you doing an alternative (and usually more important or useful) action. Many people think of self-sabotaging behaviours as being negative or destructive in some way but that isn’t always the case. They are simply behaviours designed to distract you from another behaviour you know you want to do. One reason we can ‘justify these distraction behaviours to ourselves is because they are often useful for something else (but usually less immediately important).

So for example, your desired behaviour might be to stick to your trading plan but the self-sabotage behaviour might be that you keep changing to a new trading system. Of course searching for a better trading system might not seem to be a bad thing, especially if your existing system isn’t cutting it, but the important question here is “Why are you jumping from system to system?”. If the reason is to find an improved system to replace an under-performing system then that is valid and possibly helpful. But if the real reason is that you don’t believe you have the discipline to stick to one system then it becomes a self-sabotage behaviour because it is being used to prevent you doing something else that could be more useful.

What causes self-sabotage behaviours?

self sabotage confusionSo what is the main underlying cause of self-sabotage behaviour? The one statement that I believe gets straight to the essential root of the issue is this: “Self-sabotage behaviours are the result of an internal conflict between opposing parts of your psychology.”

Notice this statement places the cause squarely inside your mind and not ‘out there’ in the external world. It is only your own mind that causes you to do one thing as a way of stopping you from doing something else that might be more useful to you.

Let me make this crystal clear: “The biggest contributor to self-sabotage is some form of internal conflict.” The internal battle for control. Internal conflict can be caused by one part of your mind trying to do one thing for you while at the same time another part is trying to do something else. Both of these ‘parts’ believe that their behaviour is the best one for you at that particular moment.

OK, let’s use the previous trading plan example to see how this works. The ‘desired behaviour’ is to stick to the plan and be disciplined enough to do that. So your ‘follow the plan’ part of your mind is trying to get you to behave with discipline and structure to follow the trading plan. But from a young age a part of you has always been a bit of a rebel and even now as an adult you still might not really like being made to follow rules or be told what to do. So any activity that looks like you have to ‘follow the rules’ or ‘stick to the plan’ probably still activates this rebellious side of your personality. And so the ‘rebel’ part kicks in and causes conflict with the ‘stick to the plan’ part; even though you know logically that sticking to your trading plan will help you achieve your trading goals! As soon as the ‘stick to the plan’ part tries to help you with disciplined behaviour, the ‘rebel’ part tries to undermine it. The ‘rebel’ wants to entice you away on some unrelated activity that will satisfy your petulant “I don’t like rules” inner child rather than support the efforts of your ‘stick to the plan’ part.
The ‘rebel’ part wants you to feel like that ‘other you’. The ‘You’ who values being: individual, free, your own boss, that “won’t be told what to do” child and not the boring ‘follow the plan’ limited ‘You’ that would be better suited to actually get the job done.

Types of self-sabotage behaviour

Here are a few of the types of behaviours that are commonly used for self-sabotage:

  • Procrastination – putting things off
  • Quitting at the first hurdle – easier to give up
  • Allowing others to distract you
  • Doing easier trivial tasks - avoidance
  • Refusing to accept responsibility for your actions - blaming others
  • Negative ‘Inner Demon’ self-talk – “I’m not good enough”, “I can’t do it”

The last one on this list can actually be useful if you pay attention to what your ‘inner demon’ voice is saying because it can help you identify the various ‘parts’ or ‘emotional skeletons’ that are still holding you back from your desired goals. Many of these parts will have been created during your childhood but are still active throughout your adult life unless taken care of.

Why do you self-sabotage

So the really important question is: “Why do you self-sabotage?

The often heard response is “I don’t know” but really that’s just another ‘avoidance’ technique. It simply means you are unwilling to look at yourself honestly and accept responsibility. The reality is, and it takes only a few moments of honest and open inner reflection, you usually do know why but most of the time you just don’t want to admit it.
We have already discussed the cause of self-sabotage, which is some form of internal conflict between opposing ‘parts’ from deep within the unconscious part of your mind, but why do you have this conflict in the first place?

To answer this question we must be totally honest with ourselves and, as mentioned above, for many people that is a very difficult challenge. The reality is “Truth usually hurts” and especially so when you are looking into the mirror of your mind and seeing reflected back your very essence as a person.
But there is a very simple answer to the question: “Why do I self-sabotage?” if only you are prepared to listen to your true inner self and take responsibility for the answer (and in my experience many traders can’t or won’t do that).

Undoubtedly, and this conclusion is drawn from my more than 40 years experience as a peak performance coach, the single factor that is behind most self-sabotage is a simple four letter word: FEAR!

At some level, either near the surface of your conscious mind or buried deep down in the unconscious, you are afraid of something and that fear is holding you back from taking the action that will allow you to achieve your trading and lifestyle goals.

How can you stop the self-sabotage?

self-sabotage improvementThe only way to truly stop self-sabotage is to uncover the root of the fear that is preventing you from taking the action you know in your heart will allow you to move forward. Yes, you can try all sorts of ‘management’ or ‘motivation’ type methods and these may work for a while (or even completely) but for most unless you address the underlying fear early on there is a good chance that the management methods will fail and the self-sabotage will come back. If you don’t believe me, just take an honest review of your life and the times you were trying to achieve a dream but didn’t and then you will know for yourself.
To help you get started dealing with your self-sabotage behaviours I have prepared an easy to follow ‘first steps’ worksheet that will show you how to identify unhelpful ‘emotional skeletons’ and also show you a practical way to deal with them.

You can download the worksheet here and get started right now.

Les Meehan is a peak performance trading coach and founder of the Academy. He can be contacted by email at les.meehan[@]

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