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8 Tips for Avoiding Self-Sabotage This Holiday Season

12/01/2014 04:44pm ET | Updated January 31, 2015
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The holiday decorations and treats, time with friends and family: Most of us are looking forward to enjoying ourselves with our loved ones. But what if we can't do so because of unrecognized self-sabotage? Although it's not as widely discussed as stress and depression, self-sabotage is a common experience for many people during the holiday season.

My friend Janet had invited friends and family to a holiday dinner at her home. As the youngest child, she'd never attempted to prepare the meal herself, but this year she wanted to be the host. She was happy planning everything, shopping for the meal, and preparing all the trimmings. Janet was an excellent cook, organized and efficient. Two days before the special day, she started to have problems. First, she cut her thumb so deeply with a knife that she had to go to the ER. That was totally unlike her since she usually was very handy with kitchen utensils. Then while carrying groceries into the house, she slipped and hurt her knee badly. So limping around and with a bandaged hand and a brace to stabilize her knee, she managed to prepare the dinner.

When the day came, everyone sat around enjoying the delicious meal. Janet tried to get into the holiday spirit, but her mind kept dwelling on her injuries. She'd never had anything like that happen to her before.

"Well, you had to practically kill yourself, but you did a magnificent job," her brother Tom chimed. When Janet considered that perhaps something else was going on with her, her brother Tom helped her get in touch with her feelings when he mentioned how their mother always used to criticize Janet as a child. And especially around the holidays.

During desert, memories of her mother flooded back into Janet's mind. Tom was right. Their mother always made her feel inadequate, especially around the holidays. Janet hadn't thought about that for a long time, because she was so good at work, sports, and most things she chose to do. And Janet had never attempted to have holidays at her home. In fact, she realized she usually was anxious around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

As is true with many people, the holidays had triggered old feelings of inadequacy, but Janet hadn't been conscious of these feelings or of her anxiety. Her clumsiness was a way that her unconscious mind reminded her of her mother's negative view of her. When old feelings of inadequacy are able to control or heavily influence behavior, psychiatrists call this self-sabotage.

Janet's behavior isn't uncommon. Unusual physical clumsiness (tripping, cutting oneself, dropping things), making inappropriate comments, overindulging in alcohol or drugs, being late or missing events altogether when you are usually punctual, and oversleeping when you typically have an accurate internal clock, are all signs of self-sabotage. Because we like to think that we are completely in control of ourselves and are consciously making decisions, often it's hard to recognize that these behaviors are driven by our unconscious mind.

If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these signs, here are eight tips for avoiding self-sabotage:

1. Writing is a great tool for bringing the unconscious forward. Journal about your experiences and attempt to find patterns of behavior that work against you. Also try to see if these patterns occur at any special times, like the holidays.

2. Speak with a therapist to get in touch with your feelings. If Janet had been aware of her feelings of inadequacy around the holidays, perhaps she wouldn't have cut herself or fallen. Sometimes people prefer to participate in group therapy, a setting in which they can learn about others self-sabotaging and share their feelings.

3. Stop and pause and take a deep breathe. Recognize that your behavior is atypical of your everyday way of living your life. Practice mindfulness meditation, which forces you slow down and consider every movement made.

4. Do something just for you every day (or failing that, several times per week) during the season -- take a yoga class, buy yourself a gift, get a manicure after work, attend a cooking class, take a writing workshop.

5. Volunteer. Spend time outside of your head by giving to others. My friend regularly serves at an soup kitchen during December "just to remind her how good it feels to help someone else during the holidays."

6. Spend time with loved ones in other settings. If you and your cousin are especially close, meet for lunch so that you have one-on-one time apart from the rest of the family.

7. Consider psychotherapy. It makes your unconscious mind conscious. Sigmund Freud differentiated the conscious mind from the unconscious back in the early part of the twentieth century. Dr. Freud called the unconscious the unbewusst, which simply means "the unknown" in German. After Freud, psychoanalysts and psychotherapists developed many treatments to make the unconscious mind more conscious.

8. Monitor and measure how you are doing, by referring back to your journal at different times and trying to move forward out of self-sabotage. Speak to a mental health professional if necessary.

Once you are able to recognize the signs of self-sabotage and take action to avoid behavior and situations that might lead to unhappiness, you can enjoy yourself and the holidays can become more meaningful and fulfilling.