An Acting Professor on How to Stop Self-Sabotaging in 3 Steps

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You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t occasionally engage in thoughts or behaviors that risk sabotaging your goals, dreams, or well-being. Luckily, when we do fall prey to self-sabotage, there’s almost always a positive intent to our behavior, like a desire to stay safe and avoid pain. But if those behaviors become your M.O., they can start to rob you of the career and ultimate fulfillment you’re capable of achieving.

The good news is you can learn to spot three signs and counteract them with choices that move you toward—not away from—what you really want long-term. Do any of these sound familiar?

“I’m ready for that audition. I don’t need to rehearse anymore. Sure, I’ll go out for drinks with you.”
While this statement might be true, it might also be an attempt to choose instant gratification over long-term fulfillment. Who doesn’t want to feel good? When we put a rich piece of chocolate into our mouths, the neurotransmitter dopamine rewards us with a flood of pleasure. Who doesn’t want that? Of course we do, but not if it becomes a habit that blocks the progress toward our goals.

To manage the desire for instant gratification, try this: Build in a reward that satisfies your pleasure-seeking brain but doesn’t derail your desire for long-term fulfillment. For example, work on your audition material first, give it all you’ve got, be honest with yourself, book time with a coach or a discerning friend who will tell you if you’re ready, then reward yourself with a night out or that piece of chocolate. Just make sure it’s not an entire box of chocolates or a night of raucous debauchery that will start the cycle all over again!

“I want to go to class/work on my lines/workout, but I’m just so tired.”
Fatigue, lethargy, and foggy thinking are often signs of denial. By staying on the couch, playing it safe, and not taking action, our lizard brain (the oldest part in our brain’s evolution and the part that wants us to survive), thinks it’s keeping us out of danger. Its job is to maintain the status quo, which it regards as necessary to basic survival. But it doesn’t have the big picture.

READ: How to Craft Your Perfect Career

To overcome inertia, start small and easy. Pick the low-hanging fruit, so to speak. Listen to music you love, get off the couch, and move for one minute. You’ll feel better pretty quickly and the music will probably inspire you to move for another minute or two...or thirty. Music goes directly to the emotional center of our brains, which is more highly evolved than our lizard brain. We tend to match the mood of the music, so choose accordingly and you can greatly impact your mood and energy level.

“I’m too old/stupid/fat/skinny for this role.” Or “I’m never going to learn these notes.”
These are examples of self-sabotaging 
negative self-talk. Not only do they make you feel bad, but they also perpetuate beliefs that keep you stuck. They can serve as a kind of denial by holding you back before you even try. A negative belief that you keep telling yourself can become a powerful roadblock.

To change the messages you feed yourself, notice them first. For one day, write down your self-talk. If you notice words and phrases like, “always, never, have to, gotta,” you’ll know that your self-talk doesn’t paint the whole picture. It’s stuck in black/white, either/or thinking. Those words reinforce the belief of yourself as a victim, incapable of change, and at the mercy of other people or circumstances. This is another way denial holds us in its grip.

Now write a new script that uses empowering words and phrases, self-talk that you know is true, is not exaggerated or distorted, and that motivates you. For example, “I don’t know this accent yet, but I have the energy it takes to learn it.” Or, “The lethargy I feel right now is only temporary. I can change my state by moving to music.”

Then practice the new script. Over time, you will reprogram your beliefs from disempowering ones to empowering ones.

We all have more agency to bring about desired outcomes than we may think we do. It may take time, but with incremental choices in thought and action, we can find ourselves living the vision we most desire.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

Connie de Veer
Connie de Veer is a professor of acting and voice at Illinois State University, a member of Actor’s Equity Association, a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique, a certified professional co-active coach, and the co-author of “Actor for Life: How to Have an Amazing Career Without All the Drama,” coming soon from Smith & Kraus.
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