There are two kinds of bad luck that we deal with during the course of our lives. The first kind is genuine bad luck – things that happen out of the blue, and that we cannot control. Bad weather, natural disasters, other people’s poor driving skills, and so on, are examples of bad luck. Another example is any type of abuse or neglect of a child by an adult. Clients have often asked the question, “If I didn’t do anything to deserve the abuse I got as a child, then why did it happen?” There’s only one answer that makes any sense, and it’s not very satisfying: bad luck. Not everyone believes this. Some people believe they were so bad as a child, they got what they deserved in the form of abuse. (The person who believes this typically only believes this about him- or herself. Everyone else who was abused didn’t deserve it.) Even some professionals believe that being abused as a child isn’t bad luck, because we chose our parents before we were born. This strikes me as whimsical nonsense, but there it is.

The other type of bad luck isn’t really bad luck – it’s the consequences of bad behavior or poor judgment. If I shoplift, and get caught, that’s not really bad luck, as much as I’d like to think it is. I did something wrong, and now that I’ve been caught, I have to face the consequences of my behavior. The fact that someone else got away with it doesn’t change this fact. Not everyone believes this, either. Prison inmates use the term “caught a case” in reference to their incarceration, as if being behind bars were equivalent to having the misfortune of catching a nasty cold. Most people can see the difference, however – going to prison is (almost) always the result of committing a crime, while catching a cold could happen to anyone. (Of course, some would argue that catching a cold is the result of not washing one’s hands often enough, but come on.)

Most of us are going to have our fair share of both kinds of bad luck as we go through life. When we are young, we are prone to making all kinds of bad decisions, and then getting ourselves into trouble. However, as we grow and mature, we typically start getting tired of cleaning up our messes that we’ve created, and we slowly start to make better choices and learn from our mistakes. Life starts to get a little easier, because the amount of the second kind of bad luck starts to go down. We still make mistakes and poor choices from time to time, but overall, we wise up from our years spent in the school of hard knocks.

However, this happy development doesn’t seem to happen to everyone. For some, there seems to be an enduring pattern of bad judgment and poor choices that cripple one’s chances of finding stability or getting ahead. These behaviors may range from overtly destructive, like chronic lawbreaking or an endless series of dead-end relationships, to more subtle forms, like staying stuck in a low-paying job or finding reasons why now isn’t a good time to chase one’s dreams. It can read like a history of under-achievement, or worse. Such behavior can easily be dismissed as the result of stupidity or bad genes, but as is often the case with snap judgments, those explanations are inadequate.

Whenever a client presents with such a pattern of self-destructive behavior, I will ask the question, “Are you sabotaging yourself?” Often, after some thought, the client will acknowledge that she does seem to be deliberately, if not consciously, sabotaging her own progress. Usually, this realization is both depressing and mystifying. Many people act out in ways that impede their life’s journey for many years, and yet they have little or no idea why they behave in such a self-defeating manner. However, with a little exploring, we can usually shed some light on the reasons why the client behaves as she does.

My experience as a therapist in Dallas, Texas, has taught me there are three main reasons why individuals get caught up in patterns of self-defeating behavior. The first reason is fear – fear of failure, fear of being laughed at, fear of disapproval. My second blog, entitled “Fear – the biggest obstacle,” covered this particular subject, so today I will focus on the second and third reasons, which are closely related.

The second big reason for self-sabotage is a core belief that is often below the level of conscious awareness, but still very powerful. It’s basically this – “I don’t deserve to succeed.” Nobody is born believing this, but years of conditioning will drive the point home. It comes from messages like, “You’re never going to amount to anything,” “We’re not the kind of people who make money,” and countless others that reinforce the notion that one is undeserving of success. Once this belief takes hold, it causes the individual to feel anxious or guilty if he begins to get ahead. How does one make these unpleasant feelings go away? By messing up, by driving one’s life into the ditch. People do this all the time, and complain about how unfair life is, often completely unaware that their bad luck is actually a form of acting out in order to avoid emotional pain.

The third main reason for self-sabotage is another core belief, similar to the one above, that can be expressed thus: “Nothing good ever lasts.” For the individual who has learned to believe this, the main problem is anxiety that occurs when things are going well. Rather than enjoying this state, the individual is troubled by thoughts like, “Don’t get too comfortable. You know good and well that it’s all going to come crashing down any day now, just like it always has.” Again, this anxiety will often cause the individual to act out in such a way as to make their belief a self-fulfilling prophecy, after which the mind says, “See? I told you so.”

Bummer, huh? But as is usually the case, there is good news: It doesn’t have to be this way. No one has to be doomed to a life of endless self-sabotage. The first step is to determine the reason or reasons why one acts in such destructive ways, and at least one of the three reasons listed above is almost always present. Then what? Again, awareness of the problems is an important first step, but it doesn’t cure the problem – it just helps to illuminate it. Now for the hard part, which involves processing the feelings about one’s conditioning, challenging and replacing self-defeating beliefs, and simply getting used to things running smoothly for extended periods of time. That’s where the therapist comes in, because it is the job of the therapist to help the individual succeed at those tasks, which can be difficult and time-consuming. It is also well worth it. Such challenges are a big part of my practice, and I have helped (and am in the process of helping) quite a few fellow humans with this problem.

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