In 2001, Karen E. Berg was on top of the world. For her successful New York City coaching company, CommCore Strategies, she traveled around the world helping CEOs and other business leaders improve all aspects of their communication styles and, by extension, their business success.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Karen’s only son, Alex Berg, died suddenly in 2001. Even though she was grief-stricken, she decided to keep up the pace of her busy firm instead of cutting back. She was good at her job, and thought work would give her something to focus on other than her sadness. She had a capable team of staff and contractors, and, as she mourned the loss of her son, she relied on them more and more to keep the accounts going.
On some level, Berg says, she knew that she was avoiding the problem of not being able to manage so much while she was in turmoil, and was giving her account managers too much leeway. She believes she also wasn’t addressing their fear that she would be incapable of running the business after such a loss. In hindsight, she says she should have hired a trusted business management consultant or other employee to keep an eye on things. But, in 2002, Berg suffered another loss: Several of the people who worked for her left to start their own firm, taking most of her key clients with them, nearly devastating her business.
“It’s not like it’s an easy thing–‘Oh, I think I’ll just reinvent myself again.’ So, I know on a deep, visceral level what it’s like to make errors that are huge and then to recalibrate your life,” she says.
Several years after her son’s death, Berg joined a performance group to give her a creative outlet. As she got to know members of the group, she realized that many of them were engaging in self-sabotaging behavior similar to what she did during her personal crisis.
“I was watching people around me–smart, talented people–crash and burn from their own demons,” she says. She saw people suffer from debilitating fear or extreme disorganization and denial. The costs could range from damaged careers to ruined relationships.
By this time, Berg had rebuilt her business and put a renewed focus on working with clients to overcome self-sabotage and self-destructive behaviors. She describes her work in her new book, Your Self-Sabotage Survival Guide: How to Go from Why Me? to Why Not?
Throughout her career, Berg has seen all manner of self-sabotage in her clients. Undermining yourself can take many forms, including fear, procrastination, impulsiveness, arrogance, or even avoidance, much like she experienced. To get to the heart of how you’re sabotaging yourself, you need to recognize the destructive behaviors in which you engage.
What is getting in the way of you accomplishing your goals? Perhaps your fear keeps you from pursuing your goals. Maybe perennial disorganization keeps you from better managing your time. Look at the behaviors and feelings that are holding you back, and name them, she says.
Berg was forced to confront her avoidance when she nearly lost her business. What is the current or potential cost of your self-sabotage? She encourages clients to focus on what they really want to accomplish, and think about how their career or personal life could advance if they could ditch destructive behaviors. How much are you really paying for those issues in lost opportunities, stress, or other ways?
Beating yourself up is just going to make the sabotage worse. Berating yourself, comparing yourself negatively to others, and engaging in other destructive thinking is just going to make you more likely to sabotage yourself, Berg says. Write about your goals in a journal, and work on turning around your negative thoughts. When you experience victories in overcoming sabotaging behaviors, write about and celebrate them.
Berg says the loss of her son and having to rebuild her business has made her more empathetic, which has made her a better coach. For some, self-sabotage that manifests in extremes or destructive behaviors might require the help of a mental health professional. Others find that coaching can help them get to the heart of why they self-sabotage, she says.
Sometimes you can get the help you need within your own network. Berg says those individuals she calls “spark people”–people you know and respect who are willing to be honest with you and are not too afraid of hurting your feelings–can be enlisted to point out when you’re engaging in self-sabotaging behavior. Find the spark people in your life, and ask for their help.