Self sabotage is a complicated subject that could fill its own series if not its own blog. Who does it? Why do we do it? What triggers it? How do we do it?

I want to give you an intuitive mental model of one type of sabotage before hitting you with statistics and data from academic literature, so here’s a primer.

Life as a Geoboard

One aspect of self sabotage is that we have competing needs and desires that all interact to create the sensation of wanting one thing, while working away from that thing instead of toward it.

Some of you may be old enough to remember these toys. The idea is simple: you have a board with pegs sticking out, and you have a bunch of rubber bands. You stretch the rubber bands across the pegs to form geometric patterns. It’s like a poor man’s LiteBrite.

Imagine you’re on a giant geoboard. The pegs are a little shorter than you are, and the rubber bands fit easily over your waist with plenty of room to spare. Just like with a real geoboard, you have different bands—some are thin, others thick, some long, others short.

In this thought experiment the pegs are “stuff,” one peg per thing. You are you. The rubber bands are your attachment to “stuff.” You movement across the board represents your decisions.

When you decide that you need or want something you wrap one of your giant rubber bands around your waist and the peg for that thing.

Wrapping the Peg

Everyone puts rubber bands on their basic needs like food and water. If you stray too far from those pegs, the rubber bands on them will snap, and you will die.

It’s not hard to put a band on a peg. There’s no trick, no effort, just a choice. Put the band on the peg or not. The idea is to put rubber bands around everything you want and need. It’s not so easy in practice. You might think you want a band around wealth. Well, far afield from that peg is the peg of leisure time. You are already tethered to leisure.

You set out across the geoboard, intent on wrapping that band around the sweet peg of wealth. As you get closer to it, it becomes more difficult to move because the band you have around leisure time is taut. It’s straining under the pressure of your desire for wealth. What will probably happen is that you’ll give up when it gets too hard to move any farther, and the band will pull you back, sometimes violently.

On the other hand, if you’re determined enough to pull against the band tying you to leisure, the band may snap, propelling you quickly to wealth at leisure’s expense. Ideally, of course, your leisure peg is close enough to your wealth peg so that you can remain tied to both.

The Rubber Web

But we have lots of rubber bands. We lose track on them all. We have rubber bands we don’t even know about. Our parents slipped rubber bands onto pegs for us when we were kids. Many of those are buried under other rubber bands so we’ve never noticed them.

We have pegs for our morality. We have pegs for the house and car we bought, for the job we have. We tether ourselves with each of our friends, who are also wandering around on this giant geoboard.

we're always busy shuffling bands near the center of our elastic prison

It’s a huge web, and we’re always busy shuffling bands around near the center of our elastic prison, but we rarely make a significant move away from that center because we can’t. We have so many bands on so many pegs, that we’re hopelessly clamped in middle of the bramble of rubber we’ve created for ourselves.

Cutting the Rubber

The first step to untangling the web is already done: realize the web exists. The next is to identify which pegs you actually want to be tethered to. The “2 hours a night of TV” peg is awfully far away from the “fulfilling relationship” peg. Are you sure you can stretch that far?

The more pegs you untether from, the more easily you can move around on the geoboard.

Peg Chaining

Imagine you’re on the board, tethered to, for example, a house. Travel isn’t impossible, but the travel peg is a distance from the house peg, not to mention its companion the mortgage peg. A closer peg might be a “house sitter” peg, which sits between the house and travel pegs. Once you get to the house sitter peg, it’s easier to reach the travel peg because it gives you support—you’re able to relieve some of the pressure from the house peg pulling back by putting that pressure on a house sitter. Now you can finally reach the travel peg. That’s what I call “peg chaining”.

Chain Buddies

Remember, everyone around you is also on this geoboard, and remember also that we can wrap ourselves up with them just like a peg. You’re probably tethered to people who are tethered to similar pegs as you—both of you are held in a certain orbit by the pegs you’ve chosen. If you choose the same pegs, you’ll inevitably be in the same orbit.

The power and pitfall of tethering yourself to people is that they pull you where ever they move. If they move toward TV, you’ll move toward TV. If they move toward wealth, you’ll move toward wealth.

You can use this fact like peg chaining, to pull you to otherwise unreachable peg from your current orbit. Attach to people pulling in the direction you want to go, and you’ll help each other get there with your combined power.

Practical Examples

Falling Short of Success

If you’re not achieving your life goals, then you’re probably tethered to a peg that’s too far away from your goals, and you may be going for the wrong peg altogether. For example, you may want to achieve financial independence. If you’re tethered to a bunch of pegs that drain cash from you—house, car, expensive restaurant habit—those pegs will compete with the wealth peg. If you’re tethered to a person who is tethered to free time and safety, that person is probably holding you back from wealth.

You need to find these contradictory pegs, and cut ties to them.

In my case, I spent years trying to become financially free. The peg I was going for was the “$3 million in the bank so I can live off the interest” peg. I always fell short of that peg because I’m not really built to stick with one project just because it’s “marketable.” I want to work on passion projects, and big winners in the market aren’t usually things that excite or even concern individuals.

So instead I did a series of passion projects that do concern individual people. Those projects now bring in just as much income as investment interest would have, and the numbers grow all the time.

I changed the peg I was headed for because the “build passive income” peg was way closer to the “live passionately” and “be creative” pegs I was tethered to (and unwilling to cut ties with).

Falling Short of Love

Love is something else people pine for and often fall short of. If you’re looking for the perfect someone with no luck, consider:

Are you in the right orbit to attract that someone? You know what you find attractive, but the question is, are you attractive to that type of person? If you like outdoorsy guys with dreadlocks, are you going outdoors, are you connected to that culture? Or are you looking out the window of your 12th story cubical farm at that culture?

Maybe you like fiery, independent women. Are you the kind of passionate, exciting, interesting person that women like that go for? Did you attach your band to Reality TV or to sky diving?

There’s another, perhaps trickier aspect though. This deals with bands we may not be entirely aware of. We want to wrap ourselves up with the romance peg, but that requires we wrap ourselves up with intermediate pegs too. Scary pegs like vulnerability and brutal honesty.

Meanwhile, we’re already tethered to our fear of rejection, our need for emotional safety, our beliefs that we’re somehow incomplete or unworthy.

So you’re pulling with all your might against the combined pressure of your hidden “baggage pegs,” while trying to skip the necessary intermediate pegs that make real romance possible. You have to decide that emotional safety is less important than romance. You have to decide that vulnerability is a price worth paying for love.

Before you can make a decision like that though, you need to be aware there’s a decision to be made. Now you are.

Planning Your Web

Here are some guidelines you can follow to create a healthy web.

  • You should figure out what you’re tethered to. The fewer hidden bands you have, the less unexpected resistance you’ll encounter when you move around the board.
  • You should prefer the fewest bands possible. The fewer bands, the fewer tethers affect your desired orbit. Getting tethered to a peg willy nilly, because it seems easy (maybe since it’s comfortably within your orbit at the time) could prove costly later when you want to leave that orbit. Buying a house is a great idea until you want to live abroad during a real estate slump.
  • Be willing to reevaluate the ties you have to people. Are the people in your orbit pulling you away from or toward the pegs you want? One really common source of tension is your family. You’re probably tied to your parents, and you probably feel like you’re obligated to be. (That feeling stabilizes the structure, it doesn’t serve you. You have my permission to ignore it.)

If this metaphor enables you to cut ties with the pegs that are holding you back, I’d really like to hear from you. What do you think? Helpful insight, or stale tripe?

(Thanks Karilee, for the inspiration and support!)