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The Payoff Principle: How to Stop Sabotaging Yourself

You’re weird.

I am, too. We all are.

We all, to some degree, do something that’s very strange. On the one hand, we’re totally preoccupied with ourselves. On the other hand, we don’t do everything possible to help ourselves live better lives.

From a logical perspective, this makes no sense. But one of the biggest lessons you can learn in self-improvement is the fact that human beings are almost always anything but logical.

You’re not logical, at all.

You’re emotional, irrational, and prone to little mental traps that keep you from living the life you want.

One of the biggest traps? Self-sabotage.

Why do you do thinks that you know deep down, will cause more trouble in your life?

You continue to date that same type of toxic person. You quit right before your efforts will start to pay off. There seem to be so many times in your life where you foil your own efforts.

Why?

Simple, Counterintuitive, and Deadly Accurate

Once I realized this, fully, my life changed.

What did I realize?

I, you, we all, like, no, love… self-sabotage.

Once you understand that you love messing your own life up at a deep emotional level, everything starts to make more sense and you’ll finally have the seeds to real change.

I used to ask myself why I kept screwing up. I searched for this magical answer to seemingly irrational behavior. I’d ask myself, “If you want to make your life better, why are you acting like this?”

All the while I didn’t understand the truth. I didn’t want to make my life better. I wanted to be a loser.

Why would someone want such things?

Simple.

You get a pay off from feeling this way. You live by the pay off principle. Anytime you find yourself making bad choices, ask yourself “what’s the payoff?”

For most of my life, I lived below my potential. I did so because my pay off was being able to cling to the identity of the “kid with potential.” I loved living in Potentialville.

See, if I were to try hard then I could run into the possibility of failing. Failing meant I’d no longer be talented and gifted. I’d no longer be the sharp kid with the whole world in front of him.

What’s your pay off?

People stay in bad relationships and continue to choose bad partners because they get the payoff of confirming their identity as someone who doesn’t deserve love — often a mental map created in childhood.

People pretend they don’t want more for their lives because they get the payoff of being a martyr. When you see someone acting outrageously, they’re getting their payoff in the form of attention.

The payoff principle helps you understand your behavior as well as the behavior of others. Instead of thinking you know everything and scoffing at the behavior you disagree with, ask yourself, “What is this person getting from this?” Also, ask yourself the same question when you make missteps.

There are many micro reasons and payoffs people use to, often poorly, navigate life. But the main culprit is almost always the same.

You’re “The Devil You Know”

The main payoff you get from sabotaging yourself?

You get to remain you.

Almost all roads to a life you don’t want to live lead back to ego and identity preservation.

Say you consider yourself a total loser in every regard. Why would you want to maintain that identity? Simple, because if you were to change you’d have to admit that you wasted a large chunk of your life feeling a way you didn’t have to feel. That’s usually the kicker for all of us.

We don’t want to admit that we’ve wasted time.

You’d rather stay the same for the rest of your life than do what’s necessary to change — totally eradicate your current self.

To truly change, you have to die.

You have to kill your old belief systems, mental maps, deeply-rooted elements of social programming. And this death is precluded by admitting you got tricked, admitting you need to start over from a humble place, admitting you don’t really know a whole hell of a lot.

Spoiler alert — this doesn’t feel good.

For whatever reason, it seems beneath you to start at square one. You think you should just get it.

Many people in society, who I would never in a million years want to trade lives with, get a payoff that I do sometimes envy. They think they know what they’re doing.

Their lives are shit, but they’ve convinced themselves they have everything figured out. Sometimes I wish I could feel that way. I really do. I wish I could be okay with living like that, but I can’t.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably like me.

As much as you love sabotaging yourself, you can’t shake the idea that you could be doing more. You see yourself flipping that switch one day, somehow, and you’re holding out hope that it will happen.

You haven’t given up yet because you understand the consequences of giving up. Yet, you’re not quite there yet. You haven’t yet done the things you’ve been meaning to do forever You still sabotage yourself.

How do you stop?

Update Your Software

Everything in your life can be looked at through the lens of incentives, rewards, payoffs, patterns, etc.

The less you think of yourself as a rational agent and the more you think of yourself as a software of sorts, the better you’re able to change your life.

You have to find a way to change your programming, change your payoffs, and give yourself a reward that’s better than the weird love affair you have with self-loathing.

Usually, finding your purpose…serves that purpose.

Nothing provided me a better reward than self-sabotage until I found writing. Luckily for me, I caught that motivational fire quickly. I knew pretty early on that this was it.

The process might not happen the same way for you.

You’ll have to not only find the thing but do it long enough to get traction before you sabotage yourself like you normally would.

How do you pull it off?

Well, the closer you’re aligned to your strengths, your tastes, and your deep-seated predilections, the better. I’ve written multiple books about this if you’re curious about the process.

Aside from finding and working on your purpose though, success comes from simply making this mental switch that is really hard to make.

Often, true pain can cause this switch. Life can beat you up enough to where you’re like, “Ok, screw this. The payoff doesn’t justify living like this.”

But often, people experience a level of pain that still doesn’t reach that threshold. It’s a dull pain, low-level anxiety that hurts just enough to be a consistent annoyance, but not sharp enough to override the payoff of being able to make sense of their lives.

It’s a cruel trap, like the fable of the frog sitting in a pot of water that starts to boil and it doesn’t jump out because the heat increases ever so slowly.

The best you can do is try to manufacture that stark realization that, in many ways, you’re throwing your life away. Realize that it’s not dramatic to think you’re throwing your life away. Then, change your payoff.

When you follow the road less traveled, you get a payoff that can be felt much better than it can be explained, but I’ll try.

You feel like you have superpowers. Most people can’t exert their force of will over reality, but you can.

You feel like you have this secret that few can understand.

You feel a deep level of pride because you didn’t let the idealistic youthful version of yourself down.

There is no better payoff.

Ayodeji is the author of You 2.0 — Stop Feeling Stuck, Reinvent Yourself, and Become a Brand New You. Want a free copy of my first book? Get it here.

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