Updated: Apr 13, 2021
Being a self-saboteur is not the sexiest or most popular topic, however, it is a topic I talk about frequently with some very successful people. Chances are if you are reading this you may have wondered if (or know you might) fit the title.
Self-sabotage means YOU may do things that get in the way of attaining your goals or aspirations.
Be a little self-reflective today and answer these questions:
Do you seem to struggle in your professional or personal life much more than others?
Do your efforts to succeed regularly get disrupted?
Are following through on your plans (well-conceived as they may be) or do they typically become problematic?
Do you do “stupid” or impulsive things even though you know they are not effective?
Do your relationships start out promising, but usually go south, as though somehow you just can't help saying or doing something to damage them?
Are you perhaps a lot better at making money than holding onto it?
If any of these questions fits you, you may be guilty of self-sabotage.
Think about it, you are disciplined enough to work hard at accomplishing a goal, yet routinely do something rash or thoughtless and damage your process. Your behaviors may actually be more motivated than you imagine and are probably not coincidental.
You may have unconsciously been "planning" your own failures all along.
Sabotage comes in many forms. Procrastination, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, overeating from stress, and interpersonal conflict are among the most widely used and recognizable forms of self-sabotage. These actions can be especially dangerous because they’re so subtle. You may not notice the extra cookie you’re taking or the additional drink you want to order before last call and, at the time, they may even appear to calm you down and relax you.
You might also notice that you justify ineffective behaviors. On a diet? Birthday cake calories at the office obviously don’t count. Need to reach a deadline for an assignment? You’ll focus much better if you finish the next episode in your Netflix queue, right? Thinking about breaking up with your partner? You’ll get right onto it after you rearrange the living room furniture first.
So why do we do this to ourselves?
Here are six big reasons.
1. Self-Worth — You feel undeserving of success or happiness. In an ironic twist, some of the most driven people strive to work hard and aim high, because they feel they need to make up for a self-imposed sense of inadequacy. But when the fruits of their labor lead to good things — whether it be a material benefit or increase in status or power — they make the situation worse for themselves.
Why is that?
The concept of cognitive dissonance may explain it. People like to be consistent — our actions tend to be in sync with our beliefs and values. When these actions do not line up, we try to change them. If we start to rack up victories and accomplishments, we view ourselves as flawed, worthless, incapable, or deficient and we will somehow “pull the plug” to get rid of the dissonance. If it feels bad to fail, it feels even worse to succeed.
2. Control — It feels better to control your own failure rather than face the possibility of it blindsiding you and taking you by surprise. Self-sabotage may not be pretty, but it is better than spinning out of control. At least when you’re steering the ship, going down in flames feels more like a well-maintained burn.
3. Perceived Fraudulence (Imposter Syndrome) — As the bar continues to rise (you’re promoted to a new position, you obtain higher levels of education) you feel you'll only have further to fall when you inevitably come crashing down. If you call attention to your accomplishments, it’s more likely you’ll be called out as a fake.
How does this show up? You may do the bare minimum and hope it goes unnoticed. Or you may push hard and go big but worry you will be revealed at any moment. Either way, feeling like a fraud easily leads you towards procrastination and diversion — if you’re faced with a task that makes you feel like a phony, it’s a lot more tempting to refresh Instagram again, research frying pans, or realize there’s no time like the present to immediately start a DIY spice rack project.
4. For a Handy Scapegoat — If things are not resolved (or when they aren’t resolved, because that’s the only option, right?), we can blame the action instead of ourselves. Of course, she left me — I was never around. Of course, I failed the class — I barely studied for any exams.
While these reasons may be true, they are easier to come to terms with and swallow than the deeper reasons we believe to be true. Of course, she left me — I’m not worthy of love. Of course, I failed the class — I’m incapable of grasping the material.
5. Familiarity — Again, people like to be consistent. We even tend to choose consistency over our own contentment. If you’re used to being or feeling overlooked, mistreated, or exploited, it’s strangely reassuring to put yourself in that position. You’ve probably been there your whole life, and while you may not be happy, that which you know is preferable to the unknown.
6. Sheer boredom — Once in a while, we self-sabotage simply to push buttons. Picking a fight and inciting drama can give a rush, but of course, these are not random acts. Sabotaging ourselves creates the familiar feeling of instability and chaos; plus, if we’re stuck at the bottom, we might as well brandish power while we’re down there.
So how can you stop sawing off the tree limb you’re sitting on?
Look at the proverbial root -- fear of failure.
I get a lot of raised eyebrows when I say that: Most people think of self-demolition as fear of success. But deep down, despair over achievements isn’t truly a fear of ambition and your own worth — it’s a fear of trying one’s best and not succeeding, of being personally let down and publicly humiliated as we worry that our best just might not be good enough.
Let’s stop self-sabotage NOW.
How do we do that?
1. Understand your self-sabotage - Many of us are engaged in self-destructive behaviors that have become habits. We allow these behaviors to continually undermine our success and happiness, but we may not even recognize that we’re doing it. We want something, but somehow, we never accomplish it. Why? Because somewhere deep in our subconscious we’re fighting against that goal.
Your subconscious probably sees self-sabotage as self-preservation; a way to safeguard and defend yourself, even if it’s no longer needed. Some of our self-sabotage is so subtle it’s easy to miss. We often fail to recognize how our actions are hurting ourselves.
We don’t see how our disorganization distracts us, or how we’re constantly overthinking all of our decisions, leaving us practically paralyzed with inaction. We don’t realize that our reactions to situations end up causing bigger problems in the long run.
2. Recognize self-sabotaging habits - The first step to breaking the cycle of self-sabotage is becoming aware of these behaviors. Try looking at your behaviors as an outsider. What self-destructive habits, patterns and mindsets are holding you back?
Here are a few common self-sabotage habits to be aware of:
Procrastination. Instead of tackling an important project in a timely manner, you allow yourself to wait until the last minute. It’s hard to shine when you don’t give yourself time to fix mistakes or do a thorough job. Start setting deadlines and mini-deadlines to work toward your objective
Negative self-talk/negative thinking. Your inner dialogue is constantly critical. Are you constantly criticizing yourself or bringing up past mistakes? Be patient with yourself; be kind to yourself. Work to build yourself up.
Perfectionism. You tell yourself you can’t take action until the right time, or believe you need to perfect your skills before you move forward. These are forms of self-sabotage. Perfection is an impossible standard that keeps you from moving forward.
3. Identify the root cause - Many of us develop unhealthy (maladaptive) ways of coping with stress. We repeatedly drop the ball on commitments or fail to take adequate care of ourselves, or we take our relationships for granted. We allow ourselves to react adversely to situations. But sometimes these things are so subtle that we can’t see how self-sabotage is at the root of many of our problems.
Often, self-destructive habits are rooted in our feelings of self-worth. You don’t feel like you deserve to be successful or you are plagued with feelings of inadequacy, even when you’re trying to overcompensate by setting high goals for yourself. Some may even use self-sabotage as a twisted form of controlling their own fate.
It’s better to be at the helm of your failure than having unknown circumstances blindside you. Work on identifying and acknowledging what is causing you to sabotage yourself, and then start making changes to stop those behaviors.
4. Take time to reflect on yourself - It takes serious self-reflection to understand why you keep shooting yourself in the foot in the first place. Take the time to peel back the issues you seem to be inflicting on yourself can lead to a deeper awareness, as well as give you insights into yourself and your underlying motivations and desires.
The most successful people are those who take the time to think through their choices, decisions and actions and learn from what worked or failed to work. They then adjust their course of action by taking a different approach. Only through self-reflection will you gain the necessary insight, perspective and understanding to begin the process of change and transformation.
5. Find your inner validator - Fear is often at the root of what holds us back. We fear that our inner critical voice is right. We start to worry that we don’t deserve happiness, aren’t tough enough or simply don’t have it in us. It’s time to put aside those harsh inner voices of "I can’t" or "I’m a failure."
That negative internal dialogue is a pattern of self-limiting thoughts. Start replacing that critical inner voice with validating thoughts (if you need help with a validating voice, check out this blog).
Once you start seeing the areas and ways in which you are limiting yourself, you can start effectively countering that behavior. You can choose to not engage in self-sabotaging behavior. You can start building positive behavior and create an affirmative, confident voice to guide you.
6. Change your behaviors - Changing our negative behaviors is fundamental if we are to stop sabotaging ourselves. In every moment, we’re taking action that either moves us toward or away from the person we want to be and the life we want to have. The behaviors you keep permitting yourself to do are the ones that are keeping you from what you most desire.
Consider how the actions you are taking and the thoughts you are thinking conflict with your happiness and hold you back from your true potential. Then, look for ways to replace old patterns with new ones that are more helpful in achieving your goals.
7. Make small changes - Once you’ve identified the changes you want to make, pick just one thing that you want to work on. Don’t try to make huge or multiple changes all at once. That’s not realistic, and those huge alterations will be hard to maintain and easily given up. Instead, begin by making small, meaningful changes that you will slowly build to create larger transformations in your life.
If you’re disorganized or constantly getting off track from what you should be doing, take five minutes every morning to tidy your desk and write a to-do list. If you’re missing deadlines, sit down and come up with a reasonable timeline to get your project done. Then take steps to meet those goals, so you accomplish your objectives and build self-confidence.
8. Set goals and create plans to implement - Struggle will come when we don’t know what to expect. The unknown can make us feel off and unstable. We respond to these situations negatively instead of moving forward with confidence. We allow ourselves to crumble, and then we retreat, feeling incompetent and incapable.
The best way to counter this is to create solid plans and goals for the future. By having firm, thoughtful plans for each step we take, we will feel more confident about our intentions and what we’re doing. You can do this on a daily level -- thinking through how you’ll respond to situations, people and circumstances.
By doing all these things, you can take control of your life and banish self-sabotaging behavior for good.