Have you ever felt that sinking feeling that you might be getting in your own way? Perhaps you have certain habits that stop you from achieving your goals. Maybe you seem to always have excuses (or blame others) for why you haven’t accomplished something but know deep inside that you are the one to blame. That’s self-sabotage.
No one likes to admit that they might be self-sabotaging. It can feel lonely, and perhaps a little embarrassing. But self-sabotage is extremely common. All of us have done it at one point or another, and many of my clients have struggled with this.
- Have you gotten an opportunity that you didn’t “go for” because you were more worried about succeeding than failing?
- Have you found reasons to end relationships with people, pushing good people away?
- Do you distract yourself at the end of the day by doomscrolling or binge watching rather than taking care of important tasks?
- Do you say yes to every request for help, and then end up overwhelmed and overcommitted?
- Do you resist starting or completing tasks related to your goals – perhaps because you are worried you won’t do it perfectly?
These are all versions of self sabotage.
By understanding the psychology behind self-sabotage, we can learn how to move past these habits that are slowing us down and blocking our path to success.
What is Self-Sabotage
Self-sabotaging behavior refers to repeated behaviors that interfere with our daily lives and prevent us from achieving our goals. These behaviors can be intentional actions, or inaction. Self-sabotage can also relate to negative mindsets that impact our confidence and the way we believe in ourselves.
Some forms of self-sabotage can include procrastination, perfectionism, negative self-talk, and allowing fear to hold you back. For example, if you have issues with perfectionism you may struggle to complete a task because you are afraid it will not be perfect. You may also feel ashamed when you make mistakes. Even people-pleasing can be a form of self-sabotage. Consistently saying yes to others, even when it crosses your own boundaries, can lead to burn out, and inhibit you from doing things for yourself.
Many people might not be aware of their self-sabotaging behaviors because they occur in a bit of a mental blind spot. They may be afraid to admit that they are the only one standing in their own way.
Causes of Self-Sabotaging Behavior
The way our parents and caregivers tend to our emotional needs, even as young as infancy, can have a profound impact on our attachment style and how we connect with others. If we struggle to feel secure in our relationships with others, we may have developed some unhealthy habits. For example, you may be avoidant, and struggle with allowing yourself to be close to others. Or if you feel anxious, you might have a hard time with codependency which could lead you to sacrifice your goals to keep others happy and feel accepted.
Low self-esteem is another cause of self-sabotage. People with low self-esteem might allow the negative thoughts and beliefs they have about themselves to influence their actions and in turn, confirm those negative beliefs. For example, if we have been told many times in our lives that we are a failure, we may believe those words and become uncomfortable when we are close to success.
Cognitive dissonance can influence self-sabotaging. When we hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time, we are experiencing cognitive dissonance. For example, you may be about to land your dream client, yet you may hold yourself back from meeting with them due to feeling like you aren’t good enough.
Impact of Self-Sabotage
These behaviors of self-sabotage may feel like no big deal in the moment. But when repeated, and turned into habits, we can create a negative impact on our daily lives. They can lead to feelings of hopelessness about achieving our dreams and goals, which can, in turn, fuels our insecurities and reduces our motivation and enthusiasm. This can lead to a devastating cycle of panicking each time we are on the edge of stepping out of our comfort zone. Those insecurities and that ingrained fear can further lead us to patterns that sacrifice our happiness.
So, how can we overcome self-sabotage?
It can be tricky to identify the things we do that stop us from achieving our goals. One approach can be listening to your thoughts. Take note of your goals, and ask yourself if there is anything you are doing that might be preventing you from achieving. Listen to your body and your thoughts, especially any distressing emotions (for example via meditation).
Our thoughts can directly impact our emotions, and vice versa. Taking the time to listen to these thoughts and emotions can help you identify the source of certain behaviors, mindsets, and patterns. For example, the next time you call yourself a failure, try to ask yourself if this is based on fact.
Write down your goals, your thoughts, and your feelings. Take note of your behavior throughout the day. It might help you identify the habits you are doing that are stopping you from progressing. Are you unmotivated? Do you put off tasks and decisions? Do you talk negatively to yourself? Are there certain things you do when stressed, for example, that end up detracting from your goals?
3. Make a Trigger Plan
Once you have identified the behaviors, create a plan of action that will counter that self-sabotaging behavior. Identify what the trigger is for your behavior and have a plan for when it comes along. For example, if you struggle with negativity in your work, try to make a positive comment to yourself when you start to feel bitter. Or if you struggle with procrastinating anxiety-inducing tasks, allow yourself a small reward after you complete that task. Positive reinforcement is a great way to foster motivation and action.
Two ways I have found helpful for addressing emotional triggers are 1) working through them with a licensed therapist and 2) using self-help resources such as this DBT Workbook. I particularly liked this one with it’s comprehensive approach to dealing with triggers and mindfulness exercises.
4. Be Your Own Cheerleader
Positive affirmation and self-encouragement can help cultivate a mindset that supports and uplifts you, rather than tears you down. Tell yourself, “I am capable. I am smart. I can do this!” Our minds are powerful, and they can truly shape our reality, just as much as we can shape our minds. When we are intentionally positive and graceful with ourselves, we can train our brains to believe these positive thoughts and therefore, set ourselves up better for success.
Try to set yourself smaller goals that lead to your bigger goal. For example, if your long-term goal is to publish a novel, give yourself a series of manageable goals, such as writing for twenty minutes a day. Don’t forget to celebrate your wings when you achieve these little goals, even if it’s just a note to yourself or a gold star.
Believe in Yourself
Self-sabotage is a common down-fall for many women. These behaviors usually arise from fear-based negative thoughts and can undermine our success, even if you truly want to achieve your goals and dreams. By learning to listen to our stream of consciousness and to identify our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, we can develop steps to counter self-sabotage. We can be our biggest critics. But learning to advocate and cheer for yourself can truly turn your life around and orient you towards your dream relationships and life.
Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.Henry David Thoreau
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- Self-Sabotage | Psychology Today
- The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation & Distress Tolerance by McKay, Wood, Brantley