We all do things occasionally that may be out of line with our goals or that actually impede our progress. That’s normal and to be expected. Self-sabotage is a repeated pattern of thoughts, decisions, and behaviors creating problems that prevent you from moving forward successfully.
Self-sabotage can keep you stuck, unhappy, and moving away from what you desire most in life. Unfortunately, many of us do it unknowingly. People aren’t always even aware that they are sabotaging themselves. However, you can become aware of self-defeating patterns and change them.
Why Do People Self-Sabotage?
Self-sabotage involves any attitude or behavior that creates ongoing problems in your daily life or interferes with your goals. Often, self-destructive habits are rooted in feelings of self-worth. You don’t feel like you deserve to be successful and are plagued with feelings of inadequacy. So, you overcompensate by setting unrealistically high goals for yourself which set you up to inevitably fail. Some people may even use self-sabotage as an unconscious way of controlling their own fate.
Self-sabotaging behaviors are often driven by anxiety, fear, avoidance, and self-doubt. It’s really your subconscious brain just doing its job trying to protect you, prevent pain and heed fear learned from past experiences. Your brain sees the behaviors as self-preservation; a way to safeguard and defend yourself — even though they are no longer helpful.
While these defenses may have protected you as a child, the same behaviors can hold you back as an adult. In your efforts to avoid pain, you keep yourself from doing, being, and becoming someone who’s happier in a new relationship, a new job, or any better situation because of fear. The behaviors which once protected you now cause you to neglect your dreams and goals which, in turn, limit your success and happiness.
Identifying Root Causes of Self-Sabotage
The first step to breaking the cycle of self-sabotage is to become aware of destructive behaviors and identify the root causes. The most common forms of self-sabotaging behaviors include procrastination, self-medication with drugs or alcohol, behavioral addictions, such as shopping, sex, or gambling, unhealthy habits, such as comfort eating or binge-watching TV, and forms of self-injury, such as cutting.
While these may be obvious, other self-defeating behaviors may not seem as apparent. Think about what habits, patterns, and mindsets have held you back repeatedly. It may be helpful to look at your behaviors as an outsider would. Here are a few common self-sabotage habits to be aware of:
- Fear of failure: Many people get stuck in a comfort zone in their careers, relationships, and other areas of life. Your current situation is OK, but it’s not great. There is definitely a possibility for something better, but you resist change, and fear of failure keeps you from even looking for anything new and pursuing it.
- Fear of success: It sounds strange, but many people are afraid of succeeding. Once you finally get what you think you want in the form of success, you may realize that it’s more than you bargained for or that you’re still not happy. More success also means more responsibility. That can create fear.
- Fear of loss of control: When you have a strong need to be in control, it can limit you. This need can leave you burned out, stressed, and overwhelmed because you feel like you have to do everything yourself. Ultimately, you are holding yourself back with this habit. Perfectionism often accompanies this.
- Procrastination: Instead of tackling an important project in a manner that allows you to perform your best with less stress, you stall until the last minute. Delaying action and distractions lets people think they are avoiding stress, anxiety, or otherwise emotionally uncomfortable situations, but it may be even more of these things, in the end, because of procrastination. Also, what they are avoiding might actually be good and ultimately lead to growth.
- Negative self-talk/negative thinking: If your inner dialogue is persistently critical, you are sabotaging yourself. Harsh self-criticism can affect your actions and prevent you from reaching your goals. It’s often an automatic, negative, and discouraging commentary running through your mind unchecked coming from your subconscious brain and the past. Listening to this negative self-talk can keep you from believing that you have what it takes to achieve your goals and convince you to not even try.
- Poor Self-Care: Not taking care of yourself is a form of self-sabotage because it can prevent you from thriving and reaching your goals. Poor self-care habits include unhealthy eating habits, lack of sleep, not exercising, or not seeking help for physical and mental health challenges. It can also involve engaging in unhealthy or risky behaviors like self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, comfort eating, gambling, or risky sex.
- Creating conflict: This happens frequently when you’re in a situation you wanted, like a great relationship or job, and you feel uneasy like you’re just waiting for disaster to strike. You may knowingly or unknowingly start conflict and begin testing the situation to bring about the impending doom. In other words, you create the situation you’re afraid of to confirm your fears and get it over with.
How to Stop Self-Sabotaging: 8 Tips
Do you recognize any of the above behaviors as all too familiar? If so, the good news is you can change them. Self-sabotage isn’t a character flaw you were born with, nor does it define who you are or erase the strengths and talents you do have. It is possible to replace self-sabotaging habits with better behaviors that support you and encourage self-advancement. You can start small and be persistent to make big changes which can help you replace self-defeating habits and experience more success and happiness.
Here are eight tips to stop self-sabotaging from the article, Self-Sabotaging: Why We Do It & 8 Ways to Stop:
- Boost Your Self-Awareness
Spend time in self-reflection to increase your self-awareness of your own self-sabotaging. Try journaling regularly to document your behaviors and thought patterns and see if you can identify where they are coming from. Pause several times throughout the day to check in with yourself. As you develop insight about yourself, you can become more intentional about where you need to make changes.
- Look Before You Leap
This old proverb holds wisdom for modern-day self-sabotagers. As you begin to notice negative behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, ask yourself whether these habits are helping you or hurting you. Often, we feel pressured to do something (or avoid doing something) out of fear, so taking a moment to decide if something will hold you back or move you forward can prevent self-sabotage.
- Set Meaningful Goals & Pair Them With an Action Plan
Meaningful goals help you live with intention. Even more powerful, pair meaningful goals with specific actions. Consider your deepest values when setting your goals. What do you want more of in your life? What creates a sense of meaning and purpose? What makes you feel energized and alive? Then, decide what small steps you can take to move you toward a goal.
- Make Small Changes
Positive action certainly beats self-defeating action, but remember that habits are most effectively changed in small steps. Think in terms of making incremental change. Replace one thought or behavior every day and give yourself time to make that change a habit.
Here’s a secret many people don’t know, fear and action can’t coexist. So, start taking small steps in the direction of your goal. Talk to as many people as you can before jumping into that new role. Learn about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Make sure it’s the right fit and then take the plunge. If you feel you still need help combating those self-sabotaging behaviors, you may even consider working with a career coach or mentor to get you across the finish line.
- Befriend Yourself
The inner critic is a primary factor underlying self-sabotage; therefore, replacing automatic, self-critical thoughts with more nurturing ones is a crucial step in stopping self-sabotage. Develop a gentle, accepting attitude toward yourself by acknowledging your emotions and accepting past mistakes as part of the human experience.
- Know & Embrace Your Strengths
Everyone has character strengths that can help them thrive once identified, acknowledged, and embraced. Reflect on your strengths, identifying not just things you do well but attitudes you hold dear and positive emotions you experience. When do you feel your best? Knowing your strengths and finding ways to use these strengths—at least one every day can help you develop self-love.
- Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a way of life that involves being fully present and grounded in each moment. It helps you separate the past from the present as well as thoughts from reality. This, in turn, helps you choose how to respond to a problematic situation or person.
- Work With a Mental Health Therapist
A therapist can gently guide you toward a deeper self-understanding. They also provide tips and strategies for facing down self-sabotaging thoughts and finding ways to boost your emotional self-care. Find a therapist you feel comfortable with, and begin the process of transforming your life.
Types of therapy for self-sabotage are:
- Behavior and motivational therapy
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Mindfulness-based therapies
- Strengths-based therapies
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
Self-sabotage isn’t a trait you were born with and cannot change. It is a pattern of behaviors, originating from fear and negative beliefs based on your past experiences that are preventing you from moving forward, achieving your goals, and being happy in one or more areas of your life. You can become aware of your limiting beliefs, patterns, and behaviors and work on changing them, in small steps, to create a better future and life.