Many of us have habits, tendencies, or behaviors of self-sabotage that impact our lives to varying degrees. Self-sabotage, the active or passive pattern of preventing ourselves from reaching various goals and achievements, can occur for many reasons and manifest in many ways.
Self-sabotage can impact every aspect of your life. It can disrupt relationships and delay the achievement of goals; self-sabotage can degrade the overall quality of your life. In our relationships with others, self-sabotage may look like avoiding those we care about, lashing out at those closest to us, neglecting to nurture friendships or any other action that can put people at a distance from us. Self-sabotage can negatively impact our goals when we don’t give our all, quit too soon, or don’t even set our sights high enough, to begin with. By derailing our relationships or our goals, we are left lonely and frustrated and stuck in a spiral of shame and guilt because we know our actions led to this result.
Many people self-sabotage on various levels: some of our actions may be obvious to us, and we may know them as behavior patterns. Some self-sabotage actions are more innate, and we may not realize we’re doing them or have been doing them! Sometimes, it takes the external observation of a loved one or a mental health professional to help us identify our behaviors. This may come after years of struggling with anxiety or depression that may have contributed to or result from self-sabotage actions.
When we stop and think about sabotaging ourselves, it can seem like an impossible concept. We want to be happy, to succeed, to have healthy relationships! So why would we do anything to prevent or delay any of those things? But there are a few reasons people sabotage themselves, and when we look at them, they make a lot of sense.
Why do you self-sabotage?
Three factors that contribute to self-sabotage:
When you take a look at destructive patterns, most of them are rooted in fear. This can be especially tricky because there are many ways to be afraid. For example, we can struggle with the fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of being found out as a fraud, fear of humiliation. Fear of the unknown. Fear of moving out of our comfort zone. Fear of imperfections, fear of making mistakes, imposter syndrome.
Fear of rejection can cause us to push people away first or walk away before things get serious. Fear of failure or making mistakes can cause us to delay trying or to not give it our all so that we can tell ourselves, “Well, I didn’t try that hard anyway!” We may adopt a “why bother?” attitude that we hope will convince us that we’re less invested in the outcome than we truly are.
We often self-sabotage when things are going well, which later feeds into the guilt and shame we feel because we think, “Why would I do that to myself when everything was finally getting better?” In these situations, progression in the right direction is when the fear starts to set in. We panic as the fear begins to speak to us. It says things like, “Hold on, we need to keep this up now” or, “What if this is as good as I can do?” Or worse still, “What if I lose this now that I’ve finally gotten it?” We find ways to ruin it for ourselves before becoming even more invested,
high-profile, or vulnerable.
2) Lack of self-confidence:
Negative core beliefs such as “I am not enough” or “I am unworthy” are common thoughts that lead to self-sabotage. Although we might think that achieving success would change our way of thinking
about ourselves, it doesn’t work that way if we haven’t healed ourselves enough to believe that we are worthy of good things.
There are many reasons for lack of self-confidence, but early childhood experiences are common and often daunting. If we were socialized, whether through caregivers, instructors, peers, or some combination of the three, to believe that we lacked in some way, it can take a lot of work to unpack that history and begin to identify where it led us astray. In building up our self-confidence for the first time or rebuilding it after it has deteriorated, we can realize that we deserve love, success, happiness, acclaim, and anything else that we desire.
3) Immediate gratification:
However, you may self-sabotage, whether it’s addictive behavior or negative habit relapse; avoiding situations or relationships; or procrastination, there is immediate gratification in the behavior. If we relapse – taking up a habit that we have control over – it is probably because we enjoy doing the thing we were limiting or restricting, even though we know it’s not good for us.
When we choose to procrastinate or avoid, we are gratified by a certain level of denial: denial that we have to do the thing orwant that relationship or that promotion. Denial is a great hiding place from fear – for a while. It can be gratifying to live in an in-between state where we tell ourselves that the next part, the scary or the hard part, will never come.
We may also choose immediate gratification simply because it’s easier. It’s easier to have a fun day at the beach than to work on the project proposal. It’s easier to watch a television marathon than to practice the instrument we told ourselves we want to learn to play. Taking the time to differentiate between a genuine need for a break and relaxation and avoidance is key to undoing our self-sabotage tendencies.
When we have sabotaged left and right, we are left feeling stuck, as if we’ve sabotaged ourselves into a corner and now we can’t see how to get out. Self-sabotage is tricky. It is our repeated action, and only we can solve it. The fact that “we only have ourselves to blame” after a self-sabotage incident creates a cycle in which we believe that we are “getting what we deserve.” This can lead to low self-confidence and self-esteem.
But the truth is that self-sabotage is often a response to something; some of the reasons for our self-sabotage will be things that were beyond our control at some point, such as a series of unfortunate events or a caregiver who did not nurture self-love and self-confidence in us. It is important to know what we are doing and why we are doing it so that we can begin to work on letting go of our self-sabotage patterns.
Three ways to get out of your own way
1) Identify your self-sabotaging patterns:
You can’t change what you don’t know. Start by identifying your self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors. Which one is most prevalent and/or does the most damage? Is it procrastination? Is it multi-tasking so that you are always distracted? Is it avoidance?
For you, self-sabotage might look like relapsing with substance use after a period of recovery. Or it can be to avoid confrontation. Once you have identified the way(s) in which you sabotage yourself, you will be able to identify some of the ‘when’s and ‘why’s. Is it every year around a specific anniversary? Or after periods of being too busy? Perhaps self-sabotage occurs for you when you’ve had several turns of good fortune in a row, and you start to feel anxious, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
You need to understand how self-sabotage shows up in your life and why you do it to subvert your instincts the next time it happens. Identifying the source of this behavior doesn’t mean that it will be fixed overnight; it means you can begin. When you know that ignoring your boundaries for three weeks in a row leads to you being burnt out and relapsing, you can begin to track your burnout and take coping actions sooner. It might not eliminate all your negative behaviors, but it can help to reduce them.
If you know that a certain time of year is especially tricky for you, you can reach out to your support network in advance, make a plan of action, stock up your self-care box, and take extra time to be mindful during that period. It is much easier to prepare for something you know is coming or respond to something you can see and recognize than to be reactive to surprises and upsets at the moment.
2) Change your inner critic:
Your inner critic might be very loud, or it could be soft-spoken. It might speak to you constantly, periodically, or rarely. Whatever your relationship with your inner voice, it is important and beneficial to build the most healthy version possible. This might seem like a big ask, but there are ways to befriend your inner critic or at the very least, learn to ignore it.
You can’t stop sabotaging with the same negative self-talk that reinforced it. Telling yourself that you can’t achieve something or calling yourself names, is not a good way to create a mental environment that upholds your self-worth and confidence. To avoid future sabotage, you have to change the negative thoughts that feed into it.
As with any task, lifestyle change, or behavior modification, it is important to treat yourself with compassion, patience, and gentleness. As you begin to adjust your inner critic’s voice, you may find yourself tempted to be hard on yourself about the progress you’re making in doing so. Forgive yourself for being hard on yourself and for any past mistakes your inner critic might enjoy bringing up at inopportune times. Celebrate your accomplishments as often as you notice them, big or small, and refocus your internal dialogue on what you are doing well!
3) Develop coping skills:
Learn stress management skills that can help you manage difficult situations. Learn emotional regulation skills to help manage feelings of anxiety and frustration. These can include mindful meditation and breathing exercises; therapy; moving your body in a joyful way (such as walking the Serrania Ridge Trail here in Woodland Hills); and practicing your boundaries so that you don’t become overwhelmed over-extended, or resentful. You won’t always be in the position to engage in these skills, but if you apply them to your life mindfully, then the tough times will feel more manageable because the rest of your life will be less volatile overall.
Engage in task management and productivity skills to fight off procrastination. Ask for help. Create connections with people who can support you in not returning to bad habits, and communicate with them if you feel compelled toward relapse, picking fights, neglecting your basic needs, or any other self-harming behavior that might have sabotaged your efforts in the past.
Be comfortable with identifying fear as a trigger so that you can address it when it is still small. If fear showed up at your door as a person, knocking politely to tell you something, it would be far easier to deal with than if you left it out there banging at the door for several days! We all feel fear for a variety of reasons; sometimes, fear can save our lives. But we have to be able to identify healthy, rational fear and separate it from a fear that will cause us to make the choices that don’t serve us.
The ability to take action that supports our goals is essential to living a life of peace and balance, whether we want to get a promotion, be one half of a happy couple, learn something new, or simply live in the present moment more often. If you find that you sabotage yourself in certain aspects of your life or during certain cycles or phases, you have already taken a great step toward undoing this practice by identifying self-sabotage.
You may feel concerned that you will self-sabotage your efforts to stop sabotaging yourself. That is to be expected! There might be a lot of questions about how to stop sabotaging your life when sabotaging your efforts is the problem. You can explore that concern and those questions as they arise. Use the tools to get out of your own way
when exploring subverting your efforts to stop sabotaging yourself. Like all behaviorchanges, it will take time and patience to make progress in your efforts, and your progress won’t be linear. That is also to be expected. The important thing is that you continue to be mindful and do your best to support yourself in building the life and relationships you desire and deserve.
Embracing You Therapy Group Practice
Here at Embracing You Therapy Group, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
At our mental health practice in Woodland Hills, CA, we offer individual therapy and couple’s therapy. Both Dr. Menije and Cindy Sayani, AMFT offer virtual therapy to treat mental health concerns include Anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, phobias, and stress; Mood disorders including depression; Relationship issues, both in couples therapy and with individual clients; Perinatal mental health issues such as postpartum depression or anxiety, and Addiction.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress, and then let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way.