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Self-Sabotage: Why You Do It PLUS 5 Tips to Change It Up

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

I recognize self-sabotage in a lot of people because it’s something I do myself though not as often as I used to. It’s something most of us do when faced with difficult situations or trying to achieve a particularly challenging goal. Self-sabotaging behavior creeps up on us when we least expect it or even unknowingly.

Self-sabotage can be unintentional or intentional action that stops you from moving forward. You (and I and everyone else!) use self-sabotaging behavior to undermine ultimate success. But, why do we do it? It doesn’t only happen in our careers but in all areas of our lives from relationships to personal growth and development to health and overall wellbeing.

I tackle self-sabotage most days and it helps to be aware of why I do it. Do you know when you’re stopping yourself from reaching your goals and dreams? Or is it something deeper in your subconscious that’s driving your unconscious but self-defeating behavior that you’re not even aware of?

Keep reading as I share a behavior that’s more common than you would like to believe or accept about yourself.

Self-Sabotage: What is It?

Self-sabotage can be defined as self-defeating or self-destructive behavior that results in harmful actions that undermine all areas of your life. It prevents you from achieving your goals, visions, and dreams and leaves you stuck in a place you don’t want to be.

Self-sabotaging behavior is often stealthy and if we’re not aware of it, done unintentionally. It can be a form of negative habit that’s directed towards yourself which hinders any progress or success. By acting out these habits, you’re deliberately harming yourself and your personal growth and development. It can also be described as a form of emotional self-harm.

Why Do You Self-Sabotage?

There are several reasons why you self-sabotage. The most common one is low self-esteem.

  • Do you think you’re not worthy or have a low opinion of your competence?

  • Do you battle with self-hatred or simply don’t believe you’re capable or worthy of success?

These are all signs of low self-esteem.

Success wasn’t a word that featured in my personal life dictionary. It was a word only allowed for successful people – you know, doctors, lawyers, and really smart bankers. But, me? Nope. Until I discovered that everyone has a right and the ability to be successful no matter what their purpose in life is.

People dealing with stressful situations often resort to self-sabotaging behavior as a coping mechanism. Self-sabotage can be driven by a fear of failure – a person will procrastinate or avoid completing a project because they think they’re not going to succeed. On the other hand, it can be driven by fear of success – how am I going to cope with my “new” lifestyle?

A difficult or traumatic childhood can lead to self-sabotaging especially if you’ve grown up believing you’ll never amount to much. Fear of getting hurt, attachment issues, and lack of trust can all lead to self-defeating behavior in relationships. You act out rather than believe something good is going to work out.

The need to control is another reason why you may self-sabotage. Controlling behavior allows you to feel safe and in charge of anything that comes toward you. However, in the long run, it’s detrimental to your mental health and to relationships.

Not showing your vulnerabilities makes you feel you have the upper hand in any situation. However, it stops you from having meaningful relationships and success in other areas of your life.

I love Brene Brown's words of wisdom and her audiobook, "The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage" will help you unpack and shift feelings of fear, shame, and uncertainty.

Signs of Self-Sabotaging Behavior

You can knowingly or unknowingly self-sabotage so how do you know if your behavior is self-defeating? Here are some signs that are typical of self-sabotage:

  • Procrastination: This can show up as always being late for work, not completing tasks, or not making decisions. This behavior is normally driven by a fear of disappointing others. Or, you doubt your abilities or feel overwhelmed.

  • Perfectionism: Using your “high standards” as an excuse to not complete something out of fear of failure (or success.) If you don’t succeed according to your impossible standards, you feel ashamed and often fall into a state of depression. You could be afraid of criticism.

  • Negative self-talk: Talking yourself down prevents you from achieving your goal. You believe you’re worthless or don’t deserve the best. Putting yourself down constantly eventually leads you to believe you’re not good enough for success.

  • Grinding to a halt when the end goal is in sight: Your lack of worthiness drives this irrational behavior and is often driven by a fear of failure or not believing you’re good enough.

  • Blaming or justifying: When something goes wrong, your coping mechanism is to blame or justify instead of taking responsibility for the action taken OR not taken.

  • Deliberately picking arguments with others: Your fear of getting hurt or your lack of trust in others drives you to pick fights with friends or partners. Instead of talking about your needs and feelings you choose passive-aggressive behavior.

  • Dating the wrong people: Putting yourself into a toxic relationship saves you from opening up and sharing your vulnerabilities with someone else. While it feels safe it’s not emotionally healthy for you and prevents you from meeting the right partner for you.

  • Self-medication: When life gets overwhelming, you may turn to drugs, substance abuse, or alcohol to avoid facing challenges. This often happens when you have a fear of change, loss of control, or resentment that hasn’t been dealt with.

While we’ve all been prone to one or more of these behaviors, it’s hard to admit to yourself when you’re doing it to self-sabotage your personal growth and success.

5 Tips to Help You Move Away From Self-Sabotaging Behavior

Tip 1: Recognize the Behavior

Recognizing patterns of self-sabotage takes a lot of deep reflection and self-awareness. It’s painful admitting you're using self-defeating behavior but acknowledging that you're doing it is the key to healing and recovery.

Looking at all areas of your life and identifying a common thread or pattern will help you recognize self-sabotaging behavior.

  • Do you pick fights with people as soon as you feel they’re getting too close to you emotionally?

  • Are you procrastinating as soon as there’s a deadline at work (and it’s not the first time you’ve done it?)

Identifying where things often go wrong means you’re practicing self-defeating behavior.

Tip 2: Identify the Triggers

What’s triggering your self-sabotaging behavior? Identifying the causes of your behavior will help you to be more responsive than reactive when faced with challenging situations or people. Take note when you act out and use the triggers to alert you so you can prevent self-defeating behavior.

Triggers can look like any of the following:

  • Shutting down when someone is angry with you

  • Getting bored

  • Things going well

  • Feeling fearful

  • Creeping self-doubt

Reflect on your triggers and find ways to replace them with responsive and positive actions. Practice mindfulness to uncover why these triggers could lead to self-sabotage behavior and identify productive but non-threatening steps to eliminate self-destructive behavior.

Gay Hendriks's book, "The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fears and Take Your Life to the Next Level" is an empowering book that will help you release old fears that you no longer need to hold on to.

Tip 3: Accept Failure is Part of Life and Personal Growth

Getting comfortable with failure and accepting that it’s part of life takes away the anxiety normally associated with such an event. If you realize you’re taking steps to avoid emotional pain, rejection, or failure, you need to start reassuring yourself that it’s part of your personal growth and stepping into worthiness.

Dealing with failure is painful but learning to accept it and look at the bigger picture will help you to overcome it without resorting to self-sabotage. Asking yourself the question, ‘What is the worst that could happen?” can help to minimize your perceived impact of so-called failure.

I love this empowering quote by Ellen Degeneres - “When you take risks, you learn that there will be times you will succeed, and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.”

Tip 4: Are You Doing What You Really Want to Do?

Are you doing what you really want to do or are you trying to prove a point? When you know what you want, you’re less likely to self-sabotage. However, when you doing something because of someone or something else, it’s easier to give in to self-defeating behavior such as blaming or justifying.

Knowing who YOU are and what YOU want from life gives you the motivation to conquer most fears and to see things through. However, you may need some help along the hiring a life coach who will empower you to achieve your goals and dreams is a good step to take.

Tip 5: Take Action and Get Help

Identifying and acknowledging self-sabotaging patterns are some of the best actions you can take to start moving forward. However, it’s not always easy to go it alone, and asking for help is essential to break destructive habits. Talking to someone you trust or booking an appointment with a therapist can help you to get rid of self-defeating behavior.

Talking about your self-sabotaging behavior allows you to work through the underlying causes in a safe space. Speaking about your behavior out loud also decreases the amount of power it has over you and can help you NOT carry it out. Taking action and getting help will get you out of a funk that has been holding you back from reaching success and happiness.

Final Thoughts

Even though I know with absolute clarity what I want from life it doesn’t mean I don’t self-sabotage. However, I recognize when it’s happening and I choose to talk about it with my therapist, my partner, or I journal about it. I choose to take action and be responsible for my negative habits so I can live a life aligned with my true purpose and personal values.

Acknowledging the alternative is painful and while working through my self-defeating behavior is uncomfortable it keeps me from heading down the wrong path. I encourage you to be honest with yourself and be willing to let go of what doesn’t serve you – only then can you live a life that’s your TRUTH.

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