Self-Sabotaging: Hidden Signs, Why We Do It, & How to Stop

Most of us believe that we know what’s best for ourselves, and we’re often right. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean that we act in our own best interests. Sometimes, we say, do, or think things that actively prevent us from reaching our goals or achieving our potential.

If you realize that you’re undermining yourself, you might feel confused, frustrated, and even angry with yourself. That’s understandable, especially if you don’t really understand why.

In this article, we’ll look at what self-sabotage looks like, where it comes from, and how you can stop it.

Sections

  1. What is self-sabotage?
  2. Signs you are self-sabotaging
  3. Common causes
  4. 11 tips to stop it

What is self-sabotage?

We can define self-sabotage as doing something that undermines our own efforts and stops us from achieving things that are important to us. Severe forms of self-sabotage are sometimes known as behavioral dysregulation or self-destructive behavior.[1]

We often won’t recognize that we’re self-sabotaging as it’s happening, but it can become clear when we look back to try to understand why we’re not achieving our goals. We can be experts at creating plausible reasons for our self-sabotage.[2]

For example, you might want to save up to buy a new top-of-the-range laptop, but you keep spending money on other things. You might tell yourself that you’ve saved money because the shoes you bought were on sale, but you’re still no closer to buying your new laptop.

Self-sabotage doesn’t just get in the way of us achieving our goals. It can also leave us with a negative self-image.[3] We can feel as though our self-sabotage behaviors are a sign of weakness, lack of willpower, or poor character. In most cases, this isn’t true. Self-sabotage is most often a learned behavior that has previously helped you cope with difficult situations.[4]

Signs of self-sabotage you might not notice

Self-sabotage isn’t unusual. Lots of people sabotage themselves in small ways, whether it’s setting unachievable New Year’s resolutions, having a few too many drinks on a work night, or not starting a project until the very last minute.

There are also lots of common things we do that are actually ways of sabotaging ourselves. Here are some examples of self-sabotage behaviors you might not realize are harmful.

Self-sabotage at work or school

  • Perfectionism and over-researching
  • Micromanaging
  • Disorganization
  • Failure to finish projects
  • Procrastination
  • Talking too much
  • Setting goals you can never meet
  • Setting goals too low (so they never feel like a success)
  • Focusing on distractions
  • Refusing to ask for help

Self-sabotage with friends or when dating

  • Infidelity
  • Ghosting
  • Failing to commit to relationships
  • Passive-aggression
  • Oversharing
  • Allowing drama in your life
  • Violence or aggression
  • Making jokes at your own expense

General self-sabotage

  • Emotional downregulation (not letting yourself feel your emotions)
  • Negative self-talk
  • Self-medication (alcohol or drugs)
  • Avoiding uncomfortable situations
  • Avoiding making changes
  • Trying to change too much at once
  • General poor self-care
  • Telling yourself you can’t control things
  • Making value judgments rather than describing your actions
  • Quitting things that make you happy
  • Over- or under-eating
  • Physical self-harm

Causes of self-sabotage

Self-sabotage is often a coping strategy that is no longer working for you in the way it should.[5] Understanding where self-sabotage comes from makes it easier to be kind to yourself when it happens and can help you deal with the underlying problem.

Here are some of the most common causes of self-sabotage:

1. Having low self-worth

Lots of self-sabotage behaviors come from not feeling as though you are worthy of love, care, or success.[6] This isn’t usually conscious. Most people don’t create conflict in their relationships because they think they’re not worthy of love. Instead, it’s a subconscious belief that leads to their behavior.

Low self-worth often comes from childhood.[7] Even high-achieving children are sometimes left feeling that they’re not good enough or that they will only be loved if they are perfect.

2. Avoiding cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance refers to the feeling of trying to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. Cognitive dissonance is usually deeply uncomfortable, and most people will try to minimize it as much as they can.[8]

If you have low self-esteem or you lack confidence, success can feel uncomfortable due to the cognitive dissonance between what you expect and what has happened. Self-sabotage is a way of reducing cognitive dissonance and feeling as though you understand the world again.

3. Creating excuses in preparation for failure

Few people (if any) like to fail. For most of us, failing at something makes us feel bad. We will often spend some time thinking about what went wrong, and it can lead us to question our own abilities.

For some people, the introspection, doubt, and sadness that come from failing are so scary that their subconscious has created ways to avoid those feelings. Self-sabotage provides a ready-made explanation for why we didn’t get good grades or gave a poor presentation.

Telling yourself that you scored badly on a test because you went to a party the night before instead of studying can feel much less uncomfortable than getting those same grades after trying your hardest.

4. Learning from others

Self-sabotage doesn’t always come from deep-seated insecurity. Sometimes, we’ve just learned it from important people in our lives.[9] For example, if your parents gave each other the silent treatment after an argument, it might feel like a normal way of dealing with conflict.

People who have learned self-sabotage in this way often see that they’re not achieving the things they want (such as a healthy relationship), but they don’t know any other way to approach the problem.[10]

5. Filling an unrecognized need

When you notice your own self-sabotage, you’ll probably become quite frustrated with yourself. It’s hard to understand why you’d get in your own way like this.

Often, self-sabotage is filling a need that you hadn’t realized you have.[11] For example, you might overeat when you are stressed, which sabotages your weight loss goal of having a healthy diet. You might realize that overeating provides you with a sense of comfort that you’re not getting from anywhere else.

6. Avoiding powerful feelings

Self-sabotage can sometimes give us moderate negative feelings whilst letting us avoid really intense feelings. One common example of this is when you don’t fully commit to a relationship because you’re afraid of being abandoned.[12]

People who do this will often end a relationship at the first sign of trouble because the pain of breaking up with someone is less than the pain of having the other person leave them.

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7. Experience of trauma

Self-sabotage can also be a response to trauma. Experiencing traumatic life events can change how you react to things, especially when you’re under stress.

Most people have heard of the fight or flight response, but scientists now suggest that we should be thinking about fight, flight, or freeze.[13] If you’ve experienced trauma in the past, you might start to freeze in response to difficult situations even though you know that there are things you can do that would help.[14]

There is an alternative system that we use to help deal with trauma, known as tend and befriend. This is where we focus on building relationships with other people to help protect ourselves or others.[15] This can however lead to self-sabotage behaviors such as becoming a people pleaser and always putting other people first.

8. Poor mental health

Some mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression (especially bipolar disorder), or borderline personality disorder (BPD), can encourage you to self-sabotage.[16][17] They simultaneously make it harder for you to do things you know will help you and reduce the energy you have spare.

In these cases, it can be helpful to think of your self-sabotage as another symptom of your illness. This can help remove some of the shame and self-stigma you feel around your struggles.

How to stop self-sabotage

Once you’ve recognized that you’re sabotaging yourself and have thought about why you react this way, it’s possible to start to make real change. This can help to boost your self-esteem and self-confidence, as well as make you more successful in lots of areas of your life.

Here are some of the best ways to stop self-sabotage.

1. Don’t expect to fix it all overnight

Self-sabotage is usually a long-term habit with deep-rooted feelings and behaviors. It’s going to take time and effort to overcome. It’s normal to become frustrated with yourself once you notice that you’re self-sabotaging, but it’s important to be kind to yourself and celebrate incremental progress.

When you find yourself becoming frustrated, try to remind yourself that expecting immediate change and trying to solve everything at once is actually another type of self-sabotage. Being happy with small improvements isn’t you being lazy or not trying hard enough. It’s you making a concerted effort not to sabotage your efforts to stop your self-sabotage.

This list of self-sabotage quotes can be helpful to cope with your frustration, by knowing you’re not alone in your struggle.  

2. Work on your behavior and your mindset

There are two components to your self-sabotage: what you think and what you do. If you want to make as much progress towards stopping your self-sabotage as you can, it makes sense to work on whichever one of these seems easier right now.

For example, you might find that you always start an argument with your partner when you go out for drinks. Addressing the emotional problems underneath that might be difficult, but you could start by choosing not to drink when you go out.

On the other hand, you might believe that you’ll never succeed no matter how hard you try, which means you stop trying hard at work. Just telling yourself to try harder isn’t likely to help much, so it might be better to focus on changing your mindset first.

Your first aim in dealing with self-sabotage is to stop the cycle, which is why it’s a good idea to start wherever you can. This doesn’t mean that you can completely ignore the other side, though. If you don’t deal with both your mindset and your actions, you might find that you just change the type of self-sabotage rather than getting rid of it entirely.

If you struggle with passive-aggressive behavior, for example, you might find it useful to read this article on how to stop being passive-aggressive and put some of its strategies to work.

3. Learn to recognize self-sabotage early

The sooner you notice that you’re getting in your own way, the easier it is to change what you’re doing. Paying attention to your thoughts and your actions can help you to notice when you’re about to self-sabotage.

Consider creating a list of common ways that people self-sabotage, and ask yourself whether any of them might apply to you.

You might also want to look back at things you’ve done in the past and ask whether the choices you made were actually aligned with your long-term needs. Journaling can be a great way to notice patterns in your thoughts or actions that are related to self-sabotage.

If you find it hard to spot your own self-sabotaging behavior, you might like this article on how to become more self-aware.

4. Understand what self-sabotage is giving you

Self-sabotage can seem completely irrational and self-destructive, but this is rarely the case. You’ll almost always find some need that your self-sabotage is fulfilling. Once you understand the positive aspects of your sabotage, you’re able to find alternative ways to fill that need.

Quitting smoking is a great example here. Lots of people want to quit smoking for their health. They know that it’s not good for them, and they’re often frustrated that they don’t seem able to stop. They might use nicotine patches to deal with the physical addiction but still struggle to give up cigarettes. This is because they’re not addressing the other things that cigarettes are giving them.

When they reflect on the benefits of smoking, they realize that they enjoy having a break away from their desk, talking to other people while they smoke, or being able to take a few minutes alone to think.

Once you’re able to find another way to fulfill those hidden needs, it becomes much easier to stop self-sabotaging.

Why is it so hard to understand what needs our self-sabotage is filling?

Shame can often make it difficult to understand what needs your self-sabotage is filling. It’s easy to feel angry and ashamed of our self-sabotage, which makes it difficult to accept that there’s anything good or beneficial to us.[18] Try to take a non-judgmental look at your feelings. Spend a few minutes thinking about your self-sabotage and focus on being curious rather than angry or ashamed.

5. Make compelling and effective goals

Self-sabotage often happens when our short-term goals are in conflict with our long-term goals. For example, you might want to find a new job to help further your career. That’s a long-term goal. You could make progress on this by job-hunting in the evening, but this might conflict with your short-term goal of playing video games.

You’re more likely to be motivated by clear, compelling long-term goals, which makes it easier to resist the temptation of short-term desires.

How to create compelling goals

You’re more likely to have the self-discipline to stick to goals that you’ve really thought about and invested in. Sure, everyone might like to earn more money, live in a nicer area, have loads of free time, and connect with a great circle of friends. Those are OK goals, but they’re probably not strong enough to overcome your short-term wants.

Instead of listing generic goals, take one and really think about it. Try using the 5 Whys technique, where you ask yourself why you want to achieve your goal 5 times. For example, if you want to get a better job, the exercise might go like this:

I want a better job

Why?

Because I want to earn more money

Why?

Because I want to pay off the mortgage

Why?

Because I don’t want to always feel stressed about money

Why?

Because I don’t like how I treat my family when I’m stressed

Why?

Because I want to feel safe and loved by my family

As you can see, the real goal is often far more compelling than the one we start with. Uncovering your real goals may boost your motivation.

6. Learn to support (rather than sabotage) yourself

We’ve already said that self-sabotage often starts out as a coping mechanism. Trying to just cut out the ways you self-sabotage can leave a gap, which can easily be filled by different forms of self-sabotage.

Instead of focusing on getting rid of things you shouldn’t do, it might be more helpful to think about transforming what you do into something more supportive.

For example, trying to suppress negative self-talk doesn’t work well.[19] Instead, when you catch yourself having negative thoughts about yourself, try saying, “That wasn’t kind or fair. I’m only thinking this way out of habit. But I noticed this time, and that’s a good step in the right direction. Well done me.”

You might also want to work on your self-compassion and self-soothing. To improve your self-compassion, you could try trying to think of something you appreciate about yourself every day or giving yourself compliments (and meaning them).

Self-soothing is how we make ourselves feel OK despite stressful situations.[20] Alcohol and drugs can be unhealthy ways of self-soothing, so try to find healthy things that make you feel better. You could try taking a walk alone, calling a friend to talk, cuddling a treasured pet, or having a tough gym workout.

7. Make inertia work for you

One way to address specific self-sabotaging behaviors is to find ways to make the self-sabotage take more effort than your ideal actions. If you know that you sabotage in a specific way, try to set things up to make that kind of sabotage more difficult.

For example, lots of people stop doing activities or hobbies that they know make them happy because they are too stressed, distracted, busy, or depressed to make arrangements. For example, you might feel uncomfortable calling to book a therapy session or forget to ask a friend to join you for a walk.

Making those activities the default, so you have to make an effort to cancel them, can make it more likely that you actually turn up. For example, if you have a regular weekly session for your therapy, phoning up to cancel it might be more effort than choosing to attend.

The aim isn’t to stop yourself from canceling if you really need to. You’re just trying to make it a little easier to make a positive choice and make it a little harder to sabotage yourself.

8. Practice being good enough, not perfect

Self-sabotage can come from a fear of not being good enough. This can drive us to strive for perfection. We might not recognize that we’re actually good enough exactly as we are. If you’re driven to excel, being told that something is good enough can actually feel like criticism.

Learning that good enough is OK takes practice. It might mean that you stop looking for the perfect gift for someone when you find something that you know they’ll like. You might spend 10 minutes stretching, even though you don’t have time to do a full workout. You could send a project to your boss after doing just one or two proofreads, rather than going over it five or six times.

9. Become comfortable with some risk

Self-sabotage can make it easier for us to predict what will happen in a specific situation. When we stand in the way of our own success, we know that we’re not going to do well. Sometimes, the certainty of knowing the outcome can actually feel more comfortable to us than taking the risk that we might succeed.[21]

Overcoming this kind of self-sabotage often means that you will have to become comfortable with a little more risk.[22] This doesn’t mean you need to start throwing yourself into high-risk situations. Instead, it’s about trying to find situations that allow you to feel safe whilst still not knowing what the outcome will be.

Learning to overcome anxiety around risk and uncertainty is tough, so try to keep it manageable. You could try learning a new skill and accepting that you might never achieve full mastery of it. Or you could try taking up a hobby and learning to be comfortable with not knowing whether you’ll like it or not.

Even something as simple as attending Secret Cinema, where you don’t know exactly what is planned, can help you learn to take safe risks.

As you become more comfortable with being uncertain about what will happen, you might start to feel less Imposter Syndrome (which can also lead to self-sabotage). Try to remember that both your successes and failures can sometimes be equally undeserved. Sometimes you’ll succeed through good luck. Other times, bad luck will set you back. Either way, you are still an important and valuable person in your own right.

10. Try mindfulness

Mindfulness is about really paying attention to your inner world: your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. It also involves paying attention to physical sensations, such as your breath. Mindfulness can help you stop self-sabotage in two main ways.

Firstly, mindfulness helps you to look at yourself without judgment. You learn to pay attention to yourself and what you are doing, and you might start to check in with yourself more regularly. This can help you to identify self-sabotage more quickly and change your response.

The second way mindfulness can help reduce self-sabotage is by helping you to tolerate uncomfortable feelings. One common cause of self-sabotage is trying to avoid uncomfortable or painful feelings, such as rejection, abandonment, or inadequacy.

When you practice mindfulness, you’re trying to notice what you are thinking and feeling, without passing judgment or trying to change it. It’s about self-acceptance. By accepting your feelings, you can start to build up your ability to handle them.

Try taking a few minutes each day to try mindfulness. There’s a step-by-step guide here. Just remember not to expect too much too quickly.

11. Seek good-quality support

You don’t have to do all this alone. Working with a professional therapist can help you to deal with your self-sabotage, especially if it stems from poor mental health or your childhood experiences.

If your self-sabotage is particularly bad in one specific area of your life, there might also be other people who can help you. A business mentor or coach might be able to help you see ways that you’re sabotaging your career. An AA sponsor might be a good person to turn to if your self-sabotage is related to alcohol.

We recommend BetterHelp for online therapy, since they offer unlimited messaging and a weekly session, and are cheaper than going to a therapist's office.

Their plans start at $64 per week. If you use this link, you get 20% off your first month at BetterHelp + a $50 coupon valid for any SocialSelf course: Click here to learn more about BetterHelp.

(To receive your $50 SocialSelf coupon, sign up with our link. Then, email BetterHelp’s order confirmation to us to receive your personal code. You can use this code for any of our courses.)

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Natalie Watkins writes about socializing for SocialSelf. She holds a B.A. in Experimental Psychology from the University of Oxford, an M.S.c. in Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience from the University of London, and is currently in her final year of an MSc in Integrative Counselling at the University of Northampton.

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