• When you behave in a way that undermines your values, it’s called self-sabotage.
  • People engage in self-sabotaging behaviors and thoughts for a variety of reasons, many of them coming back to self-esteem.
  • You can stop self-sabotage and behavioral self-handicaps by taking a deep dive into your thinking patterns.
  • The more you seek to understand and feel compassion for your own maladaptive actions, the more successfully you can support your emotional growth.

Have you ever caught yourself actively undermining your own goals? Maybe you decide to take better care of your body, only to inhale fast food at 10pm because you neglected to buy healthy groceries. Maybe you miss an important work deadline because you spend your final pre-deadline hours on unnecessary research–or on deep-cleaning the bathroom. Or maybe you want to save up for a house but neglect to make a budget because you feel that you’ll go broke no matter what.

These are all common examples of self-sabotage, which is when you behave in a way that conflicts with your own values and desires. Imagine being an objective observer of your actions. You watch yourself binge on late-night cheeseburgers. Would you know that you desperately wanted to lower your cholesterol? No, you’d probably assume you were training for a cheeseburger-eating contest. Your actions belie your intentions. 

Self-sabotage can happen consciously or unconsciously, with major or minor pursuits, in our careers or in our intimate relationships. Essentially, it’s a pattern of maladaptive thoughts and behaviors that can prevent us from achieving our goals. So what causes self-sabotage and how can we break the cycle?

The Difference Between Self-Sabotage and Self-Handicapping

Humans obviously engage in a number of self-destructive behaviors that might not make sense to an alien observer. For example, we might binge on junk food until our stomachs hurt. We might abuse drugs or alcohol, spend our rent money in Vegas, fall in love with a drummer (kidding). But here’s the thing about self-destructive behavior: It’s often a misguided attempt to protect ourselves on a deeper emotional level. What looks like self-inflicted harm from the outside is frequently a maladaptive strategy for avoiding harm. Such is often the case with self-sabotage, which we’ll go into more detail about in a section below. But first, let’s define what self–sabotage is and distinguish it from self-handicapping.

With self-sabotage, it’s as if you tell your enemy exactly what to do to thwart your success, but it turns out that you’re the enemy. You are the person getting in your own way. Self-sabotage tends to evoke a cognitive dissonance between what you value and how you act. It’s also called behavioral dysregulation. 

Self-handicapping, on the other hand, tends to be about ego protection. Someone might seek out an excuse not to try in order to avoid later defeat—and the blow to one’s self-esteem. In one famous psychological study, people who were unsure of their test-taking abilities opted to take a performance-inhibiting drug before a test so they’d have something to blame for their potential failure (i.e., an external causal attribution). 

Clearly there will be some overlap between self-sabotage and self-handicapping. Some psychiatrists have even advocated for including both types of behaviors as symptoms of “self-defeating personality disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This disorder never made it into the DSM, but that doesn’t mean that peoples’ lives aren’t negatively affected every day by these sorts of behavioral patterns. 

What Are Some Examples of Self Sabotage?

The following thoughts and behaviors might indicate an issue with self-sabotage.

  • You procrastinate, often waiting until the last minute to do what needs to be done. 
  • You tend to “forget” your responsibilities. Maybe you think you’ll remember a task, so you don’t write it down or set a reminder.
  • You take on too much and feel perpetually overworked/overcommitted. 
  • You don’t follow through on your commitments. You start projects but don’t finish–there’s always a roadblock in the way despite your “skill and will.” 
  • You’re a perfectionist. You set unrealistic goals and inflexible standards. Your all-or-nothing thinking traps you in denial-binge cycles. 
  • You reverse positive changes. 
  • You’re frequently unprepared. 
  • You’re a poster child for underachievement.
  • You can’t seem to overcome minor obstacles to achieving your goals. 
  • You’re chronically late, especially when the stakes are high.
  • You tend to give up when things get hard. 
  • You tend to think negatively, leaning on a pessimistic attitude and negative self-talk. 
  • You’re great at making excuses. 
  • You’re disorganized. Your work areas are cluttered.
  • You have a hard time making decisions or taking action. 
  • You feel like a phony (imposter syndrome).
  • You’re easily distracted from your goals. 
  • You self-medicate with counterproductive activities like overeating, abusing alcohol, etc.
  • You don’t assert yourself and you prefer to please other people than please yourself. 
  • You act on irrational/ungrounded fears, e.g., fear of commitment, change, or losing control. You’re a chronic worrier.

What Does Self-Sabotage Look Like in Relationships?

Self-sabotage can also be specific to intimate relationships, as when people do the following:

  • Choose incompatible partners
  • Refuse to commit
  • Hold grudges
  • Pick fights
  • Ignore their own feelings
  • Are unable to trust
  • Have unrealistic expectations

What Causes Self-Sabotaging Behaviors?

Psychologists think that self-sabotaging behaviors often stem from limiting beliefs about one’s self-worth. So maybe a person fears success because they don’t think they deserve it. Or maybe someone doesn’t believe that they’ll ever succeed in their goals, so they act in a way that predetermines failure. This is a way of remaining in control of the outcome. It’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy that reinforces the belief that they won’t succeed. 

A conflict between approach and avoidance also seems to play a role in self-sabotage. It feels good to set a goal, but then you perceive the change to be threatening somehow, so you retreat from the goal. It’s more important to be safe than to strive.

A history of trauma, rejection, or neglect can also cause people to self-sabotage. Maybe they have a deep-seated belief in their own unworthiness due to past experiences. They don’t feel that they deserve good things to happen to them. 

In intimate relationships, someone might self-sabotage because of insecure attachment styles. Or they might repeatedly date people “beneath” them so they can feel better about themselves and glean a sense of power and superiority. They may also be modeling behaviors that they learned from their primary caregivers.

Self-sabotage usually comes back to negative beliefs about oneself. The problem is that many of these beliefs stay buried deep, unexplored and unexamined.

How to Sabotage Your Inner Saboteur

Fortunately, there are countless evidence-based ways to disrupt self-sabotaging behaviors and learn to act in ways that better align with your values. 

  1. Become friendly with your self-sabotaging behaviors. Have some compassion for yourself and the vulnerabilities you’ve been trying to keep safe. After all, these thinking biases have attempted to protect you all these years. Get curious about their root causes and the emotional needs that they’ve been trying to fill. From here, you can begin to reframe your thinking and make the necessary changes. You can also start to recognize your triggers.
  2. Have an improvement mindset rather than an elimination mindset. Incremental change is okay! Start substituting positive self-talk for negative self-talk. Healing doesn’t happen overnight, and believing that you can heal overnight will just set you up for failure. And keep in mind that you deserve to take care of yourself and experience pleasure now, despite the fact that you’re a work in progress.
  3. Come up with alternative behaviors that can support your goals instead of sabotaging them. Have specific plans and strategies in place, e.g., “When I feel this contextual trigger, I will do A or B instead of C.” Once you know your thinking biases, you can anticipate them and start to counteract your established patterns. 
  4. Work on your emotional tolerance. After all, self-sabotage is often a maladaptive way to cope with negative feelings about yourself. If you can learn to recognize and manage those negative emotions, you may not need to take refuge in your old strategies.
  5. Take an inventory of your values. Dig deep to clarify what you really want. Maybe you’ve been impeding your own progress because the end goals you’ve been working toward have lost some of their meaning. 
  6. See a therapist. Treatment modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can all help to address the complex issues above: healthy self-concept, maladaptive thought patterns, attachment styles, trauma, emotional regulation, communication and coping skills, etc. Now that you know about self-sabotage, don’t start using it to self-handicap. A mental health professional can help you reroute all that energy toward enhancing your happiness instead of obstructing it.