- 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.
Why can’t I achieve my goals? The psychology behind self-sabotaging behaviors
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 instead of buying healthy groceries. Maybe you miss an important work deadline because you spend your final pre-deadline hours doom scrolling on your phone to avoid acknowledging the anxiety you feel.
These are common examples of self-sabotage—behaving in a way that conflicts with your true values and desires. 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?
What Are Some Everyday Examples of Self-Sabotage?
A range of thoughts and behaviors can qualify as self-sabotage. Some are as obvious as substance use or compulsive eating. Other more specific forms of self-sabotage include:
- Disorganization at home or at work
- Indecisiveness in relationships and life decisions
- Perfectionism that prevents someone from completing tasks
- A tendency toward procrastination
- Imposter syndrome
- Engaging in “workaholic” behavior
- Being overly self-critical rather than compassionate or self-accepting
- Paying for subscriptions you don’t use
- Doom scrolling
Self-sabotaging behaviors may feel comforting in the moment, as they often help the individual avoid making difficult decisions or implementing changes that would break the harmful habits that are already in place.
What’s the Difference Between Self-Sabotage and Self-Handicapping?
Self-sabotage and self-handicapping are similar words that describe the same harmful behavior. They both describe the unhelpful habit of creating obstacles to impede one’s personal progress—so that if you make a mistake in the future, you can blame it on the obstacle that’s been placed in your way, rather than on your personal abilities.
Is Self-Sabotaging a Toxic Trait?
Self-sabotage is absolutely a toxic trait, as it means that you’re blocking yourself from making healthier choices and implementing more helpful habits in your daily life. If left unchecked, self-sabotaging behaviors can quickly escalate into severe dysfunction over time.
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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.
What Is Self-Sabotaging a Symptom of?
Self-sabotage is often a symptom of low self-esteem. It may also be a symptom of traumatic experiences, anxiety disorders, or perhaps another condition. People who self-sabotage may also have poor or undeveloped coping skills. Here’s an extensive list:
- Modeling, or basing self-sabotaging behaviors off of role models or parental figures
- Past trauma, such as disturbing experiences that result in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings. Traumatic experiences are intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior and other aspects of functioning.
- Romantic rejection, or the denial of love, attention, and/or interest from a potential, current, or previous partner
- Neglect during childhood as a result of a parent or guardian’s failure to provide basic needs
- Hypersensitivity, resulting in difficulty tolerating physical or emotional discomfort
Many mental health disorders can cause deep resentment and reproach for oneself, making it difficult for an individual to recognize that their thoughts and self-sabotaging behaviors are harmful.
What Does Self-Sabotage Look Like in Relationships?
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 in a relationship may manifest itself as:
- Ignoring negative sentiment
These behaviors may arise to create issues in the relationship on purpose so that the individual who’s self-sabotaging can avoid their fear of their partner hurting them.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
And lastly, talk with a mental health professional. 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.
Now that you know about self-sabotage, don’t start using it to self-handicap. With the right mindset, you can reroute your behaviors toward enhancing your happiness—instead of obstructing it.