In simple terms, self-sabotage is when you hinder or undermine your own success. It can be difficult to identify self-sabotaging behaviour because the consequences might not be immediately obvious, making the connection unclear. One thing to look out for is whether your behaviours are aligned with your long-term goals and dreams. Are you doing things that move you closer to these things or further away?
Self-sabotage can be conscious or unconscious. For example, knowing you need to fold laundry but choosing to watch TV instead could be considered conscious self-sabotage. Unconscious self-sabotage is when you do something that undermines a goal or personal value but don’t realise until afterwards. For example, deep down you would like to progress in your career, but you repeatedly show up late and do bad work. With some reflection you might realise your fear of failure means you’re doing everything you can to avoid promotion and increased responsibility as this would create higher expectations and even more opportunities to fail.
There are many forms of self-sabotage, but these are among the most common:
To some degree, most of these things are normal and not necessarily signs of a bigger, more serious problem. Everybody engages in self-sabotage to some degree. For some, it’s an occasional thing with little to no consequences. For others, it’s a chronic pattern of behaviour that can lead to serious issues in their life, work and relationships. For example, we all procrastinate. I’ve procrastinated a little while writing this article! If this procrastination became a consistent pattern of behaviour with serious negative effects, then it would be important to look at my actions more closely and make changes.
Some would say perfectionism is a form of self-sabotage in its own right. This can look like:
There is no single reason why self-sabotage happens. Some people spend a long time struggling with powerful cravings for food, drink, gambling, or other habits and addictions that come at a painful cost to their health or relationships. But the circumstances and experiences that lead to self-sabotage can also be more subtle.
People who self-sabotage may be repeating patterns and habits they first learned as children and have since become automatic. Trauma, low self-esteem, and low self-worth also increase the probability of self-sabotage in work and relationships.
The most important thing is to understand what self-sabotage is and what it looks like for you. Therapy and journaling are the best ways to start building more self-awareness. This can help you identify your triggers and start acting in line with your goals instead of your feelings. Here are a few other things you can try:
1. Get really clear on your goals and values. We are much more likely to commit to value-driven goals rather than goals based on comparison, avoidance or restriction. It’s also helpful to consider all the benefits of a goal or habit and how it fits in with what you want your life to look like.
2. Consider what’s at stake. What is the true cost of your self-sabotaging behaviour? What will your life look like if you keep making the same choices over and over again? How does this compare to the life you decided to work towards when establishing your goals and values?
3. Once you start noticing self-sabotaging behaviour, you can work on doing the opposite. Break your usual pattern of behaviour down in as much detail as possible and explore how you might do things differently. For example, if you tend to sabotage relationships by withdrawing and ignoring messages, what will happen if you commit to replying right away as much as possible? What will happen if you reach out first, start a conversation or arrange to meet in person?