Everything you need to know about self-sabotage in 5 minutes or less

🎯 What Is Self-Sabotage?

Self-sabotage is a habit of undermining your own goals by acting contrary to your values.

👀 Examples of Self-Sabotage

  • Stress Eating. Using food to relieve stress, numb difficult emotions, or distract yourself.
  • Procrastination. Procrastination means delaying or avoiding a task despite knowing you’ll be worse off for it in the long-term.
  • Substance Abuse. Alcohol and marijuana are common, but prescription medications like Xanax, opioids, or hypnotic are frequently abused too.
  • Chronic Lateness. Chronic lateness is often a form of self-sabotage driven by psychological dynamics like need for control or expectation management.
  • Intimacy and Commitment Issues. Many people fall into a habit of sabotaging romantic relationships because of fear of commitment or vulnerability issues.

😬 Problems Associated with Self-Sabotage

While there are many possible problems that result from self-sabotage, here are three of the most common and damaging:

  • Low Self-Esteem. Self-esteem is your reputation with yourself. And if you’re constantly sabotaging your goals and values, it means that your self-esteem will suffer. Think about it like this: If another person consistently failed to live up to their promises and commitments, your respect for them would drop, no? It’s the same with our respect for ourselves, which is based primarily on our behavior and the degree to which we do what we say and value.
  • Chronic Anxiety. When you’re in a pattern of self-sabotage, you will—not surprisingly—find yourself doubting your ability to accomplish difficult but important tasks in the future, worrying about what other people will think of you, and increasingly imagining how self-sabotage will affect you in the future. All of this worry leads to chronic anxiety.
  • Unhealthy Relationships. It’s difficult to sustain a healthy relationship with anyone—romantic partners, coworkers, even children—if you’re in a habit of undermining yourself. Because eventually people observe this pattern in you and their trust in you falls. Consequently, the relationship either slowly falls apart or settles into a very superficial and ultimately unsatisfying shell of the relationship characterized by poor communication, resentment, and even hostility.

🌀 Origins and Causes of Self-Sabotage

Rather than spending too much time and energy exploring the origins of your self-sabotage in the distant past, it’s usually more productive to focus on what’s maintaining it in the present. Here are a few of the most common maintaining causes of self-sabotage:

  • Peer Modeling. Frequently, people who self-sabotage are surrounded by others who self-sabotage. As a result, the behavior gets normalized and even reinforced. What’s more, if your self-sabotaging peers form a significant community that provides a sense of belonging, purpose, or acceptance, reducing or eliminating self-sabotage can be quite frightening because it could mean the loss of that community and the benefits that come with it—many of which are psychologically powerful.
  • Low Emotional Endurance. Emotional endurance is the ability to tolerate difficult moods or emotions for extended periods of time and stay focused on your goals without attempting to eliminate, fix, or improve your emotional state. Because self-sabotaging behaviors are often motivated by the avoidance of uncomfortable emotions like anxiety or shame, overcoming them means being able to tolerate those emotions rather than avoid them. This is challenging if you have low emotional endurance.
  • Expectation Management. Self-sabotage sticks around because, on some level, it’s functional; that is, the person gets something out of their self-sabotaging behavior despite the obvious costs. And frequently, the psychological function of self-sabotage is to keep other people’s expectations low and thereby reduce anxiety. For example, a child might unconsciously fail to study and do poorly in school because they get anxious imagining their parent’s extremely high academic standards and don’t believe they could ever live up to them.

💡 Key Insights About Self-Sabotage

  • Conscious vs unconscious self-sabotage. Conscious self-sabotage is when you are fully aware that your decisions are contrary to your goals and values. For example: Having a second helping of ice-cream knowing full well it’s contrary to your healthy eating plan. Unconscious self-sabotage is when you act contrary to your goals and values but only realize it after the fact (if at all). For example: After years of chronically showing up late to work, your coach points out that this might be a way to avoid promotions and increased responsibility, which would result in higher expectations, a greater chance of failure, and therefore, more anxiety.
  • Self-criticism is often the biggest obstacle to overcoming self-sabotage. Most people who struggle with self-sabotage have been stuck in a self-sabotaging pattern for a long time. And understandably, they feel a lot of shame and guilt about it. Unfortunately, for many people their default reaction to shame and guilt is self-criticism. And while it feels natural and “deserved,” self-criticism only adds to the shame and guilt long-term, making it even harder to break out of the self-sabotage cycle. So, one of the most effective ways to stop self-sabotaging is to identify and resist the impulse to criticize yourself after a self-sabotaging behavior.
  • Self-sabotage is a habit, not a personality trait. People who struggle with self-sabotage often become hopeless that they can change or that things can ever get better, which unfortunately only increases the odds of future self-sabotage. To break free from this vicious cycle, it’s helpful to know that no one is born a “self-sabotager.” There’s no gene for self-defeating behavior or personality traits that inevitably leads to self-sabotage. It’s a habit, nothing more and nothing less. And while habits can be strong, they can always be broken.

🛠️ Tips and Tools for Dealing with Self-Sabotage

  • Identify your self-sabotage triggers. Triggers are cues in the environment that initiate a self-sabotaging behavior. For example, seeing an ad for beer might initiate your behavior of drinking too much. While it’s impossible to avoid all triggers for self-sabotage, if you learn to identify and be aware of the most common triggers, you can work to avoid many of them, and as a result, short-circuit the self-sabotage cycle before it even begins. Keep in mind that for many people, self-sabotage is as much a social and environmental problem as it is a psychological one.
  • Understand the need your self-sabotage fills. As mentioned earlier, self-sabotage sticks around as a habit because it’s functional—it gets you something. Or, put another way: It addresses a need you have. The key to eliminating your self-sabotaging behavior begins by being honest about the needs your self-sabotage fills. Maybe chronic lateness helps you avoid social anxiety, for example. Or maybe your hypercritical tendencies in relationships help you cope with your fear of commitment or low self-esteem. While it can be difficult to do, honestly acknowledging the needs your self-sabotage addresses is an essential first step to overcoming it.
  • Look for healthy behaviors that fill that need. Once you’ve identified the biggest needs your self-sabotage fills, the next step is to identify ways to address those needs in a healthier way. For example: Suppose the big need your self-sabotaging behavior of stress eating fills is lowering stress in your life. Well, a healthier way to lower stress in your life—one without the side effect of weight gain, for instance—might be to work on communicating assertively and setting better boundaries on the stressors in your life so that you don’t end up with so much stress in the first place. So, once you’ve identified the needs your self-sabotage fills, brainstorm a list of healthy alternative ways to get those needs met. Then you’ll be well-positioned to get to work putting your self-sabotage out of a job. TIP: If you’re having trouble brainstorming healthy alternatives, try doing it as an exercise with another person.
  • Use personal values to boost your motivation. Of course, even if you’ve identified the needs your self-sabotage fills, and come up with some healthier alternative behaviors to address those needs, you still have to do the hard work of putting those new healthier habits into practice. One of the best ways to boost your motivation and follow-through with these new healthy habits is by clarifying your personal values. Personal values are the why behind your ideal behavior. For example: If you want to address your need for belonging by socializing and making friends rather than numbing loneliness with alcohol, the value motivating that behavior might be friendship. And the clearer you are about why friendship is a core value for you, the more motivated you will be to follow through on your new commitment to healthier habits. This guide to values clarification is a good place to start.

💬 Quotes About Self-Sabotage

  • The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. — Carl Rogers
  • Our destiny is determined by our actions and not by our origins. — John D. Rockefeller
  • Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides and don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. — Ashley Janssen
  • Change is not a bolt of lightning that arrives with a zap. It is a bridge built brick by brick, every day, with sweat and humility and slips. It is hard work, and slow work, but it can be thrilling to watch it take shape. — Sarah Hepola

🔬 Selected Research on Self-Sabotage