Self-sabotage seems like it should be a pretty unnatural thing to do, but that’s just not the case, so I thought it would be interesting to chat about it. And since I scheduled this post, my friends Cynni Pixy and Doriondori also posted about self-sabotage, so good timing.
What self-sabotage is
Self-sabotage involves getting in the way of our own success and undermining personal goals and values. We can do it either consciously or unconsciously. Self-sabotaging behaviours can include avoidance, procrastination, or more overtly destructive behaviours like substance misuse, overeating, overspending, and self-injury. Negative self-talk tends to be part of the package deal. Perfectionism and impostor syndrome are both forms of self-sabotage.
Why it happens
There are a number of possible motivators for self-sabotage, including a desire to reduce threats that outweighs the desire to achieve goals, parental modelling, avoidance of potential rejection, using maladaptive rather than adaptive coping mechanisms, and a sense of being undeserving of good things.
We human folk like to have a stable self-concept, and we like to self-verify to keep that self-concept intact. When we’re confronted with things that contradict that self-concept, it brings on the inner squirmies of cognitive dissonance. If you have imposter syndrome, failure keeps you consistent with your self-concept. If you have low self-worth, succeeding at something could bring on the squirmies, which could make failure as a result of your own choice to [insert self-sabotaging behaviour of choice here] start to look like the more appealing option. And if you fail because you chose to procrastinate, for example, that might feel better than feeling like you failed because you just suck even though you tried your best.
What to do about it
Changing self-sabotaging patterns requires first identifying what those patterns are. If self-sabotage happens because the consequences of the sabotage seem less scary than the alternative, what is that alternative that you’re more scared of, and why is it so scary?
Strategies that can help with change include leaning into difficult emotions, radical acceptance, self-compassion, and cognitive defusion (an acceptance and commitment therapy concept that involves untangling yourself from your thoughts).
I don’t think I self-sabotage all that often. It helps that I don’t have a strong inner critic, I’m not a perfectionist, and I don’t have imposter syndrome.
While my self-esteem is generally good, I am quite emotionally sensitive. I will sometimes self-punish if I’m feeling hurt by something, although that tends to be negative punishment (as in deprivation of good things) rather than positive punishment (as in causing some form of self-harm). It’s not much of an issue now, but it was when I was younger. I remember my mom calling this martyring, although I’m not sure that’s really the right word for it.
My go-to reason for self-sabotage relates to being a stubborn moose. As I was saying to Em recently, I am the poster child for reactance. I am fiercely independent, and if someone tells me what to do and it feels like they’re impinging on that independence, I will dig my heels in and either refuse or do the opposite. I’ll do this even if what I’m being told to do would’ve been the best course of action or something I would have done anyway. This has definitely been an issue in terms of my mental illness treatment. I think this is a sort of indirect self-sabotage, as it’s not done out of fearing or trying to avoid a certain outcome but rather as a choice to prioritize my value of independence. Not necessarily a healthy choice, but a values-congruent choice.
Now it’s your turn. Do you tend to self-sabotage? How do you do that, and what motivates it?
- PositivePsychology.com: What Is Self-Sabotage? How to Help Stop the Vicious Cycle
- Quick and Dirty Tips: 6 Reasons Why We Self-Sabotage