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Do You Tend to Self-Sabotage?

Businessman engaging in self-sabotage by popping balloons holding him up in the air

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 imposter 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 seems 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 in to difficult emotions, radical acceptance, self-compassion, and cognitive defusion (an acceptance and commitment therapy concept that involves untangling yourself from your thoughts).

Getting personal

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?


67 thoughts on “Do You Tend to Self-Sabotage?”

  1. I would like to think I have moved beyond my self-sabotage behaviors. It took targeted effort to do so but I think it was worth it. I am one of those who never thought I deserved “good”. Thankfully that has changed and I am now a mindful being who attracts good things.

  2. Wow Ashley, what a pertinent post. Both my fiancé and I do this but in different ways. We could probably write a book on how to have a relationship with two sufferers of anxiety.

    For my own self I am the same as you. I’ve always been almost militantly independent. Naturally this has affected me in school, in work and in my relationship. I will certainly and purposely not do something it I am told to do, likewise as you do, even if I am fully aware it is the right thing to do or it will benefit me.

    It’s an ongoing struggle. You can imagine how this frustrates those around me, including my own self. Learning to be more adaptable is difficult.

    1. It’s tough to figure out the right balance. Independence is mostly a good thing in my life, so the idea of easing up on it seems weird even though it would probably be a good thing.

      1. Same here. I owe so much to being independent. Plus my personality and beliefs naturally accord with it. Overall, I like who I am as a fierce, independent individual. That counts for something; it’s just a matter of finding flexibility for oneself that meshes well with it, in addition to understanding in others.

  3. A ogreat article Ashley Leia. Long time ago in my late forties, someone, I trusted and respected had the courage and kindness to point out to me that I was self sabotaging. Until then, I thought that I was “normal” Thanks to that great friend, I was then and still now assess the motives for my own behaviourm or my inaction and self check. It is a process, there is no quick fix (in my opinion).

  4. Ugh I self sabotage like it’s my job, and I’m not even aware that I’m doing it half of the time. Usually it’s just maladaptive coping mechanisms, but still. I’m trying to be conscious and aware of it, and not do it as often. But it is hard.

      1. Shit, I still receive those messages from my family 😜😂
        It’s hard to escape it. And it’s hard to relearn healthier patterns when you’re still stuck in the same environment so often.

  5. I don’t know if my excessive sleeping is self-sabotaging avoidance or just a medication side-effect. It could be either.

    Otherwise, I do procrastinate a bit, but my biggest self-sabotaging behaviour is negative self-talk. If I push myself to do something new or difficult, afterwards I will focus on the smallest mistake (real or perceived) rather than congratulate myself, and I won’t accept praise from others. If it doesn’t go well (again, in reality or perception) — you can imagine the negative thoughts I have about myself.

    1. Even if there is some element of avoidance, it seems like it would be hard to make yourself sleep a lot without other things going on.

      I wonder if once you and E get married the negative self-talk will settle down a little bit.

      1. Yeah, that it does. Unfortunately, I struggle with that. Your article raises an important issue that is self sabotage, and for me, there isn’t an easy fix. I don’t want to cite taking antipsychotics (because some ppl have less trouble with them), but as I’ve mentioned before, they are a problem.

  6. I have been trying to be good to myself, and it’s much easier now that I don’t have some man in my life putting me down. Dating really messed me up!

  7. Thank you for including my post. Yes, I’m so guilty of sabotaging my hard work…
    I think for me it’s mostly fear of failure, that I try my best and won’t make it. So in the end, I don’t try and fail anyway. But it seems less bad then because I didn’t “all that energy in it”, even though that energy could have made the change from failure to success….. 😊
    Recognizing self sabotaging is very important, because then you can learn about the signs, the tells, and try to learn how to counter them. But it takes a lot of self believe, for me, to push through and put in that energy I wrote about.
    It’s a learning battle. One I’m not sure I’ll ever totally win but maybe I can win some more, which would be a great improvement 💪🏼. Thank you for sharing this!

  8. I’ve done it a lot. I used to stop myself from doing the things I’d really like to do just to make myself miserable. Maybe punishment out of self-hate. I’ve gotten much better though.

  9. Good post Ashley…

    Yes, I self-sabotage… but I’ve learned to control it somewhat….although it’s like you say identifying those thoughts and feelings or parts of you that want to self-sabotage and then asking yourself why? It is really difficult…and takes time… and it’s painful too… because the self-sabotage is like the behaviour or actions like the top of an ice-berg…that is seen and on top, and you have to get below that, and see what is beneath.

  10. I self-sabotage. I used to a lot when it came to receiving “high end” jobs. I most likely didn’t think I was good enough and didn’t understand why I’d even be considered.

    1. I remember reading somewhere that when looking at job listings, men are more likely to think that they should still apply if they only meet some of the requirements or preferred experience, whereas women are more likely to think that if they don’t meet almost all of them they shouldn’t bother applying.

  11. Thanks for sharing this Ashley, and your experience with it. I like the way you described yourself as fiercely independent – I so relate to that and can find it both a blessing and a curse.
    I definitely self sabotage- its hard because I am quite self aware as well so I know when I am doing it and I still struggle to pull myself out if it. I also deal heavily with imposter syndrome, I wonder how big the correlation is between that and self sabotaging.
    I love your work, it always makes me think more introspectively.
    Sending lots of love your way <3

  12. Love this post! I’m a stubborn moose, too 😂 I used to sabotage things I didn’t really want to do anyway – like when I “forgot” to send my GRE scores in w my application to a graduate program I wasn’t sure about. I’ve also caused chaotic situations and gotten sick as avoidance. Now, I don’t do it so much because I’ve gotten better at saying no.
    I’m not sure this counts as self-sabotage. It seems like regular sabotage?
    Anyway- if I do catch myself procrastinating or talking myself out of something I know I really want, I’m pretty good at halting that promptly and tapping it out with EFT. Journaling and making lists of negative/positive beliefs about the thing also help a ton!

      1. Yes! Journaling makes it impossible to avoid the issue! And sometimes seeing my thoughts on paper helps me use kinder, gentler language.

  13. Hey girl, I’m alive. I am so good at self sabotage.
    One thing I would say about this

    We know that most of us do not like change. Keeping this in mind, changing ourselves for the positive, can feel like relief at the start,
    But when it becomes less of a relief and more like “work”, it is easy to miss the – Familiarity – of the way things used to be.

    We get stuck in what feels normal, even if it is unhealthy.

    It proves CHANGE is Hard.

      1. Amen to that. I have been so freaking exhausted. I am not feeling awful but not feeling great. I have a PICC line and have been doing daily levo Infusions just trying to get my thyroid in a “normal” range.
        But I have been literally stuck in the same place since I left the hospital on April 30th.
        And of course, doctors…
        My Endocrinologist won’t increase my dose so I left the hospital at .65. And I am now at… wait for it .67
        Awesome huh…

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