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Self Sabotaging: What Is It and How to Stop It

Amber Murphy

A majority of people set goals daily. Many of us even set goals for a whole year or years ahead. Anyone can create a goal really, but to achieve it is another story. If you’ve been observant of the patterns, you’ll probably see some people begin with the intention and not follow through with the actions for whatever reason. For example, someone’s New Year resolution may be to be vegan this new year. However, 3 months into the year, they find themselves back eating meats. Relapses are often common in any significant changes we try to implement. It begins with our thoughts essentially which can stem from a variety of things like childhood, environment, parenting styles, etc. These influences ingrain in us how we see ourselves and our place in the world. This also encompasses how we value ourselves and view our capabilities. One could describe any actions that get in the way of us achieving our goals as self sabotaging.

Self sabotage is the main perpetrator in one not reaching their goals or attaining their heart’s true desires. It could be as simple as that subconscious thought telling you that you can’t do it. Or, it could very well be the unconscious patterns you still practice that prove to be counterproductive to what you actually want. For instance, if you want to ask someone on a date, you might not approach them due to residual fears from the past like fears of rejection or failure. This can trigger false-core beliefs, making us freeze and sabotage ourselves from even taking a chance. Thus, we deprive ourselves of some potentially amazing opportunities. It’s important to know how you might be sabotaging yourself so that you can learn to take greater leaps of faith and step out of your comfort zone.

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What is self sabotaging?

Self-sabotage has to do with a person’s behaviors that prevent them from achieving long-standing goals. There might be no valid reason as to why they can’t achieve a goal, however someone who self sabotages might create excuses. This destructive behavior destroys progress and undermines a person’s ability to succeed. This can directly impact your confidence and self-esteem in a negative way. People who sabotage themselves often come up with false reasons as to why something isn’t possible or is more difficult than it actually is. Thus, this limits their motivation, rendering them stagnant in terms of their progress with a goal. Once they realize that they haven’t achieved a goal, they internalize it as confirmation to those false beliefs they initially had. It’s a vicious cycle of an unhealthy self-fulfilling prophecy. This pattern reinforces a decrease in one’s self-esteem. They prove themselves right that they weren’t capable when in fact they were capable had they not self sabotaged. Self-sabotage shows up in a person’s life in a multitude of ways. The following are some of the more common ways a person self sabotages:

Procrastination as a form of self sabotaging


Procrastination is one of the more popular forms of self sabotage. It is when someone finds other things to do instead of the objective they said they would do. In cases of procrastination, there is a level of avoidance that keeps someone from finishing a task at a certain deadline. For instance, if a student has to study for a test tomorrow, but choose to watch television instead, that is procrastination. If you procrastinate, you might have intentions to finish the task.

However, you’ll also notice yourself finding excuses for that task to be done later. Or, you might underestimate the amount of time the task will take or overestimate your ability to get it done in time. Procrastination can essentially lead to disappointment as the task or objective often never gets completed or is completed in a rush, leaving mistakes to be corrected.

Negative self-talk

Negative self-talk occurs when you have inner dialogue that isn’t encouraging or motivating you to strive towards a goal. The average human has around 60,000 to 70,000 thoughts on a daily basis. Many of these thoughts are recurring and tend to do with stresses like bills to pay, household responsibilities, etc. Some of these repetitive thoughts are actually that part of your mind that criticizes you harshly. We are many times our own worst critics because we can set the highest expectations for ourselves than anyone else. And, if we fail to meet those expectations, it is us that feel the brunt of that “failure”. We then internalize it as fuel to keep us from achieving certain goals. We use those “failed” experiences as proof of what we can not do instead of ammunition to fuel our hunger. So, the negative self-talk ensues. Those dealing with body-image issues can attest to having negative self-talk as well. It’s as if every effort to feel good about one’s body is met with opposition and negative reasoning as to why a person might not be good enough, not look attractive enough, not be smart enough, not be qualified enough for a position, etc.

Although we very much need our rational mind for our human existence, our conscious mind tends to go into overdrive, making us overly critical of ourselves. This could also be because we are afraid to leave a bad impression or fear facing failure. So, some people feel it’s best to not try at all. Instead of motivating themselves to finish a task, they talk themselves out of it.

Self-medicating using alcohol and drugs

Sabotage can be done through the use of self-medicating with substances. It could also lead to addictions. Some people believe that using substances like drugs and alcohol improve their performance. Perhaps they feel more social when they drink alcohol. So, they find themselves using alcohol as a means to initiate or participate in their social interactions. This self sabotage can also evolve into emotional codependency as a person uses these substances as a crutch or coping mechanism to deal with untapped emotions. This can greatly backfire on a person and further send them into a spiraling regression.

Man looking off into the distance in despair

Poor prioritization

A person may self sabotage by prioritizing a low-list item on their list of objectives. This means that they execute the least important goal first.

The important items get left for last and oftentimes never get done or are completed poorly due to a lack of energy at the end of the day. For instance, if you know that you have a deadline for a project, you might self sabotage by doing your household chores first or running errands. By the time you return home, you have less time to complete your project. So, you might rush or postpone the deadline for a later date.

Being arrogant

Nothing is wrong with having pride. However, having too much pride can make a person become arrogant. Sometimes people mistake the two or aren’t aware at their attempted to be confident coming across as arrogance. A person can be arrogant as a coping mechanism with inner discomfort or lack of confidence. Arrogance can act as a sort of mask, giving the illusion of false strength whilst the person is steal dealing with their inner turmoil. This can sabotage a person by making them appear to not need help from anyone else, as they probably give off the impression that they have things all figured out. Being arrogant can keep us from building deeper interpersonal relationships and receiving help from people when we most need it.

Toxic relationships can propel self sabotage

Maintaining toxic relationships

Staying in an unhealthy relationship is another form of self sabotage. Many of us do this at some point in our lives because we hold onto feeling comfortable. We might think that the person we are with is the best we can get even if we know we deserve better. A toxic partner can be someone who is emotionally codependent. So, they cling onto you, getting offended when you take time to work on your own personal achievements. Or, they can act as an enabler to some of the unhealthy habits you might have. These habits can include substance abuse, overindulgence, overeating, under-eating, etc. Essentially, your relationship to them is more of a hindrance or debilitation than an asset to your personal development. Keeping such connections sabotages you from making important decisions and much needed life changes.

How to stop self sabotaging

Stop setting outrageous expectations

Setting unrealistic expectations of yourself or others sets them up to fail and leaves you to suffer. As much as we want or hope for a desired result, there is always the possibility that things won’t go the way we prefer it to go. We sabotage ourselves sometimes because we set these expectations and how know how to respond when they are not reciprocated. So, it is best to make sure you are setting reasonable expectations and discuss what is expected with others to see if the demands are doable.

Doing the hardest thing first to overcome self sabotaging

Do the hardest thing first

Get the hardest or most time consuming thing on your list done first. It might seem easier to knock the smaller items off the list first. However, there’s no guarantees for how your day might transpire. There might be something that comes up that will require the rest of your attention for that day. So, you want to make sure you have that project completed beforehand.

Regain emotional independence

As stated, emotional codependency is one form of self sabotage. Not all perpetrators are aware that they are emotionally codependent on others. Usually, emotionally codependent people rely too much on others for their own validation and vindication. They rely on external sources for their own sense of wholeness and without that external source or person, they have difficulty functioning. People can regain their emotional independence by healing any traumatic wounds posed by past relationships or childhood experiences. Perhaps you may need to take a break from relationships altogether and build your strength back from its foundation.

Taking off masks to overcome self sabotaging

Don’t wear a mask

No one can read your mind. So, it is best to put the act away. When we wear a mask or purport ourselves to be much more happier, stable or confident that we really are, we set ourselves up for failure. People will only treat you based on the impressions you leave. If you give off the impression that you don’t need help, it is likely that no one will help you. Thus, you may find that you begin to pity yourself that no one cares. However, perhaps they do care but don’t see that what’s hidden behind your mask is a very vulnerable person.

Rid yourself of the victim mentality

You can stop self sabotaging by thinking more positively. Once we think more positive thoughts, we no longer provide fuel for bad, self-limiting behavior. You don’t have to be a bystander to what hurdles life throws your way. You can choose to be the victor in your own story and use those obstacles to propel you forward.

What causes self sabotaging behavior?

Childhood trauma

Much of self sabotaging behavior comes from childhood trauma and experiences we had growing up. It directly impacts our self-esteem and self-image. Adults who’ve experienced bullying may self sabotage in fear of facing those same judgments. For instance, some children who show an upstanding academic performance can also be subjected to bullying and words like “nerd” or “teacher’s pet”. Thus, you might find them less likely to vocalize themselves when it comes to their education in fear of facing that same backlash. Sabotaging behaviors can even come from our parents whether it is their intention or not. Let’s say you had an overprotective parents that sheltered you a lot, you might still harbor subconscious fears about going out and being social. Thus, this anxiety and reasoning can directly influence how much you initiate social interaction or participate in it. This can self sabotage yourself from meeting really great friends, romantic relationships, and even business partners.

Woman staring off into the distance looking at a bridge

Approach avoidance

With approach avoidance, you’ll find yourself faced with an amazing opportunity but also the reality that it will require some kind of sacrifice. With approach avoidance, as the name implies, you are moving towards something and away from something. The end goal requires some negative aspects as well as has positive aspects which renders you to be a bit more reluctant to progressively move forward. For example, a person wants to eat at their favorite fast food restaurant, but they also want to avoid gaining weight. They know weight gain will subsequently follow through if they choose to eat fast food. However, they really want to avoid that. The tension created by a desire, magnitude, valence and psychological distance all contribute to self sabotaging behavior.

Fear of rejection or fear of acceptance

Fear of rejection and fear of acceptance are more popular causes of this behavior. A person may dumb themselves down or pretend to be something they are not in fear of acceptance or rejection. For instance, an actor might not try out for the lead movie role because they fear being rejected. So, they self sabotage by trying out as an extra or for a role that they didn’t really care for. In cases where a person fears acceptance, they might act like someone they are not in fear of the stipulation attached to being accepted. Children in academia also displays this quite well. For example, a child may pretend to be a class clown when they are actually an honor roll student to evade the acceptance of their teachers and faculty. They might do this to avoid the response they will get from the other students.

A person can stop self sabotaging by realizing that they are the only ones to stand in their way. Every external factor that appears to be an obstacle is only an object that you can then define. Why not define these “obstacles” as stepping stones instead and see how far you will get once you end the self-fulfilling prophecy of self sabotaging behaviors.

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