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Self Sabotage – What it Looks Like and Why You Do it

by Andrea M. Darcy

Self-sabotage means you take actions against yourself. You stop yourself from achieving the goals you want, drive away the relationships you want, and convince yourself you don’t want what you actually do want.

You could sum up self-sabotage as ‘working against yourself’.

What does self-sabotage in action look like?

Sabotage can hide behind impulsiveness and a need for excitement.

  • Do you suddenly make a decision that takes you away from something else you had planned?
  • I got offered a job in an amazing company but decided to accept an offer to teach English in Japan for a year, I have a big presentation at work this morning but found myself going out and getting drunk last night.

Often sabotage looks like indecision.

  • Do you really want something, but when it actually starts to happen decide maybe you don’t?
  • I wanted to date him for ages but now I worry he’s too into sports for someone like me.

Sabotage most often comes hand in hand with self-criticism.

  • Do you make statements of low self-worth to convince yourself not to do things you want?
  • Yeah, I know it seemed like my perfect job but the truth is there is no point in applying. I’d never get it, I don’t have the right experience.

It might also wear the mask of perfectionism.

  • Do you decide not to do something at all rather than risk it not being perfect?
  • I’m not going to the party because I don’t have the right outfit.

Another common face of self-sabotage is procrastination.

Am I stressed or depressed online quiz
  • Do you tend to put off things that are important to you?
  • I had a big deadline and found myself organising my spice drawer.

Self-sabotage can take the form of destructive habits.

  • Do you have addictive habits that seem to come into play when things you want might happen? Overeating, alcohol, overspending, drugs, worry?
  • I found myself binge eating in the week leading up to my beach vacation where I wanted to look good in a bathing suit, I had an important date and showed up drunk.

And often you’ll know you’ve done sabotage if you resort to defensiveness.

  • Do you find yourself over-explaining why you did or didn’t do something?
  • I didn’t attend the networking event because it wasn’t as worthwhile as I thought, besides I can make those contacts over the internet if I really want them.

Why is sabotage so powerful?

If only sabotage was a one-off, it would be more manageable.

The problem with self-sabotage is that it tends to be a rolling snowball. Once we do one act of sabotage, it leads to other acts to cover the sabotage, or to make it seem like we don’t care about the sabotage.

It also tends to be a pattern, something you’ll do each time you are ‘triggered’.

Why do we self-sabotage?

Sabotage seems really illogical on its surface –why would we do things that mean we don’t get what we really want? Yet dive a little deeper, and sabotage has its own strange logic.

When we approach things we want or desire, it’s common for our insecurities and limiting beliefs about ourselves to rise to the surface. To keep moving forward, we’d have to face those thoughts and beliefs head on.

So sabotage is our unconscious way to avoid having to face negative thinking and negative emotions (fear, worry, sadness).

And at the end of the day, sabotage can feel ‘easier’ than success because it’s more familiar. If we aren’t used to good things happening, it can be a case of picking ‘the devil we know’ by sabotaging and ensuring our comfort zone of failure.

But what makes us the sort of person who has negative emotions to avoid, or a comfort zone of failure?

Self-Sabotage and Its Roots in Childhood

Like most forms of defeating thoughts and behaviours, sabotage is largely a pattern from childhood. It’s connected to your ‘inner critic’, the voice that tells you you can’t do things or aren’t good enough. It is also connected to your core beliefs, the things you hold to be truths about life and make all your decisions in life based on, often without having any idea you are doing so.

Such sabotaging thought patterns can be things a parent or caregiver told you that you have internalised (made a part of your unconscious dialogue). For example, you might have been told that ‘you aren’t as smart as your sister’ so grow up to sabotage anything that means you might look smart, still serving that old belief you are not. It can also be that you took on certain beliefs because of the way you were treated, over anything that was said to you.

If, for example, you were only loved when you were well-behaved and doing what you were told, you would develop the belief you had to ‘earn’ love. Unless you had done the work to recognise and change such a thought pattern through something like self development or therapy, as an adult you might sabotage any experience where someone tries to love you.

Some of your sabotaging behaviours could also be things you learned by example. In other words, you learned the behaviour because your parent did it. So if your mother had low self-esteem and sabotaged any career progression, you might find you do the same thing.

Childhood trauma is another experience that can leave you an adult good at sabotage. Even if you had loving wonderful parents something like sexual abuse by a family friend can leave you with core beliefs that the world is dangerous or you don’t deserve good things, all leading to patterns of sabotage if life goes well.

Ready to stop self-sabotaging? Read our connected piece now, “How to Stop Self-Sabotage“.

Thought of something we forgot? Or have a question? Comment below. We love hearing from you.

Andrea M. Darcy health writer

Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert and personal development teacher with training in person-centred counselling and coaching, as well a popular psychology writer. Follow her on Instagram for useful life tips @am_darcy


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Blog Topics: Self Esteem

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