Do you ever find yourself taking one step forward, only to take two steps back? Do you procrastinate on assignments or projects even though the due date is approaching? Or are you always in the middle of an argument with your friends or partner? It’s time to look at a silent but powerful enemy within – self-sabotage. We all do it to some extent, but when these behaviors become persistent, it may lead to you facing challenges in every area of your life, including home, school, work, and relationships.
Self-sabotage refers to behaviors or thought patterns that hold you back and prevent you from doing what you want to do like achieving your goals or caring for your well-being. Self-sabotage can happen consciously or unconsciously, with major or minor pursuits, in our careers, or in our intimate relationships.
These behavioral patterns act as a defense mechanism to keep us safe from any potential danger or harm. In our minds, what is familiar is considered safe, so if we stray away from the familiar and embrace the unfamiliar it might trigger self-sabotaging mechanisms.
What Are the Reasons Behind These Harmful Behaviors?
Self-sabotage can be a symptom of traumatic experiences, anxiety disorders, or other mental health conditions. People who self-sabotage may also have poor or undeveloped coping skills. It might also stem from neglect during childhood because of a parent or guardian’s failure to provide basic needs.
Some people thwart their progress because it makes them feel in control of their situations. By sabotaging and then fixing a situation, they might receive a short-term boost to their self-confidence. But over time, these quick boosts of confidence can be damaging because you are staying stagnant by not reaching your goals.
When it comes to romantic relationships, many people want to protect themselves, so they don’t get hurt first by their partner. An example of this is cheating on your significant other or constantly acting jealous around them. When you self-sabotage a relationship you may think that you are not deserving of the other person. It is easier to walk away or shut down versus risking being vulnerable.
What Does Self-Sabotage Look Like?
Self-sabotage can manifest in many different ways depending on the person and situation. Below are some common forms of self-sabotage that may happen without you even realizing:
Perhaps one of the most common forms of self-sabotage, procrastination is a way you show others you are never ready and put off a good outcome. It usually means you fear disappointing others, failing, or succeeding. For example, you may have an exam and instead of studying the night before, you go out to see your friends. This harms your chances of doing well on the exam. You might either be scared of the added pressures that come along with success or you simply don’t think you are smart enough to do well.
Another form of sabotaging ourselves is negative self-talk where we talk down to ourselves which slowly chips away at our confidence. You may find yourself thinking things like, “You can’t do that!” “You don’t deserve that.” “If you try, you’ll probably just fail anyway.”
Circumventing responsibilities, difficult decisions, or potential problems usually due to fear of not being good enough or the fear of disappointment is a common form of self-sabotage. Julia Purcaro LMFT, Outpatient Program Manager at Mountainside, says “Some of my clients will get uncomfortable with recovery since it is a new territory and start to tell themselves, ‘There’s no way I can maintain recovery for the long-term.’ So, they pick up a substance to get the disappointment ‘over with’, rather than prolong it and relapse later down the road.”
If you find yourself constantly breaking off relationships before they get serious, then you likely have some trust issues. Pushing people away can lead to isolation and loneliness, continuing the self-sabotage cycle.
Saying “yes” to everything and overcommitting yourself can result in a lack of focus and exhaustion, reducing your ability to excel in any particular area. We sometimes do this because we are trying to please many people at once but are ignoring our own needs in the process.
Some self-saboteurs may turn to overusing drugs or alcohol as a way to avoid working through difficult emotions or thinking about past trauma.
If self-sabotage has been an ongoing pattern, it may be difficult to completely rid yourself of self-sabotaging overnight. Making small changes each day will help you acknowledge your behaviors and reframe them. You can try the following:
- Become Mindful of Thoughts of Actions. Learn how to challenge your negative thinking. Pause each time you have a harmful thought and find a way to reframe it in an alternative way. Instead of saying, “I’m no good, I always fail” switch your thinking to something like, “I am having an off day. But I will work on this.” You can do this in your head or write it down in a journal if you prefer.
- Set and Achieve Small Goals. You can also start by doing things that make you proud. It can be a small accomplishment such as going for a 15-minute walk each day, finishing a book, or saying “Hi” to one new person each week. Celebrating these accomplishments is a way to gradually build up your self-confidence.
- Work with a Therapist. Speak with a mental health professional. Therapy can be a great tool for working through some core beliefs about yourself, positive or negative. Through various therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or mindfulness-based techniques, therapists can help you challenge and reframe negative thought patterns, develop healthier coping strategies, and build resilience.