Stop Sabotaging Yourself: Tips for Getting Out of Your Own Way

When you look up the definition of the word sabotage, you find a few variations on the noun form. The Cambridge Dictionary offers this meaning: “to damage or destroy equipment, weapons, or buildings in order to prevent the success of an enemy or competitor.” The second definition is just as striking: “to intentionally prevent the success of a plan or action.”

The implication is that sabotage is a large-scale, malevolent action that can subvert military initiatives, cripple cities or businesses, and destroy any hope for peace or sense of security. So why would anyone carry out this level of destruction upon themselves? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what self-sabotage means. In both our personal and professional lives, we inevitably find ways to damage or destroy ourselves physically, mentally, or emotionally. At times — and sometimes in strikingly effective ways — we deliberately prevent our own success and overall well-being.

What is self-sabotage?

Psychology Today explains self-sabotage as behavior that “creates problems in our life and interferes with long-standing goals.” Although the action may seem helpful at the moment, it ultimately undermines us.

You’ve probably heard a phrase like “getting out of your own way.” This is a less serious expression of the concept of self-sabotage, but it still means that you’re hindering or undermining yourself.

Maybe you’re a student with a final exam looming in 12 hours, but instead of studying, you go to a party. Perhaps you’re trying to cut back on your weekday drinking, but end up overdoing it at happy hour with your friends. Maybe you and your girlfriend are enjoying a lovely romantic dinner, and you decide that it’s an opportune time to “jokingly” bring up the text you found two years ago on her phone from her ex-boyfriend.

It’s often not immediately clear why we would take actions that undermine ourselves. Regardless, we emerge on the other side of our self-sabotaging patterns of behavior, facing consequences like a miserable grade on the exam, an unnecessary weekday hangover, or an irreparably broken relationship only to ask ourselves, “Why did I do that?!”

Many of your self-sabotaging behaviors come from unconscious fears, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. Sometimes they’re so subtle that you don’t even realize that you’re doing them, such as undermining your standing with co-workers by mindlessly irritating them by having your computer volume up loud or talking on speakerphone. Some are much more serious and even more harmful. Not passing a certification or licensing examination due to lack of study or staying in an unhealthy relationship are self-sabotaging behaviors that are easier to spot. Some of the most evident self-sabotaging actions are the misuse of gambling, drugs, alcohol, smoking, or pornography, which wreck your bank account and relationships and can lead to a vicious cycle of continuous negative actions.

Why do we do it?

There are many reasons that we become our own worst enemies. The specific causes of our behaviors are likely unique to each individual. A psychologist will help you dig down and uncover the reasons for your particular version of self-sabotage, in turn breaking the cycle. Generally, though, self-destructive behavior stems from these wide-ranging root issues, including:

  • Procrastination or avoidance
  • Fear of intimacy or rejection
  • Lack of self-worth or self-compassion
  • Imposter syndrome
  • Fear of the unknown

Procrastination may not, at least at first glance, seem like a severe behavior issue. After all, we all tell ourselves at one time or another, “I work better under pressure,” or “I know I’ll have time to do that later.” However, when procrastination becomes chronic, and we begin missing deadlines or avoiding responsibilities altogether, our lives can spiral out of control. Deliberately looking for excuses not to do something we are supposed to do, or seeking out distractions like “just one more episode to watch” are negative choices, decisions, and actions that can seriously hurt or destroy careers and relationships.

The instinct to sabotage your potential happiness within a loving, caring relationship can manifest itself in a variety of ways. You may pick fights for no reason, withhold expressions of affection, rebuff compliments from your partner, or even cheat. This behavior often has nothing to do with your partner, but often boils down to deep-seated memories of or beliefs from childhood relationships and life experiences. Dr. Melanie Greenberg writes, “Perhaps your parent was rejecting or neglectful, critical, inconsistent, or you had to be the ‘parentified child.’ Parts of our brains remember this pain and begin to act in adult relationships as if we are with our parents.”

Not feeling worthy of success, recognition, or happiness often leads us to sabotage ourselves. Ironically, we often work hard to achieve those things, yet when we finally get close enough to see our reward, we don’t believe that we truly deserve it, due to our critical inner voice. We can’t understand why someone would want to marry us, so we delay accepting their proposal. We think we’d never actually get that promotion, so we never apply. Meditation expert Will Williams calls this behavior “turning our lives into a series of self-fulfilling prophecies,” which leads people to deliberately miss out on personal development opportunities and actively engaging in life.

In our professional lives, this same phenomenon is often called “imposter syndrome.” The Harvard Business Review defines imposter syndrome as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success,” and explains that those experiencing imposter syndrome “suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.” Rather than linking to self-esteem or self-confidence, this syndrome can be traced back to perfectionism. In the article, author Gill Corkindale writes that these symptoms stem from labeling by parents within the family structure, such as being designated “the smart one.” Another theory is that parents lead the children to believe that they are perfect or superior. If you’re labeled as being perfect, but recognize that deep inside that you’re far from it, you begin to work extra hard so that others never see your faults and struggles. At the same time, you’re acutely aware that you’ll never measure up, leading you to feel like a total imposter.

Some people live for adventure, seeking out new and exciting things to do and achieve. For others, though, fearing the unknown can lead to self-sabotaging behavior and limiting opportunities for professional and personal growth. Greenberg calls this tendency the “familiarity heuristic,” describing it as the way we cling to the familiar, overestimate risk, and avoid trying new approaches. This leads us to “overvalue the things we know and undervalue things that are unfamiliar.” We may see the advantages of an opportunity, yet we decline to move forward and take it on because we’re afraid of new things. We’re comfortable in our discomfort and familiar with failure, so we see no need to change.

Ready to get out of your own way?

Combating self-sabotage

Allowing yourself to understand that you’re exhibiting self-sabotaging behaviors is the first step in resolving your issues. Often, these inner critic behaviors are unconscious — hanging just below the surface of our ability to grasp them — and they build over time until you experience a major event or crippling situation. However, many of your subsequent decisions — getting in your car to go to the party (instead of studying) or reaching into the fridge for a soda (instead of a glass of water) — are most certainly conscious ones. Your inner self-saboteur wins out over your rational mind.

Thus, it’s possible to evaluate your self-sabotaging level by paying close attention to your behaviors and how you respond to situations. View yourself objectively, as would a stranger who is watching you. When you inevitably ask yourself, “Why did I just do that?” or “Why did I say that out loud?” write down those situations in a journal or make a mental note about what happened, and what triggered your response. There are also several self-help tests you can take. The Ford Institute offers this quick quiz to gauge your behaviors to kick-start the process of change.

If you’re exhibiting more serious behaviors like harmful use of alcohol, drugs or porn, self-injury, a series of failed career moves or relationships, it’s highly likely that you are self-sabotaging. Either way, we urge you to to seek help.

Professional and warm therapists, such as our team at Therapy Group of NYC, are trained to help you identify not only your self-sabotaging behaviors but also find ways to manage and eventually stop them. Psychodynamic or cognitive behavioral therapies will help you to unlock and understand the memories, beliefs, and lifelong patterns that have created your self-destructive actions. This is the first and most important step in acknowledging and defeating your behavior.

Your psychotherapist will help you to recognize what’s holding you back from loving yourself, succeeding, building self-confidence, or finding happiness. She or he will offer a warm, non-judgmental, and caring space so that you can better understand and work towards your hopes. Together, you’ll make plans and set goals for a bright, successful, confident, and healthy future.

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