Self-sabotage: Why do you keep on shooting yourself in the foot?
You are your own worst enemy. You keep on ruining it for yourself. You do the things that you know will destroy the outcomes you want! This rings true for most of us.
- How often have we acted against our own self-interests, then asked ourselves why did we self-destruct?
- Why do we engage in those destructive arguments with our partner?
- Why did we procrastinate on that project?
- Why cheat on our diet or stop our fitness program?
- Why have we stopped doing that one thing that we know we need to do for our own success or wellbeing?
You might ask yourself these questions when you feel trapped in patterns that create problems in your life and keep you from achieving your goals. Although you try to make changes and disrupt these patterns, somehow you end up in the same place, again and again. If this sounds familiar, you could be sabotaging yourself.
What is Self-Sabotage?
Self-sabotage refers to behaviours or thought patterns that hold you back and prevent you from doing what you want to do.
Self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviours are perpetuated by an inner critic we all possess. The critical inner voice doesn’t represent a positive sense of self that you can trust in; rather, it epitomises a cruel “anti-self,” a part inside us that is turned against us. It casts doubt on our abilities, undermines our desires, and convinces us to be paranoid and suspicious toward ourselves and those close to us. This “anti-self” fills our mind with critical self-analysis and self-sabotaging thoughts that lead us to hold back or steer away from our true goals.
Signs of Self-Sabotage
You can sabotage yourself in several ways. Some are obvious, but others are a bit harder to recognise.
- Putting yourself down
We are our own worst critics and have much higher expectations of ourselves than of other people, sometimes even unrealistically high expectations. When we fail to meet these standards or expectations, we might give ourselves some pretty harsh feedback. Comments to the self like: “I can’t do anything right”; “I won’t make it, so why should I bother?”; “Wow, I really messed up. I’m terrible at this”. Whether you criticise yourself in front of others or have a habit of negative self-talk, the same thing can happen: Your words may eventually be taken as truth. Believing these criticisms can promote an attitude of self-defeat and keep you from wanting to try again. Eventually, you might give up before you even begin.
It is common for us all to procrastinate from time to time. How often have you found yourself stalled or stuck when faced with an important task? You really believe that you need to do it, you want to do it, you’ve done your preparations and have the resources and time to do it. You just can’t get yourself to get started and to complete the task! Your motivation has completely disappeared. You end up avoiding the task by organising your desk, your drawers or cupboards, or starting a new series on Netflix or even pulling weeds.
Procrastination can happen for no apparent reason, but it typically has an underlying cause, such as:
- feeling overwhelmed by what you need to do;
- trouble managing time;
- doubting your ability or skills;
- anticipating an unfavourable outcome.
- Sabotaging relationships
One of the subtle ways we self-sabotage is by sabotaging relationships. This may include social, work and romantic relationships. You might find yourself instigating arguments over the most insignificant matters and then being very persistent in your arguing, to escalate confrontation and conflict. For example, you may find yourself actively picking fights over petty things or restarting old arguments or conflicts. Or you find yourself doing things to provoke reactions. On the flip side, you might get offended easily or take things personally, whether they are directed at you or not. Or perhaps you have a hard time talking about your feelings, especially when upset. You might resort to snark and passive aggressive comments instead of more effective communication methods.
- Giving up too easily
There’s no purpose in staying stuck in a hopeless situation and it is sometimes necessary to move on. However, it’s usually wise to take a quick step back and ask yourself first if you really made an effort. We are quite threatened by the prospect of failing or the possibility of receiving criticism. This may cause a pervasive pattern of sabotaging our efforts by giving up too quickly when things get hard or when we anticipate that we will not succeed. This often leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy and learned helplessness.
- “Dating the wrong type. Again!”
Self-sabotaging behaviours often appear in relationships. Dating people who don’t check all your boxes is one common type of relationship self-sabotage. You might keep dating a similar type of person although your relationships keep ending badly. You find yourself trying to make things work with a partner who has very different goals for the future. You stay in a relationship that’s going nowhere; or you want kids but your partner doesn’t. Everything else is working, so you stay in the relationship, secretly hoping they’ll change their mind. By falling into these patterns, you’re preventing yourself from finding someone who’s a better match long term.
- Not communicating your needs
Another one of those subtle self-sabotaging patterns is to not clearly and assertively communicate your needs to others you interact with. If you have a hard time speaking up for yourself, you may have a hard time getting all of your needs met. This can happen in family or other social situations, at work, in romantic relationships and in everyday interactions.
What Causes us to Self-Sabotage?
There can be a few reasons we self-sabotage, such as:
- Patterns learned in childhood
Self-sabotage happens when you engage in patterns of behaviour that were necessary and adaptive in one context, but are no longer effective or necessary. In other words, these behaviours helped you adapt in a previous situation, like a traumatic childhood or toxic relationship, and survive the challenges you faced there. They may have soothed you or defended you then, but these methods of coping can cause difficulties when your situation changes.
- Fear of failure and avoidance
Wanting to avoid failure can lead you to avoid trying. If you don’t try, you can’t fail, right? So your unconscious mind might present you with excuses and ways to sabotage yourself.
- A need for control
If your inner critic convinces you that things are not going to turn out the way you would have liked, the anticipated failure poses a threat. This creates stress. By taking control through sabotaging the process, you might feel safe, strong, and ready to face anything that comes your way. Some types of self-sabotage provide this sense of control. What you’re doing may not be great for your emotional health or relationships, but it helps you stay in control when you feel vulnerable.
- Low self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence
When we do not believe in ourselves we cannot achieve our goals. Included in self-confidence is our self-worth. If we constantly tell ourselves that we are not smart enough, qualified enough, or good enough to have what we want, we will act accordingly to what we are telling ourselves. When we don’t have confidence, we will do things to stop ourselves from achieving our fullest potential.
- Imposter syndrome or perceived fraudulence
“What goes up, must come down”. “What if I succeed only to fail eventually?” “It is only a matter of time before they realise that I am a fraud”.
- Dopamine rush
Some self-sabotage behaviours like food, drinking, drugs, gaming, app checking, can give us a dopamine hit which feels good, and is registered in the brain as pleasure. So self-sabotage actually reinforces itself by giving our brains a pleasure response.
How to Stop Self-Sabotage
Firstly, we need to be aware of the destructive perceptions (our critical inner voices) we internalised based on painful early life experiences. We then need to challenge the destructive defences or adaptations we made to deal with these internalised perceptions of ourselves, our abilities, and the anticipated outcomes.
Finally, we need to develop our very own sense of our unique values, ideals, and beliefs. Once we have separated from the negative overlays from our past, we can uncover who we really are. We can stop self-sabotaging behaviours and choose the person we want to be.
When to Seek Help
It is not always easy to recognise and stop some self-sabotaging behaviours on your own, especially patterns you have followed for years. If your efforts to try different behaviours and responses have not worked, or only work for a while, therapy may be a good option.
Author: Willem van den Berg, B SocSci (Psychology & Criminology), B SocSci (Hons) (Psych), MSc Clinical Psychology.
Willem van den Berg is a Brisbane Psychologist with a compassionate, positive and non-judgmental approach, working with individuals, couples and families. His therapeutic toolbox includes evidence-based therapies including Clinical Hypnotherapy (Medical Hypno-Analysis), CBT, ACT and Interpersonal Therapy. William is fluent in both English and Afrikaans.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422 or M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129.