How to stop self-sabotaging: 5 steps to change your behavior

April 12, 2022 - 20 min read

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What is self-sabotage?

Identifying self-sabotage

The psychological impact of self-sabotage

How to stop sabotaging yourself

If you’re reading this article, chances are it’s for one of two reasons. Either you have a sneaking suspicion that you’re getting in your own way, or someone has pointed out a pattern of behavior that you don’t particularly like.

No one wants to admit that we sabotage ourselves, but we all do it to some degree. Everyone has done things that took them out of step with a goal that they’re trying to achieve or behavior that they want to change. That’s okay — when we’re aware of it.

When we’re not aware of our self-sabotaging behaviors, life can seem impossible. We can feel like we’re playing a game where we don’t understand all the rules. It may seem like we’ll never achieve the goals we want or live the kind of life we want to have.

When you’re trying to create a change in your life, it’s helpful to look at what you can control, rather than what you can’t. Fortunately, your behavior is something that you can change. Learn how to identify unhelpful patterns and how to stop self-sabotaging in this article.

What is self-sabotage?

The term sabotage means to deliberately damage, block, or impair something so that it doesn’t work as intended. Even though we rarely block ourselves deliberately from getting what we want, we still might do or say things to get in our own way. To others, it can even seem deliberate.

Although we usually talk about self-sabotaging behavior, it’s also possible to have self-sabotaging mindsets and patterns. Becoming aware of what causes self-sabotage is key to breaking these patterns.

What causes self-sabotaging behavior?

In the book Stop Self Sabotage, Dr. Judy Ho explains self-destructive behavior as a biological response. We get a boost in dopamine (the feel-good neurotransmitter) by setting goals. But when it’s time to complete them, the fear of failure triggers avoidant behavior. In order to avoid the “threat,” we subconsciously start to shy away from our goals. This is called the approach-avoidance conflict.

Self-sabotaging happens when there’s a mismatch between our values and our behavior. It’s most likely when we have to either do something that doesn’t align with what we really want. Conversely, it might be that we know what we want but do something that doesn’t help us get there. 

Let’s look at a couple of examples:

Example A

Your doctor tells you that you should start an exercise program. That’s great, but you hate going to the gym. Knowing this, you sign up for a gym membership and sessions with a trainer, figuring the extra accountability will keep you motivated. On the first day of training, you arrive at the gym twenty minutes late — and without your sneakers.

Example B

You’re often late to work, so you make a plan to start waking up at 6:00 am. That evening, you stay up watching TV after dinner. You rationalize that whatever you haven’t finished can get done in the morning. Unfortunately, you oversleep. Waking up late throws off the rest of your day. You’re so groggy, you think “See? I’m just not a morning person.”

In each of these examples, our behaviors are out of alignment with what we say we want to see happen. When this kind of mismatch occurs, we have to either change our behaviors or develop greater self-awareness.

Self-sabotaging behaviors are also linked to cognitive dissonance — the psychological discomfort associated with internal contradictions. When we try to make ourselves do something that isn’t in line with our beliefs or values, we feel out of balance.

Subconsciously, we often try to restore this balance by changing our behavior (or creating circumstances, no matter how sneaky, that let us off the hook).

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Identifying self-sabotage

There are many different patterns associated with self-sabotage. One of the most essential steps in identifying self-sabotaging behavior is to develop self-awareness. Self-awareness, or introspection, is critical to noticing unhelpful patterns of behavior and strengthening the ability to stop them in their tracks.

A helpful way to begin identifying forms of self-sabotage is to frame your situation using the following sentence:

“I want to achieve (goal), but I keep doing (behavior).”

For example, I might say “I want to get a passport, but I keep missing the appointment.”

Now that I’ve identified the behavior and how I keep blocking it, I can start to look for other areas where that behavior might show up. For example, I might realize that I often miss doctor's appointments as well, or never put passport appointments on my calendar.

Once you start asking yourself these questions, you’ll start to notice your patterns (and they might arise in more than one area of your life). Here are some of the most common patterns of self-defeating behavior:

1. Perfectionism

Striving to be perfect might sound like a good thing, but it often gets in the way of being effective. Perfectionists often struggle with getting started on projects — and when they do get started, obsession with the details keeps them from finishing. 

Perfectionists also tend towards all-or-nothing thinking. They tend to be especially harsh on themselves and talk themselves out of potential opportunities before they even get started.

2. Moderation

People who struggle with moderation often have difficulty setting boundaries. This behavior might look like people-pleasing (which causes them to say “yes” to too many things. Or it might be a lack of moderation in other areas of their lives, like one too many drinks on a night out. 

There are other, more subtle ways of “overdoing it,” like staying up all night watching TV or working out to exhaustion at the gym. Although overcommitting can look like a strong drive to achieve, it often masks an underlying fear of success. 

3. Running on empty

Have you ever heard the fable about the goose that laid the golden egg? The owner was tired of only getting one egg per day, so they cut the goose open to get them all (it didn’t work out that well). Neglecting your personal needs to try and get more done isn’t just shortsighted — it’s a sneaky sign of self-sabotage.

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4. Procrastination

Everyone’s guilty of procrastinating now and again, especially when it’s a project they don’t really want to do. But putting off your responsibilities can actually indicate a lack of self-confidence. When you procrastinate, you prevent yourself from having the time and the resources you need to do your best work. 

Procrastination often goes hand in hand with perfectionism. Perfectionists will often delay starting a project if they feel they can’t do it perfectly.

5. Lack of communication

You know you need help on a project, but you don’t reach out. You’re running late, but decide not to send a text. 

Communication is a regular part of our lives, both in and out of the workplace. When we resist communicating, it’s often due to self-criticism. We worry that by asking for help, we’re highlighting our failures.

Unfortunately, the lack of communication can be damaging to our relationships. Even worse, it can create fertile ground for impostor syndrome. Because no one knows what you’re dealing with, you live in fear of being “found out.”

Symptoms of self-sabotage

The signs of self-sabotage can be very subtle. Here are some common ways people self-sabotage — both at work and elsewhere:

  • Refusing to ask for help
  • Controlling or micromanaging behavior
  • Picking fights or starting conflicts with colleagues and loved ones 
  • Setting goals that are too low or too high
  • Avoiding or withdrawing from others
  • Negative self-talk and extreme self-criticism
  • Making excuses or blameshifting
  • Undermining your goals and values
  • Substance abuse, overspending, or “overdoing it” in other ways
  • Constantly seeking approval
  • Reluctance to speak up for yourself

The psychological impact of self-sabotage

When we’re not aware of our negative thought patterns and how they affect our behavior, self-sabotage can run our daily lives. We might feel hopeless about the future or achieving our goals. We may think that there’s something wrong with us and that we’re just not capable of success. 

When this happens, these negative behaviors can become ingrained. They can amplify our insecurities. Self-sabotaging behaviors drain our motivation, enthusiasm, and self-esteem. Because the evidence of our “failures” starts to pile up, we no longer think we’re good enough.

This self-doubt begins to perpetuate a cycle. When we’re (inevitably) pushed to do something outside of our comfort zones, we panic. Those uncomfortable feelings and scared inner voices lead us to act against our own best interests. And when it causes us to burn a bridge that really matters to us, it’s heartbreaking.

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How to stop sabotaging yourself

Learning to recognize and stop self-sabotaging behavior can help us rebuild our self-image. Here are 5 ways to stop self-sabotaging:

1. Develop self-awareness

What does self-sabotage look like for you? Do you wait until the last minute to start projects? Do you pick fights with others or run away from challenges?

Start your inquiry with the sentence we framed earlier: “I want to achieve (goal), but I keep doing (behavior).” Once you have identified the goal and the behavior that’s “blocking” it, you can start to understand what the negative behavior is actually telling you. 

In many cases, self-destructive behavior is rooted in anxiety. Our anxious behaviors can cause us to avoid doing what we need to do to reach our goals. In this case, we’re not avoiding the goal: just the perceived negative consequences of it. That includes the negative emotions we associate with it.

Sound complicated? Let’s look at my example from earlier. 

“I want to get a passport, but I keep missing the appointment.”

Digging a little deeper can help us pinpoint what the negative feelings are trying to say. What happens? Well, I say I want to get the passport, but I never put the appointment on my calendar. That’s a good place to start. Why wouldn’t I put an important appointment on my schedule?

Paying attention to this behavior might help me notice that when I make the appointment, I follow it by doing something counterproductive. Paying attention to my inner voice, I hear myself say “There’s no point in getting a passport, you’ll never get time off to go anywhere. Besides, it’s too expensive.”

This is just an example. But if we slow down the loop, we often find that there’s a sneaky thought that happens between making progress and the unproductive action. In this case, it’s my fear that I won’t have the money or time to travel. Instead of addressing that, I just avoid getting the passport.

2. Write it out

If you’re having trouble identifying your patterns, start by keeping a journal. As you continue to write about your goals, you may start to notice yourself complaining about the same things over and over. Share these thoughts with a coach or therapist. They may be able to help you find ways to overcome them.

Sometimes, self-sabotaging behavior is a result of past or childhood trauma. We might develop survival strategies that keep us from further harm. Unfortunately, when these strategies outlive their usefulness, it becomes difficult to break them. Working with a therapist can help you resolve the underlying emotional pain.

3. Create a plan — and do it

When you pinpoint the behavior patterns you want to break, create a plan for how you’ll address them. For example, if you know that your self-sabotaging thoughts sneak up before you put an appointment on the calendar, decide to put it on anyway. You can make it a personal rule for yourself: “All of my appointments go on my schedule, no matter what.”

By making it a personal rule, you allow the power of habit to take over. This increases the chances that you’ll actually make it to the appointment. But it also gives you a chance to see what else might be in the way for you emotionally.

Taking action is a critical step, since procrastination is often a cornerstone of self-defeating behaviors. Once you start taking action, you build momentum towards your goals. This helps you reduce fear and (re)build your sense of self-worth.

If you need help getting started, talking to a coach or mentor can provide accountability and support. It can also help you stay energized when making small changes. Perfectionists tend to hate incremental progress, but it’s the surest way to make a change.

4. Practice mindfulness

Self-defeating behavior patterns are often painful to break. They may be coping mechanisms to help you deal with past traumas. Or they may have prevented you from achieving goals that meant a lot to you. Once you start unpacking them, you may see the impact of these patterns on your professional, personal, and romantic relationships.

It’s important to learn to sit with these difficult feelings and be gentle with yourself as they come up. Practicing mindful breathing and meditation is a great idea. Not only can it help you develop self-compassion, but it can help you break down the patterns faster. Breathwork strengthens your ability to stay present, which will help you notice when your inner critic pipes up.

You can support this growth by doing Inner Work®, working with a coach, or listening to mental health podcasts.

5. Communicate

In some ways, the last step is both the simplest and the scariest. People who self-sabotage will — paradoxically — do just about anything to avoid drawing attention to their insecurities. Telling people what you’re afraid of might seem like jumping out of the pan and into the fire.

But communicating (even if it’s only a little bit of your mental health journey) can have several benefits. For one, voicing a fear often makes it seem less frightening. For another, sharing your goals helps to build accountability and support.

If your group of friends is anything like mine, telling them that you want to get a passport is bound to generate excitement. Even if you don’t tell them that you’re worried about time or money, you’ll get flooded with cheap weekend getaways. Sometimes, creating a new emotional context for ourselves is just what we need to move forward.

How to stop self-sabotaging at work

Self-sabotaging at work can take many forms. This might include procrastinating, workplace conflicts, or underperforming. Here are some ideas to limit the impact of self-defeating habits at work.

1. Talk to your manager

Ask for feedback and specific areas where you can improve. If you’re struggling with expectations, be honest.

2. Communicate

If you’re concerned about falling behind, speak up. If you need more support, speak up. Whatever it is, staying in communication can help you focus on what needs to be done. The more you speak up, the less scary it will seem.

3. Take a chance 

When self-sabotage starts to affect your performance, it can cause low self-esteem. Our self-image, in turn, affects our self-efficacy and whether we feel we can successfully take on new challenges. If there’s an opportunity you want to pursue, don’t let your inner critic talk you out of it. Ask for support as you go for what you want.

How to stop self-sabotaging relationships

When we feel unworthy of love and intimacy, we often (unconsciously) push our loved ones away. Uncovering these habits is difficult, but necessary if we want to have positive personal relationships.

1. Put values first

Picking fights, acting out, and lying are common ways that people sabotage personal relationships. We’re less likely to engage in these behaviors when we’re aware of how they conflict with our values.

2. Watch out for red flags

When we have a history of trauma, we can find ourselves reliving the same patterns again and again. This happens sometimes even when we’re consciously trying to avoid it. Learning to recognize red flags in a relationship can signal that it’s time to get support. 

3. Work on you

One of the traps of personal relationships is that, well — they’re personal. They can help us grow. But they can also pick at our deepest insecurities unlike anything else can. Continuing to care for your own physical and emotional well-being is important as you strive to understand your own patterns.

Final thoughts

As you learn more about the different types of self-sabotage (and how they show up), be gentle with yourself. Remember that trying to change too much at once is classic self-defeating behavior.

Working with a coach or mental health professional can be very helpful. It can provide support and accountability as you learn how to stop self-sabotaging and move forward.

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Published April 12, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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