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When you are the obstacle: How to overcome self-sabotage

March 17, 2022 - 17 min read


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What is self-sabotaging?

Conscious and unconscious self-sabotage

5 symptoms of self-sabotage

What causes self-sabotaging behavior?

Self-sabotage in the workplace

7 tips to stop sabotaging yourself

When to get help

Moving forward

Have you ever backed out of something at the last minute? You’ve probably been a bit puzzled, embarrassed, or even angry at yourself when it happens.

It could be anything. A new job, an event, or trying new food. You’re probably unsurprised to know that the pesky saboteur that follows you around in life and stops you from achieving your goals is none other than yourself. 

Discomfort causes many of us to slam on the brakes. We become our own worst enemy, stopping ourselves from trying new things or pursuing our dreams. It isn't easy to stop our self-sabotaging behavior in any situation. 

That's what self-sabotage is all about. We're harsh on ourselves. 

Luckily, it’s possible to stop self-sabotage. It's a habit that'll feel great to break with effort and a greater understanding of ourselves. We have some tips to help you out. 


What is self-sabotaging?

Self-sabotage happens when we stop ourselves from achieving our goals, trying new things, or doing anything that's outside our comfort zone. It prevents us from achieving professional and personal development

People self-sabotage in all areas of their life, from romantic relationships to career choices. Even the most successful entrepreneurs can fall prey to the negative consequences of this phenomenon.

It's a vicious cycle to be stuck in. These self-destructive behaviors are heavily linked to negative self-talk, self-defeating behavior, chronic self-criticism, negative emotions, and potentially even poor mental health. 

These thought patterns might be subtle and not so obvious. They might occur without us realizing we’re preventing ourselves from excelling, and they happen more frequently when self-doubt and negativity become automatic thoughts.

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Conscious and unconscious self-sabotage

You might engage in self-sabotage consciously or unconsciously. 


Conscious self-sabotage might seem counter-intuitive. Why would you willingly get in your own way? And yet, you could be doing exactly that. Every day you make decisions, knowing they might be working against your goals. For example, you might:

  • Binge-watch your favorite show instead of working on your side-hustle
  • Sleep in instead of waking up early to write your book
  • Hang out with friends instead of networking for your dream job

Making time for self-care and your favorite pastimes is healthy (and necessary), but you might consciously overindulge in these activities to the detriment of your goals. 

Unconscious self-sabotage is more difficult to measure. As the name suggests, you can engage in it without even being aware. It usually involves subtle thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are holding you back. You might: 

  • Get angry at a friend for offering advice, even though you know they’re trying to help
  • Find a reason to end a relationship with someone you really like
  • Avoid applying to a position because it looks “boring,” even though it’s your dream job

There can be several reasons for your unconscious self-sabotage. It’s worth doing the Inner Work® to find out what’s holding you back. 

5 symptoms of self-sabotage

You can watch for several signs of self-sabotage to curb your self-destructive behavior once you notice it. By assessing how we feel and why we feel that way, we can better identify self-sabotage.

Self-sabotage can be sneaky. While we might bail out of activities that we’re afraid of, at work, it’s often more subtle. We sabotage ourselves through procrastination or by not adequately preparing for a task. Our saboteur tells us to protect ourselves by not fully committing. 

Another saboteur rationalizes that we probably could succeed if we had more time or money, but we don’t, so we can’t. Our saboteur might undermine the value of what we’ve achieved so far or the worthiness of our goals.

Here are five symptoms of self-sabotage to consider:

  1. You have low self-esteem and rarely take chances
  2. Fear of failure is constantly on your mind
  3. Your insecurities get the better of you all the time
  4. You avoid things on your daily to-do list because you’re “too busy”
  5. You walk away from things that are challenging, preferring to be “realistic”


If you're looking to learn how to identify any negative behaviors that bring you down, a BetterUp coach can help. Our coaches are ready to work directly with you and your personalized plan to target what's holding you back and figure out a way forward.

What causes self-sabotaging behavior?

A variety of things can cause people to self-sabotage. In many cases, it's because we've previously tried to adapt to certain situations and now act in self-defense. Those coping mechanisms might have helped you at the time, but now, all they do is hold you back.

First, grant yourself some self-compassion. None of us would choose to self-sabotage, so understand that you’re doing your best. Then give yourself permission to work on getting past it.

Read over these four things that cause self-sabotaging behavior.

1. Past unhealthy relationships

Whether romantic, platonic, or familial, our past relationships significantly impact us. If your partner or parent didn’t care about your feelings or opinions, you might be used to staying quiet out of self-preservation. If you refrained from speaking up for yourself to avoid conflict, you likely adjusted to not advocating for yourself. 

2. Desire for control

When you feel in control of your situation, you’ll feel reassured in your comfort zone. But you might sabotage the situation when forced to face your insecurities or show vulnerability. Your inner critic may tell you that you can’t succeed without control.

3. Fear of success

You've probably heard of a fear of failure, but people also fear success. Even when we've worked hard for something and know we've earned it, imposter syndrome can sink in. It fills our minds with negativity if we lack self-worth and feel like frauds. Low self-esteem might make people think they've reached a ceiling where success is concerned. 

4. Behavior learned from childhood

Children are very impressionable. They look up to the adults in their lives to model their behavior. If the adults around you demonstrated that it's okay to bail at the last minute if things weren't up to your standard or if they didn't want to take risks when it came to jobs, it might have stuck with you into adulthood. 

The self-sabotaging behavior you witnessed as a child could follow you wherever you go because you saw it as something normal. But really, actions that can cause emotional pain or harm your well-being shouldn't be considered normal.


Self-sabotage in the workplace

Your behaviors can hold you back in all areas of your life. But at work, they can be particularly harmful. These form of self-sabotage can keep you from attaining a promotion, getting a raise, or receiving new exciting projects: 

  • Afraid to ask questions. You might feel pressure to know everything all of the time. But how can you know things if you don’t ask about them? Asking questions doesn’t make you seem incompetent; it makes you proactive. 
  • Second-guessing everything you do. This is a classic case of lack of confidence and a poor self-image. When you’re unsure of your own abilities, it’s normal to worry about the quality of your work. But second-guessing too much can put you behind on deadlines and affect other people’s workflows. Trusting your abilities will make life easier for everyone — especially yourself.
  • Perfectionism. Having high standards isn’t bad, but it can quickly distort your view of what’s achievable with your current resources. This can lead to anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, and wasted time bringing a project up to snuff. Don’t let “perfect” stand in the way of “perfectly good.”
  • Imposter syndrome. According to Psychology Today, this type of self-sabotage involves the unrelenting fear that you don’t belong where you are. Your inner voice convinced you that you’re a fraud, and it’s a matter of time before your boss finds out. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. You’re in your job because you deserve it. The sooner you internalize your accomplishments, the sooner you can bring your Whole Self to work and live up to your potential.

7 tips to stop sabotaging yourself

Just because we usually treat ourselves a certain way doesn't mean that’s the only way. It's hard to break habits, but once we break them, we see how many growth opportunities exist. Plus, it creates space for us to build healthier habits.

When self-sabotage is rooted in fear (it often is), we have to be brave to overcome it

Read over these seven tips to overcome your self-sabotaging ways:

  1. Identify what triggers you and learn from the patterns. Self-awareness will help you here. If you can notice and identify your behaviors, you’ll be able to intervene so they don’t sabotage you again.
  2. Get comfortable with failure and understand that it's okay to make mistakes. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn and grow, even if it causes uncomfortable feelings. Looking at the positive sides of failure will help you let go of your fear and make the best of a hard time.
  3. Speak your worries and concerns out loud with people you trust. Hearing your own words out loud can help you realize how defeatist they are. Your loved ones will also remind you that you’re more capable than you think.
  4. Listen to podcasts for inspiration when you're feeling unmotivated. Countless informative shows hand out advice for free. If that feels too demanding right now, a good laugh with your favorite hosts can improve your mood and clear your head.
  5. Incorporate spiritual wellness into your daily life. Understanding your beliefs, values, and morals can help you find your purpose. And, when this happens, you’ll feel better about chasing your goals because it’s for a greater cause. 
  6. Treat yourself to some self-care when you accomplish something. Celebrating your wins will help you keep a positive outlook and remember that you’re a superstar. 
  7. Take some time to look inwards and practice shadow work on your own or with a trained professional. This means paying attention to your psyche’s dark and emotional side, accepting it, and integrating it into your sense of self. This can help you let go of limiting thoughts and behaviors.

When to get help

It can be hard to come to terms with the fact that you're your own worst enemy. But you don’t have to face your struggles alone. Even if nobody around you seems to understand what you're experiencing, you still aren't alone. It's okay if your friends and family don't get it. 

Do you let your procrastination win most of the time? Are you a perfectionist and can't handle minor mistakes or changes of plans? If you're afraid to work through your self-sabotaging behavior or don't know where to begin, talking to a mental health professional will give you the chance to find strategies to help you. 

A professional can help when you need someone to get you out of those negative thought patterns and work to better your mental health. A life coach, clinical psychologist, or other therapists will be there for you when nobody else can recognize your problems. 

A BetterUp coach will help you accept how you've been treating yourself and create a plan to end your self-sabotaging. Having someone guide you through practicing positive self-talk and building your self-confidence will help you leave any self-sabotaging behavior in the past.


Moving forward

Maybe you doubt if you're capable of completing a rigorous hike. Rather than telling yourself not to bother because it's impossible and you'll never accomplish it, put it in your back pocket. Remind yourself that it's not a "never" thing just because you can't do it right now. You might surprise yourself one day.

The first step of shaking your self-sabotaging ways is recognizing the signs. Taking these steps toward being kinder to yourself is an investment in your future. You're trying to change something that impacts your professional and personal life, and that's something to celebrate.

Never forget to take a moment to pause and reflect on your progress. Little by little, you'll notice how you're improving. Whether it's because your therapist has prepared some effective strategies to follow or you've started practicing more self-care, it's all progress.

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Published March 17, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

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