7 Psychological Reasons You Keep Self-Sabotaging

Do you often get in the way of your own dreams, ambitions, and best intentions?

For example:

  • Do you have a habit of starting creative projects but never finishing them?
  • Maybe you have a pattern of ending relationships as soon as they start to get serious or complicated?
  • Or perhaps you tend to give up on personal commitments like diets or exercise regimens at similar points in the journey?

If so, it could be that you are self-sabotaging, which simply means that—consciously or not—you tend to undermine your own goals.

And if this is something you struggle with, the first step to breaking the cycle is to understand why you do it and what’s causing it.

1. Limiting beliefs

Limiting beliefs are irrational or unhelpful stories we tell ourselves that hold us back from success and happiness. For example: If the story you tell yourself about money is that only greedy people work hard to get it, is it any surprise that you tend to self-sabotage your financial goals?

The stories we tell ourselves shape how our own story unfolds.

If you want to undo these limiting beliefs and the self-sabotaging behaviors they produce, the first step is to confront them. Now, this often takes great courage because confronting your limiting beliefs means facing up to how much you’ve lost and held yourself back from as a result.

So start small: Begin by cultivating a healthy skepticism and curiosity of any thought or belief you encounter. Play with it, examine it, poke it a little. Once you get used to questioning your smaller thoughts and beliefs, you’ll have more confidence to confront the bigger ones that are holding you back.

2. Judgmental self-talk

I’m always amazed at how people can describe in painful detail the nature of their self-sabotaging behavior, but have almost zero insight into what’s going on mentally when they’re self-sabotaging.

Specifically, there’s often a flood of self-judgment and self-criticism leading up to the moment of self-sabotage that most people are barely conscious of. This is unfortunate because in many cases that’s exactly what puts people over the edge from challenging obstacle to self-sabotage.

Feeling bad is hard enough without feeling bad about feeling bad.

See, most people underestimate their capacity for dealing with challenging situations because they don’t know what it’s like to deal with a challenging situation without the whole extra layer of emotional pain and baggage that comes from a habit of self-judgment and criticism.

But it turns out, when you respond to challenges with self-compassion and kindness—the same way you would with a friend who was struggling—your capacity to deal with your challenges is far greater than you realize.

3. You don’t know what you want

One of the most underrated reasons why people self-sabotage is a lack of clarity about personal values.

Let’s say you struggle with self-sabotage with sticking to a diet. How much work have you done to really understand and clarify the why (or value) behind your goal of dieting? On a superficial level, it might be to lose weight, look better in a swimsuit, have more energy, etc. But why do those matter? Why is it personally meaningful to you to have more energy? What will that help you achieve or feel or experience?

It’s a lot easier to resist the things you don’t want when you have a clear vision for what you do want.

Self-sabotage happens when we get pulled into unhelpful behaviors by our emotions at the expense of our values. In order to resist the pull of those unhelpful emotions, you need to strengthen the pull of your values. And the best way to do that? Clarify them, make them specific, juicy, palpable!

Because the clearer and more specific your values, the more likely you are to stick with them.

4. Perfectionism

One way to think about perfectionism is that it’s an addiction to unreasonable standards. For example: You constantly tell yourself that if you can work harder on your business you should. While that sounds superficially motivating—and briefly alleviates your need for control—it’s actually a recipe for self-sabotage and failure.

Perfectionistic striving feels motivating in the short term, but it’s a setup for self-sabotage in the end.

If your expectations are constantly unreasonable, you’re inevitably going to fail to reach them, which is a setup for chronic disappointment, frustration, and even hopelessness. And boy, you can only take so much frustration, disappointment, and discouragement before you throw your hands up and quit or start unconsciously giving yourself a way out of all those painful feelings by sabotaging the whole project.

5. You’re afraid to be assertive

Assertiveness means asking for what you want in a way that’s respectful of other people and your own wants and needs.

Unfortunately, a lot of people are indoctrinated by society to think that standing up for yourself or asking for what you want directly is rude, manipulative, bitchy, etc. As a result, many people end up chronically ignoring their own wants and needs for fear of upsetting or disappointing others.

Obviously, this poses a problem for achieving our goals…

How can you hope to meet your goals if you’re unwilling to ask for what you want?

If you want to stop self-sabotaging, do the work to understand the basics of assertive communication, get over your FODO (fear of disappointing others), and start going after what you want with confidence.

6. Chronic worry

If you’re stuck in the habit of chronic worry—catastrophizing and imagining the worst, for example—you’re going to feel chronically stressed and anxious. And if you’re constantly stressed and anxious, you’re not going to be able to perform at your best with whatever ambition or goal you’re working toward.

For example: How are you going to be able to focus deeply and work at full capacity on your creative project if your concentration is constantly being broken by worries about what people will think of it or whether it will be successful?

Chronic worry is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ultimately, worry is a way of avoiding the discomfort of some kind of anxiety—usually a lack of control or uncertainty. But in the long-run, it solves nothing and makes you incredibly stressed and anxious, which can’t help but sabotage your goals.

If you want to stop letting anxiety and stress sabotage your goals, you must learn to control your worry habit.

7. You don’t enforce your boundaries

A lot of self-sabotage stems from a lack of confidence and self-respect.

For example, I worked with a client once who had a long pattern of starting businesses successfully only to virtually abandon them just as they were getting traction. Turns out, while he had a lot of confidence starting business, he was terrified that he couldn’t handle the responsibility of running them once he had employees, investors, etc. So he would end up self-sabotaging.

But what’s key to realize is that a lot of our lack of confidence and self-respect comes from unhealthy boundaries.

It’s hard to respect yourself when you don’t respect your own boundaries.

Think about it… What are you teaching your brain if you’re in the habit of setting boundaries with people then constantly giving in or not enforcing those boundaries? You’re teaching it that what you want isn’t really important—or at least, it’s not as important as what other people want. So is it any surprise that you don’t feel confident in your abilities?

I mean, how can you respect yourself and act confidently—and avoid self-sabotage—when you’re unwilling to stand up for yourself and enforce your boundaries?

All You Need to Know

If you want to stop self-sabotaging, you need to understand the underlying cause.

Some of the most common reasons for self-sabotage include:

  1. Limiting beliefs
  2. Judgmental self-talk
  3. You don’t know what you want
  4. Perfectionism
  5. You’re afraid to be assertive
  6. Chronic worry
  7. You don’t enforce your boundaries


Add Yours

I’ve been at roughly my ideal weight for a couple of years now (I don’t weigh myself as I get obsessed), but the last 2-3 moths every single night I eat sweet things (if I don’t buy them I make mug cakes!) It’s like a compulsion and I’m putting on weight which makes me sad, please help, how do I stop sabotaging myself? ????

This is so on the mark. It is exactly the way to derail a project and be able to justify it to ourselves. A great insight.

Starting a business much different from being responsible for people. But really, they are hired to help, and mixing that up with their demands is stressing.
I’m about to graduate and change careers. I’m insecure about using my new skills. But unless I use them I cannot help. Catch-22. It’s weird how our goals take on completely different meanings. But stating what you want can be key.

Hi Nick
I love reading your articles-very direct with helpful points!
I’m wondering what you feel about resentment-would love to read your ideas.

This is exactly what I need to pray about. Chronic worry. I have tolfd myself I’m not enough or good enough.

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