Few things are as painful (and frustrating) as getting caught in a cycle of self-sabotage:
- Maybe you struggle with stress-eating and sabotaging your intention of a healthier diet whenever you get overwhelmed and anxious.
- Maybe you sabotage your creative pursuits with procrastination and shiny object syndrome.
- Or maybe you tend to sabotage your relationships because of fear of intimacy and emotional vulnerability.
Whatever form your struggles with self-sabotage takes, the root cause is always the same:
Self-sabotage is the result of an unhealthy relationship with your emotions.
We all experience painful emotions. From anxiety about what people will think of your work to self-directed anger about skipping a workout, it’s perfectly normal to experience a wide range of difficult feelings.
Unfortunately, many people get into bad habits about how they respond to those difficult feelings. Specifically, they try to avoid or “fix” the difficult feelings as soon as they arise. Over time, this leads to a toxic relationship with your own emotions.
By constantly running away from difficult feelings, you’ve taught your brain that it’s not okay to have those feelings.
This leads to a vicious cycle of feeling bad about feeling bad—the cost of which is that you become so overwhelmed by difficult feelings that it’s incredibly difficult to take action toward your goals and intentions.
On the other hand, when you learn to approach your difficult feelings with curiosity and compassion, you start to build a healthier relationship with them. And this means all that time and energy you wasted trying to outrun your feelings can now be channeled back into pursuing your goals.
If you want to stop self-sabotaging, you need a healthier relationship with your emotions. These four tips will get you started.
1. Know your self-sabotage triggers
If you’ve struggled with self-sabotage for a while, there’s a good chance those behaviors are almost automatic. You may simply find yourself binging Netflix instead of working out. Or procrastinating online instead of working on your ceramics project.
Unfortunately, once you’re already in the process of self-sabotaging behavior, it’s very difficult to extract yourself. Better to avoid getting sucked in in the first place.
Of course, easier said than done, right? The definition of an automatic behavior is that you aren’t all that aware of doing it!
But you can become more aware of your self-sabotage patterns—and pull out before it’s too late—by learning to identify and anticipate your self-sabotage triggers.
Here are a few pointers to get you started:
Realize that your triggers can take many different forms
Self-sabotage triggers can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes…
- Your trigger for stress-eating might be the anxiety you feel during a meeting. So in this case the trigger is an emotion.
- Your trigger for procrastination might be the thought of your boss criticizing your work. This trigger is a thought.
- Your trigger for pulling back in a relationship might be your partner’s suggestion that you spend more time with their friends or family. In this case, the trigger is a behavior.
Notice, too, that the trigger can be internal (a thought or emotion inside of you, for instance) or external (someone else’s behavior).
In the beginning, accept the self-sabotage and look for the trigger
If you’re trying to break a major pattern of self-sabotage, it’s often too much to try and identify your triggers and change the behavior simultaneously.
Instead, when you find yourself self-sabotaging, try to acknowledge and accept the behavior and instead of trying to change it immediately. And then use that time and energy to reflect on what led you to the current situation in the first place.
Inventory your triggers
As you start looking for self-sabotage triggers, it’s important that you keep track of them when you find them. So get yourself a notebook, or create a file on your phone/computer, where you keep track of the self-sabotaging behavior + the trigger that preceded it.
Anticipate your triggers
Once you get in the habit of looking for triggers and writing them down in one place, you’ll begin to notice patterns…
- Let’s say you notice that your stress eating tends to happen on Mondays and Wednesdays which also happens to be when you have big meetings at work.
- Armed with this new self-awareness, you could create a plan to manage this inevitable stress and anxiety early so that it doesn’t lead to self-sabotaging behaviors later in the day.
- You might, for example, plan to work out immediately after leaving work and before you get home because you know a good workout is an effective stress reliever for you.
- The end result is that you get home less stressed out and therefore less likely to “need” your stress-eating behaviors.
Remember: All change begins with awareness.
And awareness of the initial triggers for your self-sabotage is one of the best ways to short-circuit the whole process before it even begins.
2. Practice validating painful emotions
Painful emotions hurt. So understandably, our default reaction is to avoid them.
For example: Nobody likes feeling anxious and overwhelmed. So when you find yourself feeling that way, it’s awful tempting to fall into a behavior that (temporarily) removes those feelings—stress-eating, video games, social media, alcohol, whatever.
The problem is, even though these self-sabotaging behaviors lead to feeling better in the short term, it’s usually at the expense of your long term goals and values (healthy eating, in this case).
But the critical thing to see here is that the whole process begins with the following assumption:
If I feel bad I have to do something about it.
Now, if you were feeling bad because your arm was broken or a saber toothed tiger was chasing you, then yes, doing something immediately is probably a good idea for the obvious reasons that something very bad will happen if you don’t.
But here’s the weird thing about emotional pain… It can’t hurt you.
No one ever died from anxiety or sadness. Shame or anger won’t cause your body to break down and stop functioning.
Of course, how you respond to those feelings might be dangerous. But the feelings themselves are not. Which means…
You don’t have to do anything about your painful emotions.
They’re not bad, negative, or dangerous. They’re uncomfortable but they’re not going to hurt you (or anyone else).
So instead of immediately trying to avoid or get rid of those feelings (which usually leads to a LOT of self-sabotage), you could validate them instead.
Emotional validation means acknowledging your emotions instead of avoiding them, critiquing them, or trying to get rid of them.
For example, if you’re feeling ashamed about how you look walking into the gym, you could validate your shame by saying something like this to yourself:
Yes, I do feel ashamed of my body. I don’t like that feeling but I know the feeling itself isn’t bad. And I’m not bad for feeling it.
Or let’s say you’re feeling anxious about some criticism you got at work. You could validate that anxiety by saying something like this to yourself:
Okay, I’m feeling anxious and nervous right now. No doubt about it. But it’s pretty normal to feel anxious after your boss gives you criticism. Any one of my coworkers would be feeling something pretty similar if they were in my shoes right now.
If it helps, think about it like this:
Emotional validation is doing for yourself the same thing you would do for someone else who was struggling with a difficult feeling: You would be compassionate, supportive, and empathetic.
It’s just a matter of taking a few seconds to extend the same kindness to yourself.
And when you do, I think you’ll find that your scary, painful emotions become a lot less scary and painful than you imagined them to be.
And this means—among other benefits—you’ll be able to stick with your plans and goals rather than getting sidetracked by all kinds of self-sabotaging behaviors motivated by the need to avoid those painful feelings.
3. Take responsibility for your mind
In many ways, self-sabotage is an energy management problem.
As we talked about above…
When you spend all your energy trying to escape painful feelings, you don’t have much left over for pursuing your goals.
This means it’s a lot easier to slip into (and get stuck in) self-destructive and unhelpful behaviors.
Similarly, when all your energy is going towards avoiding painful emotions, you don’t have much left over to control your thinking. Which is really too bad because how you think is what determines how strong those painful emotions are in the first place.
- Your boss’ criticism of your report isn’t really what’s making you anxious. The fact that you keep worrying about your boss’ criticism and what it means is what’s really fueling your anxiety. The criticism was just the trigger.
- Your spouse’s sarcastic comment isn’t really what’s making you angry. The fact that you keep ruminating on it and what it means that’s keeping you angry. The comment was just the trigger.
In other words…
It’s not what happens to us that causes us to feel bad; it’s how we think about what happens that causes us to feel the way we do.
Now, to be clear, you can’t control everything about your mind.
For example, sticking with the boss’s criticism situation…
- If your boss says something critical, you’re probably going to automatically worry at least a little bit. Sometimes thoughts just pop into mind and that’s not something you have control over.
- But you can control whether you continue to think about and worry on that criticism.
- In other words, worries happen to us. But they’re also things we do to ourselves.
- And in this case, most of your anxiety is the result of the act of worrying all afternoon, not that one initial worry.
So, if you want to control how emotional you feel—and as a result, whether you follow through on your goals or self-sabotage—the trick is to focus your energies on what you can control and stop trying to control what you can’t.
Things you can’t control:
- Other people
- Random thoughts that pop into mind
Things you can control:
- Your behavior
- Your attention, including what you continue to think about (or not)
4. Take assertive action on your values
At the end of the day, the real problem with self-sabotage isn’t how it feels or what you think it means about you, painful as those may be.
The real problem is that you’re not living the life you really want!
- If you want to be creative but constantly procrastinate, the real tragedy here is not the anxiety and guilt of chronic procrastination—it’s failing to make great art!
- If you want to have a deeper relationship with your kids but can’t switch off your work brain and be truly present, well, the real problem isn’t the regret you feel at not being present—it’s those mediocre relationships with your kids.
Because we feel painful emotions so intensely, it’s easy to become obsessed with them. Everything becomes about feeling less anxious, less depressed, less guilty, etc.
But when all your energy goes toward feeling, there’s usually not much left over for acting and moving toward what you really want.
The solution is to cultivate assertiveness.
Assertiveness means that you base your decisions on your values, not your feelings.
- You get home late and are understandably exhausted after a long day at the office.
- You sit down on the couch and turn on the TV.
- Then you remember that you had planned to fix up your old road bike so that you could start cycling again with your best friend.
- Now there’s a tug-of-war in your mind: Your emotions are pulling you toward Netflix. But your values—if you’re paying attention to them—are pulling you toward the garage and fixing the bike.
- So here’s the million dollar question: Should you rely on your momentary feeling or your values to make the decision about how to spend your evening?
- While Netflix might temporarily feel good in a superficial sense, you’re probably going to feel a lot better long term if you get the bike fixed and start cycling with your best friend again regularly.
Of course, taking action on our values assertively rather than getting bossed around by our feelings isn’t exactly easy. But part of the reason we feel so powerless in the face of strong emotions is because we rarely consider our values.
Think about it… No matter how appealing the comfort of staying on the couch is, it will be a lot easier to resist if you consciously make the choice to reflect on and clarify your value of spending more quality time with your best friend cycling.
Making time to clarify your values will motivate you to follow through on them.
But if you ignore them because you’re overly focused on how you feel (or want to feel), you’re likely to end up always falling short of those values and aspirations and into self-sabotage.
I’m not saying you should completely ignore how you feel. But when push comes to shove, you’ll end up feeling a lot better if you stop using feelings to make decisions and use your values instead.
All You Need to Know
To sum up, here are four tips to break free from self-sabotaging behaviors:
- Know your self-sabotage triggers
- Practice validating painful emotions
- Take responsibility for your mind
- Take assertive action on your values
Want to go deeper on learning to end self-sabotage?
I teach a six-week course called Mood Mastery that’s all about building mental strength and resilience by cultivating a healthier relationship with your emotions. Learn more here →
18 CommentsAdd Yours
It feels surreal to actually have concrete tools at hand after reading what first comes across as just another “self improvement” article. This is so well written and great advice. Thank you very much Nick!
Incredibly useful. Thank you. It is very hard work to identify and break down all the parts of managing emotions and behaviours and I fell into the trap of thinking it should not be too hard to deal with how you feel and decide on the best course of action but it takes frigging time and effort. Thank you very much for the high quality content and the kindness of tone in the material.
You’re very welcome, Helen. And yes, these things are certainly manageable, but do require patience and time.
Yes, thanks so much for this article and breaking it down to manageable details that I can focus on. So hard to break self-sabotage behaviors but do recognize there is a trigger. Now to choose my value over instant relief of ‘bad’ feeling. Thanks for the guidance and tools. Look forward to next trigger to test things out!
Good luck, Janice!
Very well-written article. I liked it. I will definitely try to implement the points you said. I am sharing this article with my friends and family. Thank you so much.
I appreciate that, Neha—thank you 🙂
That is the insight and tools that I need. I’m implementing this approach right now. Thank you! You’ve made a difference!
Thanks, Andrew—I appreciate you saying so!
Thank you for this article. I will definitely start using it. When I can afford it, I will take the class also. You have many great articles. Thanks for the generosity.
You’re very welcome, Marci 🙂
Great article…. but feel that it left me hanging a bit. Clarifying your values is super important and one I know you would have written about … could you please include a link to previous advice on this?
I think a third thing we can “control” is our assessment of an anxious situation. Catastrophizing and self-criticism about what we or others “should” do furthers and deepens the anxiety. Realistic analysis, e.g. what is the likelihood that the situation will “really” be that bad, and, I might “prefer” things could be different, but I can tolerate it if they aren’t, can provide perspective and lower the anxiety level.
I have been self sabotaging for as long as I can remember, I’m starting to choose my values such as meditation and exercise to trump my feelings and not let them overwhelm me as much although they need to be validated they don’t have to take up so my space in my mind. It’s simple really but I’ve been doing it for so many years it’s become habit. Thank you for this colomn Nick Wignall, it really resonates.
I love this article. One of my favorites that you have done. Thanks, Nick!
in in the first place.
I have learned and enjoyed your articles, which I saved and reread again when I have a chance. Thank you.