Self-sabotage can seem mysterious and complicated, but it doesn’t have to be.
As a psychologist and therapist, it’s something I help my clients work through every day.
In this guide, we’ll walk step-by-step through how to think about self-sabotaging behavior and what to do about it.
- A simple definition of self-sabotage
- The origins and causes of self-sabotage
- Examples of self-sabotaging behaviors
- A step-by-step plan for correcting any form of self-sabotage in your life
Okay, let’s dive in!
What Is Self-Sabotage?
Self-sabotage is one of those terms you hear thrown around a lot, but understanding what people actually mean by it is tricky—in part because a lot of people don’t really know what it means!
- Some people use it judgmentally, as a form of criticism for someone they perceive as lazy or weak.
- Some people use it to sound smart when they don’t actually know what they’re talking about.
- Still others talk about in a way that’s so general and vague that it’s essentially meaningless.
In the rest of this section, I’ll give you a concrete definition of what self-sabotage is. Then we’ll look at some specific examples of what it looks like in real life and where it comes from.
Self-Sabotage: A Simple Definition
Here’s the best, most useful definition for self-sabotage I’ve found:
Self-sabotage is when you undermine your own goals and values.
In other words, you acknowledge that there’s something out there you genuinely want and believe is good for you (e.g. keeping off those 20 pounds you just lost), but then you do things that directly conflict with that goal (e.g. late-night fast-food runs).
Importantly, self-sabotaging behaviors can be both conscious or unconscious depending on how aware you are of them:
- Conscious self-sabotage is when you are aware of the fact that what you’re doing is undermining one of your goals or values. E.g.: Remembering that you need to pick weeds in the backyard but deciding to play video games instead.
- Unconscious self-sabotage is when you do something that undermines a goal or value but you don’t realize it until after the fact. E.g.: People with a strong fear of failure in their jobs often develop the unconscious habit of showing up late or doing sloppy work as a way to avoid promotions or increased responsibility which would lead to higher expectations and therefore a higher chance of failure.
Of course, there are endless ways we all fall into self-sabotage. So before we move on to understanding what causes it and what to do about it, let’s take a look at some practical examples of what self-sabotage might look like in your own life.
Examples of Self-Sabotage
Everybody engages in self-sabotage from time to time.
For some people, it’s an occasional thing with relatively minor consequences. But for others, it’s a chronic pattern that leads to major problems in their life, work, and relationships.
Here are a few of the most common forms of self-sabotage:
- Procrastination. We all procrastinate from time to time: putting off going to the gym for another episode on Netflix; delaying writing that report to clean our office; rescheduling that dentist’s appointment yet again. Procrastination is one of the most universal forms of self-sabotage because it is, by definition, delaying something even though we know it would be better not to.
- Chronic Worry. People get stuck in the habit of chronic worry because it temporarily gives them the illusion of control and certainty. When you’re feeling helpless or uncertain, worrying briefly makes it feel like you can do something. But in the long-run, it’s never productive and leads to high levels of anxiety. If you want to break the cycle of chronic worry and anxiety, here’s a good place to start: 3 Daily Rituals to Calm Your Anxious Brain
- Substance Abuse. Alcohol and drug abuse is a common form of self-sabotage because, despite the short term benefits, consistent abuse of drugs and alcohol almost always interferes with our long-term goals and values. For example: those two or three beers as soon as you get home from work make it harder to be present with your kids and spouse.
- Chronic Lateness. When people are consistently late to things, it’s often a sign that they are self-sabotaging. For instance, always showing up late to social events might help you avoid some anxiety about having to socialize too intimately with people before the event really gets going, but in the long run, it erodes your relationships and leads to lack of trust and respect with friends and family members.
- Stress Eating. Many people turn to food as a way to deal with stress and anxiety in their lives because it temporarily makes them feel good and distracts from their pain. But they know in the long run it’s sabotaging important values like maintaining a healthy diet or being physically fit.
- Intimacy and Commitment Issues. Many people find themselves in the habit of intentionally abandoning or ruining otherwise healthy friendships and romantic partnerships. Often, these people have a difficult time with emotional vulnerability and are afraid of getting hurt. Even though it hurts their long-term value of cultivating meaningful relationships, they end up sabotaging these same relationships as a form of anxiety relief.
Of course, there are many more examples of self-sabotage, but these are some of the most common.
But remember, all of these things are normal and not signs of a major issue necessarily. We all procrastinate from time to time, for example. Just like we all use food or other substances for emotional—rather than strictly nutritional—reasons occasionally.
However, when these things become consistent patterns with significant negative effects, that’s when it’s worth looking at more carefully.
Where self-sabotaging behavior comes from
Just like self-sabotage can take an almost infinite variety of forms, there are many, many ways that it develops and takes root.
It’s important to understand this:
There’s no one reason why self-sabotage happens.
And looking for a simple answer is often a sign that you don’t fully understand what self-sabotage really is and what it takes to work through it.
For example, in my clinical practice, I’ve been working with two different clients who both struggle with the same form of self-sabotage: They consistently get into romantic relationships with people they don’t respect because it makes them feel better about themselves.
It’s self-sabotage because the way they’ve learned to fill their need for confidence and self-esteem is by fostering relationships that don’t really work but make them feel superior and confident. Obviously, this gets in the way of their long-term goal of having a healthy romantic relationship, but they keep falling into it because self-esteem is so low and they don’t have a better way of addressing it.
I bring these two clients up as examples because they each developed an almost identical pattern of self-sabotaging behavior in very different ways:
- Modeling. In my work with the first client, we traced his habit of self-sabotage back to early modeling from his parents. Essentially, his dad struggled with the same lack of confidence and self-esteem and addressed it by being hypercritical of my client’s mother and eventually other girlfriends and wives. Because this was what my client saw all the time growing up, it was his model for how relationships work and how self-esteem works.
- Power. My second client, however, had parents with a very healthy relationship. And as a kid, this client had normal levels of confidence and self-esteem. But in college, after she experienced a terrible instance of sexual abuse, the way she coped with her insecurities and fears in relationships was to get into relationships with men who were “beneath her” so she could feel more secure and powerful.
The behaviors and results are the same but they come from entirely different origins.
Of course, this isn’t to say that there are no common patterns when it comes to what causes self-sabotage.
In fact, there is one common theme I see over and over again with people who have developed major issues with self-sabotage:
People who chronically self-sabotage learned at some point that it ‘works’ very well.
I put works in quotations because it works in a short-term sense but usually has the opposite effect in the long-run.
Here are a few examples:
- As a child, you learned to always catastrophize and plan for the worst because it was the only way you knew how to deal with your alcoholic and abusive parent.
- As a teenager, you learned to procrastinate on your work because you were smart enough to do fine without much studying anyway.
- Once you got married, you learned that pointing out flaws in your spouse’s behavior made you feel better about yourself—for a time, anyway.
The fact that self-sabotage ‘works’ on some level—or at least it did at some point—is absolutely fundamental and is the starting off point for changing your self-sabotaging behaviors for good.
Before you can undo an unhealthy behavior, you have to understand the function it serves.
How to Stop Self-Sabotage for Good: A 5-Step Plan
If you want to stop self-sabotaging, the key is to understand why you’re doing—what need it’s filling. Then get creative about identifying healthier, less destructive ways to get that need met.
Here’s a straightforward way to identify your self-sabotaging behaviors and start fixing them for good:
1. Understand the need your self-sabotage fills
Most people who try to stop self-sabotaging make the mistake of approaching it with a “getting tough on myself” attitude. They tell themselves that this is the time they’re finally going to get their sh!t together and stop all this nonsense.
But being “tough” on yourself is itself a form of self-sabotage because, while it feels good in the moment, it usually leads you to miss the most important first step in overcoming self-sabotage: understanding what need the self-sabotaging behavior feeds. And you can’t do that without some self-compassion.
Before you get tough on yourself and commit to changing, get compassionate with yourself and commit to understanding.
In order to recognize that your self-sabotage is serving a purpose, you have to be able to suspend judgment about the ultimate negative consequences of the behavior, and be understanding enough to see that it is serving a function that, at least in a limited sense, makes sense!
Here are some examples:
- If you want to stop abusing alcohol, you need to compassionately understand that alcohol “works” to alleviate your stress after work.
- If you want to stop stress eating, you need to compassionately see how stress eating “works” to make you feel less lonely in your unhappy marriage.
- If you want to stop procrastinating, you need to compassionately understand that procrastinating helps you avoid fear of failure (or fear of success).
It’s only when you understand the need your self-sabotage is filling that you will be able to cultivate alternative behaviors to fill that need. And it’s only when you get that need met in another way that you’ll be able to give up the self-sabotage for good.
2. Identify alternative healthy behaviors that fill that need
Once you’ve got a clear understanding of what need your self-sabotage fills, the next step is to generate ideas for alternative behaviors that address the need but in a way that doesn’t also hurt you.
Often, just getting clarity on what the underlying need is will be enough to trigger ideas for alternative behaviors. But sometimes it takes a little more discovery and research…
One of the best ways to develop alternative behaviors for your self-sabotage is to study other people like you.
First, come up with a shortlist of other people you know with similar circumstances. For example, if binge eating junk food as a way to alleviate work stress is the behavior you’d like to find an alternative to, make a list of other people you know with high-stress jobs.
Next, reach out and do some research. Ask them how they handle the stresses of work. Collect all these ideas you find in a list.
Finally, after you’ve done research with at least a few people and generated a list of possible alternatives, find the two or three that seem like a good fit for you and try them out. Experiment with one for a week or two and see how it goes. If it seems to help, double down on it. If it doesn’t seem all that helpful, go down the list and try the next one.
3. Anticipate and plan for obstacles
Even if you’ve identified the underlying need and a healthier set of behaviors to address it, you still need to anticipate potential obstacles to using those new behaviors.
If your alternative behavior to stress eating after work is to have a small healthy snack instead of binging on junk food, what might get in the way of that new behavior?
- What if you don’t have enough of the healthy snack stocked up in your house?
- What if you go out for drinks with coworkers one evening instead of going home?
- What if your spouse just took out a tray of freshly baked cookies the minute you walk through the door?
It’s easy to stick to new behaviors and good intentions when the conditions are just right. But if you want to eliminate self-sabotage for good, you also need a plan for when times are hard.
Here are some examples of anticipating obstacles and developing a plan for addressing them:
- If you want to make sure you choose healthy snacks after work instead of junk food, set a recurring order of almonds (or whatever…) from Amazon so you know you’ll always have some healthy snacks at home.
- If you want to call a friend to address feelings of loneliness instead of drinking, make sure you have a list of two or three friends you can call in case one doesn’t answer.
- If you want to take a break and go for a walk for 20 minutes to address a difficulty with procrastination instead of playing video games for 3 hours, get rid of games on your phone or don’t work in a place where you have easy access to video games (e.g. go to the coffee shop instead of working from your home office).
It’s not enough to have good alternative behaviors to self-sabotage. You also need contingency plans for the inevitable obstacles that will arise when you first start to implement them.
4. Boost your tolerance for uncomfortable feelings
No matter how well you strategize and execute on your new alternative behaviors, it will be emotionally hard at times:
- Even if you have a handful of healthy almonds within arms reach, it still hurts a little to give up the Doritos.
- Even if your best friend picks up the phone, giving up on the immediate euphoria of a quick drink is going to feel tough.
- Even if you go for that walk or get back to work instead of playing video games, you’re still going to miss the video games.
Letting go of self-sabotage isn’t merely an intellectual problem of planning and strategy. It’s an emotional tolerance problem.
In order to form any new habit or set of behaviors, you have to be able to tolerate discomfort—especially emotional discomfort. And this is just as true for replacing self-sabotaging behaviors with alternative healthy behaviors.
The best way to practice building up your emotional tolerance is to start small:
- Identify the emotion that most often comes up when you let go of your old self-sabotage behavior and pursue a healthier alternative. For example: fear, frustration, sadness, etc.
- Next, look for other places in your life where that emotion comes up in smaller doses. For example: you get a little frustrated when you’re waiting in line at the grocery store and the person in front of you is taking forever.
- Instead of immediately doing something to alleviate that feeling or distract yourself from it, practice tolerating it for a small amount of time. For example: instead of immediately pulling out your phone and browsing Facebook as soon as you feel frustrated, practice doing nothing and letting yourself feel frustrated for 10, 20, or 30 seconds.
- Gradually build up your tolerance for that emotion in other areas of your life and then practice doing the same with your alternative healthy behaviors.
Remember: Just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad. And while sometimes uncomfortable, emotions are neither dangerous nor morally wrong.
5. Clarify your values
This isn’t the most necessary step in letting go of self-sabotage, but it is the most powerful.
When you clarify your values and aspirations—the things that truly matter most to you in life—and then connect your new, healthier behaviors to them, it’s far easier for them to take root and grow, leaving the old self-sabotaging behaviors far off in the distance.
The key to clarifying your values is to get beyond superficial forms of values and connect with the visceral form of your values. Here’s what I mean…
Let’s say you want to give up the self-sabotaging behavior of watching the news as soon as you get home from work because it is a time suck and leads to you not accomplishing more meaningful goals.
And let’s say the alternative, healthier behavior you’d like to replace it with is going for a walk in order to get some exercise.
Now, if I asked you Why do you want to go for a walk instead of watching the news when you get home from work? you might respond with something like, Because I want to get in shape.
Now, getting in shape is a value, but it’s not a very compelling one. It’s not visceral or specific—it’s vague and abstract. But if you want your values to help motivate you toward your new behaviors, they must be compelling. And the way you do that is by forcing yourself to get more specific.
So, I might follow up with Well, why do you want to get in shape? To which you might reply, Because I want to feel more energetic and less tired all the time.
This is definitely more specific and compelling, but we can do better… What would you be able to do if you felt more energized and less tired each day? After hearing this, your eyes might light up a little and you’d say You know, since college I’ve always wanted to learn to play the guitar and be in a band. I know it sounds silly—I’m 43 years old—but I get excited every time I think about it. And I think if I just wasn’t so exhausted all the time, I could actually make it happen.
Bingo. Now that is a clarified value. It’s a value that’s got teeth. It’s a value that’s got gravity. And because it’s got gravity, it will help pull you toward your goal and new behavior, which is key if you’re trying to resist the gravity of an old, self-sabotaging behavior.
All You Need to Know
Self-sabotage isn’t as mysterious or complicated as it sounds: It simply means chronically doing something that undermines your own goals or values.
If you want to stop self-sabotaging for good, the key is to understand what need it serves and then develop alternative behaviors that fill the same need in a healthier and more productive way.
There are 5 basic steps to doing this:
- Understand the need your self-sabotage fills
- Identify alternative healthy behaviors that fill that need
- Anticipate and plan for obstacles
- Boost your tolerance for uncomfortable feelings
- Clarify your values