What Is Self-Sabotage? How to Help Stop the Vicious Cycle

Self-sabotageWhat was your New Year’s resolution?

Are you still working on it, or has it been abandoned with a mental note to try again next year?

Since Babylonian times, humans have embarked on New Year’s resolutions with hope and determination to improve their lives in the upcoming year. Every year, by the beginning of February, approximately 80% of new goals have been abandoned (Luciani, 2015). New Year’s resolutions are disrupted in a myriad of ways, and one of the most prevalent is self-sabotage.

A sabotaged resolution can seem benign, all things considered; however, chronic self-sabotage can lead to destructive outcomes in our personal and professional lives.

Self-sabotage is more prevalent than we realize. Abraham Lincoln, Fred Rogers, Michelangelo, John F. Kennedy, and George Washington all experienced some aspect of self-sabotage before they made history (Leadem, 2017).

What is self-sabotage, and how does it undermine millions each year?

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Self-Compassion Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will not only help you increase the compassion and kindness you show yourself, but also give you the tools to help your clients, students, or employees show more compassion to themselves and stop destructive behavior.

Self-Sabotage: A Psychological Definition

Self-sabotage occurs when we destroy ourselves physically, mentally, or emotionally or deliberately hinder our own success and wellbeing by undermining personal goals and values (Brenner, 2019). It is “insidious, profound, and universal” and emanates from negative mindsets (Berg, 2015).

Self-sabotage, also known as behavioral dysregulation, can be conscious or unconscious depending on level of awareness. An example of conscious self-sabotage is deciding to eat cake, despite a goal to eat healthy. Unconscious self-sabotage happens when a personal goal or value has been undermined but not initially recognized.

Someone with a fear of failure might wait until the last minute to work on an important project, unconsciously avoiding the prospect of advancement (Wignall, 2020).

Another dimension of self-sabotage is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the internal imbalance or discomfort experienced when words or actions do not align with beliefs and values. When this happens, we act to ease the discomfort by changing our words or behaviors or by reframing our goals and values.

It seems unlikely that anyone would intentionally sabotage themselves, yet they do, and the consequences can be caustic. Chronic self-sabotage depletes drive and motivation and leaves us sad, anxious, and with damaged self-esteem.

This video from psych2go.net introduces seven common signs of self-sabotage, how it impacts our daily lives, and how to discern if we need help.

 

24 Self-sabotage behaviors

People from all walks of life sabotage themselves by letting negative thoughts spiral out of control, and this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg (Berg, 2015).

Self-sabotage is rooted in counterproductive mindsets including negativity, disorganization, indecisiveness, and negative self-talk. Perfectionism and imposter syndrome are also forms of self-sabotage. An insidious and ubiquitous form of self-sabotage is mindless distractions that prohibit goal attainment.

Some mindless distractions include binge watching TV, surfing the internet, scrolling through social media, video game obsession, and internet shopping.

Besides counterproductive mindsets, we engage in counterproductive or destructive behaviors. Some common behaviors include overeating, excessive drinking or drug abuse, pornography, smoking, gambling, self-injury, and overspending.

Avoiding behaviors keep us stuck in negative and self-destructive cycles. Common avoiding behaviors include procrastination, chronic tardiness, giving up when things get rough, and lack of assertiveness.

Rational fears are essential for safety and perpetuation. However, when fears become imbalanced, they hold us back from progress in careers and personal life. Some common ungrounded fears include fearing commitment, the unknown, change, failure, and losing control.

 

Why Do We Self-Sabotage? 5 Possible Causes

No one intentionally decides to self-sabotage, despite the temptation of chocolate cake while on a diet. Why then do we sometimes chronically execute these destructive behaviors?

Research reveals these possible reasons:

 

1. Approach–avoidance conflict

Dr. Judy Ho, author of Stop Self-Sabotage (2019), describes self-sabotage as a biological response, once necessary for survival. She uses Kurt Lewin’s approach–avoidance conflict to explain goals that have both positive and negative aspects, creating competing forces.

The approach dynamic is initiated by setting goals, which releases dopamine. The avoidance dynamic is initiated by avoiding a threat, including physical and psychological threats or perceived threats such as change. Self-sabotage occurs when the desire to reduce threats exceeds the drive to reach goals (Ho, 2019).

This video created by the Academy of Ideas illustrates the concept:

 

2. Modeling

Self-sabotaging behaviors can emanate from childhood models and patterns, including a parent who lacked confidence to succeed. The parent who consistently warns a child to be careful at the playground may cause the child to internalize the world as unsafe and exploration to be avoided.

 

3. Rejection or neglect

Being rejected or neglected by a parent can cause low self-esteem and other negative self-image issues. This can compel us to sabotage personal relationships in an effort to avoid further vulnerability and rejection.

 

4. Adaptive to maladaptive behaviors

We adopt behaviors that are initially considered adaptive for surviving challenges; however, behaviors can become maladaptive when they continue long after the challenge has passed.

 

5. Trauma

A child who is violated by any person, particularly a person of trust, may look at the world as unsafe and view themselves as undeserving of good things in life, leading to self-sabotage.

 

Its Link to Fear of Failure and Fear of Success

Looking at self-sabotageIt’s common for insecurities and self-limiting beliefs to surface when we approach something we truly desire.

Insecurity originates from the inner critic that tells us we can’t accomplish a certain task or aren’t good enough (Jacobsen, 2016).

These remnants of the past deplete our self-confidence and compel us to create dysfunctional habits that serve to protect us from the pain of failure. Sabotage also protects our inner self that secretly fears becoming powerful; power will change the world as we know it and, therefore, represents a threat (Rippo, 2016).

If self-sabotage is detrimental, why repeat it? Simply put, what gets rewarded gets repeated. Sabotage fills a need or void of some kind. To stop the cycle of destructive behavior, we need to discover the void and learn new behaviors.

 

A Look Into Self-Sabotage in Relationships and Work

Self-sabotage in relationships

Reasons for sabotaging relationships are complex, but understanding the origins of sabotage is key for change.

Sabotage in relationships occurs in various forms, including choosing partners who are incompatible, picking fights, and refusing to fully commit to relationships.

Other signs include unrealistic expectations, chronic mistrust, silencing the self, and losing yourself in the relationship. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is an effective strategy for dealing with relationship issues (Williams, 2017).

Mary Retta (2020) adds the following behaviors as other examples of signs of relational sabotage:

  • Ignoring negative emotions
  • Criticizing your partner
  • Holding grudges
  • Directing energy at things other than the relationship
  • Focusing on your partner’s flaws

She suggests healing the past and working on a healthy self-concept, and adds helpful tips such as understanding attachment styles and engaging in open, honest communication with your partner (Retta, 2020).

 

Self-sabotage in work

Career sabotage includes:

Kristin Boss (2020), mindset and business coach, discusses perfectionism, productive procrastination, and the over-researcher in her podcast Purposeful Social Selling.

As a researcher myself, her over-research concept intrigued me. This person is stuck in an over-learning or research cycle. Boss believes the over-researcher is on a quest for clarity, which provides a false sense of confidence and results in a failure to launch. To counteract this cycle, she recommends doing just enough research to take the next step.

Boss implores saboteurs to realize it’s okay to fail.

For more on this, listen to episode 3 of Kristin Boss’s (2020) Purposeful Social Selling podcast. In this specific episode, Boss discusses how professionals perseverate in seemingly productive areas as a way to postpone the vulnerability of commitment and possibility of failure.

 

How to Stop Self-Sabotaging: 8 Practical Tips

The origins of self-sabotage are rooted in emotional experiences, often from childhood, that affect our self-perception. Author and coach Maria Rippo (2016) believes that healing shame from childhood can release us from this cycle. The journey is about discovering the origins of powerlessness that choreograph our toxic thoughts.

The ability to recognize triggering thoughts is an essential first step for transforming self-sabotage patterns. Self-awareness initiates the introspection process and will help identify toxic thoughts and their origins. These triggers are often accompanied by an intense or atypical emotional reaction. Watch this video to become more aware of your emotions.

The feeling wheel is a very popular and useful PositivePsychology.com resource that can help clients identify specific emotions.

Once you are aware of these toxic thoughts, there are several ways to transform or deactivate them. Positive self-talk, analyzing and testing thoughts to discern legitimacy, and modifying them are just a couple of ideas.

Cognitive defusion helps by creating distance between the person and the problem and can be achieved through distanced self-talk and journaling.

The Self-Compassion Miracle Question helps clients learn compassionate self-talk and overcome rigid thinking patterns.

And here is a video guiding you to 30 days of journaling and also discussing the science and benefits of journaling:

Rewriting the Narrative With Humor is another great resource to help clients re-experience troubling events using humor.

Once the triggers are addressed, the goal is to extinguish negative behaviors. Self-regulation helps moderate strong emotions and regain command of behavior. Ho (2019) suggests acting contrary to our feelings.

This worksheet is a step-by-step guide to help extinguish self-sabotaging behaviors.

A less popular idea is to get acquainted with uncomfortable feelings such as failure, rejection, and disappointment. Luvvie Ajayi Jones provides this excellent TED Talk to encourage us to speak up.

The Practicing Acceptance With Ice Cubes exercise, a resource from our Toolkit, helps clients practice acceptance of painful physical or emotional circumstances.

Embarking on your journey with self-compassion can provide further insight into historical patterns and personal needs. Renowned specialist Kristin Neff provides this great self-compassion talk:

The Self-Compassion Box exercise helps develop a habit of self-compassion through daily tactile practices. These practices support a smoother navigation through hard times using clarity, kindness, and forgiveness.

Finally, there are several effective therapeutic interventions for working through ambivalence and damaging mindsets. If self-sabotage is negatively affecting daily life, consider seeing a professional.

 

Addressing Self-Sabotage in Therapy Sessions

There is not one specific way to address self-sabotage in therapy sessions, according to Dr. Lindsay Barlow (personal communication, April 2020), a clinical psychologist at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. Barlow indicates that when clients are struggling with issues regarding success or growth, it can point to their underlying core beliefs. Motivational interviewing can help them resolve ambivalence.

A method that Barlow believes works well with teenagers to change core beliefs is Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy, in which the client views a destructive self-concept from a joyfully irreverent perspective.

In addition, components of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can help clients change their relationship with unproductive thoughts. The sillier or more outrageous the approach, the better it works. Ideas such as singing the thought, saying it with a funny accent, or writing it in crazy bubble letters are encouraged. Changing the relationship with the thought paves the path to eventually letting it go.

 

2 Helpful Worksheets

  • Costs and Benefits of Unhelpful Behavior
    This 15-minute exercise can be used to assess why clients persist with problematic thinking patterns.

  • Building the Habit of Good Enough
    Building the Habit of Good Enough is an intervention to help a client change their mindset – especially useful when a fear mindset has been identified.

 

Books on the Topic

1. Stop Self-Sabotage: Six Steps to Unlock Your True Motivation, Harness Your Willpower, and Get Out of Your Own Way – Judy Ho

Stop Self-Sabotage

Dr. Judy Ho takes a full spectrum analysis of self-sabotage in order to answer why we do it and how to stop.

She uses therapeutically proven strategies, practical tools, and self-assessments to show how to identify triggers, modify thoughts, and change behaviors.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

 

2. Your Self-Sabotage Survival Guide: How to Go From Why Me? to Why Not? – Karen Berg

Self-Sabotage Survival Guide

Motivational expert Karen Berg encourages readers to transcend the ordinary and become extraordinary using a firm, tough-love program to help you get what you want.

Your Self-Sabotage Survival Guide will help you refocus your energy, get back on track, and eliminate sabotage from your life.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

 

3. Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It – Ethan Kross

Chatter

Some of the most important conversations we have are with ourselves.

Ethan Kross examines the voice in our head, explains why it’s there, and reveals how we can learn to harness it rather than allowing it to destroy us.

This book explains the internal process of self-talk in plain and understandable language. It is a revealing perception of human nature.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

4. Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain – James W. Pennebaker and Joshua M. Smyth

Opening Up

It is universally difficult to express painful emotions.

Pennebaker and Smyth demonstrate how expressive writing is a valuable way to express painful emotions in a way that can improve our mental and physical health and heal old wounds.

The authors show how this self-help technique is grounded in scientific research and when the approach may not be helpful.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

3 Interesting Podcasts

1. Purposeful Social Selling, Episode 3. Sneaky Types of Self-Sabotage

Kristen Boss, a mindset and business coach, specializes in teaching marketing and mindset in the online world.

She teaches practical tips, strategies, and real truths for entrepreneurs looking to excel while serving with a purpose.

 

2. Crappy to Happy Podcast

This podcast is for people who are struggling with low energy, mood, or motivation and aren’t sure why. It provides solutions and ideas to help listeners reach peak performance.

Holistic psychologists Nicole LePera and Cass Dunn weigh in with practical and meaningful ways to make changes and feel happier, more energetic, and more confident.

 

3. The Self-Sabotage to Success Podcast

Lucy Orton, a certified positive psychology coach, provides mindset insights, truth bombs, and confidence-boosting tips for purpose-led business owners.

This podcast is for ex-corporate entrepreneurs learning to transform into confident, empowered business owners.

 

PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Resources

  • The Reward Replacement worksheet is a process whereby a behavior that should be changed is identified as the goal. Then steps are taken to evaluate the current rewards versus the future rewards for the new behavior, as a way to motivate change.
  • Practicing Acceptance With Ice Cubes helps clients practice acceptance of painful physical or emotional circumstances.
  • The Self-Directed Speech Worksheet is a simple guide to create affirmations and up-lifting personal vocabulary to assist with behavior change.
  • My Positive Qualities is a powerful worksheet for inner reflection on personal strengths, talents, and achievements. It is a great worksheet to use for self-appreciation and self-acceptance.
  • 17 Self-Compassion Exercises – If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop self-compassion, this collection contains 17 validated self-compassion tools for practitioners. Use them to help others create a kinder and more nurturing relationship with the self.

 

A Take-Home Message

At some point, Abraham Lincoln, Fred Rogers, Michelangelo, John F. Kennedy, and George Washington all realized that self-defeating behaviors reside in the 18 inches between their head and their heart and found ways to move past the issues that plagued them (Leadem, 2017).

All of them went on to make history.

We can do the same.

Each of us can move past counterproductive behaviors. Although our behavior is not always our fault, it is our responsibility.

Consider using the tools provided here to guide your process. Go ahead and reinvest in that New Year’s resolution or any other goal that’s been hovering close, refusing to leave.

Take it slow and make it reasonable. Take baby steps when necessary.

Don’t focus on missteps, and remember to celebrate your successes.

Finally, take comfort in the fact that historical legends began as ordinary people who grappled with personal struggles, persevered, and made a difference.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Self-Compassion Exercises for free.

  • Berg, K. (2015). Your self-sabotage survival guide: How to go from why me? to why not? Career Press.
  • Boss, K. (2020). Sneaky types of self-sabotage. Purposeful Social Selling [podcast].
  • Brenner, B. P. (2019, June 19). Stop sabotaging yourself: Tips for getting out of your own way. Therapy Group of NYC. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://nyctherapy.com/therapists-nyc-blog/stop-sabotaging-yourself-tips-for-getting-out-of-your-own-way/
  • Ho, J. P. (2019). Stop self-sabotage: Six steps to unlock your true motivation, harness your willpower, and get out of your own way. Harper Wave.
  • Jacobsen, S. (2016, May 10). Self-sabotage: What it looks like and why you do it. Harley Therapy Counseling Blog. Retrieved March 13, 2021, from https://www.harleytherapy.co.uk/counselling/self-sabotage.htm
  • Kross, E. (2021). Chatter: The voice in our head, why it matters, and how to harness it. Vermilion.
  • Leadem, R. (2017, November 9). These artists, authors and leaders battled self-doubt before they made history. Entrepreneur. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/slideshow/304340
  • Luciani, J. (2015, December 29). Why 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from https://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/articles/2015-12-29/why-80-percent-of-new-years-resolutions-fail
  • Pennebaker, J. W., & Smyth, J. M. (2016). Opening up by writing it down: How expressive writing improves health and eases emotional pain (3rd ed.). Guilford Press.
  • Retta, M. (2020, January 28). Why you’re self-sabotaging your relationships & 4 ways to stop. mindbodygreen. Retrieved March 16, 2021 from https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-18791/why-we-sabotage-relationships-with-people-who-treat-us-well.html
  • Rippo, M. (2016). Minding the mind/body connection in moving beyond self-sabotage and resistance to change. Journal of Heart-Centered Therapies, 19(2), 39–62.
  • Wignall, N. (2020, June 7). Self-sabotage: Why you do it and how to stop for good. Nickwignall.com. Retrieved March 4, 2021, from https://nickwignall.com/self-sabotage/
  • Williams, D. M. (2017, November 15). Relationship sabotage: Putting an end to the cycle. Everyday Health. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from https://www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/relationship-sabotage-putting-end-cycle/

About the Author

Dr. Chris Wilson is a restorative justice advocate who enjoys diverse career interests. With over twenty years of experience in the criminal justice system as an administrator, mediator, probation officer, and inmate instructor, she now enjoys organizational training, teaching college students, and writing.

Comments

  1. Chris Wilson

    Thanks, Lynn!

    Reply
  2. Amy Burris

    Thank you! This is exactly what I was looking for as part of intervention for a teen that refuses to give up bad habits. Thank you!

    Reply
  3. Alex Pronove

    Informative, comprehensive, and useful. Thank you for putting it together.

    Reply
    • Chris Wilson

      You’re welcome! It has been a good reminder for me as well!

      Reply
  4. Robin Stueber

    Thank you for this article! I used many of the components with clients!

    Reply
    • Chris Wilson

      That is great to hear!

      Reply
  5. Lyn Christian

    Great article packed with research based information and application tools/ideas. We’ll find.

    Reply

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