By Heather Cherry—
If you face big, ongoing problems in your life that seem challenging, maybe you don’t have big problems, but big attachments. And these attachments can be part of a habit loop. Sometimes it happens by accident, and sometimes it happens because of convenience.
“When you get used to doing things that move your life forward, call it skills. When they hold back your life, you call them self-sabotage. Both serve essentially the same function,” said Brianna Wiest, author of You are the mountain
Wiest continues: “Most of the time it’s not a coincidence at all. The habits and behaviors you can’t stop engaging in — no matter how destructive or limiting they may be — are intelligently designed by your subconscious to fill an unmet need, a postponed emotion, or a neglected desire.”
If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t get to the next level – even though the solution seems ‘seemingly’ simple but unattainable – self-sabotage may be to blame.
Here’s how to stop self-sabotage and start asking for what you really want.
What is self sabotage?
Self-sabotage is often fueled by negative self-talk — internal dialogue that could limit your ability to believe in yourself. (If you’ve ever told yourself things like, “You can’t do this” or “You don’t deserve this,” you’ve probably been talking negatively to yourself.)
Negative self-talk is common, but it can have lasting effects. One study found that rumination and self-blame about adverse events were associated with an increased risk of mental health problems. Additionally, dwelling on negative thoughts can lead to decreased motivation and a greater sense of helplessness.
And when negative self-talk is left unchecked, it can lead to self-sabotage.
Conscious self-sabotage and unconscious self-sabotage
You can sabotage yourself in many ways. Some are obvious while others are harder to spot. “Self-sabotage is when you have two conflicting desires. One is conscious, one is unconscious. You know how you want to move your life forward, and yet you’re stuck for some reason,” Wiest said.
- Conscious self-sabotage: Be aware of your actions that sabotage your goals.
- Unconscious self-sabotage: Unconscious action, ie accidentally missing an application deadline.
“Even though we’re acting consciously, it feels better to say that not getting this opportunity was my choice,” said Jocelyn Patterson, a licensed mental health counselor in Sarasota, Florida. “Because it reduces the risk of dealing with discomfort, self-sabotage can give us an opportunity to simply say ‘it wasn’t my destiny,’ rather than being left with the uncomfortable feeling that it was our fault for not achieving our goals .”
And some experts believe that self-sabotage is not sabotage at all. “Self-sabotage is self-preservation. Our nervous system has been programmed, conditioned, and tuned to any perceived sense of threat. It doesn’t matter if this threat is real or imagined; our nervous systems are highly tuned instruments that are always on the lookout,” said Shirani Pathak, a licensed psychotherapist in San Jose, California, and author of Fierce authenticity. “When we experience something new, it can set off alarm bells in our internal system. Our brain commands us to engage in normal behavior to bring us back into familiarity. Self-sabotage is a protective mechanism created by your psyche to protect you from potential harm – what we are familiar with, our psyche believes to be safe.”
Self-sabotage occurs when your values and behaviors don’t match. For example, you’re regularly late for work, so set a goal to get up earlier. But you stay up late and watch TV thinking that you can do your chores tomorrow. Yet you oversleep and feel too tired to do the necessary tasks.
“Self-destructive behavior is a biological response,” said Dr. Judy Ho, author of Stop self-sabotage. “We get a boost of dopamine (the feel-good neurotransmitter) by setting goals. But when it comes time to fulfill them, fear of failure triggers avoidance behaviors. In order to avoid the “threat”, we unconsciously shy away from our goals. This is called the approach-avoidance conflict.”
Some self-sabotaging behaviors include:
- Resistance: People often feel resistance to what is going right and not to what is going wrong. Because when you try something new, the unfamiliarity can be discouraging – by resisting you protect yourself.
- perfectionism: Keeps you from showing up and trying or really doing the important work in your life. This can be a result of fear of failing, feeling vulnerable, or not being as good as others would like you to believe.
- disorganization: By leaving your life and spaces in clutter, you not only mindlessly forget to take care of your surroundings. They often actually create distractions and chaos that serve an unconscious purpose.
- Upper limit: This is the amount of “good” you would like to have in your life – your threshold for having positive feelings or experiencing positive events. When you push your limit, you start subconsciously sabotaging what’s happening in order to bring yourself back to what’s comfortable.
How to stop self-sabotage (at work and in life)
Learning to recognize and change self-sabotaging behaviors can help you rebuild your self-image and achieve your goals. Here’s how you can stop self-sabotaging behavior.
- Become self-aware: Patterns are often associated with self-sabotage. One of the essential steps to overcoming it is developing self-awareness. Ask yourself about common patterns when you notice yourself engaging in self-sabotaging behavior. What are the similarities and what can you do to change them?
- Identify triggers: Identifying triggers isn’t always easy, especially when they’re long-standing. Keep a journal when you have trouble identifying what is triggering your self-sabotaging behavior. Sometimes self-sabotaging triggers are a result of past or childhood trauma. If this is the case, work with a therapist or medical professional to help you resolve the underlying emotional pain.
- Receive “OK” with discomfort: Once you become self-aware and identify your triggers, it’s time to practice being uncomfortable. If you know your self-sabotaging thoughts will creep in before you create a calendar invite, create a personal rule to do so anyway. Creating a personal rule will help you control your habits and increase your chances of success. Taking action is a critical step in overcoming self-defeating behaviors.
- Practicing mindfulness: Self-defeating behaviors can be coping mechanisms and can be painful to break — unwrapping them can impact patterns in your professional, personal, and romantic relationships. Practicing mindfulness can help you break habits faster and strengthen your ability to stay present, which can help you conquer your inner critic.
- Communicate: Communication can feel scary, but for those who self-sabotage, it can be a powerful tool to overcome. When you share your fears, they feel less scared – sharing goals supports accountability.
Recognizing and overcoming self-sabotaging behavior is a process and takes time to achieve. It can be difficult to unpack the feelings and emotions behind it. So give yourself grace, knowing that the work you do will get you one step closer to finding (and getting) what you really want.
heather is a versatile writer and editor with 15 years of content creation experience. She writes on a variety of topics but specializes in health and wellness content. She is the author of the Small Business Marketing Guidebook, Market your A$$ discount.