Access a huge variety of world-class coaching programs at an affordable price.
Access a huge variety of world-class coaching programs at an affordable price.
There’s a promotion you really want, but you wait so long to apply that you miss the deadline.
A dream client wants to work with you, but you drag your feet on sending the proposal, and they move on to another company.
You go on a date with someone you’re totally into, but you send so many mixed signals that they assume you’re not interested.
Self-sabotage—undermining your own efforts or happiness—comes in many forms.
What’s so dangerous about this behavior is that, often, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. To help you put an end to this, I spoke with therapists and coaches about how to identify self-sabotaging behaviors and stop them in their tracks.
Everyone procrastinates, especially when they don’t want to do something. But a common self-sabotaging behavior is when you procrastinate on things you want to do.
“The way to tell whether you are entering this territory of self-sabotage or self-defeat with procrastination is to look at the consequences,” says clinical psychologist Lenora Yuen in an interview with Brett McKay. “Are you getting yourself into trouble? Are you being passed over for promotions? Is your partner getting pissed off at you all the time because you’re late all the time?”
If you drag your feet on a deadline because the task is boring, but you still get it done in time and all goes well—then that’s fine. But if your procrastination is leading to negative consequences (like, say, you fail to apply for that desired promotion on time), then it may be self-sabotaging behavior.
“Gosh, I’m such a mess.”
“Oh, I’m not that smart. I just got lucky.”
“We all know I probably wasn’t the first pick.”
Self-deprecation is when you make a joke or a comment at your own expense. It may seem harmless (and maybe it’s well-intentioned!), but if it becomes a habit, self-sabotage may be at its root.
Self-deprecation is clever because it beats others to the punch. People can’t criticize you if you criticize yourself first, right?
Is your schedule packed with altruistic deeds? Are you the person friends flock to when something goes wrong? Do you always say “yes,” even when you don’t have the time nor energy to do something? According to Jillene Grover Seiver, PhD, a senior lecturer and associate chair at Eastern Washington University, overburdening yourself can be a form of self-sabotage.
“For example, being the go-to person for all of your friends might seem like a selfless role, but it may also be an excuse to avoid deadlines and the risk of failure in one’s role as an employee,” she tells F4S. “The problem is that missing deadlines or submitting subpar work may actually result in negative consequences, regardless of the excuse.”
Ah yes, my favorite self-sabotaging behavior. In the early years of my business, I would often start a project and then quit as soon as I saw a little bit of success. I told myself I was just bored or that the project wasn’t the right fit. But one day, a business accountability partner wisely asked me, “Do you think the reason you quit as soon as things get good is that you’re afraid of success?”
The truth is, quitting before you finish could be a sign of fear of success or fear of failure. Self-reflection can help you figure out which one it is.
Holding back, or intentionally refusing to put forth your best effort, can be a form of self-sabotage. For example, when you’re playing a game, you might pretend you don’t know the answer so that someone else can win. Or when you apply for a job, you might not include all your qualifications and slap together a haphazard cover letter. Or when you’re going on a date, you might choose to show up looking untidy.
Why would someone hold back? Well, again, it could be a fear of failure or rejection. Let’s say you enter an art competition, but your submission was slapped together last minute as if you didn’t care. If you don’t end up winning, you could always say, “Oh, well, it’s because I didn’t try my best.” If you never really try, then you can never really fail.
Constantly switching jobs, moving from place to place or never getting too close to anyone could be a fear of commitment—or it could be self-sabotage (or both). The goal of this behavior is to avoid failure. Because when things don’t go well, you can always say it’s only because you were new or you were leaving, and therefore never had enough time to truly do your best.
“The big issue is a feeling of unworthiness,” says Yuen. “That takes the form of feeling afraid, of feeling vulnerable, of feeling … a sense of shame about who you really are or what you really can do and what you really think. So, procrastination becomes a way of managing very vulnerable feelings and fears that you’re really not good enough.”
“We will do those things that are the most comfortable for us, even if it's the most harmful to us,” licensed professional counselor Brent Crowson tells F4S.
That might explain why, even though you want to eat healthier, you grab the bag of potato chips from your cupboard instead of cooking the salmon you’ve got in the fridge. Or why you shy away from an opportunity you’ve been wanting instead of putting forth your best effort. In both examples, the former option is the easier and more familiar one.
“Generally, self-sabotage occurs when there is a task that has a high risk of failure,” says Grover Seiver. “The more perfectionistic a person is, the more likely they are to self-sabotage because they don’t want to face a less-than-perfect performance on the task. The higher the stakes, and the higher the risk, the more likely a person is to try to protect their ego by giving themselves a ready-made excuse for failure.”
For example, you might show up late to an important presentation you’re giving, or keep missing deadlines on a project you’re leading. In both cases, you’re trying to protect your ego.
“Self-sabotage can present a win-win opportunity to the saboteur,” Grover Seiver explains. “If the person fails to accomplish the task, or completes it inadequately, they can blame it on the ‘unforeseen circumstances’ that they unconsciously arranged. If they are able to successfully complete the work on time and well, they garner extra credit in the eyes of their supervisors and peers for doing it in the face of the extra challenge.”
Things we’re told as children can affect us as adults. For example, your tendency to procrastinate on things that would help you succeed might be a form of self-sabotage stemming from experiences from your youth.
“Most people don't even recognize this as self-sabotage, but there's a subconscious fear of success underneath it,” explains certified clinical hypnotherapist Mahesh Grossman. “There's usually a message from someone you grew up with that if you are successful, you won't be loved, you'll be abandoned or you'll die.”
So, if your parents adamantly opposed your decision to study fashion design, you might find yourself constantly self-sabotaging as you launch your clothing line. What might be upending your efforts is the belief that, by following your dream and succeeding, you’ll be abandoned by those you love.
“In general, I would suggest that a prepared person is less likely to feel threatened by the potential for failure,” says Grover Seiver. “Even if someone is trying something new, it’s important to invest energy into preparing for that new opportunity, rather than avoiding it until it becomes a big, looming threat. Giving yourself permission to put your whole effort into a task, even if that means that the outcome isn’t perfect, can really free you from self-sabotage.”
Grossman suggests curbing your procrastination by doing the task you’ve been avoiding first. But, he cautions, just because you’ve added it to the top of your to-do list doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to complete it.
“You'll notice that even though you've made it a priority, you're still not doing it,” he says. “You will find ways to avoid it.”
That’s because your brain sees the task as a threat, something that might harm or kill you, and it will try to avoid the task to save your life.
“So it will use every thought or habit at its disposal to keep you distracted. And when you procrastinate and do something else, it will say, ‘Yay! I saved their life’ and will be motivated to make you procrastinate on this task even more.”
So what can you do to override this neurological wiring? Grossman says, feel the uncomfortable feelings and keep going.
“Let yourself feel the underlying pain but continue to take action anyway. Put the same task on your to-do list and try again. This time, when you catch yourself moving away from the task, stop and become aware of the sensations in your body. Let yourself notice where you feel contraction as you contemplate even taking the action you want to do.”
One visualization technique he recommends is to picture your body’s tension as handkerchiefs in a magician’s hat. Imagine you’re pulling all the handkerchiefs out of that hat until they’re all gone. Then ball them up and throw them far away from you.
“The tension in your body will be lower or completely gone. You will now be able to do the task on your list, which will teach your brain that even though you did it, you are still safe. It will stop trying to sabotage you from accomplishing this task, and you can move on to the next one.”
“When we can trust ourselves, we are resilient,” she says. “When we are resilient, there is less opportunity for self-sabotage to even rear its ugly head.”
Morrell teaches her clients resilience in the form of a game. “The game is to intentionally and frequently expose yourself to small, low-to-no-risk hardships,” she says. “The smaller, the better. Think of this as an inoculation.”
For example, instead of trying to quit all sweets forever, try delaying dessert by five minutes. Instead of taking a cold shower, take a slightly cooler shower than usual.
“By focusing on exposing ourselves to tiny discomforts intentionally, we toughen up without trauma or failure. Building resilience is both a preventative strategy to self-sabotage because it undermines the source of it (not trusting ourselves), and a recovery strategy because we've already proved to ourselves that we can get through hardships, even if they were just little.”
Core beliefs are what we generally accept as true about ourselves, other people or the world around us. They influence everything we do. So if one of your core beliefs is, “I’m a phony,” you might self-sabotage because you don’t believe you deserve success.
If you want to stop self-sabotaging behavior, Henrike Schmidt, a life coach who utilizes neuroscience, recommends becoming aware of your core beliefs and changing them by questioning whether they’re true.
“The first step is to monitor your self-talk and the thoughts you are having around a specific issue,” she explains. “If you catch yourself thinking thoughts such as: ‘Why do I even bother? Nobody's going to buy from me,’ stop yourself and consciously replace that thought with a more empowering one: ‘I am skilled at this. I have a great product/service, and there are clients out there who are waiting for me.’
The more you do this, the less self-sabotage you’ll participate in.
“Replacing those negative assumptions with statements that still feel true but are more empowering will help rewrite core beliefs, and the more we do this, the more proof we will find to confirm the new statements, which will increase their believability.”
“A proven way that I have often practiced with my clients is to ask them to close their eyes and imagine a loved one in distress who is consistently doing bitter self-talk,” says psychologist Dr. Nazish Idrees. “How will you soothe them? What will you tell them? Try to be as empathetic to them as possible.”
Once the client has decided what they would say, Dr. Idrees asks them to replace their loved ones with themselves and repeat the exercise as though they were talking to themselves.
“I encourage them to do this every single time they suspect they are slipping into a self-sabotaging pattern again.”
So if the behavior you’re about to partake in is not something you’d recommend to a friend or family member, don’t do it yourself. And remember, be kind when speaking to yourself.
Those who lean toward Goal Orientation are motivated by their vision and goals. Those who lean toward Away From Problems are more motivated by avoiding negative consequences. What might that look like? A Goal-Oriented person might complete a task because it aligns with a goal they have, while an Away From Problems person might complete a task only when under the pressure of a deadline.
If you want to decrease procrastination and self-sabotaging behaviors, then switching your focus from Problems to Goals can help. Our research has found that those highly motivated toward avoiding problems are more likely to burn out and have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
It’s not that a focus on problem-solving is bad (it is a necessary skill for many roles!), but it needs to be balanced by focusing on goals as well. Working with a coach can help you increase your motivation toward goals.
If you read this article and thought, “Oh gosh, that sounds like me,” you don’t have to feel stuck or ashamed. You are not alone.
Recent research by Canva and F4S found that, because of the pandemic, the overall population has increased in “Away From Problems” and decreased in “Goal Orientation.” Our brains want to protect us and, with all the disasters of the past year, are primed more than ever to scan for and identify threats. Unfortunately, this can lead to self-sabotaging behaviors.
While you do not want to completely eliminate an Away From Problems motivation (noticing problems is a crucial part of survival) if you want to thrive and stress less, it can help to become more Goal-Oriented. It’s all about balance.
The good news is humans have an incredible capacity to change. Many of the people I interviewed for this piece shared personal stories of how they or their clients were able to stop their self-sabotaging behaviors and live a fuller life.
Sometimes, all it takes is the extra support, whether from a friend, a therapist, or a coach.