What is Self-Sabotage?
Self-sabotage is when you consciously or unconsciously keep yourself from experiencing success, fulfillment, and relational intimacy. If you find yourself doing things you promised you wouldn’t do, saying things you know are harmful to your relationships, and engaging in covert warfare against yourself that would rival any spy movie, this article is for you.
Disclaimer: We are honored to help you overcome self-sabotage! If you are struggling to find the help you need, please note that all content found on this website is not to be considered professional medical advice. It is always best to consult a doctor or licensed therapist with questions or concerns about your physical or mental health. Check out Mental Health America’s helpful list of therapists.
Why Do I Self-Sabotage?
On the outside, and even to yourself, self-sabotage can feel like something you do intentionally to hurt yourself and others.
Sometimes it is intentional. More often, it’s so unconscious you might not realize for years that you’re doing it. Yet, self-sabotage is ultimately not about hurting yourself or others. At the root, self-sabotage is a finely-tuned protection mechanism.
Here are some of the reasons you may be self-sabotaging.
- Need for safety
- Searching for resolution
- Fear of connection
- Desire for connection
- Modeling from childhood or your culture
- Loss of control
- Fear of failure
- Fear of success
- Insecure attachment style
- Cognitive dissonance (your brain can’t reconcile current events with past experiences)
Self-sabotage is, very simply, how you protect yourself in life.
Something as benign as a networking event or an email from a coworker can trigger your need for self-protection.
If someone came at you with a knife, it’s only reasonable that you would defend yourself. The feeling of danger you face at work, home, and social settings is just as real to your brain as someone coming at you with a knife.
From the outside, your behavior may look extreme. That’s where a lot of the shame comes in. You repeat behavior that seems irrational and unwarranted. Yet, it’s not. When you experience something that feels dangerous (e.g., change, surprises, triggers), your amygdala goes into overdrive to protect you.
As a result, your body’s feelings, emotions, and responses are natural.
Is Self-Sabotage a Fear of Failure or the Fear of Success?
Self-sabotage is both the fear of failure and the fear of success. For some people, it’s both; for some, it’s one or the other.
In this TEDx talk with Debi Silber, author, and holistic psychologist, she demonstrates that often people self-sabotage just when they are on the verge of success, on the verge of becoming who they were meant to be.
Does that resonate with you?
Things are going well. You’ve lost weight, realized what you want to do, and grown into a person you can be proud of. Then it all collapses.
Have you ever considered it’s because of self-sabotage? When you are moving toward success, you have several choices; sometimes, it can feel like a Catch-22. Quit your job to pursue a new career, and leave behind the life you’ve spent years building. Pursue a healthier version of yourself, do the trauma work, get the healing, and leave behind the family relationships that have held you into an unhealthy lifestyle.
Following your bliss isn’t so easy.
Suddenly, you face leaving behind the person you were and even letting go of relationships holding you down—all to pursue something that is still overwhelmingly uncertain and very much outside your comfort zone.
How to Overcome Self-Sabotage
If you’ve tried to overcome self-sabotage by fighting yourself, it’s a losing battle. Self-sabotage is already about fighting yourself. Instead, the only solution is to lay down your weapons.
You don’t have to fight anymore.
We’ve put together 13 tips to help you find real relief from the habits and behaviors that are hurting you.
1. Celebrate your accomplishments
It’s not easy to celebrate yourself when you don’t believe you are worthy of celebration.
Next time you accomplish something small, pause and celebrate it. Smile to yourself, text a friend who will be supportive, and even say to yourself, “well done.”
Next time you accomplish something big, don’t downplay it or skip the celebration. You deserve to be celebrated!
When you complete your degree, attend commencement. Attend the corporate company party, say yes to your friends planning a birthday party, and for the love of all that is good, don’t tell your partner, “You don’t need to buy me a gift this year.”
(Not So) Small Things to Celebrate Every Day:
- Getting out of bed when you’re struggling with anxiety.
- Doing the dishes before work.
- Going for a walk when you don’t have the energy for a run.
- Finishing your to-do list for the day.
- Finding a creative solution to a problem.
- Helping a coworker with something.
- Being nice to a stranger on the way to work.
- That the sun is shining when you sit outside for your lunch break.
- Eating half a bag of chips instead of the whole bag.
- Saying “no” to an event that would have drained your energy.
- Saying “yes” to catching up with a friend that makes you feel good about yourself.
- Self-regulating when your boss triggers you.
- Communicating with your partner that you snapped at them because you’re feeling insecure.
2. Use this daily ritual
Chris Lowney, a writer, and public speaker, adapted a Jesuit ritual to use daily while working at JP Morgan.
Twice daily, once at midday and once at the end of the day, he paused for the “examen”:
“First, remind yourself why you are grateful as a human being.
Second, lift your horizon for a moment. Call to mind some crucial personal objective, your deepest sense of purpose, or the values you stand for.
Third, mentally review the last few hours and extract some insight that might help in the next few hours. If you were agitated, what was going on inside you? If you were distracted and unproductive, why?
Those who are spiritually inclined might also reflect on how God (or a higher power) was present in the people and challenges you encountered over the last few hours.”—Chris Lowney.
You can combine this with your spiritual practice if you have one, or use it as a purely non-religious exercise to ground you and give you perspective on your day.
Action Step: Set a timer on your phone twice a day and have a journal or folder on your computer just for your examen.
If you’d rather start a gratitude journal, use these writing prompts:
- Today, I am grateful for…
- I was surprised to find that I really enjoy…
- This week, an unexpected joy was…
Need more prompts? Check out our 35 Prompts, Templates, and Ideas for Gratitude Journaling.
3. Have a plan in place
We all know it’s easier to make mistakes or poor choices when tired or hungry. But one study found something counterintuitive: self-handicapping takes a lot of energy and is more likely to occur during peak times.
That means you’re more likely to self-sabotage when you have the most cognitive reserves. The study specifically explored this with circadian rhythm and found that morning people self-handicap in the morning, while night people self-handicap in the evening.
Knowing when you are most prone to self-sabotage is valuable information. If you know that you’re prone to sabotaging at night, you can set a plan to help limit how much sabotage you default to.
Practical Tips for Night Sabotage:
- Set limits on phone use. Comparing your life to former SOs and your high school arch-nemesis on social media at 3 am isn’t helping you. Turn on wellness timers on your phone to limit social media use at night.
- Don’t use your phone as an alarm. If your phone is in your room, you’re likely to resort to doom scrolling instead of getting some much-needed beauty sleep.
- Create a nightly ritual. It’s the night before your big presentation, and you’re starting to feel that itch to rearrange all the furniture, deep clean the kitchen, or organize your closet. Instead of staying up all night in a mad flurry of perfectionism, or lying in bed all night thinking, opt for a nightly ritual. Every night, plan a series of actions that you will complete before going to bed. Include a nightly cleanup.
Fast Fact: Self-sabotage can become a habit over time. It’s something you default to and is most often an automatic response. Research has found that you need routines to change old habits and adopt new ones. This is true for overcoming self-sabotage. Be gentle with yourself as you overcome old habits by implementing new routines that help you achieve health and success.
Practical Tips for Morning Sabotage:
- Plan your mornings. If you find yourself sleeping past your “golden hour” or distractedly working on 100 things you’ll have forgotten by lunchtime, a plan could help. Plan your morning the night before, so you have a clear path for the morning.
- Change your environment. If you’re in a self-destructive rut, try shifting your behavior by changing your physical location. This can feel all but impossible at times, so plan in advance where you can go if you’re in a spiral. This could include getting out of the house, stopping at a coffee shop before work, or taking a regular morning walk. Find what works for you.
- Get grounded. Start your day by connecting to the present, or do a quick reset when you feel yourself going off track. Each morning when you place your feet on the floor, pause to feel the pressure against the bottom of your feet. Think of something you are grateful for before even starting the day.
4. Kill your self-critic
If your inner self-critic is anything like most people’s, it’s not pretty. Don’t give your self-critic any more control over your life:
- Look at the facts. Fact: your self-critic is toxic, and it’s lying to you.
- Be kinder. Say something nice to yourself, about yourself, each day.
- Change your mind. Whenever self-criticism or anxiety about not being enough hits, shift your thinking to something you’re grateful for.
- Avoid all-or-nothing thinking. Success and failure aren’t absolutes; look for the small wins and areas where you succeed.
- Put things into perspective. Insert the name of someone you love into the criticism that went through your head. For example, “You always let everyone down (insert name of the person you love). You’re a complete failure.” Can you feel how angry or upset that makes you think that someone would say that to the person you love? You clearly wouldn’t be that nasty to others, don’t let your inner critic do that to you.
Action Step: Write down the criticism. Getting it out of your head and onto paper often gives you perspective on how ridiculous that criticism is. Next, cross out the criticism, and write yourself a letter of self-acceptance.
For example, “I know you felt like a failure today. That feeling is so big and painful. I’m sorry this is a burden you’ve been carrying. It’s ok to lay down the burden. Even though you didn’t meet your expectations or the expectations of others, that doesn’t make you a failure. You are not defined by this experience, and you have the opportunity to learn and grow.
5. When self-sabotage rears its head, reject the shame
On the days you find yourself self-sabotaging, your immediate reaction may be feelings of shame.
Everyone handles shame differently. Some repress the feeling, and others wrap it around themselves like a security blanket.
If you’ve hurt another person, take responsibility for that. You may even need to apologize. Maybe, you need to apologize to yourself. But taking responsibility for your actions is different from holding onto shame. It may feel uncomfortable, but internally or, if you can, verbally release the shame when it comes.
Decide to forgive yourself and let shame go.
Try saying: “I reject shame. I am not shameful,” or, “I am doing a great job.”
6. Remember, your thoughts don’t define you
Even when self-sabotage is unconscious, patterns of thought often emerge beforehand. Start paying attention to what you think, and remind yourself that those thoughts don’t define you.
Thoughts could sound like this:
- I can’t do this.
- I’m going to fail everyone.
- They think I’m stupid.
- I can never get things right.
- I’ll never finish my degree.
- I’ll never find someone to love me.
- I always let people down.
- I always make a mistake.
- I always make things worse.
- They never think about my feelings.
- They are so inconsiderate.
- Why are they so weak?
- Why are they so slow?
- They always make things worse.
- Why can’t they do their job?
Criticism of others indicates a sense of personal failure, injustice, lack of being heard, or even fear of abandonment. When you start lashing out at others, this is also a form of self-sabotage.
It’s not uncommon to push away the people we love when we feel hurt or because we want to push the other person away before they get a chance to hurt us.
Lashing out is just one of the ways we push others away.
Pro Tip: Did you notice the absolutist language in those lists? Look out for words like “always,” “never,” or “completely.”
When these thoughts come, be curious about why you feel this way, then challenge those thoughts. More than likely, the thought isn’t true, but it masks your actual need.
7. Make one change at a time
While it’s tempting to tackle all the things in your life where you think you’re falling short, this is a fast track to self-sabotage. Instead, set yourself up for success by limiting your change to one thing at a time.
Instead of planning to run 3 miles every morning, when walking a city block leaves you breathless, start by walking a mile 4 days a week. Then gradually increase your distance while adding in some jogging. If you miss a day, don’t stress about it. Just start again tomorrow.
Instead of vowing never to date a toxic person again, identify what it is you need. Do you need to feel seen? Nurtured? Accepted? Look for ways to care for yourself before getting into another relationship.
Instead of quitting your job because you feel stagnant and struggle to show up to work each day, try refocusing on your end goal. Will quitting keep you from accomplishing your goals? Find something else in your life to change, like signing up for a fun workshop to learn new skills.
8. Cozy up to discomfort
A balanced view of getting comfortable with discomfort can help you overcome your fears.
Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of rejection. All these fears fuel self-sabotage, and breaking down the fears is important so you can build new ways of responding to the world around you.
Typically, people respond to discomfort in one of two ways:
- Ignore and repress
- Push away and hide
Action Step: Next time you feel a sense of discomfort, pause for a moment and experience that sensation. Where do you feel it in your body? Take some deep, slow breaths to calm yourself, and maintain a curious, non-judgmental mindset. Getting used to observing your feelings will help you gain tolerance for experiencing and then managing discomfort.
9. Listen to what self-sabotage is trying to tell you
Everything happens for a reason, and that includes self-sabotage. You could dismiss self-sabotage as your enemy and something that needs to be defeated. Or, you could be curious and ask what self-sabotage is saying to you.
Are you looking for a sense of control, even if it means being in control of your failure?
Have you never felt safe, and self-sabotage takes away, at least temporarily, your feeling of being helpless?
Do you feel unheard, unloved, unlovable?
There’s a message for you here that differs for each person. It may be connected to early childhood experiences or has emerged more recently.
When you connect with your needs, overcoming sabotage becomes less about checking off a list of things to defeat the enemy and more about connecting with yourself.
5 Minute Action Step: Ask yourself, what is self-sabotage trying to tell me? What is it that I need?
20-Minute Action Step: Write down five times you self-sabotaged and then look for connection points. Was there something that happened before the event? Do you turn to a pattern of behavior to self-protect? Look for connection points to become more self-aware.
Daily 3-Second Action Step: Each day, use an affirmation that’s connected to the need you identified in the first action step. Here are ten affirmations to get you started:
- I’m learning.
- I’m here to be helpful.
- I am grateful for this relationship.
- This day is a gift.
- I am safe.
- It’s ok. I’m ok.
- I am caring, kind, and generous.
- I am loved.
- I am not helpless.
- It’s ok for me to be happy.
10. Love the person you’re becoming
You’re moving forward and pursuing a life that isn’t dominated by self-sabotage. That is an admirable and beautiful thing. You’ve been working through countless experiences and disappointments and are seeking to change into someone you can be proud of. You might not like that person right now, and if you sabotage yourself because you feel unworthy, let us speak to you at this moment.
The fact that you are here indicates that you want to change. You want more. And that pursuit to embrace a healthy lifestyle and share goodness with those around you is worthy.
Will you take a moment to reflect on that? Love the person you’re becoming, and believe you have something special to share with the world.
Action Step: Close your eyes and place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. Slowly breathe in and out so that your breathing because calm and even.
Think or quietly say to yourself:
I am thankful for the person I am becoming.
I am in the process.
I am thankful for who I am.
11. Understand your attachment style
What’s your attachment style? Your early life experiences, especially your relationship with your parents, significantly impact your attachment style. Once you know your attachment style, you’ll better understand what triggers you so you can what out for self-sabotage in your relationships.
Take our quiz to discover your attachment style.
If you have an anxious attachment style, you may self-sabotage by becoming clingy, investing everything into your relationships at the cost of your health or career, or being jealous and mistrusting.
Try communicating openly with your partner, and let them know you need extra reassurance. When you feel jealous or mistrusting, try to have a calm conversation instead of blowing up with accusations.
If you have an avoidant attachment style, you may self-sabotage by pushing others away. You may also prioritize independence over intimacy, which can take a toll on relationships.
Try letting your partner know when you feel like you need extra space, but also practice relying on your partner for small things. Avoid making decisions quickly (e.g., a sudden breakup); instead, talk to a therapist or trusted friend who can help you get some perspective first.
If you have a disorganized attachment style, you may self-sabotage by blaming yourself for others’ harmful behavior and fluctuate between pushing your partner away and clinging to them.
Try communicating with your partner that you have trouble feeling safe in relationships and that while you might communicate conflicting emotions, you care about them. Let them know you need stability and consistent emotional support. Work with a therapist or coach to help you achieve a healthier attachment style.
12. Learn how to self-regulate
Strong emotions can trigger self-sabotage if you don’t know how to self-regulate. Learn how to self-regulate and experience a new level of emotional wellness.
- Practice mindfulness. Review tip #4 for sitting with uncomfortable feelings.
- Label the emotion. Are you feeling sad, angry, or disillusioned? It can be hard to pick out emotions, so try using an emotion wheel to define your feelings.
- Monitor your body. Become aware of how your body is experiencing things; this will help you connect to yourself and your feelings.
- Find an outlet. Find something that makes sense for you. Do you need to jot down your feelings? Shake the stress out of your body? Use a fidget toy? Explore different ways to release some emotions so they don’t get trapped in your body.
13. Surround yourself with mentors and healthy friends
Healthy relationships with friends and interactions with mentors can help you overcome self-sabotage. If you had unhealthy behavior modeled to you when you were growing up, this becomes even more important for you to find new models of behavior when you are an adult.
Look for people who are a little further in their journey than you, and listen to their wisdom.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask someone to mentor you. Finding a mentor or a coach can lend you the much-needed support for overcoming self-sabotage.
Master Your People Skills
- Create a Memorable Presence
- Communicate with Confidence
- Achieve Your Goals
Have a question about the presentation or People School? Email Science of People support.
Resources to Help With Self-Sabotage
Books on Self-Sabotage
Psychologist and researcher Monica Ramirez Basco teaches how to shift perfectionism to bring about positivity in your life.
From the esteemed psychotherapist Peter A. Levine, this book explains why you respond to emotions and situations the way you do and how to use your body to experience wholeness.
If your attachment style contributes to self-sabotage, this book by Dr. Diane Poole Heller explores the neurobiological origins of attachment styles and how to create lasting relationships.
Jennie Potter shares about self-sabotage from the perspective of future-self coach and offers insights on how to identify your cycle of self-sabotage along with ways to stop repeating the past.
Videos on Self-Sabotage
Podcasts on Self-Sabotage
Key Takeaways for Overcoming Self-Sabotage
- Self-sabotage is anything you do that keeps you from realizing your potential, connecting with others, and being successful.
- Self-sabotage is a self-protection mechanism and not something you do intentionally to hurt yourself or others.
- Fear of failure and fear of success are interconnected with self-sabotage.
- When you engage in behavior that is harmful to yourself, reject the shame and don’t embrace it as your identity.
- Get a handle on your thoughts, and remind yourself that your thoughts don’t define you.
- Make one change at a time, and view success as a series of steps rather than an ultimate goal you achieve.
- Expand your tolerance of discomfort. This doesn’t mean ignoring pain; getting comfortable with discomfort is how you become aware of your pain.
- Self-sabotage has a message for you. Ask yourself what it is. Dive deep and be willing to acknowledge what your needs are.
- Celebrate your accomplishments and love the person you are becoming. Practice self-acceptance and be patient with yourself.
- Remember to have a plan. You’re developing new habits and behaviors–planning can significantly help.
When you believe in yourself, it transforms both how you interact with others and what you expect from life. Keep going on your journey to overcome self-sabotage by learning How To Believe In Yourself.