Have you ever bailed on a commitment to yourself? You make a pledge to lose weight, save money, or stop responding to texts from an ex, but every time you say you will, eventually you find yourself doing the opposite.

What is Self-Sabotaging Behavior?

This kind of self-destructive behavior is referred to as self-sabotage, and it’s very common. Some people are aware of their self-sabotaging tendencies, while others do it without realizing. At its most basic, self-sabotage includes an attitude or behavior that seems to interfere with our ability to achieve desired goals. Forms of self-sabotage include:   

  • Procrastination
  • Avoiding responsibilities
  • Forgetting commitments
  • Refusal to plan ahead
  • Habitually running late
  • Emotional eating
  • Substance use

Of course, this is not a comprehensive list, but if you find that you have developed a pattern of engaging in thoughts or actions that create problems, then it’s important to understand why. Any time you go against what you desire, what you plan, and what you know is healthiest and best for you, you might be engaging in self-sabotage.

Why Do We Self Sabotage?

So why do we engage in these behaviors? Odd as it may sound, self-sabotage is actually a protective mechanism that our mind uses to shield us from what it perceives as unfamiliar, unsafe, or risky. Basically, the mind wants to keep us in familiar patterns, even if that means going back to an unhealthy relationship, showing up late to work every day, or saying yes to substance use when you’re trying to stay clean.

People might self-sabotage because they don’t feel worthy or deserving of what they have, so they subconsciously work to destroy it, which then validates the negative thoughts they have about themselves. Although it may sound destructive, the brain is used to this state of being and prefers the familiarity of it. People might also self-sabotage because they’re afraid to succeed, or they’re afraid to fail. They might be afraid of what others think, or they might be afraid to make a life changing decision.  

How Do You Stop Being Your Own Worst Enemy?

Start by evaluating yourself, your desires, and your behaviors. This might sound like a big job, but it doesn’t have to be. You can simply pay attention to what you want, how you think about it, and how you behave later. Keep a journal and write down your goals, thoughts and actions. What do you notice?  For example, how difficult is it for you to stick to a goal?  Do you set out to accomplish one thing, and find you’ve wasted your free time on social media? Do you tend to stick to the first four days of a diet, but then buy junk food on the fifth day?  Once you have your habits identified, you can start working to change them.

Alice Boyes writes in an article titled How to Stop Sabotaging Yourself, about her technique to manage her anxiety-induced self-sabotage. Boyes explains that she recognized her mind’s tendency to overreact to challenges. “Knowing my thinking bias, I factor it into my judgments. I discount my initial reaction and go back and review requests with fresh eyes. I explicitly say to myself, ‘My brain is reacting to this as if it’s a threat, when most likely it’s actually an opportunity,’” writes Boyes.

A PsychCentral article by Hilary I Lebow Are You Sabotaging Yourself? Here’s How to Know and What to Do recommends creating alternate actions to prevent self-sabotaging.  “Underneath self-sabotage, there’s often an uncomfortable emotion you’d rather not feel, like fear of failure, success, abandonment, commitment, or inadequacy,” writes Lebow. “…Identifying three alternative actions can help in getting closer to your goals.”

Perhaps your journaling has led you to discover that you often jump to conclusions, which can cause distorted thoughts. For example, if your partner slams the door, you assume he/she is angry at you, and you spend the entire day dwelling on it.  Rather than ask if he/she is angry, you become distant or cool because you believe it was rude or unfair that they slammed the door.  You can begin by coming up with alternative actions, to prevent yourself from jumping to conclusions. 

Alternate 1: Remind yourself that jumping to conclusions is part of your mind’s self-sabotage behavior and re-evalute this initial reaction.

Alternate 2: Check in with your partner to see if they were running late, and maybe accidentally slammed the door.

Alternate 3: Set aside time to talk with your partner and communicate that you are working on self-sabotage behavior, and ask for their support.

Changing our patterns can be difficult, so don’t expect it to happen overnight. Often it is a long-term commitment we make, re-directing our thoughts and learning new, positive behaviors. Your efforts will be worth it, changing these habits can be life changing. Recognize the progress you are making, even if its small. Practise positive self-talk and self-care.

Some people’s self-sabotage habits can be minor and manageable, while other people may struggle with their relationships, career or mental health because of it. If you would like to speak with a counselor about self-sabotaging behaviors, reach out to us at Family & Child Development.