What is self-sabotage?

Self-sabotage is when you find yourself doing something that is not in your best interest, or that is downright unhealthy for you, yet you just can’t help but do it anyway. You might not even realize you are doing it. It could be something that you do once, or repeat many times.

People may self-sabotage in one or more areas of life. Here are some examples of self-sabotaging behaviours in different domains:

Work:

Showing up late for a job interview, procrastinating on a work assignment until it’s late, making comments you know will get you into trouble with colleagues or the boss.

Love:

Never making the first move, not returning calls/emails/texts, over- or under-sharing things about yourself on a first date, calling exes when you know they are not good for you, saying “yes” to booty calls when you want a stable relationship, cheating on a partner you love.

School:

Picking classes that are too easy, too hard, or unrelated to your desired career aspirations, skipping class, handing in assignments late, falling asleep in class. Taking drugs or alcohol in a way that impairs your ability to succeed.

Personally:

Not making time for self-care activities such as exercise or seeing friends, avoiding things that are fun or relaxing, insulting yourself or being overly self-critical.

Health:

Eating foods that you know are bad for your health condition, not taking medications properly, failing to do regular checkups or exams, ignoring signs of illness, smoking, using drugs or alcohol in a dangerous way, drinking and driving, harming yourself physically.

Family:

Not respecting your limits or boundaries, breaking boundaries that you’ve previously set, maintaining relationships you know are toxic, avoiding loved ones who do treat you well.

Socially:

Cancelling plans at the last minute or just not showing up at all, making sarcastic comments or jokes that deteriorate relationships, not opening up or keeping a “wall up”, only talking about yourself and not listening or showing concern for others.

Why do we self-sabotage?

There can be a number of reasons why we get in the way of our own best interests, here’s a few examples:

  • We are scared to fail. If we don’t try, we can’t fail, so we think we are “avoiding” failure.
  • We are scared to succeed. Success can feel scary – it’s unknown, we might think we don’t deserve it, we fear we can’t sustain it, we don’t know what to do with it, we don’t know how to handle it or how others will treat us.
  • We don’t think we deserve good things. Low self-esteem can make us think that we don’t serve happiness.
  • We are used to bad treatment. If we’ve been abused or neglected it can feel familiar or “comfortable” because it’s the “devil you know”.
  • Behaviour change is hard. Doing what’s healthiest often requires work, energy, time, commitment, and sacrifice.
  • We view ourselves as incapable; we have low “self-efficacy”. Thinking that you can’t achieve something often means that you don’t even try, because you think it’s out of reach.
  • There are systemic barriers. If you’ve faced a history of roadblocks such as systemic racism or sexism you might have a feeling of learned helplessness, and you might give up on yourself.

How can therapy help me to stop self-sabotaging?

Therapy can help you to understand what your heart truly desires, and what is getting in the way of achieving your goals. If there are consistent things you do (i.e., behaviour patterns) that lead to self-sabotage, therapy can help you identify and understand how to change or interrupt these patterns. There might be internal or external barriers that you are facing – which therapy can help you tease apart, accept, or problem-solve. If self-sabotage is based on feelings of low self-worth, therapy can help you to cultivate a relationship with yourself that is based on loving-kindness.

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