Self-Sabotage: Why We Do It and How to Stop

“I can’t.”


“I don’t feel ready yet.”


“This won’t work anyway.”


Sound familiar at all? If any of these statements are bouncing around in your mind, you may be indulging in what’s called self-sabotage.


The basic definition of self-sabotage is holding yourself back, through self-talk and the actions – or lack of action – that follows. Self-sabotage is like having somebody standing in your way every time you try to move. And that person is you!


Why the self-sabotage? Basically, we hold ourselves back to protect ourselves from disappointment. Taking a step to create change in our lives can feel risky. It may turn out the way we hoped and it way not. So by using self-sabotage – those “you can’t” and “it won’t” statements – we avoid the potential of disappointment. Some of us came from families in which our parents used self-sabotage in their own lives, and somehow conveyed that same fear of disappointment in their children. Or we picked the self-sabotage habit up along the way, maybe after repeated disappointments.



Self-Sabotage Feels Safe, but it Keeps you Stuck


I often talk to my clients about the ways that they sabotage themselves. It makes me feel sad to hear them talk about how their self-sabotage keeps them stuck in situations that make them unhappy, or how they stop themselves from moving out of their comfort zone when life could be so much better for them if they would get out of their own way. Nobody likes to be disappointed. Especially when we disappoint ourselves.


I am especially concerned when my clients who are living with chronic conditions use self-sabotage. Disappointment? Disappointment can go with the territory of living with a chronic condition. Setbacks, limitations, routines that you didn’t choose. You’ve had enough disappointment anyway along the road, so why ask for more? And why not even do what you can to avoid further disappointment?


The problem is, the urge to avoid disappointment can result in self-sabotage. And that can mean:


  • Being complacent about your self-care routine. After all, if you don’t try all that hard, you don’t have to worry about not meeting your goals.


  • Another word for avoidance. You know what I need to do and you’ll get to it. Soon.


  •  Criticizing yourself. When you get down on yourself, you make it that much easier not to take any chances in the future. Who wants to set themselves up to get yelled at?


  • Having trouble making decisions. Because you’re so afraid of making a mistake.


  • Using your chronic condition as an excuse to hold yourself back. Sure, the limitations that your chronic condition imposes on your life have resulted in some disappointments along the way. But is it possible that you can work with these limitations and achieve more of what you want in life?


Here’s the bottom line about self-sabotage. It feels like a way of keeping yourself safe from disappointment. But it’s really a way of keeping yourself stuck. The result? Holding yourself back from taking the best possible care of yourself. And from having more in life.


But you have a choice. You don’t have to give in to that voice of self-sabotage. And just how do you do that? Here’s how:


Recognize that voice of self-criticism. It pops up out of nowhere, especially the times when you are faced with a decision about making a positive change in your life. You learned to talk to yourself that way over time, so it’s kind of hardwired. But it can also be unwired. It starts by recognizing when you are sabotaging yourself. “I can’t.” “It won’t help.” “Why bother?”


Talk back. That voice of self-sabotage is automatic. But that doesn’t mean you have to give in to it. Talk back to it. “I see you’re here but I am not going to listen to you. You think it’s your job to hold me back, but I’m reminding you that I’m moving forward with my life. So be quiet.”


Watch out for either-or thinking. One of the ways we talk ourselves into inaction is through either-or thinking. Here’s an example: “I’ll never be able to get the kind of diet and exercise plan in place that will really make a difference. That’s a huge job. How could I possibly be successful?” Or, “Sure I would like to try for that job. But if I don’t get it, I will be devastated.” With either-or thinking, there’s no middle ground. There’s perfection on one end and failure at the other. With stakes that high, why try?


Take it one step at a time. The goal of making positive changes in your life doesn’t have to be an overnight success. To insist on this is to court disappointment. Look for small steps forward that you can take. Small, manageable changes. And then build on them. Tiptoe – don’t sprint – out of your comfort zone.   And give yourself encouragement for trying.


Watch your expectations. Be ready to lower them. Expecting major things out of yourself, things you may not be able to deliver, is a setup for disappointment. Be flexible. Recognize your own limitations. Accept that you don’t have all the control. Be patient with yourself.


Review your foundation. The voice of self-sabotage tells you that disappointment can leave you defenseless and alone. But that’s not true. Gather some evidence to use when you catch yourself in self-sabotage. Think about: Your support network. Your healthcare team. Your ability to make good decisions when you’re faced with a challenge.   Your own inner resilience. The circumstances of life don’t have to knock over when you have a strong foundation. Your foundation is what’s real. It’s what you have to fall back on if things don’t go the way you want them to.


Get support. Talk about how you get in your own way with a friend or a family member who is a good listener. Chances are, they can related. Share your experiences. You might even come up with a plan to help each other to make positive changes. If you feel like you need some help in getting beyond that urge to self-sabotage, you might also want to schedule some time with a mental health professional to talk it out and learn some new coping techniques.


Look for the lesson. When something doesn’t go as you had hoped – like when you slip up on your medication compliance, or make a decision that turns out to be the wrong one – look at this as an opportunity to learn. So remember the lesson so you can apply it in the future. Experience is the best teacher.


Love yourself. Every day. An antidote for self-sabotage is showing yourself some kindness. Make sure you are building something you enjoy into each day. Along with people to enjoy it with. Remind yourself of what’s good in your life. Give yourself some words of encouragement. And be kind to others.


The voice of self-sabotage is automatic. But that doesn’t mean you have to listen to it. Connect with your own foundation. Give yourself a push forward. Be your own best supporter!