Humans are wired to protect themselves from harm, but for some people, attempts at self-protection quickly turn into self-sabotage.
What is Self-Sabotaging?
Self-sabotaging is a term often used to describe a strategy or set of actions undertaken with the goal of self-preservation. No one wants to feel emotions like pain, fear, rejection, embarrassment, or judgement, and some people take action to avoid those feelings, often unintentionally harming themselves in other ways.
The act of self-sabotaging typically involves placing a barrier between the person and their desired outcome. If the desired outcome doesn’t happen, they can make sense of that failure by emphasizing the barrier. This can look like, “I knew I wasn’t going to pass that test because I didn’t even study.” If the desired outcome does happen, then the person can attribute success to their ability to overcome the obstacle. This can look like, “I didn’t even study, and I still passed the test. I must be really intelligent.”
Especially when it happens regularly, self-sabotaging can lead to worsening self-esteem, limiting beliefs, destructive behaviors, and relationship issues.
Conscious vs. Unconscious Self-Sabotaging
Self-sabotaging is often unconscious, or at least not done in a fully premeditated manner. Sometimes people are aware that they’re doing something to self-sabotage but have trouble identifying it and redirecting their actions in the moment. For example, someone may notice themselves procrastinating on submitting a job application, but not be aware that they are doing so to avoid the potential rejection.
Self-sabotaging can be conscious in some scenarios, though it’s important to highlight that the person is rarely purposely self-sabotaging and is more so aware of the self-sabotaging behaviors and their potential outcomes, but is prioritizing in-the-moment feelings. Someone who has a goal to save money but sees something they like in a store might consciously acknowledge that they are trying to save money and that purchasing the item would go against that goal. If they decide to purchase it anyway, they would experience the immediate gratification of purchasing the item, but sabotage their goal of saving money.
Why do we do it?
Before discussing the reasons people self-sabotage, it’s important to highlight that self-sabotaging is not your fault. Wanting to avoid pain and negative emotion is not a character flaw or personality defect. It is a learned behavior that has protected you in past experiences, so your brain will naturally continue to try it until it learns a better set of skills.
- Disruptions in attachments in childhood
The most significant indicator of self-sabotaging behavior (and many other unhelpful coping skills) stems back to the attachments we made with caretakers in childhood. We know that the relationships and attachment frameworks built in early years are impactful throughout a person’s life and influence their ability to cope with uncomfortable emotions. When that is disrupted, the brain will look for other ways to self-soothe.
- Low self-esteem
Self-esteem impacts many of our behaviors and heightens attempts to reduce pain and rejection. It can also reinforce negative thinking patterns and feelings of inadequacy that fuel self-sabotage. For example, if someone was treated like they were incapable or not intelligent as a child, they will likely continue to feel that way about themselves as an adult. To avoid the pain of feeling inadequate, that person might engage in self-sabotaging behaviors like only choosing the easiest path, being afraid to speak up, or refusing to engage in activities that include any judgment of their skills.
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- Fear of getting hurt
Everyone makes efforts to avoid getting hurt. When we have past experiences of feeling intense hurt, it makes sense that our brains would try to protect us from experiencing that again. Evolutionarily, that’s how we’ve all survived thus far; the people who thought it best to not touch the snake or jump off the cliff were the people who lived long enough to pass on their genetics to us. Doing things to avoid being hurt is not self-sabotage, but doing things to avoid being hurt at the cost of things like emotional closeness, achievement, or personal fulfillment can be.
- Fear of commitment
People fear commitment for a variety of reasons. For some, they have seen a blueprint of the pain and heartache that can result when commitment doesn’t work out. There is the more obvious example of watching a parent’s divorce, but this also shows up in experiences of committing to a career, hobby, or idea only to have it not work out. The push-and-pull of desperately wanting the security of commitment, while also fearing the loss of that security can cause someone to push away an otherwise healthy addition to their lives.
- Poor coping skills
Because self-sabotaging stems from a desire to not experience negative emotions, people who engage in this behavior often struggle to know and effectively use coping skills. Managing distress, especially when you weren’t taught to do so as a child, is a difficult task that requires patience and practice. Self-sabotaging behaviors appear to offer a shortcut to feeling better, and without healthy coping mechanisms in the toolbox, they can sometimes feel like the only option.
Researchers interviewed a group of psychologists about the self-sabotaging relationship behaviors they most commonly see their clients struggle with, and their responses showed a pattern of similar behaviors. While many of these behaviors could be present in a variety of unhealthy relationship dynamics, the clinicians interviewed noted seeing these specifically done with the goal of self-preservation.
- Attacking (accusations, criticism, revenge)
For people engaging in this pattern from a place of self-preservation, attacking their partner is an attempt to deflect negative criticism away from them and be the first to begin attacking, instead of wondering when their partner will begin attacking them.
- Intense pursuit (clinging, demands/ultimatums, obsessive check-ins)
This creates an unsustainable intensity, which in one way is exciting, but it is also exhausting. People self-sabotage with this behavior to maintain passion and elicit a sense of connection and/or commitment.
- Withdrawing (distancing, hiding emotions, ignoring)
Especially for people who repeatedly did not get their needs met in childhood, withdrawing can be a resulting self-sabotaging behavior. In essence, they are left with a fear that no one will meet their needs, so why should they bother asking to have them met? For some people, the pain of asking to have their needs met and not experiencing effective support seems greater than the pain of loneliness and isolation.
- Defensiveness (Shifting blame, “playing the victim”, externalizing)
Like attacking, people engaging in defensiveness are hoping to reduce the blame put on themselves, and the resulting shame they would experience. These folks are trying to find external causes (whether that be other people, circumstances out of their control, or unfair situations) rather than sit with the discomfort of being in the wrong or acknowledging a need for growth. The fear of having their core self criticized is too much to bear, so they will attempt to keep the focus as far away as possible.
- Contempt (disrespect, holding negative assumptions about another person)
This stems from a person staying “stuck” in their assessment of how a situation will go. When faced with conflict or an opportunity for connection, their assumptions are so fixed that even when faced with alternative information, they struggle to notice and process it. Self-sabotaging with contempt commonly looks like rolling eyes or saying things like “here we go again” rather than attempting to be present and listen to what’s happening.
- Destructive behaviors (gambling, substance use, excessive shopping)
Many people engage in coping skills that may provide temporary relief, but actually increase emotional distress over time (sometimes call maladaptive coping skills). The dopamine high that a person may get from using substances, engaging in risky behavior, or finding instant gratification only dulls the emotional distress temporarily. Then, there are two problems: the original distress, and the negative impacts of the maladaptive coping skills.
- Affairs (physical or emotional infidelity)
It is not uncommon for people with commitment fears to self-sabotage with infidelity. For people who strongly fear abandonment or a loss of commitment, preemptively removing that commitment before their partner does can feel self-protective. Some people seek reassurance that they are wanted or would have options if their partner decided to leave. This is an especially tricky self-sabotaging behavior because in many cases, the exact outcome a person feared (their partner leaving), happens as a result of their behavior.
How can you stop self-sabotage?
- Know your thinking patterns
Our thoughts, and more specifically, our cognitive distortions, have a profound effect on our emotional state and the behaviors we then engage in. Cognitive distortions are thought patterns that are faulty or irrational in some way, and can act as a mental filter to impact the how you perceive an event or situation. Common cognitive distortions include: jumping to conclusions, catastrophizing (expecting the worst-case scenario), and fortune-telling (assuming you know what the future holds). Exercises rooted in cognitive-behavioral therapy can help identify these thought patterns and healthier alternatives.
- Know your triggers
Learning what typically sparks distress can be vital to know when to slow down and try to engage other skills. Is it times when you feel rejected? Alone? Suffocated? Recognizing situations that might lead to those feelings even before the feelings come up can help you make a plan to cope with those emotions without self-sabotaging behaviors.
- Learn what your physical sensations are telling you about your emotions
Many people report difficulty knowing what emotions are coming up for them, or how to label them. A pit in the stomach, a tightening in the chest, or a flushed face all mean something, but it can take considerable time and effort to learn how your body experiences emotions.
Slowing down and exploring the sensations and emotions from a non-judgmental perspective can help you identify them so that you recognize them quicker each time they come back up. Knowing the difference between anxious and lonely or between angry and rejected can help you know how to best respond.
- Learn to recognize seemingly irrelevant decisions
Borrowed from substance use therapies, seemingly irrelevant decisions is a term used to describe a set of decisions that appear harmless on their own, but may lead to destructive behaviors. Related to substance use this can look like a person calling a friend they previously use with “just to hang out”, then talking about how stressed they have been lately, then offering to give that friend a ride back to their house, which ultimately ends up in them using. They may not have initially intended to use when spending time with that person, but each decision has the power to bring them closer to healthy or unhealthy behavior. Applying this to self-sabotaging behaviors, a person who is experiencing a fear of their partner leaving them could call a friend while their partner is out at a bar with coworkers, then suggest they also go out, then encourage going to a bar next door to where her partner is where she can monitor their actions, leading ultimately to the self-sabotaging behavior of intense pursuit.
- Practice radical self-acceptance
Because self-esteem issues can lead to self-sabotaging behaviors, improving your sense of self is one way to reduce those behaviors. Radical acceptance is skill often taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) as a way to manage distress. The essential concept is to fully accept situations/events/emotions as they are, even if they are imperfect. To be clear, radical acceptance does not mean you have to be ok with what’s happening or not feel negative emotion about it. On the contrary, using this skill effectively means feeling all of the emotion that comes up. Acknowledging those things without judgement can be a powerful tool in reducing distress.
For example, if someone had a desire for friendship, but also a deep fear of rejection, they might engage in a self-sabotaging behavior of saying no to invitations or social gatherings where they might be able to make those connections. The fear that someone might actually get to know them, but not want to be their friend could be intense enough to not try. Someone practicing radical acceptance in this scenario would sit with the uncomfortable thought “not everyone will want to be my friend after they get to know me, but some people may”, and hopefully be able to engage in social events.
- Work to heal past wounds
For many people, this is the ultimate thing to address if they are seeking to stop self-sabotaging behaviors. The skills listed above are incredibly helpful in managing distress and opening the door for new patterns of behavior. Self-sabotaging behaviors stem from past efforts to manage pain, and if we haven’t healed that pain it can be challenging to manage those behaviors long-term. Working with a trained professional to identify and safely process prior experiences can help you understand your past behaviors and reduce the emotional distress that comes up when one of those wounds are triggered.