Why People Self-Sabotage

Unhappy young woman feeling low

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While it seems surprising, some people undermine their own good intentions and long-term goals. Self-sabotage occurs when people hinder their own success.

When people take these destructive steps, their harmful behavior can negatively impact nearly every part of their lives including their relationships and career.

Why Do People Self-Sabotage?

People thwart their progress for a variety of reasons. They may consciously or unconsciously commit acts of self-sabotage. The causes range from childhood issues to prior relationship effects. Other reasons for this type of destructive behavior vary from low self-esteem and coping problems to problems with cognitive dissonance, which will be explained below.

Conscious and Unconscious Self-Sabotage

People who self-sabotage might be aware of their actions. For example, someone who's overweight and on a diet might consciously sabotage their good efforts by eating a whole carton of ice cream.

Or they might unconsciously act. A person misses a work deadline. On the surface, it seems like he was running late. But the truth is he’s afraid of failure. He self-sabotages by missing the due date, thus he thwarts his goal to move up in the company.

Difficult Childhood

Growing up in a dysfunctional family can contribute to your acts of self-sabotage. Without a secure attachment style, you might have an ambivalent or avoidant attachment style. Our earliest engagement with caregivers affects how we connect to others.

If your parents told you growing up that you’ll never amount to much, maybe you handicap yourself so that you do fall short.

Difficulty in Relationships

If your ex constantly put you down, you might still feel vulnerable. Maybe they said they were wasting time trying to move forward with someone like you.

Now you’re in a great relationship, but you cheat on your partner. Or break up for no reason. You don’t feel good enough or you fear getting hurt again.

Based on a recent study on self-sabotage, 15 psychologists specializing in romantic relationships in Australia identified the main issues for the prevalence of self-sabotage in romantic relationships.

Reasons included insecure attachment styles, low self-esteem, fear of getting hurt, fear of commitment, unhealthy relationship beliefs, and coping problems when it comes to matters of the heart.

Low Self-Esteem

People with a negative self-image and low self-esteem are especially vulnerable to self-sabotaging. They behave in ways that confirm negative beliefs about themselves. So, if they are close to succeeding, they become uncomfortable.

They’ve been told all their lives that they’ll fail. Or sometimes they told themselves all their lives that they’d fail.

Cognitive Dissonance

People showing this behavior struggle with cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort you may have holding two conflicting ideas at the same time. Human beings like to have consistency between their beliefs and actions.

For example, you are marrying someone great, but you come from a dysfunctional family. Your dad left, and your mother went from one abusive relationship to another. You, therefore, don’t believe in a stable, loving marriage. Yet, you are continuing to plan the wedding and send invitations.

Here’s a work-related example: You are about to land a great client and earn more money than ever before. Rather than do what it takes to propel yourself forward, you hold back because you don’t feel worthy.

So, you get drunk the night before the client meeting and miss it entirely. Rather than move ahead, you take actions to screw things up for yourself.

Self-sabotaging can lead to chronic struggles with food, liquor, drugs, gambling, and self-injury. This destructive behavior can also strip people of their motivation and make them anxious.

Common Ways People Self-Sabotage

Mental health practitioners have identified common ways people self-sabotage. Three easy-to-identify ways include procrastination, perfectionism, and self-medication.

Procrastination

People who self-sabotage often procrastinate. Procrastination is a way you show others you’re never ready and put off a good outcome. It’s because people fear disappointing others, failing, or succeeding.

Perfectionism

Holding oneself to an impossible standard will cause delays and setbacks. While it seems like a positive strategy to aim for things to go as planned without a hitch, perfectionism hampers success.

When something does go wrong, as it inevitably will, perfectionists come undone. They end up feeling ashamed. Prone to depression, they feel like they are letting everyone down.

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Self-Medication

To deal with the constant battle between wanting to be successful and the script that plays in their brains saying they can’t be, many soothe themselves through drugs, alcohol, and self-injury.

How to Stop Self-Sabotaging

If you're working with a therapist or counselor, your best advice is to look to them for guidance. If you want some pointers on how to cease this negative behavior, here are some things you should consider to prevent you from causing more harm.

Examine the root causes

Look for patterns in your life. Have you been prone to thwart your good efforts repeatedly? Did these acts occur before you were about to succeed or when you were close to achieving your personal desires?

As mentioned, this behavior may stem from childhood. Some parents, either knowing no better or afraid that their children will be disappointed, tell their kids not to think big. Maybe they said, “Who are you to believe you can go to college? You need to work like the rest of us.”

Stop procrastinating

Common behavior exhibited by those who self-sabotage is procrastination. If you keep putting something off what’s important to you, it might be easier emotionally than reaching a goal that you were told you’d never reach. 

The mismatch between where you’re at and what was drilled into your head for years might cause you incredible discomfort. So, you self-sabotage.

A recent study was conducted on student procrastination in academic environments. Scientists found one common factor in procrastination involved a lack of self-regulation. This is due to students having a large degree of freedom, temptations and distractions, and long deadlines.

Peer influence or social factors also influenced procrastination. Finally, a lack of skills in the area of study skills also contributed to procrastination.

Stop looking solely at the big picture

When you shoot for something big, like becoming a top salesperson where you work, a giant goal can feel overwhelming.

To prevent acts of self-sabotage, don’t get hung up on minutiae. Those who self-sabotage sometimes waste lots of time on unimportant details.

Another example: If you’re trying to get healthy, don’t make all-or-nothing decisions. Don't throw in the towel if you miss the gym one week. Start back the next.

Make small incremental changes and act on them slowly. This way, you might prevent your sabotaging mind from putting on the brakes. Take more bite-sized actions that won’t derail you.

Stop perfectionistic thinking

Self-sabotaging people are often perfectionists. Maybe you overthink every detail, and everything has to be just right.

Aim to strive for excellence, not perfection. Make small improvements and note progress on the way toward accomplishing the desired goal.

It takes work to self-sabotage

This negative behavior is time-consuming and takes a lot of work. Recent research shows that self-handicapping is resource-demanding.

A study by researchers at Indiana University reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology counterintuitive results. Early birds self-sabotage more in the morning and night owls self-sabotage more at night.

That means they undermined their performances not when they were tired, but when they had peak cognitive resources at their disposal. It, therefore, takes a lot of energy to continue this behavior, and it leads to maladaptive outcomes.

Questions to Ask Yourself

If you think you self-sabotage, ask yourself:

  • Is your behavior aligning with your goals?
  • If not, what is stopping you from taking action to make your dreams come true?
  • Is your behavior aligning with values that you currently believe?
  • If not, what is stopping you from taking actions that align with these values?
  • Do you feel uneasiness or discomfort when you progress? If yes, dig deeper:
  • Is this discomfort based on what others told you that limited your aspirations?
  • Is this discomfort based on a fear of failure and worry about looking foolish?
  • Is this unease based on a fear of success?
  • Are you concerned with achieving more than you thought possible?
  • If you do better or achieve more, do you believe success is more than you deserve?

Treatment for Self-Sabotaging

Those who self-handicap may have a hard time regulating their emotions and behaviors. Behavioral dysregulation and emotional dysregulation are often caused by childhood trauma or neglect. This dysregulation can foster harmful reactions.

People who self-sabotage can find help for various problems, including alcohol and drug abuse, binge eating, angry outbursts, and self-harm.

The following therapies have also helped those who self-sabotage:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) uses techniques effective in relieving cognitive distortions. Using these techniques helps you replace negative thought patterns and improve your overall wellbeing.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) works well on problems that involve intense emotions. This could encompass impulsive behaviors, impulse control issues, and difficulties getting along with other people. You’ll learn to regulate your emotions better with this method.

Online therapy is available using various modalities. Seek out a therapist in your area to guide you.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Svartdal F, Dahl TI, Gamst-Klaussen T, Koppenborg M, Klingsieck KB. How study environments foster academic procrastination: overview and recommendationsFront Psychol. 2020;11:540910. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.540910

  3. Eyink J, Hirt ER, Hendrix KS, Galante E. Circadian variations in claimed self-handicapping: Exploring the strategic use of stress as an excuseJournal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2017;69:102-110. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2016.07.010

By Barbara Field
Barbara is writer and speak who is passionate about mental health, overall wellness, and women's issues.