What is self sabotage? Causes, symptoms and therapy

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Almost all of us have encountered situations where we are tirelessly working towards a meaningful goal but end up failing spectacularly because of something stupid. This often happens due to the excess stress, anxiety and fear of failure that you encounter while completing that task. The extra pressure that builds up on you to do the right thing, makes you lose sight of the process and be single-handedly focused only on the result. These uncontrolled self-defeating and overcompensatory thoughts erode our confidence and self-esteem and with every failed attempt to do the thing you want, you “prove” to yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t do it.

Table of Contents

What Is self-sabotage?

Self-Sabotage may be defined as a pattern of behaviour in which the actions one undertakes directly or indirectly contradict the best things for them. This destructive behaviour of repeatedly undermining their efforts prevents them from reaching their goals. Most people self-sabotage on an unconscious level, which may create problems in their career, relationship, health, or personal goals.

The psychology behind self-sabotage

The negative behaviour of an individual is almost always rooted in their past. The experiences one gained, the problems one encountered and the hurdles one crossed, make one accustomed to adjusting to the failures. Here are a few examples to understand the psychology behind self-sabotage better –

  • Learning to push away people if you got hurt or let down early on in life.
  • Developing a habit of trying to control everything if you had an unstable upbringing.
  • Developing people-pleasing habits if you experienced bullying experiences or struggled to make friends.
  • Adapting the habit of never trying a new thing for the fear of failing if you were taught to believe you were no good.
  • Learning to lie when you grew up with a physical threat of punishment.

In all these examples, we see how one or the other unfavourable elements lead to self-sabotaging behaviour.

Most of the time when we self-sabotage, it is due to the development of a desire to protect ourselves and avoid negative consequences.

It’s right to think of our self-sabotaging as fear-driven. The fear of being hurt, rejected, disliked, abused, or criticised. The fear of not coping, losing control, failing, or upsetting ourselves or others. These fears have strong emotions connected to them, and we want to avoid those feelings. That’s what makes self-sabotaging difficult to stop.

What causes self-sabotage?

The causes range from childhood issues to prior relationship effects. The root cause, however, is fear of the unknown and the difficulty to adapt to new situations. A few major drivers of self-sabotage behaviour are enlisted below-

Difficult childhood: Growing up in a dysfunctional family can cause problems of self- sabotage. One develops an avoidant mechanism system for all emotional and other issues due to the lack of a secure attachment style from the very beginning of life.

Low self-esteem: People with low self-esteem have a negative image of themselves in their minds and in various ways, they validate that negative state. Even if they are close to success, this constant hesitation, causes them to harm themselves.

Fear of failure: results from us being terrified of making a mistake or falling short of our goals. By worrying too much about the problems and focusing singularly on the outcome, we tend to undermine ourselves by thinking of ourselves as inadequate for the responsibility. The fear of failure is also very closely intertwined with performance anxiety which further causes stress.

Fear of success: Fear of success is also a troubling cause of self-sabotaging behaviour. For instance, many times success leads to exposure, which results in having to be in the spotlight. If someone suffers from social anxiety, then this can appear to be a daunting threat. They are too afraid to be in the main light that they end up losing control and acting recklessly.

On the contrary, fear of success may also be the result of fear of the unknown arising from the difficulty in adjusting to the concept of success. A person who has become accustomed to failures finds success as a very new forte considering the various phases one might have to encounter, like the fear of losing oneself, fear of backlash, fear of complexity issues among friends and siblings, fear of change, fear of heightened expectations and other such fears that the person might not be in a position yo experience earlier. This makes it difficult for such a person to adjust to success.

Cognitive Dissonance: It is 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. However, people showing signs of self-sabotaging behaviour have this issue.

To understand this behaviour better, take, for example, you are marrying someone great, but you come from a dysfunctional family as 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.This is an instance of an individual showing signs of cognitive dissonance.

Difficulty in Relationships: According to 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, which 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. All this results from unhealthy past relationships and thereby, even on experiencing a good relationship, a self-sabotaging individual tends to mess it up owing to these fears.

Signs and Symptoms of self-sabotage

Self-sabotage can manifest in many different behaviours, unique to each person. It’s much easier to see it in others than recognise it for ourselves. Take for example relationship reality TV shows that have achieved a huge audience – Love Island, Married at First Sight, and Love is Blind. We will all agree to the instances of people destroying these relationships due to their self-sabotaging behaviour, but it is very hard to identify such signs and symptoms in ourselves.

Here are some signs that you might be self-sabotaging:

  • Invalidating your own feelings/not letting yourself feel
  • Pushing others away or keeping them at arm’s length
  • Setting yourself impossible standards
  • Saying yes when you want to say no
  • ·Not speaking up for yourself/avoiding conflict
  • Indulging in negative self-talk.
  • Engaging in alcohol, food, or drug self-medicating
  • Procrastinating
  • Making jokes at your own expense
  • Having no boundaries with friends/family/colleagues
  • Reckless spending
  • Never asking for help or letting others in
  • Compulsive lying
  • Binge eating
  • Chronic lateness

All these are instances where people tend to self-sabotage, hindering their own success.

How to stop self-sabotage behaviour?

1. Identifying self-sabotaging behaviours.

First, on the identification of this behaviour, there will be a sense of frustration, anger, and guilt due to the fact that you were yourself the ones getting in your own way all along but this is the most important step along the process. For example, if you have been pushing off work you need to do, then you are using procrastination as a way to self-sabotage.

2. Identifying the drivers of this behaviour.

Secondly, the question will then emerge as to what was the reason for this behaviour. This is the part that requires major attention. Once you are aware of the principal drivers behind your self-harming behaviour, it becomes easy to avoid it. The past cannot be undone. Aim to manage your behaviours.It is necessary to move on in life and experience the new emotions that life offers us. To give an example of what this may look like, one might have dealt with performance anxiety and the fear of failure a lot of times in their sports career. This leads to avoidance patterns taking place which would result in them trying to outrun the negative thoughts and emotions that arose out of anxiety.

3. Work to overcome your driver or avoid it.

The worst thing that can happen in the process is that you get caught in a cycle of feeling sorry for yourself. It is alright to feel that way but learn that this behaviour is not uncommon and the most important requirement at this stage is to let go of this feeling. The important step here is that you need to understand first whether or not you are ready to encounter the issue. There is no problem in avoiding a problem if you are not ready to deal with it.

Avoidance, however, is a short-term tactic. One needs to find the right threshold to deal with the problem after a while as it will worsen over time if not treated rightfully to become a bigger issue. Once you’re ready to deal with it, begin by finding various methods that can help you to overcome this stage of anxiety and regain your confidence. Develop self-supporting behaviours and follow routines that give your mind and soul a calming effect.

There are plenty of resources available to help overcome this behaviour. Maybe you’ll want to seek the aid of a mental performance coach or a therapist to help guide you through. Infiheal is here for you to provide assistance in the manner best tailored for you.

Perhaps you might even prefer to work through such problems on your own. In which case you must put together a detailed plan of action to do so. This can be done by-

  • Managing your emotions, actions and thoughts- Challenge the negative perspectives in mind that prevent you from achieving your goal. After this, try linking these thoughts to positive self-talk and align your behaviours as per them.
  • Develop self-supporting behaviours- Once you’ve identified the causes that lead to self-sabotaging behaviours, ask yourself questions like:
    • What is it that gives me positivity and courage?
    • What options do I have? Is there more than one way to achieve my goal?
    • Can I build self-confidence by setting and achieving smaller goals, on my way to achieving the bigger ones?

Answers to these questions will surely provide you with the best positive directions to head in life.

  • Documenting, journaling and analysing the behaviours can be the next step to avoiding self-sabotaging behaviours. Once you realise the main causes behind this psychology of destruction, it is very important to take a step to develop positive habits to overcome self-defeating behaviour. This may be done either by consulting an expert or by building your own ways and methods. Practising mindfulness is another positive habit that cn help overcome this self-destructive behaviour. Remember the thinking patterns that made you self-sabotage and try to avoid them with careful analysis once you rethink in that manner. This will help you to gradually avoid those patterns over a period of time.

Therapy for self-sabotage

Behavioural dysregulation and emotional dysregulation are often caused by childhood trauma or neglect resulting in self-sabotaging behaviour. 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 helped those who self-sabotage:

1. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) uses techniques effective in relieving cognitive distortions. Moreover, these techniques help you replace negative thought patterns and improve your overall wellbeing.

2. Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) works well on problems that involve intense emotions. This could include impulsive behaviours, impulse control issues, and difficulties getting along with other people. You’ll learn to regulate your emotions better with the help of this method.

3. Mindfulness-based therapies help clients by motivating them to accomplish a task in a mindful manner with a calm mind.

4. Strengths-based therapies use a client’s strengths and abilities to instil a sense of purpose and happiness. The therapists via this approach utilise the inherent strengths of the people to help them overcome their self-sabotaging behaviours.

5. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a form of psychotherapy that utilizes mindfulness and behavioural strategies to help people struggling with issues like depression, anxiety, or addiction. Its goal is not to reduce the symptoms of self-harming behaviour, but rather to encourage people to act in a meaningful manner.

6. Schema Therapy draws on the cognitive-behavioural, attachment, psychodynamic, and emotion-focused traditions and conceptualizes patients who have borderline personality disorder as being under the sway of five modes or aspects of the self. The goal of the therapy is to reorganize this inner structure, thereby helping to cure the inherent self-defeating behaviours.

7. Inner-child healing is another method that can be used to treat this problem as the self-sabotaging behaviour might at times be the result of unhealthy relationships and narcissistic abuse. Through the process of inner child healing, one is able to forgo these negative experiences.

Self Sabotage is when we say we want something and then go about making sure it doesn’t happen. Thus, let us develop ways and methods to avoid these self-destructive behaviours and move ahead positively in life. Only if we push ourselves ahead in life, will there be others to support us.


1. What is the most common symptom of self-sabotage?

Though it varies from person to person and the anxiety level of the individual, the most common self-sabotaging behaviours include procrastination, self-medication with drugs or alcohol, comfort eating, and forms of self-injury such as cutting.

2. Is self-sabotage a mental illness?

Self-sabotaging behaviour in itself is not a mental disorder. However, it may be a symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder, which is a universally accepted mental illness that affects and impacts every sphere of an individual’s life. As a result of this, a broad range of self-destructive and self-sabotaging behaviours is observed.

3. Is self-sabotage a form of depression?

Yes, self-sabotage is a form and part of depression as it causes one to undermine themselves which further aids the process of depression.

4. What are the various forms of self-sabotaging behaviours?

The self-sabotaging behaviour may manifest in various forms like-

  • Self-criticism.
  • Negativity.
  • Procrastination.
  • Disorganization.
  • Overindulgence
  • Out of Focus
  • Initiating Conflict
  • Imposter Syndrome

5. Can self-sabotaging lead to suicidal thoughts or suicides?

In the initial stages, this behaviour tends to create problems in the achievement of one’s goals. However, researchers have shown that continuous destructing behaviour of this kind may lead a person to adopt unhealthy habits of drug abuse which can even lead to the extreme edges of committing suicide.


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