Find out how you can recognize self-sabotaging behaviors and stop them.
We’ve all been there: buying a gym membership with the goal of exercising more often and then never using it or planning to start an assignment early but then postponing it until the very last minute. You might even ask yourself why you keep doing this. If you feel trapped in patterns that keep repeating themselves even though you’d like for more positive outcomes to happen, you might be experiencing self-sabotage.
Self-sabotage happens when your actions or thoughts hold you back from accomplishing what you want. Sometimes, you do this without even realizing it. But when you sabotage yourself, the behavior and thought patterns you engage in create obstacles in achieving your goals. Sometimes, you might be aware of your self-sabotaging behavior, for example when you procrastinate on an important task or don’t stick to a plan after making commitments. Other times, self-sabotage can look less clear. For example, you might create distance between yourself and your partner after an intimate moment, maybe after they said: “I love you.” In this example, you may be unconsciously preparing in case the relationship doesn’t work but you may also be self-sabotaging a potentially successful relationship (Peel & Caltabiano, 2021).
Although self-sabotage can lead to negative outcomes, it actually starts as a protective mechanism to keep us safe from any potential danger or harm. For our minds, what is familiar is considered safe, so any attempt to let go of the familiar and embrace the unfamiliar might trigger self-sabotaging mechanisms.
“Resistance by definition is self-sabotage.”
Self-sabotage is the brain’s way of telling you that you are about to leave what’s familiar and go toward what’s unfamiliar. And this is normal: your brain is just trying to keep you safe. However, this might stand in your way of achieving your goals. So to stop self-sabotaging, it can be helpful to become more aware of your triggers and practice being more comfortable with the unfamiliar. Here are some tips to explore:
1. Know yourself. To fight the cycle of self-sabotage, it is important to learn your triggers and identify your self-sabotaging behaviors. You might want to take time to reflect or find patterns in your behavior. So look for areas in your life where things seem to go wrong regularly or where you’d like to achieve more success. For instance, you may unconsciously sabotage your relationship by detaching yourself emotionally when you realize the relationship is becoming more serious.
2. Practice mindfulness. When you focus your awareness in a non-judgmental way on some of the triggers or behaviors that lead to self-sabotage, you can not only learn more about yourself but also generate more self-understanding.
3. Practice self-compassion. Studies show that having self-compassion is related to
happiness, wisdom, and emotional resilience (Neff, Rude & Kirkpatrick, 2007). When you practice self-compassion, you can more easily go from where you are now to where you want to be.
4. Practice acceptance. You can try practicing acceptance by saying things such as “What happened in the past cannot be changed. I can react differently now.”
5. Reframe. One reason self-sabotage is so common is that some parts of our brain are trying to keep us safe from danger. Try to shift the narrative from “This makes me
scared” to a compassionate curiosity. This is how you retrain the brain to become an
“ally” instead of the “enemy” and stop the self-sabotaging cycle.
6. Get more comfortable with failure. Self-sabotage might come from a fear of failure or rejection, which can make you avoid trying hard things. If you don’t try, then you can’t fail. In this case, you unconsciously sabotage yourself. For example, in a new and happy relationship, you might be inclined to believe it is only a matter of time before things start to get worse, so you start to do things that create tension (like fighting or becoming angry).
If self-sabotage is getting in the way of achieving your goals, then hopefully these strategies can help you get the life you want.
● Neff, K. D., Rude, S. S., & Kirkpatrick, K. L. (2007). An examination of self-compassion in relation to positive psychological functioning and personality traits. Journal of research in personality, 41(4), 908-916.
● Peel, R., & Caltabiano, N. (2021). Why do we sabotage love? a thematic analysis of lived experiences of relationship breakdown and maintenance. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 20(2), 99-131.