What is self sabotaging behavior? In short, it means you are preventing yourself from getting the things you want. You are doing everything you can to hinder your growth and happiness. You make mistakes and experience failure on purpose.
This could happen with your career, health, mental health, or personal life. You may think: why would anyone do that? The thing is, it’s almost always a subconscious process, which means you are not necessarily aware of it.
Typically those who self sabotage have a poor self image, and that affects most of their actions and thoughts.
In this article we’re going to have a look at some examples of self sabotaging behavior, so it’s easier to understand what it really is. Then, we’re going to look at the signs of self sabotaging behavior, what causes it, and how to stop it for good.
At the end of the article you will also find a link to download a free summary of the article.
4 examples of self sabotaging behavior
As I said, this kind of behavior can affect any area of your life. Here are four examples about dating, self worth, perfectionism, and career.
Lisa has been dating her partner for a few months, and so far their relationship has been great. They are attracted to each other, and there is chemistry.
However Lisa, who is too insecure, quickly becomes jealous. Every time her partner sees a friend or goes out, she bombards him with questions. He explains that he’s loyal to her, but she insists and says there’s something else going on.
Eventually it gets to the point where her partner receives phone calls and text messages way too often. When he doesn’t answer the calls (for example, because he is busy working), Lisa interprets that as a red flag and starts to dwell on it.
After a while, he stops seeing her: it could have been a great relationship, but Lisa’s behavior makes it impossible to maintain it.
Alex is a successful entrepreneur. He owns a very profitable business and gets to enjoy a glamorous lifestyle. Though he has grown financially, he still has issues with his self worth: subconsciously, he believes he doesn’t deserve the company of people who appreciate him.
He is surrounded by a lot of people, however it’s either fake friends or energy vampires. When he talks to them, he finds he has very little to share, and his personality type is completely different than those he interacts with.
After a while, Alex decides to stop socializing and turns into a misanthrope. Why socialize with others when it’s such a huge waste of time and money? In reality, had Alex had a healthier self image, he would have been able to find like minded people to connect with. Instead, he self sabotaged.
Sarah is a perfectionist who suffers from all or nothing thinking. She really wants to start a YouTube channel, so she can share her knowledge with the world. She does some research online and eventually decides to buy a high quality camera.
She shoots her first videos, but isn’t happy. The lighting isn’t optimal, and she really doesn’t like the sound of her voice. Plus, she thinks the videos are too short compared to those she recently watched. She keeps practicing and recording videos: she improves, but still isn’t happy.
“What’s the point of doing this if I can’t excel at it? It would probably take me years to become really good, and that’s just too time consuming”. One day Sarah gives up and sells her camera. Her ideas, content, and personality were way better than average, and her channel would have grown a lot. But because of her perfectionism she decided to quit.
Gemma is a recruitment consultant who works for a small firm. She enjoys her job and gets on well with her colleagues, however she would like to advance in her career.
One day she finally gets the opportunity to work at a much bigger company. She aces the job interview and the manager says he is happy to hire her. She’s excited, but then she has second thoughts.
Her new job would mean less free time, and more responsibilities. But most importantly, she thinks her friends and family wouldn’t be happy with her decision. Her friends aren’t particularly ambitious, and would probably think she’s a careerist for choosing the new job. Her parents believe her decision is too risky and she should keep her current job.
Because Gemma depends on other people’s approval to feel good about herself, she ends up turning down the offer, and convinces herself “it wasn’t the right job”. It was — but her lack of self-esteem prevented her from getting the job of her dreams.
Signs and potential causes of self sabotaging behavior
As we’ve seen, self sabotaging behavior can have very negative effects in many areas of your life. If you want to stop it, you need to identify all the potential signs.
Here is a list of red flags you want to pay attention to. Now, if any of these sounds familiar, it doesn’t necessarily mean you self sabotage, however it could indicate that you need to change something in your life.
Negative self talk
If right now someone you care about (for example, a close friend) told you you’re stupid, and will never make it in life, how would you feel? If you’re like most people, you’d feel awful.
Unfortunately, people who self sabotage tend to engage in negative self talk, which feels equally awful. “I don’t deserve anything”, “I don’t like myself”, “I’m a failure”, “I will never find the love of my life”, and so on.
As soon as you realize you engage in negative self talk — stop! You are being too hard on yourself. Your affirmations aren’t even true. And if they are true, do they help you in any way? By telling yourself you don’t deserve the best, eventually that becomes your reality.
Pay close attention to the words you use, because they can shape your life. You may think it’s not a big deal, but it is. So from today forward, see yourself as someone who is smart, beautiful, and successful, and deserves the best life possible. Stop toxic self talk, and you’ll be able to stop your self sabotaging actions as well.
Do you have unrealistic standards, and do those standards make your life a nightmare? Do you suffer from all or nothing thinking? Do you think it’s not worth doing something unless it’s going to be absolutely perfect? Do you admire those who are exceptionally talented and successful, and feel contempt for everyone else?
Then you may be a perfectionist, and self sabotage. Though we should always aim at good rather than perfect, some of us fall into the trap of thinking we should only dedicate our time and energy to the things we can excel at.
In the example I made up earlier, Sarah gives up on her dream even though her idea is brilliant and she is far more capable than her competitors. Her unrealistic standards lead her to self sabotage and miss out on a great opportunity.
If you’re like Sarah, then you must learn to live life and enjoy things regardless of how good you are, or how good those things should be. If being a perfectionist means doing nothing, then it’s probably time to change.
There’s many reasons why someone can procrastinate. Sometimes it’s directly linked to perfectionism: as we’ve seen, when you want things to be 100 percent perfect, you probably end up doing nothing at all.
Or, it could be that you are afraid to fail: you keep putting off a task or goal (big or small) because subconsciously the thought of failure is overwhelming. Putting off the task feels bad, however, in your mind, the thought of not accomplishing the task feels even worse.
If that’s the case, then you may need to work on your self esteem, and realize that your actions, or mistakes, do not define who you are. Really, they don’t.
Or, the reason you procrastinate could be a lot simpler: lack of motivation or willpower. But whatever the case, if you constantly procrastinate you’ll never be able to achieve what you want. Thus, self sabotage.
As long as your general outlook on the external world is extremely negative, you’ll have a hard time enjoying life. I am not saying our world is perfect, but if all you see is negativity, you aren’t being accurate.
The problem with pessimism is it usually prevents you from seeing those things that are great, beautiful, and inspiring. And if you don’t see these things, you won’t be able to experience or accomplish them.
You may think, what’s the point of dating and relationships if all human beings are mean, selfish, and stupid? Why try and improve your career if the only way to get to the top is by lying and stealing? Why work on your mental health if “it’s just the way you are”?
If you’re a pessimist, your perception of the world is very inaccurate, yet it affects your thoughts, emotions, and actions. Pessimism can be a great defence mechanism, but it destroys your motivation, and you end up missing out on life.
Spending time with the wrong people
Do your friends have a negative attitude all the time? Do they hinder your growth in any way? Would they show hostility if they saw you succeed and advance in your life?
Be very careful who you surround yourself with, because it could be one of the causes of your self sabotaging behavior.
Interestingly enough, your friends could love and care about you and still make it impossible for you to grow: for example, they may think they’d lose you if you became successful, or moved to a new place, or met a special person.
As I’ve explained here, your environment controls you, even when you think it doesn’t. If you’re surrounded by people who prevent you from reaching happiness and fulfilment, then you have to have the courage to either cut them off from your life (permanently or for a while), or change your environment.
Things that are clearly self destructive
This could be the most obvious sign/cause of self sabotage. If you engage in self destructive behavior, then you are clearly putting your physical and mental health at risk.
Some examples of self destructive behavior are:
- Binge eating
- Compulsive gambling
- Compulsive spending
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Sex addiction
Those who suffer from this kind of behavior are usually aware that their actions are unhealthy, however they find it difficult to stop. They may engage in self destructive behavior as a coping mechanism (to manage or suppress their negative emotions), and they may not be aware of any alternatives.
Talking to a therapist can help you identify the exact causes of your unhealthy behavior, change your thought patterns, and live a more balanced life.
You are ashamed
We all experience shame from time to time, however if shame affects the way you see yourself and interact with others, it could be a sign of self sabotage.
Typically, those who are ashamed of themselves feel guilt. They believe they don’t deserve the company of other people, health, success, or happiness in general. If you believe you are not worthy of something, you’ll probably never experience it.
Shame can be insidious because when you suffer from it you want to keep it a secret: you don’t want to share your feelings with anyone. Ironically, talking to someone else, ideally a therapist or a loved one, could be the most important step in getting rid of shame and guilt.
Shame can easily lead to self sabotage, so if it happens too often, that’s a red flag.
How to stop self sabotaging behavior
Everyone is different and, as we’ve seen, the potential causes vary from person to person. There is, however, a common trait in those who tend to self sabotage, and that is poor self esteem.
For example, if you procrastinate because you are too afraid you won’t be able to accomplish your task, it usually means your self esteem is based on what you do rather than who you are as a person.
If you are ashamed of yourself, and that prevents you from getting the things that you want in life, then working on your self esteem could do wonders. When you learn to love yourself, there won’t be any negative thoughts telling you you don’t deserve the best life possible.
The same is usually true for perfectionism, self destructive behavior, negative self talk, and pessimism.
The good news is that when you pay attention and identify the thoughts, emotions, and actions that lead to self sabotage (perhaps with the help of a therapist), you will be able to identify the root cause as well. Then, as you replace your thoughts and actions with more helpful ones, your general behavior will change.
I did mention spending time with toxic people can be one of the causes, so I want to point out more time: if you believe you are surrounded by people who make it impossible to love yourself and grow, then spend less time with them, or change your environment.
No matter how confident or wise we are, it’s very hard to ignore those around us. We are social animals, and subconsciously we adapt to the people we interact with. So surround yourself with those who support you.
Also: believe in yourself, and believe that you deserve the best life possible. Treat yourself as you would treat those you respect the most, and don’t link what you do, or the way you feel, to who you are as a person.
If your self sabotaging behavior clearly affects your life in a negative way, and you are struggling, talking to an experienced therapist could be one of the best decisions of your life, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.
As promised, here’s the link to download the summary: