Self-sabotaging behaviour is damaging and can stop you moving forward in life. Stanislava Puač Jovanović explains why we self-sabotage and offers five practical ways you can learn how to stop it. 


You genuinely desire something. You’ve imagined yourself owning a business on your own, marrying that perfect someone, being healthy and productive. You’ve imagined this over and over again. Yet, when you look back at how far you had got with realising those goals, you have to face the truth – you (delicately) blew it at every step of the way. 

Rare is a person that doesn’t know this feeling all too well. Self-sabotage – behaving in a way that undermines our achievements and daily living – is a phenomenon most of us will face at some point of our lives. Many, however, struggle with it on a daily basis. Self-sabotage can crawl into our relationships, academic success, professional advancements, our self-development... to name a few areas. And although it’s a common nemesis, if you wish to have control over your life, you need to understand your foe and learn how to stop self-sabotaging. 


Why do we self-sabotage?

At first, self-sabotage might seem like the greatest paradox. One wants something so much and works towards it, only then to work against the goal. It’s most apparent in cases when the target is very much achievable, and all it would require is a little extra effort – or even simply not doing anything to ruin it. To the surprise of everyone around the self-saboteur, just when they were about the cross the finish line, they do something that couldn’t be described in any terms other than irrational.

Self-sabotaging behaviour can be stopped shutterstock/MAD.vertise

And this is precisely where the key to understanding self-sabotage is hidden. A self-saboteur is actually highly successful: in realising the secret (unconscious) goals of not succeeding at something. Why do we do this? Here are a few possible explanations and factors to address if you wish to understand how to limit self-sabotaging behaviour. 


1. Evolution and neurological pathways

Interestingly, self-sabotage might be imbedded into our genes. Seeking pleasure and avoiding harm are, in a way, two sides of a coin. In simplest terms, they both trigger dopaminergic circuits that make us feel good. This sort of adaptive mechanism was necessary during the evolution of humankind.

However, a modern human seeks more than mere survival. Our needs are nuanced, delicate, and complex. This intricacy of our inner lives often triggers a disbalance between reward-seeking and avoidance of pain. In other words, when we self-sabotage, we seek the pleasure we get from avoiding harm. However, the irrationality lies in the inflation of the perceived harm, which usually isn’t nearly as threatening as we see it. 


2. Self-punishment

How to stop self-sabotage has been a subject of psychological research for decades. One of the first paths the study of self-defeating behaviours took was seeking for reasons in our subconscious minds. Psychodynamic approaches argued that self-sabotage comes from a masochistic character that constantly works on ensuring self-punishment. This need may come from one’s ingrained beliefs about their unworthiness, or a conviction that the only way to receive love and gratification is through being the victim. 


“Although it’s a common nemesis, if you wish to have control over your life, you need to understand your foe and learn how to stop self-sabotaging.”


3. Avoiding threat to self-esteem

If you wish to understand how to stop self-sabotaging, you should know that in most cases, especially in academic and professional achievements, self-sabotage is believed to be a manifestation of low self-esteem. Whether it's masked or conscious, low self-esteem causes us to be overly sensitive to the prospect of failing. Which is why we procrastinate, come up with excuses, stop trying, and employ all sorts of rationalisations of why we “had to” not succeed. 


4. Control

Although it may sound illogical at first, when we sabotage our success, we actually gain control. It’s a bitter-sweet sort of control, as it’s controlled failure. Repeatedly failing romantic relationships are the perfect example of such a motive. Love is potentially painful, unpredictable, and difficult (or impossible) to have power over. Which is why some people embark on ruining the relationship themselves rather than risk being hurt – in this way, they maintain control over what's happening to them. 

Cut it out: learn how to recognize and stop self-sabotage 


5. Fear of success

Although we rarely recognise it, many of us fear success. The reason? Success often means having to face new challenges and demands, losing the comfort of the well-known position. However, there’s also a more psychologically subtle reason – success often comes with a threat to one’s identity. People with a shaky identity fear success more than those who have achieved and foreclosed it already. Therefore, they avoid achieving a goal that comes with new roles, as it might add too much of a burden to their self-concept.


How to stop self-sabotage: 5 techniques

Self-sabotage can range from faking flu to avoid a test to a life-long fight with addictions and associated problems. In any case, it's an unhealthy mode of existence. To liberate yourself, you need to undertake proactive measures to abandon this habit. Here are five ways you can learn to stop the pain of self-sabotaging behavior. 


1. Becoming aware of self-sabotage

As with other matters of the human psyche, recognising that you need a change is the prime step towards it. Even when it’s entirely obvious to those around you, you might not be aware of what you’ve been doing. Examine your behaviour. Analyse your past actions. Acquire a habit of awareness. Have you been preventing yourself from realising your full potential? Developing and practising conscious focus on such behaviours is an essential tool towards defeating the underlying cause. 


2. Developing a growth mindset

In many instances, self-sabotage is caused by insecurity, and we do it to avoid jeopardising our self-esteem. One possible solution is to develop a growth mindset. This means believing that our inborn abilities are merely a starting point, not something that’s set in stone. With practice, we develop. Acquiring this sort of self-perception results in minimising fear of failure. Failure isn’t a signal of our lacking capacity anymore; it’s a part of the growth process. Therefore, we don’t need self-sabotage to protect us from it.

Developing a growth mindset can help fight self-sabotage YouTube/sprouts


3. Being honest with yourself

There are many possible reasons as to why you could be engaging in self-sabotage. The ones we listed above are merely options. To fight this nasty habit, you need to dig deep and understand why it is that you, personally, do it. Be painfully honest to yourself – no one’s listening and no one’s judging. You need to be true about your desires and goals. Do you really want that promotion, or to get married, and do you want it for the right reasons? What it is that you’re truly seeking in your goals? Know yourself. Unless you do so, you’ll be a puppet of your subconscious strivings and desires. 


“In many instances, self-sabotage is caused by insecurity, and we do it to avoid jeopardising our self-esteem. One solution is to develop a growth mindset.”


4. Face your fears

As you now know, most self-sabotaging behaviour comes from some sort of fear. Be it fear of losing control, shaking one’s identity up, not being up to a challenge, or ready for responsibility or a change – fears drive us to self-destruct. Instead of being inert, take a moment each day to look your demon in the eye. With time, you’ll realise that the only thing you need to fear is spending your life being chased around by your fears, instead of running towards your freedom.


5. Practise self-compassion

Self-saboteurs often feel that they need to linger in a state of constant hurt and failure. They feel that they deserve it for they are unworthy of anything else. If you think such belief is in the roots of your self-defeating behaviour, explore ways to introduce self-compassion into your life: psychotherapy, meditation, or simply rethinking your embedded convictions about who you are, can liberate you from constant self-destruction.


Self sabotage: the takeaway

Living life means getting scars and experiencing pain. However, it also means that with every second, we get a chance to change. We pick a path with every decision we make. Let the next one be that you’ll stop the self-sabotage, and you’ll live a brave life full of passion and purpose. 

Main image: shutterstock/jtanki



Written by Stanislava Puač Jovanović

bert.jpgStanislava Puač Jovanović has a master’s degree in psychology and works as a freelance writer and researcher in this area. During her early career, she gained several certifications (life coach, assertive communication trainer, peer educator, fitness instructor). Her primary focus is on questions relating to mental health, stress-management, self-development and wellbeing.


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I found this very useful and brilliantly written, thank you.

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