Self-sabotage occurs when a person inhibits their own success. This may be through any behavior that undermines their progress or prevents them from reaching their goals.

Self-sabotage can affect every aspect of a person’s life, including work and relationships. People may self-sabotage in various ways, such as procrastination, perfectionism, and blaming others.

This article further explains self-sabotage. It discusses why people may self-sabotage, signs of self-sabotage, and how to overcome it.

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Self-sabotage is any act or behavior that hampers or hurts one’s own progress. These behaviors deliberately undermine a person and their happiness.

Ryan S. Sultan, MD, an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University and Medical Director at Integrative Psych, states, “At its core, self-sabotage refers to behaviors or thoughts that keep you from what you desire most. The internal conflict arises between wanting success and fearing it, manifesting in procrastination, self-doubt, and other self-limiting behaviors.”

Georgina Sturmer, MBACP, a certified counselor from the United Kingdom, expanded on this definition, “For some people, it’s an internal critical voice. For some people, it’s a set of emotions. For other people, it’s a visceral response. And some people are not even aware of what they are doing to themselves. It leads to actions, decisions, and thoughts that block us from feeling comfortable, content, or confident. It feeds insecurities and compounds feelings of low self-esteem.”

Examples of self-sabotage

“Imagine, for instance, a student who dreams of getting into a top-tier college. Instead of studying, they may spend their time watching TV, even though they know the impending exams. Or consider someone who yearns for a loving relationship but pushes their partner away due to deep-seated fears of vulnerability or intimacy. Both scenarios exemplify self-sabotage.” – Dr. Ryan Sultan

“Have you ever noticed yourself getting in your own way? Saying yes to things you don’t wish to do, saying no to things you might enjoy, acting in a self-destructive way. This is what self-sabotage looks like. It might look and feel different for all of us.” – Georgina Sturmer

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Sultan explains, “The roots of self-sabotage are complex, often rooted in early life experiences and subsequent beliefs about oneself.”

Several factors can contribute to self-sabotage. These include:

  • Low self-esteem: Sturmer states, “Self-sabotage often comes hand-in-hand with low self-esteem.” If a person lacks self-confidence, it often indicates they feel undeserving. Sturmer goes on to explain that this is even more true of those who are driven by people-pleasing tendencies. This inhibits them from trying to achieve their own goals.
  • Fear of the unknown: “Humans are creatures of habit,” explains Sultan. This means that venturing into unknown territories, whether or not they are beneficial, can be intimidating. This fear can cause a person to become paralyzed and cling to their old self-defeating habits.
  • Control: Some people may engage in self-sabotage in order to maintain a sense of control. Sultan gives an example of this, “If they believe they’re going to fail, they might sabotage to ensure the failure happens on their terms.”

Childhood trauma

Both Sturmer and Sultan agree that childhood trauma can play a role in the development of self-sabotage. Sultan states, “If, during childhood, an individual was consistently criticized, neglected, or made to feel inadequate, they might internalize those beliefs.”

“Childhood trauma might lead us to feel insecure or anxious or fearful about being liked or letting other people down. This can make it more likely that we will self-sabotage, as we put other people’s needs before our own,” says Sultan.

Read about the effects of childhood trauma.

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable tension a person can feel when they hold two beliefs that contradict each other or when their actions contradict their beliefs.

Sultan explains this in the context of self-sabotage, “A person might genuinely want to succeed (Belief A) but also hold a deep-seated belief that they’re not deserving of success (Belief B). Acting toward success (like taking on a new project) could cause dissonance because it clashes with their belief of not being deserving. To resolve this discomfort, they might self-sabotage to make their actions align with their negative belief, thus eliminating the tension.”

Examples of cognitive dissonance in self-sabotage

“We might believe that drinking too much alcohol will make us feel sick or give us a terrible hangover the next day. But we might do it anyway. This is an example of cognitive dissonance when we do something even though we know that it’s bad for us. This causes discomfort. But if we are prone to self-sabotage, then we might become accustomed to this sense of discomfort. We might even feel that we deserve it. So we might feel more likely to drink excessively. This is just an example of how this might play out.” – Georgina Sturmer

“Someone might want to be healthy and knows that exercising is good for them, yet they avoid the gym. Cognitive dissonance arises from the conflict between the desire to be healthy and the action of avoiding what’s beneficial. To reconcile this, they might convince themselves that they don’t have time for the gym or that one workout won’t make a difference, thus justifying their inaction.” – Dr. Ryan Sultan

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According to both Sturmer and Sultan, the signs of self-sabotage can be so subtle the person does not even realize they are doing it.

They list some signs of self-sabotage, including:

  • consistent procrastination, especially during important tasks
  • frequently indulging in negative self-talk
  • avoiding opportunities or situations where success is likely due to a fear of failure or success
  • engaging in self-destructive behaviors, such as excessive drinking, overeating, or neglecting self-care
  • ruining relationships through unnecessary arguing or creating distance with loved ones without a concrete reason
  • finding oneself in unhealthy relationships with people they do not trust
  • feeling unable to say no and overburdening oneself with projects
  • overwhelming oneself with the need for perfection
  • constantly putting other’s needs before their own, to the detriment of themself

“Overcoming self-sabotage requires introspection, patience, and practice,” Sultan explains.

Some strategies to overcome self-sabotage include:

  • Self-awareness: In order to moderate one’s biases in their thinking, one needs to develop an understanding of their own thinking patterns. Sultan states that a person must recognize and accept that they are self-sabotaging. He explains that understanding one’s patterns can help to change them.
  • Challenge negative beliefs: Find a way to recognize and challenge negative beliefs. Sultan gives this example, “If you find yourself thinking, “I’m not good enough,” delve into that thought. Is it genuinely true, or is it a belief rooted in past experiences?”
  • Set small goals: Big changes can feel overwhelming. Setting smaller goals, more achievable goals can help with this. It is also good to remember to celebrate the small victories, which can help build confidence.
  • Seek support: A person may wish to speak with a trusted friend or loved one about their tendency to self-sabotage. They can also choose to speak with a mental health professional. Sometimes an outside perspective can help provide clarity. Sultan reminds people, “Remember, vulnerability in seeking help is a strength, not a weakness.”

Overcoming self-sabotage

“While self-sabotage is a challenging hurdle, understanding its roots and actively employing strategies to counteract its effects can pave the way for personal growth and success. Remember, it’s a journey, and everyone progresses at their own pace.” – Dr. Ryan Sultan

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Sturmer states that it is important to seek professional help for self-sabotage when “It becomes a problem for everyday life. When it threatens your lifestyle, your health, your relationships, your self-esteem.”

Sultan expands on this to include:

  • when self-sabotaging behaviors impede everyday life, career progression, or personal relationships
  • when there is a consistent pattern of self-destructive behaviors that a person is unable to stop, despite recognizing them and wanting to change
  • when emotional distress, such as feelings of overwhelming anxiety, guilt, or sadness, accompany self-sabotaging behaviors
  • when a person believes that deep-seated issues, possibly from childhood or past trauma, may be causing the self-sabotaging behaviors and they are unsure of how to address them

Sultan explains that psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can be beneficial in helping a person to understand the root cause of self-sabotage and overcome those patterns.

Mental health resources

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Self-sabotage is when a person impedes their own success. This can be through any kind of behavior that undermines their progress or prevents them from obtaining their goals.

Self-esteem, childhood trauma, and a need to maintain control can all cause a person to engage in self-sabotaging behaviors.

Understanding one’s own thought patterns, setting small goals, and seeking support can help an individual overcome the behaviors associated with self-sabotage.

If self-sabotaging behaviors begin to affect a person’s daily life and relationships or cause emotional distress, a person may wish to contact a mental health professional.