• Megan Johnson, Ph.D.

Getting Out of Your Own Way: How to Identify and Overcome Self-Sabotage

We are still in the first month of 2020 and before we get too far into this year, I want to take some time to address an important topic that seems to often stand in the way of progress and achievement: self-sabotage. We all have goals we want to achieve, standards we want to live by, and better versions of ourselves that we want to embody - so why do we have such a hard time being and doing those things?

Self-sabotaging is engaging in behavior that undermines or contradicts our values and intentions.

It is often experienced as a confusing situation because we feel so out of sync with ourselves when we act contrary to our intentions. You may find yourself feeling defeated, perplexed, and shocked by your own behavior that appears to be getting in the way of the life you want. Self-sabotage is a particularly crazy-making experience because of your apparent participation in unhealthy and destructive patterns. But if you increase you can become aware of the thoughts and feelings driving your self-sabotaging behavior, you can interrupt the cycle and take back control. Keep reading to understand the signs of self-sabotage and what you can to create new patterns.

Signs of self-sabotage

Self-sabotage may look like forgetfulness, failing to prepare, procrastination, avoidance, resistance, or declining support. It can manifest in a number of different ways depending on your circumstances, but some common signs of self-sabotage include chronic lateness, need for immediate gratification, repeating unhealthy patterns, isolation, substance abuse and other unhealthy coping mechanisms, low self-esteem and negative self-talk, poor time-management skills, perfectionism, defensiveness, not taking risks, and an inability to show up in the present moment. Do any of those resonate with you?The way this shows up in various contexts will differ, but it usually results in your feeling defeated and guilty. For example, in a professional setting, self-sabotage may look like forgetfulness, not meeting deadlines, and a failure to follow through or meet demands. In relationships, it can consist of repeating old patterns, picking fights, resisting intimacy and vulnerability, and projecting your insecurities onto your partner.

Why we self-sabotage

Although confusing, there is actually a valid reason behind your self-sabotaging behavior and understanding that reason is the key to change.

Self-sabotaging behavior is rooted in unhealthy core beliefs about ourselves and faulty narratives we tell ourselves.

We are the product of all of our previous experiences, for better or for worse. If you have had a history or trauma, or even a series of upsetting or invalidating events in your life, ask yourself what story you are telling about those experiences. Why did they happen? As you answer that why question, examine your response for negative core beliefs about yourself that may reflect low self-esteem or a lack of self confidence. Did you feel like a failure? Unworthy? Inadequate? Abandoned? Your inner-voice and the things you tell yourself direct your outward behavior. So if you can get at your core, underlying belief behind your behavior, you can better understand your reasons for doing the things you do and start to replace those unhealthy patterns with more life-giving actions.

As humans, we are creatures of habit and we repeat patterns. Our brains thrive on predictability so our default mode is set for repetition. While this makes a lot of the day-to-day tasks of life simpler, it can create problems when we find ourselves stuck in unhealthy patterns. Like any other aspect of our humanity, our propensity toward self-sabotage is also a cycle that we will continue to engage in until we identify and interrupt it.

The cycle of self-sabotage starts with some feeling of discomfort.

Perhaps that is the vulnerability and insecurity of a progressing relationship. Or maybe it is the stress of a demanding project at work. Without appropriate coping skills, this uncomfortable emotion is resisted through avoidance (i.e., procrastination), or denial and dissociation (i.e., distractions such as substance use). By not engaging the task and the difficult emotion in front of you, you achieve temporary relief, but quickly thereafter, shame sets in and you begin to feel guilty for not completing the task or using unhealthy coping mechanisms to soothe the discomfort associated with the situation. This is where the negative internal dialogue comes into play and your unhelpful core beliefs about yourself start to get really loud. You may tell yourself that you are a failure, or you don't deserve good things, or that you are unworthy because you have just demonstrated to yourself that you cannot do the things you set your mind to do. Guilt and shame are not motivating feelings and this negative self-talk launches you right back into uncomfortable feelings and the whole cycle begins again.

Tips for overcoming self-sabotaging behavior

Once you understand the cycle of self-sabotage, you can begin to change it. At every step along the way, identify and interrupt what is going on in order to break out of the self-sabotage cycle and write a different ending.

1. Uncomfortable emotions: The first step is to recognize the uncomfortable emotions that serve as triggers and launch you into this cycle. Become aware of them and name them. Is it fear? Dread? Insecurity? If you need help identifying your emotions, the Feeling Wheel is a great place to start. Working with a therapist can also help you to identify your triggers and name your emotions.

2. Ineffective coping mechanisms: When those triggers arise, assess your response and notice what coping mechanisms you are using. Are your coping skills things that help you focus and reengage like deep breathing, reaching out to a trusted friend, or going on a walk to clear your mind? Or are they promoting unhealthy patterns or avoidance and denial that result in shame, like getting drunk or high, overindulgence, or distracting yourself with binge-watching TV.

3. Shame: As you begin to notice and disrupt your self-sabotage cycle, shame is an emotion that will likely come up for you. If it does, have grace with yourself. Shame is not a motivating emotion so if and when it comes up, recognize, name it, forgive yourself, and make the conscious choice to move toward different behaviors. You don't have to get this process right on your first try and there is room for mistakes. As long as you are recognizing your process and the ways you are participating in the cycle of self-sabotage, you are making progress.

4. Negative self-talk: Listen for negative self-talk. What is the story you are telling yourself and is it helpful? If you find yourself engaging in negative self-talk, write down your negative thoughts and then counter them with more balanced and compassionate messages about yourself. For example, if you miss a deadline and you notice your inner dialogue of "I'm a failure," then write that down and challenge it with motivating statements such as "I didn't meet this deadline, but I have another one tomorrow," and "this one deadline does not define my entire career." We are often our own harshest critic so it can be difficult to write new narratives. Working with a therapist can help you identify and replace unhelpful inner dialogues and find more compassionate language with which to speak to yourself. Reach out today to get started working on this with one of our therapists.


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