We’ve all been there at one time or another. The moment when we realize that what we’re doing is counter-productive to goals we’ve set or the person we know we can be. When that happens, you’re engaging in self-sabotage. The problem is most of the acts we do seem helpful at the time, but they ultimately prevent our ability to thrive in life fully. This happens especially when we consistently turn to those acts instead of engaging in a healthy response to what we may be feeling in that moment.
Unfortunately, most people don’t realize they are engaging in self-sabotage because there is rarely an immediate negative response. I’m not going to put on 50 lbs the first time I comfort eat to avoid feeling lonely, but I will if I repeat the destructive behavior repeatedly for an extended period of time. The good news is once you identify why you self-sabotage then it’s relatively easy to reverse-engineer a solution.
First, we’ll break down why we self-sabotage and then dissect the top ways to change these tendencies.
An Attempt to Prevent Pain and Discomfort
Suppressing Emotions – This looks like the example above. Your drive to suppress emotions like loneliness, pain, sadness, anxiety or fear…but each time we turn to something that numbs these emotions we’re also slowly becoming numb to all areas of life and disconnected from our heart.
Avoiding Discomfort – I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “to grow you have to be willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable”. The problem is, most of us don’t naturally lean into feeling uncomfortable so we do everything possible to avoid anything that may cause us to feel awkward. It feels a lot better in the moment to “check out” than it does to try and change habits we know are not good for us in the long run.
Anticipating Disappointment – This may seem counter-intuitive, but by nature, we go to extremes to avoid feeling disappointed. How does this fit into self-sabotage? When life is “too good to be true” then we actually do something to sabotage the positive momentum in an attempt to prevent the “bad” thing waiting around the corner. We find a way to keep chaos, unhealthy relationships, or bad habits so we don’t get caught off guard. Letting go of these things requires us to actually believe our life is permanently heading in a good direction.
Unhealthy Belief System
Destructive Belief System – A lot of our core beliefs are formed when we are children. This goes far beyond what religion you grew up with because we all know that you may change how you practice your faith for a variety of reasons. I’m referring to the partnership with destructive beliefs that kept us safe at one point. An example: “Being silent meant it kept the peace in the house growing up. So I have to stay quiet to feel safe in life.” Having those kinds of beliefs require you to consistently sabotage good in your life to find safety in the lie you bought into. The tricky reality is, most of this occupies our subconscious which means that it’s hard to identify because it’s not at the surface of what we’re aware of. One thing I tell clients is “Your beliefs have gotten you to where you are today”. This statement is applicable for the people who feel stuck, trapped, or unhappy. If you’re 100% satisfied with what your life looks like, then I’m not talking to you… but if that’s true for you, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know how you achieved it because I’m not there yet myself.
Shame and Self-hatred. – These two areas of our inner reality could easily fill a book, but I only want to point out the drivers of self-sabotage. When you accomplish something most would celebrate, shame or self-hatred requires that when I do good, it has to be countered with negative self-talk or actions that keep me from celebrating the good I’ve done. Shame says “you’re not good enough” or “if only people knew who you are….” etc. Meanwhile, self-hatred causes you to think it’s necessary to punish growth in life. It comes with thoughts like “who do you think you are” or “look at the mistakes you made… you did horrible!”.
Fear is a deceitful and malicious tool used to keep us small and disconnected from life. Below are just a few reactions to fear that cause us to sabotage. Ultimately, you have to engage your free will and choose to partner with God and run at fear instead of from it.
Fear of Being Seen – We long to be seen and yet it can be one of the scariest things we do. It can feel terrifying to let others see the real us. So we self-sabotage to guard parts of our heart that we don’t want others to see. It sounds counter productive to sabotage in order to hide when we long to be seen, but it often feels safer to stay broken and hidden than it does to invite people into those areas of brokenness and get a tangible breakthrough.
Fear of Failure – If I can sabotage what I’m doing, then the failure won’t feel as bad. The hard truth is we have to make mistakes to grow. If you’re not willing to process failures, then you probably won’t get far in life. This may sound harsh, but I don’t know of a single person that is thriving and hasn’t failed at something.
Fear of Rejection – I have to sabotage the relationship so I can reject you before you reject me. This ties into preventing pain, but leads you to feeling isolated and rejected. The very thing you’re afraid of becomes a reality, not because of the people in your life, but in your attempt to prevent feeling rejected you have perfected rejecting others. An example would be single people that bounce from person to person and seem to find something wrong with everyone they date. I’m not talking about significant differences, I’m referring to the person that can’t get over things like, someone’s height, hair, laugh, clothing preference, etc.
Fear of the Unknown – No matter how good your life was growing up there’s going to be areas you have to navigate that you’ve never been before. When you fear the unknown, then to sabotage feels more attractive than trying to figure it out. This especially applies to people who feel alone in life. When you believe you have to figure it out by yourself, then you tend to sabotage instead of finding answers.
4 Ways to reverse Self-Sabotage
1. Get connected to your heart. – Most of the list above deals with issues of the heart. While it may seem foreign or even a bit scary, connecting to your heart will help you identify the root problem that fuels your need to sabotage. Let me say it another way, it is impossible to completely remove self-sabotage from your life without connecting to your heart. You may be able to think your way into temporary momentum, but until you address the core reasons you’ll inevitably gravitate back to what’s familiar… even if it’s counterproductive to what you want in life.
2. Remove negative “What if’s” from your thought life. – The phrase “what if” has the ability to consume your thought life and rob you of the capacity to thrive. Not only that but when we entertain potential adverse outcomes, it often leads to irrational fears and worries. One study found that 85 percent of what subjects worried about never happened, and with the 15 percent that did happen, 79 percent of subjects discovered they could handle the difficulty better than expected, or it created a lesson worth learning. This means that 97 percent of what you worry about is set up by entertaining “what if” in a negative way. If you constantly worry about “what if” try removing it completely or at least identify a positive what if for every negative one you entertain.
3. Invite people into your tendency. – In our society, it’s often frowned upon to show a weakness of any kind. The problem is when you have to hide your weakness then you’re also removing the very thing that can help you overcome it. If you identify self-sabotage, then risk letting others see this part of you. Intentionally tell them about what you notice and give them permission to call you out when they see you doing the destructive behavior. One caveat for this point is, you need to be weary of creating enablers or self-destructive relationships. Invite people in, but don’t invite people who will let you live with the sabotage you identify.
4. Commit to consistency in the opposite direction. – This isn’t easy, but combining the top three at the same time you’re willing to pursue the antithesis of your tendency is one of the fastest ways to create sustainable change in your life. It doesn’t mean you have to do the opposite of every negative thought every time. It means when you identify a core reason you tend to sabotage then choose to run at the healthy choice for a season. If you’ve identified a fear, use this as a roadmap for you to lean into. If you realize you have shame or unhealthy beliefs, then allow others to speak into these areas of your life and partner with you as you walk out healing. If you’re avoiding pain, discomfort, or suppressing emotions, then be willing to embrace it. This is by far the hardest point, but you won’t see much change if you do points one through three without implementing the fourth.
Take an honest assessment of your life. Be willing to be 100% honest. There’s no point in sugar coating the reality of where you are. If you identify an area of your life that to self-sabotage is a go-to, then risk going after the four points above. Like the results from the worry study, I’m willing to bet that you’ll be surprised by how capable you are to overcome your unhealthy tendencies when you stop avoiding the solution.