OKAY. Self-sabotage. It sounds scary, I know, but I promise it’s not as bad as it sounds. I’m so glad you’ve found your way here because self-sabotage can be a tricky thing to recognize when it’s happening to you, and whether it’s you or someone else, it can be super frustrating.
TL;DR: Self-sabotage is actually really understandable.
We’re just complicated humans with conflicting needs sometimes.
Keep reading, it’ll be okay.
As with many things, first, we need to understand what self-sabotage is and what it is not.
What is Self-Sabotage?
On the surface, self-sabotage looks like someone just not doing what they say they want to do – and that doesn’t seem to make any sense.
For example, say you want to start exercising and get healthier, or you want to stop dating people who treat you like dirt – both solid ideas. If you want something in your life, just do that thing, right? And sure, sometimes it’s hard to break habits but, isn’t this important to you? So just… get it together, right? Well, a lot of times, it’s more complicated than that.
Self-sabotage could be explained as when you are experiencing an “inner conflict” of which you aren’t fully aware.
It happens when two parts of yourself have contradictory needs, desires or habits. This could be anything from conflicting parts of your personality, holding opposing values, negative habits you’re struggling with, or even neurological factors derailing your conscious efforts, such as in the case of addiction.
Self-sabotage is not something you do intentionally. It is not a lack of desire or effort – and it’s definitely not you getting bad results because you deserve them.
Let’s look at some more specific examples so we can get a clearer picture.
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You’re a student who wants to do well academically. Maybe you’ve been highly successful in the past, or maybe this is a new desire to do your best. You’re stressed out by everything you have to do and trying to balance the rest of your life too. You want to do well but you procrastinate and leave yourself too little time to complete what you need to do well.
Seems counterproductive, right? But if we dig deeper…
- Maybe you’re afraid of failure and it feel safer not to try
- Maybe you’re struggling with anxiety and you are mentally and emotionally crashing because you’re exhausted
- Maybe you’ve never been taught effective time management skills
- Maybe you don’t have enough healthy coping skills to handle your stress
- Maybe school is difficult and you hate the idea of doing anything you cannot do perfectly.
It could be any of these reasons and many others. Let’s look at another one.
You really want to eat well and exercise in order to feel healthier and better about your physical self. You put effort into finding programs, memberships and/or support. You are motivated and you have a plan. But soon after you begin, it feels impossible to stick to your new goals. You find yourself giving up as you swing to the unhealthy extreme and feel like you’re the worst.
You might think maybe you’re not trying hard enough or that reaching your goals just isn’t possible for you. But…
- Maybe you’ve never had someone explain the psychology behind implementing long-term changes (think baby steps)
- Maybe you’re struggling with polarized thinking (i.e. something is all good or all terrible, no middle ground) and not giving yourself credit for small victories and progress
- Maybe you need emotional healing to love and accept yourself as you are so that you aren’t looking for self-love in the mirror or on the scale
- Maybe you have unrealistic expectations about some aspect of what you’re trying to do based on lack of accurate information
- Maybe the idea of trying and failing is so painful that it’s more comfortable to stay in your comfort zone, even though you aren’t satisfied
The point here is that you aren’t failing because you don’t deserve or don’t want success.
It’s not even about how hard you are trying or how much effort you put into your game plan. There is something bigger and stronger than your desire or ability to reach your goal, and you just aren’t able to see it yet.
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Here’s another example:
You want a stable, loving relationship with someone who treats you well. However, every time you find yourself with someone long-term, you find that they don’t really seem to care about you in the way you want. You fight often and/or you feel unhappy a lot. Maybe you have a hard time letting go of things that annoy you about your partner. Or perhaps you find yourself repeatedly in relationships with people who turn out to be straight up terrible, followed by lots of drama and heartache.
What’s the deal? Do you have bad luck? Is “trouble” your type? Are you a magnet for jerks? Ahem. NO. Definitely not.
The thing is:
- Maybe you haven’t had a good example of what a loving partnership looks like, so you attempt relationships while guessing at what is healthy
- Maybe you have a need for excitement and adrenaline rushes that you unknowingly satisfy by being in dramatic, tumultuous relationships
- Maybe you haven’t been taught what healthy communication and healthy boundaries look like in relationships (and your partners haven’t either), so things inevitably go south
- Maybe your family of origin established an unhealthy definition of love for you that you don’t fully have awareness or understanding about yet, and so you repeat that in your own relationships because it’s all you have ever known
It’s getting deep and a little overwhelming now, I know.
The big things to understand here are that your self-sabotaging behaviors, in any of these contexts and more, are:
3) totally within your control to change, once you have a better understanding of what’s going on for you.
Self-Sabotage and Addiction
As a former substance abuse counselor, I have to interrupt myself here to highlight two examples that ARE a little bit different than the ones we’ve looked at so far, and that is the self-sabotaging behaviors connected to self-medicating with substances or struggling with a legit substance abuse disorder.
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You’ve found that your main way to de-stress lately is using alcohol or other substances to feel more relaxed, safe or happy. You know you’re using it as an escape from your problems, and that there’s probably healthier things you can do, but this is easy, accessible and it’s doing the trick of getting you some temporary relief from it all. Maybe the physical aftermath is getting worse, or maybe you’re starting to spend too much money. Maybe it’s taking a toll on other aspects of your life. Or maybe… you can’t identify any problems with this yet but you know it’s not a great road to go down.
~ Alternatively ~
You’re in recovery from a substance use disorder. You haven’t been in regular treatment for awhile and lately it’s been harder to tap into your support network. When you make mistakes, you find yourself full of negative self-talk and isolate even further from others. Maybe you feel undeserving of recovery and a good life because of all the mistakes you have made in the past. Maybe the effort of recovery is wearing you out and you aren’t sure how to find more strength and hope.
Now both of these scenarios are distinctly different but it’s important to know that in either case, substances have the ability to mess up your brain, basically – and THEY DO.
So whether this is a casual thing right now or a big struggle you’ve had for awhile, this is not just about your self-awareness and your ability to set yourself on a different path. You are also up against the neurological effects of a substance that doesn’t care if your life goes down the drain and that isn’t something to take lightly.
For the recent self-medicator:
- Maybe you have lost access to healthier coping skills lately or you’re in a situation that makes them harder to rely on to relax and recharge you
- Maybe you’re in a rut because you’ve unknowingly been nudged in that direction with the culture you’ve been consuming (think about what shows you’re watching, social media you’re following, how your friends talk about relaxing or having fun, etc. – if it seems like self-medicating is everywhere, that can influence you)
- Maybe self-medicating reminds you of positive memories you have in your past that you’re wanting to relive a piece of in the present
- Maybe you’ve just gotten into a bad habit and nothing is forcing you to change it
- Maybe you aren’t aware of the slippery slope that self-medicating can set you on and what individual factors you have that might make it even more risky (like family history of substance abuse, or that you’ve developed a higher tolerance)
For the one struggling in recovery:
- Maybe you need some psycho-education (or a refresher) on the disease model of addiction and how the disease affects your thoughts, feelings and behaviors
- Maybe you need more support and connection from others who understand the road you’re on and have no judgment
- Maybe you need some help recognizing warning signs of relapse so you can see it coming and take steps to prevent it
- Maybe you need some help strengthening your sense of self-worth, self-love and letting go of the past
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Getting back to our main conversation about self-sabotage, let’s talk about what you can actually do if you’re relating to this topic for yourself or someone else.
How to Stop Self-Sabotage
The first step is a big one because it’s really hard to do, but it’s also absolutely critical: examining yourself – thoughts, feelings, behaviors – without judgment and rather with curiosity.
The idea here is we want to invite those deeper fears, motivations, and unknowns to the surface so we can understand all of the parts of ourselves that are at play.
The reason for that is that it’s hard for all of us to see our own blind spots or be objective about ourselves. It’s like being a fish and trying to get a good look at the water. YOU’RE LITERALLY IN IT and you can’t just step outside to get a more unbiased perspective – but another person can.
We just want to make sure that we are trusting ourselves (and our deepest desires or fears) with someone who genuinely cares about us and is also capable of assisting with increasing our self-awareness without judgment.
So while I encourage you to seek out some assistance, and later on when you’re making changes – it is totally possible to embark on this journey of self-discovery in your own mind.
Be curious about what’s driving your behaviors.
Ask yourself questions like, “What does this behavior naturally lead to and why might that be desirable?” Challenge yourself to come up with more than just the obvious consequences, and don’t be distracted by your intentions, which are different from your actual behaviors. Research more about how to grow as a person, achieve your goals, increase your insight into yourself and more. You already read this post and that is a GREAT start.
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Some other questions that might get your wheels turning:
Is success scary? Is failure comfortable or at least familiar? Is control something you need above other things that might be worthy too? Do you really deserve happiness and love? What does a healthy, happy life really look like? Is your ideal life possible in your mind, and do you think you deserve that life?
I highly recommend getting outside support for your personal goals and accountability for areas you’re trying to grow or establish change.
If nothing else, trust that you are so worthy of love and happiness, even if that sometimes feels questionable. Your worth and value is not something you can undo, nor can anyone take it from you.
I’m rooting for you and you’re doing GREAT.