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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Sims

The Dangerous Spiral of Self-Sabotage

Updated: May 22, 2023

Self-sabotage isn't all that uncommon, and it can have many reasons, ranging from fear of success to low self-esteem. But if it is preventing you from accomplishing the things you want most out of life, maybe it is time for some self-reflection.

Are you your own worst enemy? Do you ever start to feel like there is one common theme in your shortcomings, or you failures? Can that common denominator, perhaps be you?

I do think that sometimes fate truly has things covered. Then there are other times I know that things could have gone differently if I had made a better choice, or gone down a different path. But in reality, we control our fate. Our daily doings, our behavior, our choices, our ultimate outcomes.

Didn’t get that last client? Or maybe you were passed over for a promotion? Maybe there’s a long-term goal you have that just keeps getting pushed to the back burner.

In my own life, I can definitely get in my own way, and I am ok admitting that. I’ll have days where I have SO much to do and I can see it staring me in the face. I know, deep down, there are things I can do to make it easier for me to get those things done, but instead I make choices, usually unconsciously or out of habit, that inhibit me from getting them done. I have some long term goals, like writing a book, narrating books for other authors, and even operating a vacation rental home business. But instead, I distract myself with the busy things in life and put those things off for “another day.”

I know I am not alone. If you can be honest with yourself, and look at some of your short-term and long-term goals, and why they aren’t being accomplished, and even everyday behaviors - can you see that some of them are not helping you? I know that opening up my phone every morning and sitting down with a cup of coffee is my routine…that is likely not helping me have the most productive morning. But I tell myself “I’ll just spend 30 minutes on it and get moving.” An hour later, I finally put my phone down after reading the news, playing Wordle, checking email, and sending my snaps. Do I really need to do any of that? Probably not. Could I have used that hour more wisely? I would actually like to start doing 30 minutes of yoga every morning and not waste my time on a device. But then the ego kicks in, and starts telling me that I deserve to have some “me” time and chill. But don’t I also deserve the benefits of yoga each morning? Yep.

The most common self-sabotaging behaviors include procrastination, making excuses for shortcomings, self-medication with drugs or alcohol, comfort eating, and even worse, behaviors that indicate self-destruction. These can range from substance abuse to self harm. We aren’t always aware when we are sabotaging ourselves, but the biggest indicator is identifying patterns that somehow seem to lead to stagnation, disappointment, and even failure - even if they aren’t obviously doing so. So what is the cause?

Why do we continue to do this to ourselves, even if we know it isn’t going to help us in the long run? Why wouldn’t we want to do the very best for ourselves?

The reasons can be vast.

  1. Fear of failure: Think about it. If I never try something, even if I really want to accomplish it, I can’t fail. No one will see that I wasn’t capable. No one can reject me if they don’t even have the opportunity. That way, I won’t have to deal with the emotions that come with failure.

  2. Low self-esteem: Even though it might seem ridiculous on the surface, we can feel unworthy or undeserving of success. “Of course I deserve success” might be what you tell yourself on the surface, but deep down, there could be some underlying and unresolved issue that is telling your ego that you don’t, in fact, deserve success or happiness. Self-sabotage is a way of reinforcing these negative beliefs.

  3. Fear of success: This kind of lies in the “comfort-zone” periphery. Success, if we haven’t experienced it before, is a new territory. What does it look like? What changes is it going to bring into my life? “Things are fine right now…why do I want to rock the boat?” Fear of the unknown in terms of success can be crippling for some, preventing them from taking the steps in order to achieve it.

  4. Lack of confidence: Tying into the fear of success, those who lack confidence in their abilities may self-sabotage in order to avoid having to do something they haven’t tried yet, or test a skill they have yet to use. It requires stepping out of the comfort zone and many of us really love our little comfort bubble

There are obviously other contributing factors to self-sabotage.

The way people talk to themselves is a big one - if someone is constantly telling themselves that they are not good enough or that they will never succeed, they may start to pave the way to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also, people who lean toward perfectionism may have a high occurrence of self-sabotage because they have a fear of not meeting their own impossibly high standards.

So, let’s stop dwelling on the problem…and talk about some solutions. Before I give you some tips on overcoming self-sabotaging behaviors, I want to point out that it's important to seek help from a mental health professional if you or someone you know is struggling with self-destructive behavior. This can range from serious depression to self harm and even suicidal tendencies. A trained therapist can work with the individual to develop a treatment plan that meets their specific needs and helps them achieve their goals.

If your issues don’t tend to lean toward self-destruction, but you still get in your own way a lot of the time, it’s a good idea to try to find the root of the issue. Taking some time for self-reflection and preparing yourself for some real truths, as hard as that may be, is super important. If we can’t be honest with ourselves, we are certainly not capable quite yet of moving forward toward growth.

I’m sure you guessed it, but practicing mindfulness can help you start to support yourself - by increasing your awareness of your thoughts and emotions, which can minimize those impulsive behaviors. So, instead of automatically reacting to distressing thoughts, feelings, the pressure of what’s looming, and say, picking up the bag of Cheetos to self-soothe, we can learn to pause and observe what’s going on within us before we act.

So what else can mindfulness do to help us stop the self-sabotage train?

Mindfulness can help us develop greater emotional regulation skills, because we are allowing ourselves to observe and understand our emotions without getting overwhelmed by them. It can help us tolerate uncomfortable emotions without acting on them or engaging in these self sabotaging or self-destructive behaviors.

One thing lacking in a lot of us is the ability to go easy on ourselves. In our society, it is drilled into us that “failure is not an option” or “show no weakness” - and is even furthered now with this “girl boss” or “hustler” mentality. But if we can’t fail, and we can’t show weakness, when do we learn, grow, and heal? We must fail. It is part of life, and part of the growth process. Mindfulness helps us builds self-compassion. So instead of judging ourselves every time we make mistakes or struggle, we can learn to treat ourselves with kindness and understanding. And we can start to forgive ourselves a little easier.

Self-awareness is the key to mindfulness. We start to notice patterns in our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. For example, when you know you are engaging in something that isn’t really going to be helpful to your success/happiness/goals, pause and examine what triggered you to start that ‘thing’? Like, what feeling just ran through my body that caused me to go grab those Cheetos or that glass of wine, or binge-watch a show instead of writing my thesis? Like, what was I actually thinking or feeling at that exact moment? By observing your patterns, you can become more aware of the triggers that lead to your self-sabotaging behavior and it’s where we learn to intervene before engaging in harmful or unhelpful behaviors.

Self-regulation is closely tied to self-sabotage. If we don’t know how to regulate our emotions, we frequently turn to something outside ourselves to soothe. There are lots of studies that show how lacking self-regulation is in our society but one thing those studies do have in common is that self-awareness and mindfulness are keys to adequate self-regulation. There are also behavioral therapies that can aid in interrupting those ingrained patterns of thought and action.

I look at the way I wanted my life to look when I was younger, and this is a much different picture than what I had imagined. Was it fate? Or was it my choices along the way? Or maybe a little bit of both? I am not sure to be honest. But I do know that I am doing my best I can in that moment, even if I do fall backward into those self-sabotaging patterns. I can at least recognize it, and that’s a good start. It would be easy to be angry with myself, or sit in shame over regrets and mistakes. The harder option is to choose to work on myself, and go through some self-discovery. I get so busy with the inane details of work, being a mom, being a wife, being a friend…that I forget about what I really want out of life. The hardest part for me was to just identify my behaviors. What habits do I have that are NOT helping me? A lot of emotions, resistance, and ego come up a lot, but I’m a work in progress. My goals are still there, and I am learning that my roadmap for life just has some twists and turns. But the destination remains. The key for me, at least, is to show myself compassion, learn to be flexible, and to use the skills that I have in my toolbox to help me to grow. Behavioral self-regulation is “the ability to act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your deepest values.”

When was the last time you checked in with yourself and revisited those values?


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