You finally found enough free time to work on that project you’ve always been dreaming about. Unfortunately, you spent the first two hours going down a YouTube rabbit hole. Then the next hour, you headed out to grab a sugary snack from the nearest convenience store, which took much longer because you couldn’t decide what to get. Returning home, you put on a Netflix documentary that sucked you in for another hour. Before you know it, your free time has vanished, and the project will have to sit on the shelf for another day. Or week. Or month. This is just a mild example of a self-sabotaging behavior people inflict on themselves that keeps them from achieving their true potential.
In the above case, someone couldn’t pursue a hobby they enjoy because of procrastination, which is a problem identified in a study where 20 percent of adults labeled themselves as “chronic procrastinators.” However, self-sabotaging behaviors can be much more severe than a delayed hobby, affecting close relationships, careers, life goals, and even physical health. Only once someone has gained greater control over their lives and put an end to self-sabotage can they improve their mental health, maintain healthier relationships, and gain a greater feeling of accomplishment overall.
In this article, learn what self-sabotage is, what it looks like in real life, and how to stop self-sabotaging behaviors.
What Is Self-Sabotage?
Self-sabotage involves the deliberate and intentional act of damaging your own efforts to achieve something. A self-sabotaging behavior keeps people from accomplishing their goals or making progress in their lives. Most people are aware that their actions do nothing to help them in these areas, and yet they continue to do so to their detriment.
There are many reasons a person might engage in self-sabotage. They may have a fear of success, often worrying about what they’ll do after reaching a goal. On the flip side, someone may have a fear of failure, thus preventing them from trying in the first place. Other reasons include struggling with addictions, past traumatic events, low self-esteem, dealing with emotional pain, and more. Whatever the reason, those who engage in self-sabotaging behavior do themselves no favors and always put themselves at a disadvantage. They are not engaging in Machiavellianism, but rather they are simply giving in to basic human nature.
In many ways, the outcome of self-sabotaging behavior is almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who engage in it tell themselves what a negative outcome will be. They then force that outcome to happen and afterward use the outcome to prove they were right from the beginning. Thus their initial thoughts were justified. This line of thinking allows them to keep living in a toxic negative cycle, highlighting themselves as the constant victim in these situations.
What Self-Sabotaging Behavior Looks Like
We already covered a common self-sabotaging behavior above with procrastination. Many people put off what they need to do by focusing instead on distractions and momentary pleasures. In fact, a study found that distractions were the most common reason people procrastinate in the first place, followed by feeling overwhelmed and being indecisive. But procrastination is only one type of self-sabotaging behavior. The following are also common behaviors that contribute to self-sabotage.
Perfectionism is all about doing everything exactly right all the time. While there’s nothing wrong with holding yourself to a high standard, a perfectionist may end up self-sabotaging their efforts in part by never even starting. In their minds, they figure that it’s pointless to even try because they’ll never be able to do it perfectly. Perfectionism paralyzes them from the very start. This mindset also keeps people from finishing what they started as they insist it’s not good enough for others to see or enjoy.
Taking on Too Much
If you have ever found yourself drowning in tasks at work, only to accept even more when asked, you could be a victim of self-sabotage. While there are some situations where you may not have a choice in the matter, many times explaining that you simply don’t have the bandwidth to take on more is enough. That’s where learning to say “no” comes into play. However, many people still take on too much at one time, which inevitably leads to failing at multiple tasks at once.
In a shocking survey from GOBankingRates, nearly a third (32.9 percent) of Americans said that they have no more than $100 in a savings account. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise because another survey from The Penny Hoarder discovered that 55 percent of Americans don’t use a budget at all. Not having a budget is simply a case of self-sabotage because people are not taking the steps they need to ensure they have money saved up for a rainy day. A lack of a budget means you have no idea how much expenses add up to. It then shouldn’t come as a surprise when you don’t have a little extra money on hand.
Another self-sabotaging behavior that can cause damage to your mental health is being overly critical of yourself. When you constantly put yourself down, telling yourself that you’re no good or that you can’t do anything right, you automatically limit what you can become. This negative self-talk is a type of limiting belief that pulls you down and keeps you from fulfilling your potential.
Someone with self-sabotaging tendencies will often harm the relationships they have or are trying to form. This can happen in many ways. Someone may ghost a recruiter for a dream job, or they may act out in an unusual way so another person won’t want to be with them anymore. These behaviors usually connect to the limiting beliefs a person has. They truly believe they aren’t deserving of high-quality relationships, or they’re scared they might be left behind by an employer or someone they love. As a consequence, they engage in behavior designed to keep all relationships at arm’s length or prevent them from forming at all.
Other Signs You Engage in Self-Sabotaging Behaviors
- You rarely take breaks to recharge and clear your mind.
- Your mind automatically believes the worst-case scenario will always happen.
- You tend to overcomplicate things, thinking of complex solutions to simple problems.
- Worries and stress dominate your thoughts throughout the day.
- Your romantic relationships are rarely given time to develop and flourish.
- You remain stuck in failed routines and patterns despite evidence that they don’t work.
- Important financial decisions are made at the last moment instead of given time to analyze.
- You tend to look at things through an idealized lens rather than accepting reality.
- The number of subscription services you own outnumber the ones you actually regularly use.
- You’re known for constantly complaining and putting down others.
- You create rules for yourself that make tasks more difficult or even impossible to complete.
- Any sense of introspection or self-reflection is something you immediately dismiss.
- You’re always making excuses or blaming others for a lack of success.
How to Overcome Self-Sabotaging Behaviors
If any of the above signs and behaviors sound familiar to you, you may self-sabotage on a regular basis. Fortunately, there are several strategies you can employ to stop sabotaging yourself every step of the way.
1. Identify the Problem
You may already be on the path toward combating self-sabotage if you’re reading this article. Recognizing you have problems with self-sabotaging behavior is a vital part of correcting the issue. Very few people are actually self-aware and can identify problems they have. In a series of surveys, psychologist Tasha Eurich found that only up to 15 percent of people have self-awareness. Pinpointing the issue right from the start will help you begin the process of course correction and make a pattern of self-sabotage go away.
2. Figure Out the Causes
It’s challenging trying to solve an issue if you don’t understand what’s causing it. In cases of self-sabotage, you need to determine the root causes. Is it something you’ve struggled with since when you were young? Was there a traumatic event that has made maintaining relationships difficult? Did a particular failure leave a lasting impression, making it hard for you to work up the energy to try again? Spend some time thinking about why the self-sabotaging behavior is happening. You may even need to find a mental health professional to get to the bottom of the issue. Then you can formulate a plan for overcoming it.
3. Keep Goals Simple and Realistic
When it comes to goal setting, a useful and effective approach is to set goals that are simple and realistic. That doesn’t mean you still won’t stretch yourself, but if you set goals that go way beyond your abilities and what’s possible, you’ll only experience frustration. Goals don’t have to be things that will take years to accomplish. Even a simple daily goal can provide added motivation and a sense of satisfaction. Studies have even shown that reaching one goal gives people a boost in confidence, leading to more determination to set additional goals. It’s the perfect way to address self-sabotage head-on.
4. Try Journaling
Another way to combat self-sabotage is through journaling. When you write in a journal, you chronicle your life in such a way that you can spot patterns of behavior you might have overlooked before. Journaling is also an excellent way to organize and track your goals, especially if you keep a bullet journal. When you keep a daily journal, you can also reduce your stress and anxiety while also improving your mental health and mood. As you do so, you’ll develop healthy habits that can make self-sabotage a thing of the past.
5. Replace Harmful Behaviors With Healthy Ones
If you engage in self-sabotaging behaviors, one of the best ways to get rid of them is to replace them with something more beneficial to you. For example, if you constantly belittle yourself with negative thought patterns, try replacing them with more positive thoughts. Don’t tell yourself that you shouldn’t try because you’ll fail. Tell yourself you’ll give it your best shot and even if it doesn’t work out, you’ll learn something new that will stick with you the rest of your life. When you replace bad behaviors with good ones, you gain more confidence in your abilities and progress toward developing permanent habits.
6. Work With an Accountability Partner
You don’t have to work on stopping self-sabotage all alone. Find someone who will act as your accountability partner to ensure you’re making progress. An accountability partner is someone who is aware of your goals and the issues you’re trying to overcome. You will need to check in with them regularly, updating them on what you’ve done and any stumbles you’ve made along the way.
As the name implies, an accountability partner holds you accountable, leading to a great chance of success. When it comes to choosing one, make sure it’s someone you trust, like a spouse, family member, mentor, or close friend. Christine Scott-Hudson, a licensed therapist, has described what an ideal accountability partner is like. “Choose an accountability partner who is dynamic and can bounce off of you from moment to moment,” she explains, “whilst holding you to your word, keeping you accountable.”
Cultivate Better Habits and a Positive Mindset
The importance of adopting positive habits can’t be overstated when it comes to overcoming self-sabotage. Personal growth is never easy, but by cultivating habits that help you while also developing a positive mindset, you put yourself in a position to distance yourself from destructive behaviors.
Don’t fret if you feel the progress you’re making is minimal. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, has written that as long as you’re moving in the right direction, that’s all that matters. “We often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter very much in the moment,” he writes. However, those small changes add up over time. “Decide the type of person you want to be. Prove it to yourself with small wins.” Your efforts of overcoming self-sabotaging behaviors will be worth it as long as you keep at it no matter how challenging it may seem.
If you’d like to learn more about Atomic Habits, check out the following article:
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