Beating Self-Sabotage

Recognizing and Overcoming It

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"You can't do that!" "That's way too difficult!" "If you try, you'll probably just fail anyway." These statements sound as if they're coming from a tyrannical and cruel person with a mission to destroy self-confidence. Unfortunately, all too often, we can be the tyrant and our target can be our self.

Negative self-talk is something we have all probably engaged in at some time. When it rears its ugly head on a regular basis it, it can lead to self-sabotage, and can stop us achieving our goals and dreams. 

What's worse is that we usually don't recognize that it's even happening. Instead, we attribute our lack of success to inadequacy. This, in turn, strengthens the negative messages we feed ourselves, and we get caught in a self-sabotaging cycle that can be very difficult to break.

The tell-tale sign that you are sabotaging your self is when you grind to a halt when you're trying to achieve your goals, for no rational reason. The skill, ability and desire are there: it's just that something stops you moving forward.

When you feel that you can't do something you should be able to do, or that you shouldn't do something, even though you know deep down that you want or need to do it, self-sabotage is at work.

There are some common themes in self-sabotaging behavior. See if you recognize yourself in any of these examples:


  • Knowing you should be working on something, but putting it off again and again.
  • Starting projects, but never quite finishing them.
  • Feeling unmotivated or unable to proceed, even when there are lots of exciting opportunities.

Unfulfilled Dreams

  • Dreaming of doing something, but never doing anything about it.


  • Fretting over things that really shouldn't matter.
  • Fearing that if you fail others will think less of you.
  • Worrying that if you're successful, your friends won't like you any more.
  • Doubting yourself and your abilities even though you "know" you are very capable.
  • Feeling stressed and anxious, and perhaps suffering from unexplained depression or panic attacks when trying to achieve something important to you.


  • Using aggressive rather assertive communication and not taking steps to change this.
  • Destroying relationships with others (family, friends, co-workers) with anger, resentment or jealously.

Feelings of Worthlessness

  • Exaggerating other people's achievements, and diminishing your own.
  • Taking even unfair or misguided criticism to heart.
  • Letting others put you down.

Whatever your personal self-sabotaging behavior is, you MUST overcome it if you are to make the most of your career. If you allow yourself to engage in negative self-talk, you erode your self-confidence and self esteem. And with every failed attempt, you "prove" to yourself that you can't or shouldn't do the thing you want.

And as you continue spiraling down, you become more and more frustrated, discouraged, and angry with yourself. These feelings trap you and keep you from doing whatever it is you need to do to break free.

Fortunately, you can escape self-sabotaging behavior and this starts with recognizing the negative messages you send to yourself.

Breaking the Cycle of Self-sabotage

1. Recognize Your Self-Sabotaging Behavior

In order to stop self-sabotage, you first need to recognize your own self-sabotaging behavior. Ask yourself:

  • What goals have you had for yourself for a long time and never been able to accomplish?
  • What do you consistently fail at, for no obvious reason?
  • Are there particular areas where you find yourself procrastinating or putting off making a decision?
  • Are you suffering from lack of motivation to do something that you should want to do?
  • Do you find yourself unreasonably angry or frustrated, and is this affecting your relationships?
  • Is there an area where other people (and in particular, your boss) consistently get frustrated with you? or
  • Is there something in your life that nags at you and causes you dissatisfaction because you know you could do it, or do it better?

Ask yourself questions like these, and tune in to the situations where you may be sabotaging yourself.

2. Monitor Your Negative Thinking

Think about what you say to yourself when you engage in this behavior. Write down all your negative thoughts, however silly or unrealistic they may seem.


The ideal time to do this is when you're engaged in the behavior. As you do, monitor your "stream of consciousness" and write all the negative self-talk down.

If this isn't realistic, use imagery   to recreate the situation in your mind so that you can experience the automatic thoughts, or try to recall what you were thinking last time it occurred.

3. Challenge Your Self-Sabotaging Thinking

When you know what your negative self-talk is, or you find yourself behaving in some way that is preventing you from achieving what you need or want to do, ask yourself:

  • What deeper thoughts lie behind this self-sabotaging thinking?
  • Are these thoughts rational, and based on any clear facts?
  • Are past unsuccessful attempts unnecessarily preventing you from making a positive change?

4. Develop Self-Supporting Behaviors

Having identified and defeated the false rationale for your self-sabotaging behaviors, you are now free to start rebuilding your self-confidence  . Ask yourself:

  • What can you say to myself that is positive or encouraging?
  • What options do you have? Is there more than one way to achieve your goal?
  • Can you build self-confidence by setting and achieving much smaller goals, on your way to achieving the big ones you've not achieved in the past?

Turn your assumptions around and put them in the correct perspective. Align them with positive beliefs about what you can accomplish. When your skills, beliefs and behaviors are aligned, then you have the right mental, emotional, and physical states to do whatever you set your mind to.

Then use your answers to come up with a message that inspires you to move in a positive direction, for example, "Even though I doubt that I can complete this project on time, I know I have the resources and skills I need to get me through. When I start taking tackling the project, I know I will release a lot of the stress and anxiety I have been carrying around while I've been procrastinating."

Tip 1:

Take a look at other people around you who are doing what they set out to do and living the life they were meant to live. Do they actually have better skills than you? Have they been given opportunities that you haven't?

Probably not, at least initially. What they have is a belief they can do whatever they want to do. They tell themselves they can accomplish their goals and dreams, and then they set in place a plan to achieve this.

Tip 2:

The approach in this article is similar to the approach explained in our Thought Awareness, Rational Thinking and Positive Thinking   article. Read this to find out how you can turn your rational thoughts into powerful positive affirmations.

Key Points

Turning your dreams into reality requires solid planning and lots of work and effort. To start the process, however, you need to believe in yourself and your ability to actually do it.

Self-sabotaging behavior cuts this belief off at the knees. Negative self-talk is an easy pattern to fall into and a difficult one to break out of. But by being aware of negative self-talk, you can ward off the effects of self-sabotage before it wears away your self-esteem. Start today, by tackling your sabotaging messages and behaviors, and put yourself on a path toward greater satisfaction and fulfillment.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (17)
  • Yolande wrote This month
    Hi Mila

    It's good to 'hear' your voice over here! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

    I guess it's about what we choose to feed, isn't it? As you say, if you stop focusing on the negative thought, it seems to disappear pretty quickly. And it goes even quicker if we use a positive thought as a substitute!
    If you have any other thoughts, ideas or challenges you'd like to share, do give the forums a try. This link will take you straight to Career Cafe Central:
    Hope to 'see' you there soon!

    Mind Tools Team
  • MSweston wrote This month
    Thank you for the reminder to look out for that ugliness that creeps into our minds and poisons our outlook periodically. It's important to identify these little monsters and extinguish them by exposing their presence to ourselves. Once we recognize the negativity, and say out loud that you will not [be or do the negative thought], interesting how quickly it dissipates.

  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Ab,
    Welcome! I hope you like this site and find the articles of great value to you personally and professionally.

    So, reading this particular article, can you recognize any self-sabotaging behaviours and what can you do to shift that?

  • Abdallah wrote Over a month ago
    Hi please welcome me, I'm new here!
    My name is Ab.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Yes, anger is seldom productive!
  • John Madeng wrote Over a month ago
    anger is sickness in Human behavior,
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    ...because only when you're comfortable in your own skin can you truly appreciate and enjoy the talents, differences and accomplishments of others...'not just recognize'... but appreciate and enjoy them.

    Well said!!!!

    For some reason many of us are wired to be our own worst critics. Whether it is learned or somehow imposed, it's a real struggle. I'm so glad you have been successful at seeing the tendency in yourself and choosing to do something to change. I'm curious how this journey as impacted your success both personally and professionally. Did you see significant changes or were they subtle differences that had larger impacts?

  • katsuzanne wrote Over a month ago

    It was quite a journey recognizing many of the points made in this article! Coming from a 'religious' background of my choice, 'humility' was sought as a positive attribute. Unfortunately, forcing humility on myself by not accepting, appreciating and enjoying my accomplishments and positive attributes poured drops of fuel onto a bed of kindling, which over a long period of time, lit a fire that could've destroyed me. The most amazing realization is that true humility does come when you can appreciate yourself, because only when you're comfortable in your own skin can you truly appreciate and enjoy the talents, differences and accomplishments of others...'not just recognize'... but appreciate and enjoy them.
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    It's surprising to learn that we do this to ourselves and aren't really aware of it until we read about the behavior or are challenged about it by someone else. I'm glad you enjoyed article - now comes the hard work - finding, and committing to, strategies to stop doing it.

    Good luck! If you run into issues, let us help.

  • bugs62702 wrote Over a month ago

    I am still new to the Club; but, I enjoyed the article on Self-Sabotage tremendously! It cleared up a lot of things for me that I thought were inexplicable elements in my own behaviors. Now I can define my self-sabotaging behavior and pick up the tools I have learned here to fix the problem.

    Excellent! Thanks,

Show all comments

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