Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior
Have you ever found yourself working toward an important goal only to spectacularly fail because you did something stupid?
Or, maybe you feel stressed and anxious when you're trying to achieve something important. This, in turn, might make you feel more and more frustrated, discouraged and angry with yourself. These feelings trap you and keep you from doing what you need to do.
These are all signs of self-sabotage.
Self-sabotage erodes your self-confidence and self-esteem, and affects your relationships with others. With every failed attempt to do the thing you want, you "prove" to yourself that you can't or shouldn't do it.
Whatever self-sabotaging behaviors you have, it's essential that you overcome them if you are to make the most of your life and your career.
Fortunately, you can escape self-sabotaging behavior, and this article shows you how.
What Is Self-Sabotage?
Sabotage is the act of destroying or undermining something, often in a covert manner. Usually, it implies direct and deliberate involvement on the part of the saboteur – that's why the word is most commonly used in relation to spying, or in business situations where an insider is causing the damage.
The term self-sabotage is used when this destructive behavior is directed at yourself. At first, you may not even notice that you're doing it. But when negative habits consistently undermine your efforts, they can be considered a form of psychological self-harm.
Signs of Self-Sabotage
Self-sabotage can manifest in many different behaviors, unique to each person. But there are some common, recurring examples.
You might "forget" a deadline, or fail to prepare a presentation properly, for example. Perhaps you're consistently late to work. You may procrastinate, repeatedly putting off something that you need to do, even though you know you need to finish it.
Maybe you start projects but never finish them. You feel unable to proceed, even when you're presented with an exciting opportunity. Or you may dream of doing something of great personal significance, but never get round to doing anything about it.
Another telltale sign of self-sabotage is that you grind to a halt for no rational reason when you're trying to achieve your goals. The skill and will are there, but something stops you moving forward.
Self-sabotage is often driven by negative self-talk, where you tell yourself that you're inadequate, or unworthy of success. You find yourself thinking things like, "You can't do that!" "You don’t deserve that." "If you try, you'll probably just fail anyway."
We've likely all experienced behaviors like these at some point. But some of us are more prone than others to self-sabotage, and it can be difficult to admit that we're doing it. So, don't ignore or underestimate the signs – self-sabotage can reinforce a misplaced sense of worthlessness and provide a justification for negative thoughts that have no basis in reality.
Self-Sabotage and Self-Esteem
One of the key reasons people self-sabotage is a lack of self-esteem. This can have many different causes, but the effects are the same: feelings of worthlessness, the belief that you don't deserve success, and even self-hatred.
You may worry that if you fail, your family will think less of you, or that if you're successful, your co-workers will be jealous. These deep-seated thoughts and feelings cause negative self-talk, which fuels your fears and your self-sabotaging behaviors.
Some people self-sabotage because it makes them feel in control of their situations. By sabotaging and then rescuing a situation, they might receive a short-term boost to their self-confidence. It may even feel temporarily thrilling. However, these "rewards" turn out to be destructive in the long term.
How Self-Sabotage Damages You
Self-sabotage sets you up to fail in a number of ways.
First, it reinforces negative behaviors that eat away at your potential for success. In this way, you may constantly find yourself falling short of the goals you've set for yourself.
It can also damage your reputation. If you don't do what you say you're going to, there's a real risk that your boss and colleagues could come to see you as unreliable, uncommitted, lazy, or lacking drive.
Such failures and disappointments create further feelings of guilt and frustration. And, over time, this can build up into shame, which feeds low self-esteem.
1. Recognize Your Self-Sabotaging Behaviors
To stop self-sabotage, you first need to recognize your own self-sabotaging behaviors.
Think about goals that you've had for a long time but have never accomplished. Are there particular areas where you're putting off making a decision? Are you suffering from lack of motivation, even for important things?
Consider something that you frequently fail at, for no obvious reason. Is there something you do, or don't do, that consistently frustrates other people (your boss, in particular)? Is there an activity or task that nags at you and causes you dissatisfaction because you know you could do it, or do it better?
It may be painful to ask yourself questions like these, but it's important. Tune in to problem situations so you can better understand what is happening.
2. Understand the Emotions That Lead to the Behavior
Self-sabotaging behavior often stems from feelings of anxiety, anger and worthlessness.
For example, you may have deliberately left a report unfinished because your boss blanked you in the corridor, and this made you angry and upset. The event triggered the emotion, which in turn led to a self-defeating action.
In fact, your boss may have been deep in thought about something else, and would be shocked and sorry to realize that they'd upset you. But your emotional response doesn't take account of that.
Always aim to manage your emotions, so that you don't commit to behaviors that have negative consequences, or that unjustly affect others. Check the warning signs of anger and anxiety before they get out of control.
Take care not to ignore strong emotions – they're likely a sign that something is wrong. Take a look at our article What Are the HALT Risk States? for more on this.
3. Spot the Thinking or Beliefs That Cause the Emotion
Chances are, the emotion that led to your negative behavior was caused by irrational thoughts. Consider the evidence for those thoughts – in the example above, your boss wasn't being dismissive because they don't like you, they just had a lot of other things to think about.
Notice what you say to yourself when you engage in self-sabotaging behavior. Write down all your negative self-talk, however silly or unrealistic it may seem.
The ideal time to do this is when you're engaged in the behavior. Monitor your "stream of consciousness" and write it down. In our example, you might catch yourself thinking, "I'm such a failure, my boss has probably reached the end of their patience with me!"
If recording your observations in the moment isn't realistic, see our article on memory improvement for specific memory techniques – like image clues – that can help you to recreate the situation in your mind later, and recall what you were thinking.
When you know what your negative self-talk is, ask yourself what deeper beliefs lie behind this self-sabotaging thinking. Are these beliefs rational? Are they based on any clear facts?
4. Change Your Behaviors, Emotions and Thoughts
As you become aware of the negative emotions, behaviors and thoughts that trigger self-sabotage, you can begin to challenge them. And if you can change one of these three aspects, the other two will change more easily, too.
Challenge negative thinking with logical, positive affirmations. Turn your assumptions around and gain some much-needed perspective.
Then, link this new positive self-talk to what you can accomplish and what you want to achieve. When your skills, beliefs and behaviors are aligned, you can create the mental, emotional and physical states necessary to do whatever you set your mind to.
Simply changing your behavior is unlikely to beat your self-sabotage habit in the long term, if you don't also change the emotions and thoughts that lie behind it. But it can help if you notice, learn from, and give yourself credit for more positive outcomes, as this helps to break the cycle of negativity.
Read our article Positive Thinking, Thought Awareness, and Rational Thinking to find out how you can turn negative thoughts into powerful affirmations. Cognitive Restructuring can also help you to shift your perspective on a situation.
5. Develop Self-Supporting Behaviors
When you've identified and begun to defeat the false rationale for your self-sabotaging behaviors, you can start to rebuild your self-esteem. Consider the followng questions:
- What can you say to yourself 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 smaller goals, on your way to achieving the bigger ones?
Then use your answers to come up with a message that inspires you to move in a positive direction. For example, "Even though I may not complete this project on time, I know that I have the resources and skills I need to get me through. When I start to tackle the project, I know I will release a lot of the stress and anxiety I've been carrying around while I've been procrastinating."
Self-sabotage is behavior that undermines your success despite your own wishes, dreams or values.
The roots of self-sabotage often lie in low self-esteem, negative self-talk, and related negative emotions, which are continually reinforced by the resulting failure.
You can beat self-sabotage by monitoring your behaviors, feelings, thoughts, and beliefs about yourself, and challenging them when they stand between you and your goals. Once you understand what is behind self-sabotage, you can develop positive, self-supporting behaviors to keep you on the right track.
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