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Self-Sabotage: Everything You Need to Know

Self-Sabotage: Everything You Need to Know

“The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” You’ve probably heard that Ancient Chinese proverb a thousand times, but have you ever really thought about what it means?

It speaks volumes, especially for those unwilling to take that proverbial first step. This “journey” in question may be anything from learning to play the guitar to quitting a problematic drinking habit to finally writing that novel to commencing the repair of strained relationships.

If you or a loved one has their own journey to commence, but the moving forward process never seems to move forward, that is an all-too-common form of what experts call “self sabotage.”

Self sabotaging behaviors

Forms of self sabotage range from engaging in behaviors you know will have negative consequences later, avoiding responsibilities, maintaining relationships you know to be toxic, or in more extreme cases, self harm or substance abuse.

We will talk through a number of specific examples of self sabotaging behaviors later, and we’ll more fully define what self sabotage means sooner. But first, just know this: you can stop self sabotaging. And you don’t have to do it yourself. 

Whether with the support of a best friend, a parent, a spouse, a therapy group, a religious or spiritual leader, and on it goes, you can break free of the vicious cycle of self sabotage. You will have to take that first step,however. But guess what? Here’s a piece of good news: you already have. 

Simply by committing to learn more about self sabotaging, you are clearly ready to start distancing yourself from sabotaging behaviors. Keep it up, and eventually, you’ll arrive at the opposite of self sabotage, which is self compassion. Also known as self love. That’s the destination. Now let’s go step by step.

What is self-sabotaging behavior?

First and foremost, let’s be clear on one thing: self sabotage is not one specific thing – there’s not one specific self sabotaging behavior that a psychologist or therapist can identify and single out and say: “That’s it! That’s the issue!” Self sabotage is not a ruptured appendix.

It can take many forms, and to that end, we need to create a relatively broad definition of self sabotage under which a myriad of self sabotaging behaviors can fit.

First let’s look at the definition of the word “sabotage” itself. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, one definition of sabotage is: “An act or process of tending to hamper or hurt, [or] deliberate subversion.”

Rather ugly stuff, right? Self sabotaging behaviour is to Intentionally cause hurt or subversion – that’s not the kind of destructive behavior that you would ever do to someone else. It brings up uncomfortable feelings just thinking about it! 

Yet far too often, we don’t treat ourselves and our mental health and emotional well being with the same respect, kindness, and compassion we show to others.

Self sabotaging behaviours, then, are any patterns in our personal and professional lives that hampers – or limits, in other words – our own potential. That might be our potential for happiness, success, growth, and so on. 

Self sabotage is any repeated actions or thoughts that cause us emotional pain, anything we do unbidden by others that reduces self esteem and self worth, or in short, any such patterns we self-inflict that create problems for ourselves.

Breaking the golden rule

To think of it another way, self sabotage is breaking the so-called Golden Rule, but in this case you are both the offender and the victim. If you believe it’s proper to “do unto others as you would have done to yourself,” then it’s time to realize that you yourself are a whole and complete person too. You’re worth the same as everyone else.

Common forms of self sabotage

Theoretical neuroscientist Vivienne Ming once said: “Human behavior is an enormously complex set of things, and that mixture of underlying things is different for different people, so it's not just complex, it's meta-complex.” 

With that in mind it should be no surprise these kinds of negative behaviors come in all different shapes and sizes, and kind even including self defeating behaviors like negative self talk. Even if you don’t see your own personal self sabotage behavior listed here, don’t assume you’re home free; also, don’t panic if you do see something you do illuminated – if it doesn’t cause damage to your long term well being, it may not be self sabotage. 

Substance abuse: 

Perhaps the most commonly thought of self sabotage behavior, even if not necessarily the most common overall, is substance abuse. 

(Peter Dazeley / Getty)

Abusing alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription medication, and the like is textbook self sabotage because it hurts your long term well being while providing only short term solace. Whether this solace is emotional escapism, an endorphin or serotonin rush, numbness or slumber, or what have you, it does not last, but the scars you self inflict by abusing a substance like drugs or alcohol do last, often for years if not forever, and they hurt others as well as you.


Putting things off is one of the most common and pernicious forms of self sabotage, and it’s pernicious precisely because it might not seem like such a big deal in the moment. Is it a huge issue if you change the lightbulb tomorrow as opposed to right now? Not really. 

But what about finishing that work project? Or getting back in touch with your friend or relative? Or setting up a retirement account or even a will? And so on it goes. When you consciously procrastinate, you risk leaving things done that simply must be done, and that leads to issues. 

You also risk leaving undone what could have been done, from learning to play an instrument to writing a great book to traveling and more. Necessary for life? No. Necessary for fulfillment and happiness? Maybe, just maybe, but you’ll never know if you keep putting it off. Stop sabotaging yourself and getting in your own way by making a change today.

Self doubt: 

People self sabotage for many reasons, and so many problems are experienced because of the simple fact that they don’t think they can do or even deserve better. Life can be scary, and failure can be shameful and hard. But if you don’t try, be it professionally, in romance, in a hobby, in fitness, and so on, then you definitely won’t succeed. 

Developing self confidence is difficult, but without a little effort, you will risk turning self sabotage into self loathing. Hockey great Wayne Gretzky’s wisdom that “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” is an elegantly clear way to sum it up.

Poisoning relationships: 

You deserve to have good people in your life, people who care about you and make you feel loved and respected and enjoyed. If you find yourself pushing good people away, be it in romance, or by sabotaging relationships, or having negative thoughts at work or school, then you have clearly not accepted that, and you are engaging in self sabotage. 

People consumed by self doubt and low self esteem often push others away, hoping to do so before the other party hurts them. What is too often not realized is that the hurt was never coming; they were not going anywhere.

Maintaining toxic relationships: 

Just as poisoning a good relationship is self sabotage, so too is keeping people who are no good for you in your orbit just the same. Relationships go through ups and downs and your people need to know they can count on you when they’re in a down time, but if you are giving an inordinate amount of yourself to them in terms of time and emotion, it may be time to reexamine. And if they are clearly bad news for you, it’s time to eject.

Five ways you can try to stop self sabotage

woman writing in diary on her bed
(Westend61 / Getty)

There are many ways to stop self sabotaging and build self confidence, and they can be broken down into highly specific action steps (breathing exercises, journaling, talk therapy, new hobbies, mindfulness) and talked about ad nauseum. 

But for our purposes, we are going to look at five larger things to consider when you are ready to break the cycle of self sabotage.

1. Acute self awareness

“Why am I doing this?” is a question people ask all too often when engaging in acts of self sabotage. So stop, pause, and really think, because well, why are you? 

Are you in need of some emotional support you are lacking? Are you sticking with a job you loathe? Are you lonely? Feeling trapped? Do you have a fear of failure? There can be countless reasons why a person deals with underlying issues through self sabotaging behaviors, but until you can think through what lies beneath your emotions, you probably can’t deal with the behaviors themselves. 

So get to know yourself better, and figure out how you’re really, actually doing, and what you’re really feeling in there. One way to do this is to practice better understanding and identifying your own emotions by studying the emotional wheel

The wheel of emotions

Properly known as the Wheel of Emotions, it is a tool developed by American psychologist Robert Plutchik that quite literally uses a wheel-shaped graph  with multiple emotions laid out (think awe, anger, love, fear, and so on) in a logical pattern thus that you can quickly identify just how you are feeling. 

It may seem odd or even a bit silly the first time you use the wheel – by the 10th or 100th, it will feel like a wonderful comfort, and it can help you in how you relate to others as well as yourself.

2. Replacement behaviors

If your go-to self sabotaging behavior is binge eating, with time and effort (a lot of the latter, and probably plenty of the former, too, let’s be honest here!), you may be able to replace the unwanted eating with exercise.

From a long walk to an intense cross training workout to hitting a climbing gym with a buddy to going for a bike ride, all good. Or find something else to put in your hands other than food, from knitting to a crossword puzzle to paint brush. 

At first, it will be entirely forced: you see that you are about to eat in an unhealthy way, and you will yourself to walk out the door and get on the bike, to pick up needles and yarn, and so on, and you spend a while doing that instead of the other thing. Then you do it again. And again. And before long, you’re fitter, have a new hobby, have honed your brain, and so on. It’s not work anymore, but rather, a pleasure.

3. A change of scenery

It’s true, a literal change of scenery can do us all a lot of good, but what we’re talking about here isn’t a quick vacation to the mountains or the city or whatnot. We’re using “change of scenery” as a shorthand for a change of circumstances. 

If you are tired of your self sabotaging tendency to drink too much or use drugs, yet your social circle consists of other problem drinkers or substance abusers, you will almost surely need to extricate yourself from that social group before you can stop self sabotaging. 

Likewise, if you are in a job or school program that causes you more stress and worry and less satisfaction than it’s worth, you will need to move on in actuality before you move on emotionally. The same is true if your living environment is conducive to self sabotage, perhaps because of too many painful memories. It’s always easier said than done, but you will feel so much better once these changes are made.

4. Meditation

self sabotaging
(Marko Geber / Getty)

Meditation can lead to better self awareness, but this approach to stopping is in fact quite distinct from the acute self awareness mentioned before. Meditation is, of course, about clearing the mind of thoughts. And it’s not thinking about nothing, for the record, but focusing so intently (albeit calmly) on the present moment that no other thoughts need clutter your mind (nor do the emotions need to disturb your psyche). 

Meditation takes practice, but it’s well worth it. Once you get comfortable practicing mindfulness, you will be able to call up the feeling of calm and steadiness even when you are not actually doing a meditation session. This gives you a chance for intervention before engaging in any type of self sabotaging behavior.  

5. Professional support

If you are conscious self sabotage has become a serious issue in your life (and for the record, this will likely only come after some serious reflection, as most of the time unconscious self sabotage is the issue) but you are at a loss as to how to start dealing with your self sabotage problems, don’t go it alone. Because even if you don’t feel you have a friend or family member to whom you can turn, you are not alone.

 And in fact, frankly speaking, it’s often better to turn to therapy sessions with a trained professional instead of going to a friend or relative anyway, as a clinical psychologist has your well being as their goal without any baggage or self interest (or both and then some) someone from your personal life almost surely has. 

Almost every good mental health support professional, from a psychiatrist to a psychologist to a life coach, will offer you an initial consultation at no cost to you. You really have nothing to lose by at least making a call to a therapy provider. And you may have a life free of sabotaging behaviors to gain.

Don’t confuse self sabotage with abuse at the hands of another

There is a marked difference between self sabotage and being the victim of abuse, or even the victim of circumstances beyond your control. A pattern of self harm, whether through inflicting physical self injury or putting yourself down with negative emotions that cause low self esteem? 

That’s self sabotage. Physical, verbal, or emotional abuse at the hands of another? That’s just abuse, and it’s not your fault, even if you have long stayed in an abusive relationship – you are not to blame and you are not a failure (just look at some great failure quotes to help keep your chin up) and it can get better.

Getting out of abusive relationships and away from places that are not good for your safety and/or emotional well being can be much easier said than done, and it’s not self sabotage if it’s hard for you to do so. As with self sabotage, however, you deserve better. Reach out for help, be it to a friend, a parent, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, or some other source of help and support. 

You have already taken the first step

As we mentioned earlier, one begins a journey with a single step. Eradicating self sabotage is about achieving harmony in your life, all pieces of you working together. Now that you’re here, we’re excited to see all that you can do!

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