4 Min Read

Stop Sabotaging Yourself: Tips for Getting Out of Your Own Way

Heather Lyons, Ph.D.

Shooting yourself in the foot. Getting in your own way. Being your own worst enemy. No matter how you describe it, you probably recognize this crippling self-defeating behavior even as you’re doing it. Somehow, you can’t resist listening to that critical inner voice in your subconscious when it tells you to sabotage your success.

“You can walk off that second piece of cake tomorrow,” it says, or, “Go ahead and tell your boss what you really think of them — you can always find a new job.” Maybe it’s, “You’ll have plenty of time to study after you reach that next level on Call of Duty.” Your ever-present critical inner voice is readily available with a plethora of excuses to justify your procrastination and other self-defeating decisions.

If you recognize yourself in this pattern of behavior, know that you’re not alone. Even some of the most successful people engage in self-sabotage. Most tabloid scandals and high-profile downfalls begin with a critical inner voice assuring a politician, celebrity, or CEO that their self-sabotaging behavior is deserved or justified.

Root causes of self-sabotage

So why do smart, successful people succumb to self-sabotage? Probably for the same reasons everyone else does. Psychologists believe self-sabotaging behavior is rooted in your early life experiences. For instance, if your parents or influential caregivers conveyed to you that you were lazy, unlovable, or would “never make anything of yourself,” these beliefs probably took root early on in your subconscious. As you grew older, these negative thoughts grew and expressed themselves through your critical inner voice. This voice tells you that you don’t deserve happiness or you’re going to fail anyway, so why even try?

Fear often complements these attitudes of poor self-worth and manifests itself in self-sabotaging behaviors. You have a fear of failure, so you find ways to keep yourself from qualifying for that promotion. You have a fear of intimacy, so when a relationship starts to get serious, you pick a fight. Perhaps you fear rejection, so you avoid opportunities that could have negative results. In each of these situations, you choose familiarity because you fear the uncertainty of the unknown.

For some, a perceived lack of control during their formative years leads to control issues as adults. Maybe your parents or caregivers were strict, and you were never allowed the freedom to make your own decisions. Or perhaps it was the opposite; perhaps they were never around, and you had to assume a parental role, taking complete control of every aspect of your life when you should have received at least some guidance. As an adult, you prefer the familiarity of being in control, even if it means controlling failure to avoid the possibility of being blindsided.

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Getting out of your own way

Your self-sabotaging behaviors may be rooted in your childhood and cultivated over decades, but it’s never too late to weed it out of your subconscious. The first step in conquering self-sabotage is recognizing your pattern of behavior and identifying its origins. Working with a therapist or mental health professional can help you gain insight into the events or people in your early developmental years that planted these seeds of self-doubt, fear, or lack of control.

The next step is to identify what triggers your self-destructive behavior. Think back on the times you’ve listened to your critical inner voice when it told you that you weren’t worthy of happiness or success, that you should be afraid of that unknown situation or rejection, or that if you don’t take control of your life, someone else will. Were you on the brink of a promotion or public recognition for your work? Did you suspect a relationship was getting serious? Only serious insight into your self-sabotage triggers and behaviors will allow you to begin the process of change.

One of the best ways to begin that process of change is to transform your critical inner voice into a positive inner voice. This takes time and practice, but it is entirely possible to replace your self-destructive, negative thoughts into uplifting, self-affirming ones — and now is the perfect time to get started. Maybe as you read this, you’re telling yourself, “I’m not strong enough to change my behaviors,” or “Why should I try? I’ll just fail anyway.” Instead, try saying, “I deserve to feel better than this,” and, “I think I can do this. No, I know I can do this.”

Solid plans to stop self-sabotage

If saying these things to yourself feels silly, consider writing down your insights in a journal. Write down your self-destructive triggers, the patterns of behavior you’ve identified, and those hurtful words your critical inner voice keeps repeating. Then counteract them with positive arguments.

For example, maybe your self-destructive behavior is procrastination. Psychologist Melanie Greenburg believes there are many reasons why people procrastinate or avoid certain tasks. “You may feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task or feel like an imposter who doesn’t have what it takes to succeed,” writes Greenburg in Psychology Today. “You may also procrastinate and avoid because you are perfectionistic, overthink things, or can’t decide where to begin.” 

To overcome procrastination, try to set achievable goals —not overwhelming —and stick to them. Greenburg recommends giving yourself enough time to eliminate excuses or to make an “imperfect choice.” “It helps to see yourself as being able to learn from experience and improve over time.” 

No matter how your self-sabotage behavior manifests, consider seeking help from a mental health professional or therapist to get to the root of your issues and map out solid plans to overcome those negative thoughts.

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