What is Self-Sabotage & How Do I Stop It?

Written by James A. Bosch MA, LMFT on September 29, 2022

Depression + Anxiety
Guilt + Shame
Personal Growth
Self-Care / Self-Compassion

The word sabotage means: 

  • an act or process tending to hamper or hurt  

  • deliberate subversion  

Therefore, self-sabotage is hampering or hurting oneself or progress—a deliberate undermining of our self and happiness. Burn trauma alone is a huge saboteur of our life. When I think of the word self-sabotage, I ask myself, why do I do things to prevent me from having the things that I say I want for myself? Why do I keep putting myself in situations with people, places, and things that keep me stuck in the pain I often hear myself saying I want out of? It is one of those human complexities that is self-sabotage.      

Often when we go to friends and family or professional helpers and ask for solutions, they can point clear paths out of our problems, and we often will argue for and fight against these solutions. In this blog, I will try to highlight why I feel we self-sabotage and share some things that have worked for me to break this pattern. 

Self-Sabotaging Behaviors You May Recognize 

Fear of change and the unknown is an excellent fueler of self-sabotage. Fear paralyzes and forces us to act in ways that go against what is best for us. Fear tells me that bad things will happen if I do certain things, and my nervous system responds to these lies, and I can sabotage my plans, goals, or best interests. One of my favorite acronyms for fear is False Evident Appearing Real.   

History of trauma or bad things happening can stop us from trying to make positive changes. The story is that "things always turn out bad," or attempts to make positive changes have failed in the past. This can create an unconscious pattern of staying stuck in behaviors that keep us from growing. Sometimes failure is the catalyst for learning and growth, yet if we self-sabotage, we rob ourselves of this growth.   

Comfort with the knowledge is another reason for self-sabotage. Sometimes we would rather stay stuck with the familiar, even when that familiar is not where we intellectually what to be. This is similar to the fear of change, yet it is often hard for us to articulate this feeling. It's like a hoarder who cannot move into their home because they have so much stuff everywhere, they complain about this environment, and it also feels safe and protective at the same time.   

There is often a secondary gain to staying stuck. A secondary gain can be any positive advantage accompanying physical or psychological symptoms. Secondary Gains are like the hoarder example yet warrant a little more explanation because it is such an important reason why people continue to do things that bring them harm and disharmony in their lives. They are deep and psychologically complex. Let me give an example: you keep picking avoidant and non-committing partners. You always hate how they do not attend to your needs and feelings, yet the secondary gain is that it keeps you from dealing with your fear of commitment in relationships, and you can blame it on the people you choose.      

The "I'll be happy when" trap. I'll be happy when I get this scar band removed when my garments are off when I have a partner etc. The problem is that when we are fixated on the singular thing that we think will give us relief or happiness; we neglect all the other parts of our lives we can work on. And if that scar revision is not what we hoped for and if that partner does not come along immediately. Where are we left? Miserable or depressed. So finding other areas of our life to work on while reaching that goal is important to not set ourselves up for major letdowns.   

How to Overcome Self-Sabotaging Behaviors 

Here are some tips for confronting self-sabotage. First, let's place a lot of self-love and self-forgiveness on the things we have been doing that have prevented us from growing or being our best selves. Trauma is tricky and takes a lot of time and self-work to untangle. Much of our self-sabotage is in our traumatized minds, a way to feel and stay safe; safety is the primary desire and psychological need of any trauma survivor.   

The number one way to stop this pattern is to start talking about it and letting others help us process, see and brainstorm ways to change our behavior. Peer support is crucial because we always have more courage to change when we know we have others by our side, rooting for us, and there for us when we need a helping hand.  

The next essential step is to start challenging the lies our brains tell us when we are stuck in our fears. Challenging the negative messages and the assumed outcomes helps us come up with other narratives and room to take risks and make changes. Taking risks is scary, yet it is where a lot of growth is. Allowing ourselves the grace to fail is often the way we grow.   

Identifying more than one growth area and not getting fixated on that "I'll be happy when" trap. What can other things you be doing for your body while you wait for that surgery to be approved? What other things can you do for your appearance while you must wear those so fashionable splints and pressure garments? What spiritual or mental health tools can you bring into your life while working toward that material goal? What exercise or dietary changes can you make when you cannot do your preferred activities? Adaptation, flexibility, and balance give you loopholes out of self-sabotage.   

Getting Support for Self-Sabotage  

Much self-sabotaging behavior is learned from our environments and can be unearned with help and dedication to our personal development. Getting a therapist, life coach, or other professional support is helpful since self-sabotaging behaviors are often deep and rooted in our family and personal histories. It is never too late to create what I call "life redo's," It is never too late to change, no matter what they say about old dogs.  

I hope we can break these patterns of self-harm and create movement in our lives to live our best lives as resilient and beautiful survivors/warriors. 

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