Have you ever set a goal that you’re unable to reach, regardless of how hard you try? Or, perhaps you do achieve it, but something adjacent to the goal gets messed up, which, in turn, compromises all of your progress? That’s self-sabotage rearing its ugly head. Judy Ho, PhD, clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, author of Stop Self Sabotage, and co-host of The Doctors, defines self-sabotage as “thoughts and/or behaviors that undermine our best interests and conscious intentions.”
Self-sabotage can show up in many different ways and spill into all areas of life, including relationships, career, health, and even finances. Maybe you stayed up all night binge-watching Friends (again), and now you’re stressed out about missing a work deadline you’re too tired to meet. No matter the specifics of the scenario, though, self-sabotage can hold us back from achieving our goals, feeling our best, and living the life we want to be living.
Ready to recognize signs of self-sabotage in practice so you can put a stop to it once and for all? Below, get expert tips so you can live a life free of self-sabotage.
Signs you’re self-sabotaging
To be clear, self-sabotage looks different for everyone, says transformational life coach, mindfulness expert, and host of The Soulpreneur Show podcast Jenay Rose. While the existence of the habit does depend on the subconscious stories and beliefs people tell themselves, she does share common signs of self-sabotage we can all look for:
- The same pattern arises multiple times, meaning you keep making the same mistake.
- You desperately want to make a change in your life, but you feel like you can’t, so you don’t even bother trying.
- You have recurring bad-feeling thoughts that stop you from taking action toward what you want.
Reasons people self-sabotage
To be clear, no one does it on purpose. Rather, Rose says, it’s often rooted in patterned behaviors that can lead to a vicious, never-ending cycle. “When something becomes a pattern, whether it’s a thought or an action, it’s like being stuck on a hamster wheel,” she says. “You might be sick of running in circles, but getting off seems next to impossible.”
Dr. Ho adds that there are four main elements that perpetuate the self-sabotage cycle: low self-esteem, internalized beliefs from childhood, fear of change or of the unknown, and excessive need for control. “You can think of them like an operating system that runs in the background and drives your beliefs and behavior,” she says. “We typically acquire these elements when we are younger, and because they are with us over time, they tend to be outside our awareness. It is very helpful to focus on them so you can more easily see how they inform your decisions, your ideas about yourself, how you behave, how you feel in certain circumstances, and particularly how they can be a driver of self-sabotage.”
6 strategies for stopping self-sabotage
1. Observe your thoughts
The first step toward stopping self-sabotage is awareness of your thoughts throughout your day. “You will find that these thoughts have themes, like catastrophizing an outcome, black-and-white thinking, or that you have a lot of rules for yourself to the point where no one could ever meet those expectations all of the time,” Dr. Ho says. Rose adds that you’ll be able to decipher which thoughts are self-sabotaging by how they make you feel. If they make you feel badly, for example, that’s a clear indication of a limiting thought.
2. Challenge the thoughts that make you feel badly
Once you’ve pinpointed the thoughts that are holding you back, challenge them. For example, if you find yourself thinking “I’m such an idiot” multiple times a day, ask yourself, “Where is this thought coming from? Why does it keep coming up?”
“Thoughts are not reality, but they feel that way,” Dr. Ho says. “So, start taking your thoughts with a grain of [salt] and try to consider alternate explanations. Or, at the very least, deemphasize the impact your thoughts have on your emotions and behaviors.”
3. Replace the self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors
In order to overcome self-sabotage, you must interrupt the thought or behavioral pattern and replace it. “When a bad-feeling thought comes in, ask yourself, ‘does this thought feel good? Do I want to keep this thought?'” Rose says. “If the answer is no, then you must choose to release that thought and replace it with a new thought that is supportive and empowering. You can do this on a piece of paper if it helps you to physically see the process.”
The same goes for your self-sabotaging behaviors: Analyze what you usually do in a certain situation and then choose a replacement behavior to propel you toward your goal. This process of replacing your go-to self-sabotaging thoughts and behavior is, of course, no easy feat and not a change that happens overnight. That’s why practice and repetition are important in order to establish this new way of being. “Be sure to implement this every day, and you will see a huge change in your mental quality,” Rose says.
4. Acknowledge upper limit thinking
Take a look at what secret limits you put on yourself, and really ask yourself: what is your perceived ceiling for joy, success, abundance?
“Think about what you think is reasonable and fair for your life,” says Susie Moore, life coach and author of Stop Checking Your Likes. “Write it down. As a coach, this has unearthed a million secret mental limits we have for ourselves. ‘I can’t be well-paid, healthy AND happily married.’ Why not? Look for evidence on the contrary who can—and do.”
5. Don’t oversell it
“Fake it ’till you make it” can help you move up a few rungs up a career ladder, maybe even score you a second date. But rest assured people can usually see through when you’re faking it too hard, or inflating some version of yourself to be “likable.”
“When we don’t feel worthy, it’s easy to play up to people,” says Moore. “We don’t even do it consciously. When you think there is something to prove, we often compromise, contort or change ourselves so we’re liked. This is futile in the long term because it’s impossible to be liked by everyone. Even among various, different types of people, be aware of being the truest version of you.”
Related: allow yourself to relax a little once you’ve gotten that initial checkmark of validation. You don’t have to second-guess yourself or become really performative.
“When someone likes the real you and wants to hire you, take you out on a date, foster a new friendship, let them,” Moore says. “You don’t have to convince them it was the right idea. Let goods things be.”
6. Lose the “cause and effect” model
That is, clinging onto excuses for bad behavior. That doesn’t mean that you’re not, you know, allowed to acknowledge where problems might come from and why you might have certain road blocks. Instead, it’s more about not letting those road blocks be an impossible-to-breach barrier. As Moore points out, this takes courage, but it can be truly transformative.
“Typically, when we think something can’t be done or achieved, we blame a cause,” Moore says. “For example, ‘My parents were divorced, so I can’t trust people.’ More often than not, trusting someone intimately requires vulnerability and courage. And because that might mean pain—we want to avoid it. So we blame a cause, such as our parents’ divorce. When something is not showing up in your life, or a part of your life is not working out the way you want it to, take responsibility for any causes you are blaming.”
Originally published on December 17, 2019. Updated on March 22, 2020 with additional reporting by Mary Grace Garis
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