Self-sabotage refers to beliefs and behaviors that prevent us from achieving our goals, hopes, and dreams. It is a very normal part of the human experience, something we all do from time to time—often without fully realizing we’re doing it. Fortunately, knowing the types of self-sabotage, where it comes from, and some helpful tips to neutralize it can help you overcome a fierce inner critic.
What Is Self-Sabotage?
At its core, self-sabotage involves any attitude or behavior that doesn’t match up your values and interferes with your ability to achieve your life goals.1,2,3 We all do things from time to time that get in the way of our progress, but self-sabotage is a pattern of thoughts and actions that creates ongoing problems, preventing you from moving forward and facing change successfully.4
When people self-sabotage, they regularly engage in self-defeating behaviors like procrastination, perfectionism, negative self-talk, avoidance, or conflict. Often driven by anxiety, fear, and self-doubt, they undermine their efforts to build the life they want. Self-sabotage becomes especially problematic when the behavior becomes a habit, done so automatically that you don’t even fully realize you’re doing it or that it is leading directly to negative consequences.5
11 Signs You’re Self-Sabotaging
People often don’t even realize that they are self-sabotaging, but upon closer inspection, it can look like avoidance, conflict creation, and controlling behavior. Once you recognize all the signs of self-sabotage, you can begin to change them.
Eleven signs of self-sabotage include a pattern of these behaviors:
- Avoiding people and situations that make you uncomfortable
- Staying within your comfort zone and avoiding change
- Setting goals that are too low to ensure success
- Creating conflict with romantic partners, loved ones, friends, or coworkers
- Trying to control others
- Attempting to gain others’ approval
- Making excuses
- Taking actions that don’t match your values and goals
- Comparing yourself to others
- Social withdrawal or isolation
- Risky behaviors (such as substance use, gambling, overspending, or promiscuity)
How Self-Sabotaging Behavior Impacts Your Life
Self-sabotaging behavior disrupts your progress toward achieving your goals and can prevent you from living a life you truly value. Some people get in the way of their own happiness and success in one particular area, while others impede themselves in several different areas. Common life realms that fall prey to self-sabotage include romantic relationships, career, education, and relationships with family and friends.
Here are four ways that self-sabotaging can impact your life:
1. Self-Sabotaging Your Romantic Relationships
Sometimes people do things that undermine long-term romantic relationships, engaging in behaviors that ultimately lead to a break-up. Often born out of fear of loss, romantic self-sabotage can involve blaming, picking fights, giving the silent treatment, controlling or monitoring a partner’s behavior, constantly seeking reassurance, clinginess, having impossibly high standards, and leaving relationships before they have a chance to develop.4,6,7
2. Self-Sabotaging Your Career
Self-sabotaging your career involves actions that prevent you from achieving your career goals. Fear of failure or anxiety about uncertainty can trap you in your comfort zone and prevent you from advancing despite a desire to do so.8 This leads to unhappiness at work that negatively affects mental health and well-being. It can also lead someone to frequently change jobs.
3. Self-Sabotaging Your Education
Educational self-sabotage can be intentional or unintentional. Often driven by anxiety and/or a lack of self-confidence, it involves behaviors that explain why a student is failing or generally performing poorly.9 When failure can be blamed on actions like procrastination or purposefully not trying, it’s a reflection of choice rather than an inherent lack of ability.
4. Self-Sabotaging Your Relationships With Friends & Family
This type of self-sabotage is often driven by a sense of competition that comes from a need to prove your worth, equality, or superiority.4 Actions also stem from trying to control others or win their approval.10 Negative behavior that interferes with positive relationships with loved ones might involve passive-aggressive behavior, clinginess, false compliments, approval-seeking, boasting, constant explaining, or frequent check-ins to see if others are angry or otherwise upset with you.
Types of Self-Sabotage
There are different types of self-sabotage, including procrastination, perfectionism, self-criticism, resisting change, and poor self-care. Ultimately, it’s a very common human behavior—but like humans, it has variations. Whatever form your self-sabotage takes, it is possible to overcome the behaviors that are preventing you from achieving your life goals.
Here are five types of self-sabotage:
Procrastination involves stalling rather than immediately diving into a project.3,8 Delaying action and engaging in distractions helps people avoid stress, anxiety, or otherwise emotionally uncomfortable situations, even though they might ultimately lead to growth.1 Learning how to overcome procrastination can help stop this form of self-sabotage.
Perfectionism is a need for everything to be completely perfect, and it can be self-defeating.11 An intense sense of perfectionism prevents people from advancing in their career or enjoying satisfying, long-term relationships because it sets an impossibly high standard.3,8 Perfectionism at work or school can prevent people from taking necessary risks or even completing projects. Thankfully, there are ways to overcome perfectionism.
Negative self-talk and harsh self-criticism can affect our actions and prevent us from meeting our goals.5 It’s frequently automatic, running through our minds unchecked as an instant reaction to ourselves, others, and the situations we encounter every day. Listening to harsh self-criticism is a form of self-sabotage because doing so prevents us from believing that we have what it takes to achieve our goals.8
4. Resisting Change
Uncertainty intolerance is an underlying form of anxiety, and resisting change can keep people trapped in their comfort zone.12 It involves clinging to old habits, making excuses (such as being too busy), making goals without taking the proper steps to meet them, or avoiding goal-setting altogether.11 Resistance to change prevents people from healthy risk-taking or trying new things that could lead to growth.
5. Poor Self-Care
Not taking proper care of yourself is a form of self-sabotage that can prevent you from thriving. This includes poor eating habits, lack of sleep, not exercising, or avoiding visits with a doctor or therapist for physical and mental health challenges. It can also involve engaging in risky behaviors like self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, comfort eating, gambling or risky sex.1,3,11
How to Stop Self-Sabotaging: 8 Tips
Self-sabotage isn’t an inherent part of your character, nor does it define who you are or erase your strengths and talents; therefore, it is possible to replace self-sabotage with self-advancement. Start simple and gradually add on more methods of self-advancement until your inner critic is no longer preventing you from success and happiness.
Here are eight tips to stop self-sabotaging:
1. Boost Your Self-Awareness
Spend time in self-reflection to increase your self-awareness of your own self-sabotaging.1,2,3,4,5,7 Try journaling regularly to document your behaviors and thought patterns and see if you can identify where they are coming from. Pause several times throughout the day to check in with yourself. As you develop insight about yourself, you can become more intentional about where you need to make changes.
2. Look Before You Leap
This old proverb holds wisdom for modern-day self-sabotagers. As you begin to notice negative behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, ask yourself whether these habits are helping you or hurting you. Often, we feel pressured to do something (or avoid doing something) out of fear, so taking a moment to decide if something will hold you back or move you forward can prevent self-sabotage.10
3. Set Meaningful Goals & Pair Them With an Action Plan
Meaningful goals help you live with intention. Even more powerful, pair meaningful goals with specific actions.1,3,8,13 Consider your deepest values when setting your goals. What do you want more of in your life? What creates a sense of meaning and purpose? What makes you feel energized and alive? Then, decide what small steps you can take to move you toward a goal.
4. Make Small Changes
Positive action certainly beats self-defeating action, but remember that habits are most effectively changed in small steps.3,4,14 Think in terms of making incremental change. Replace one thought or behavior every day and give yourself time to make that change a habit.
5. Befriend Yourself
The inner critic is a primary factor underlying self-sabotage; therefore, replacing automatic, self-critical thoughts with more nurturing ones is a crucial step in stopping self-sabotage.3,7,15 Develop a gentle, accepting attitude toward yourself by acknowledging your emotions and accepting past mistakes as part of the human experience.
6. Know & Embrace Your Strengths
Everyone has character strengths that can help them thrive once identified, acknowledged, and embraced. Reflect on your strengths, identifying not just things you do well but attitudes you hold dear and positive emotions you experience. When do you feel your best? Knowing your strengths and finding ways to use these strengths—at least one every day can help you develop self-love.16
7. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a way of life that involves being fully present and grounded in each moment. It helps you separate the past from the present as well as thoughts from reality.7 This, in turn, helps you choose how to respond to a problematic situation or person.
8. Work With a Mental Health Therapist
A therapist can gently guide you toward a deeper self-understanding. They also provide tips and strategies for facing down self-sabotaging thoughts and finding ways to booster your emotional self care. Find a therapist you feel comfortable with, and begin the process of transforming your life.
Types of therapy for self-sabotage are:
- Behavior and motivational therapy1
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Mindfulness-based therapies
- Strengths-based therapies
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
Why Do People Self-Sabotage?
Self-sabotaging behaviors are usually driven by fear, which can give rise to toxic perfectionism or habitual procrastination.8 This drives anxiety and leads people to think in terms of what-ifs and worst-case scenarios.6 Distorted beliefs about ourselves, others, and/or the world can drive people to avoid emotional pain like rejection and failure.1
A harsh inner critic can also cause people to engage in unproductive actions or avoid taking positive action.2 Distorted beliefs develop in part from our inherent negativity bias.17 Our brain vigilantly looks for potential problems in order to keep us safe from any type of harm. Therefore, often without fully realizing it, we watch for trouble, hold on to old problems, and imagine new difficulties as a way of staving off physical or emotional damage.
This sense of danger in the world sometimes stems from childhood (or more recent) trauma, unstable family relationships, or unhealthy attachment patterns. Such negative experiences can cause fear of abandonment and rejection as well as a diminished sense of safety and security that contributes to self-sabotaging behaviors.7
When to Seek Professional Help for Self-Sabotage
If you find yourself caught in a cycle of self-sabotaging beliefs and behaviors, working with a mental health professional can help. With the guidance of a therapist, you can uncover the core beliefs that are leading to self-sabotage and learn tools and strategies to work past them. Consider using an online directory to find the right therapist for you.
Final Thoughts on Self-Sabotaging
Self-sabotage isn’t a character flaw; it is nothing more than a set of behaviors, usually arising out of fear-based negative beliefs, that is preventing you from achieving your goals in one or more areas. Be patient with yourself and reach out for professional help if you feel stuck. The life you envision is within your reach.
For Further Reading
- Considering getting support from a therapist? Check out our review of the best online therapy options out there today.
- Best Self Help Books for Men
- Best Self Help Books for Women