Why We Self-Sabotage and How To Stop the Cycle (2023)

Self-sabotaging behavior refers to intentional action (or inaction) that undermines people's progress and prevents them from accomplishing their goals. Self-sabotage occurs when people hinder their own success.

While it seems surprising, some people undermine their own good intentions and long-term goals. When people take these destructive steps, their harmful behavior can negatively impact nearly every part of their lives including their relationships and career.

This article discusses why people engage in self-sabotaging behaviors and provides some examples of self-sabotage. It also explores steps you can take to stop undermining your own success.

What Causes Self-Sabotaging Behavior?

People thwart their progress for a variety of reasons. They may consciously or unconsciously commit acts of self-sabotage. The causes range from childhood issues to prior relationship effects. Other reasons for this type of destructive behavior vary from low self-esteem and coping problems to problems with cognitive dissonance, which will be explained below.

Self-sabotage often serves as a coping mechanism that people use to deal with stressful situations and past traumas. Unfortunately, it typically makes problems worse and limits a person's ability to successfully move forward in a healthy way.

Conscious and Unconscious Self-Sabotaging

People who self-sabotage might be aware of their actions. For example, someone who's overweight and on a diet might consciously sabotage their good efforts by eating a whole carton of ice cream.

Or they might unconsciously act. A person misses a work deadline. On the surface, it seems like he was running late. But the truth is he’s afraid of failure. He self-sabotages by missing the due date, thus he thwarts his goal to move up in the company.

Difficult Childhood

Growing up in a dysfunctional family can contribute to your acts of self-sabotage. Without a secure attachment style, you might have an ambivalent or avoidant attachment style. Our earliest engagement with caregivers affects how we connect to others.

If your parents told you growing up that you’ll never amount to much, maybe you handicap yourself so that you do fall short.

Difficulty in Relationships

If your ex constantly put you down, you might still feel vulnerable. Maybe they said they were wasting time trying to move forward with someone like you.

Now you’re in a great relationship, but you cheat on your partner. Or break up for no reason. You don’t feel good enough or you fear getting hurt again.

Based on one study on self-sabotage, 15 psychologists specializing in romantic relationships in Australia identified the main issues for the prevalence of self-sabotage in romantic relationships.

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Reasons included:

  • Insecure attachment styles
  • Low self-esteem
  • Fear of getting hurt
  • Fear of commitment
  • Unhealthy relationship beliefs
  • Coping problems when it comes to matters of the heart

Recovering From the Fear of Vulnerability

Low Self-Esteem

People with a negative self-image and low self-esteem are especially vulnerable to self-sabotaging. They behave in ways that confirm negative beliefs about themselves. So, if they are close to succeeding, they become uncomfortable.

They’ve been told all their lives that they’ll fail. Or sometimes they told themselves all their lives that they’d fail. Self-sabotaging behavior help ensure that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Cognitive Dissonance

People showing this behavior struggle with cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort you may have holding two conflicting ideas at the same time. Human beings like to have consistency between their beliefs and actions.

For example, you are marrying someone great, but you come from a dysfunctional family. Your dad left, and your mother went from one abusive relationship to another. You, therefore, don’t believe in a stable, loving marriage. Yet, you are continuing to plan the wedding and send invitations.

Here’s a work-related example: You are about to land a great client and earn more money than ever before. Rather than do what it takes to propel yourself forward, you hold back because you don’t feel worthy.

So, you get drunk the night before the client meeting and miss it entirely. Rather than move ahead, you take actions to screw things up for yourself.

Self-sabotaging can lead to chronic struggles with food, liquor, drugs, gambling, and self-injury. This destructive behavior can also strip people of their motivation and make them anxious.

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5 Ways You May Be Making Things Harder for Yourself

Examples of Self-Sabotaging Behavior

Mental health practitioners have identified common examples of the ways people self-sabotage. Three easy-to-identify examples include procrastination, perfectionism, and self-medication.


People who self-sabotage often procrastinate. Procrastination is a way you show others you’re never ready and put off a good outcome. It’s because people fear disappointing others, failing, or succeeding.


Holding oneself to an impossible standard will cause delays and setbacks. While it seems like a positive strategy to aim for things to go as planned without a hitch, perfectionism hampers success.

When something does go wrong, as it inevitably will, perfectionists come undone. They end up feeling ashamed. Prone to depression, they feel like they are letting everyone down.

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Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring actor Ethan Suplee, shares how to overcome self-loathing and self-sabotaging behavior. Click below to listen now.

Why We Self-Sabotage and How To Stop the Cycle (1)

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To deal with the constant battle between wanting to be successful and the script that plays in their brains saying they can’t be, many soothe themselves through drugs, alcohol, and self-injury.

How to Stop Self-Sabotaging

If you're working with a therapist or counselor, your best advice is to look to them for guidance. If you want some pointers on how to cease this negative behavior, here are some things you should consider to prevent you from causing more harm.

Examine the Root Causes

Look for patterns in your life. Have you been prone to thwart your good efforts repeatedly? Did these acts occur before you were about to succeed or when you were close to achieving your personal desires?

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As mentioned, this behavior may stem from childhood. Some parents, either knowing no better or afraid that their children will be disappointed, tell their kids not to think big. Maybe they said, “Who are you to believe you can go to college? You need to work like the rest of us.”

Stop Procrastinating

Common behavior exhibited by those who self-sabotage is procrastination. If you keep putting something off what’s important to you, it might be easier emotionally than reaching a goal that you were told you’d never reach.

The mismatch between where you’re at and what was drilled into your head for years might cause you incredible discomfort. So, you self-sabotage.

One study was conducted on student procrastination in academic environments. Scientists found one common factor in procrastination involved a lack of self-regulation. This is due to students having a large degree of freedom, temptations, and distractions, and long deadlines.

Peer influence or social factors also influenced procrastination. Finally, a lack of skills in the area of study skills also contributed to procrastination.

Stop Looking Solely at the Big Picture

When you shoot for something big, like becoming a top salesperson where you work, a giant goal can feel overwhelming.

To prevent acts of self-sabotage, don’t get hung up on minutiae. Those who self-sabotage sometimes waste lots of time on unimportant details.

Another example: If you’re trying to get healthy, don’t make all-or-nothing decisions. Don't throw in the towel if you miss the gym one week. Start back the next.

Make small incremental changes and act on them slowly. This way, you might prevent your sabotaging mind from putting on the brakes. Take more bite-sized actions that won’t derail you.

Stop Perfectionistic Thinking

Self-sabotaging people are often perfectionists. Maybe you overthink every detail, and everything has to be just right.

Aim to strive for excellence, not perfection. Make small improvements and note progress on the way toward accomplishing the desired goal.

Remember That Self-Sabotaging Takes Work

This negative behavior is time-consuming and takes a lot of work. Recent research shows that self-handicapping is resource-demanding.

(Video) How To Break The Cycle Of Self-Sabotage

A study by researchers at Indiana University reported in theJournal of Experimental Social Psychology counterintuitive results. Early birds self-sabotage more in the morning and night owls self-sabotage more at night.

That means they undermined their performances not when they were tired, but when they had peak cognitive resources at their disposal. It, therefore, takes a lot of energy to continue this behavior, and it leads to maladaptive outcomes.

Questions to Ask Yourself

If you think you self-sabotage, ask yourself:

  • Is your behavior aligning with your goals?
  • If not, what is stopping you from taking action to make your dreams come true?
  • Is your behavior aligning with values that you currently believe?
  • If not, what is stopping you from taking actions that align with these values?
  • Do you feel uneasiness or discomfort when you progress? If yes, dig deeper:
  • Is this discomfort based on what others told you that limited your aspirations?
  • Is this discomfort based on a fear of failure and worry about looking foolish?
  • Is this unease based on a fear of success?
  • Are you concerned with achieving more than you thought possible?
  • If you do better or achieve more, do you believe success is more than you deserve?

What Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Treatment for Self-Sabotaging

Those who self-handicap may have a hard time regulating their emotions and behaviors. Behavioral dysregulation and emotional dysregulation are often caused by childhood trauma or neglect. This dysregulation can foster harmful reactions.

People who self-sabotage can find help for various problems, including alcohol and drug abuse, binge eating, angry outbursts, and self-harm.

The following therapies have also helped those who self-sabotage:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) uses techniques effective in relieving cognitive distortions. Using these techniques helps you replace negative thought patterns and improve your overall well-being.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) works well on problems that involve intense emotions. This could encompass impulsive behaviors, impulse control issues, and difficulties getting along with other people. You’ll learn to regulate your emotions better with this method.

Online therapy is available using various modalities. Seek out a therapist in your area to guide you.

Friday Fix: How to Stop Sabotaging Yourself


Why do I self-sabotage and how can I stop? ›

It often stems from low self-esteem, negative self-talk, and related negative emotions, which are continually reinforced by the resulting failure. You can beat self-sabotage by monitoring your behaviors, feelings, thoughts, and beliefs about yourself, and challenging them when they stand between you and your goals.

What is self-sabotaging a symptom of? ›

Behavioral dysregulation and emotional dysregulation are often caused by childhood trauma or neglect. This dysregulation can foster harmful reactions. People who self-sabotage can find help for various problems, including alcohol and drug abuse, binge eating, angry outbursts, and self-harm.

What are the roots of self-sabotage? ›

There are many reasons for self-sabotage, but three of the most important ones involve your thinking patterns, fears you may have in intimate relationships, and the tendency to avoid things that are difficult or uncomfortable.

What is at the core of self-sabotage? ›

Behavior is said to be self-sabotaging when it creates problems in daily life and interferes with long-standing goals. The most common self-sabotaging behaviors include procrastination, self-medication with drugs or alcohol, comfort eating, and forms of self-injury such as cutting.

How do you overcome subconscious self-sabotage? ›

Get in the habit of making active decisions to practice acceptance and self-care (1). Pinpoint your habits that lead to the self-sabotaging behaviour. Find an outlet for all the uncomfortable feelings that may come up for you. Talking therapy and mindfulness can be very helpful tools in this regard (5).

Does anxiety cause self-sabotage? ›

Why Anxiety Causes You to Self-Sabotage. When you struggle with chronic anxiety, so many decisions are driven by fear rather than rational thinking. As I've become increasingly familiar with my anxiety triggers and actions that follow, I've also become increasingly familiar with my behaviors that self-sabotage.

Is self-sabotage bipolar? ›

If you're living with self-loathing, you're not alone. It's a common symptom of bipolar disorder, particularly during a depressive episode. While self-loathing may impact your everyday life, it's possible to manage this symptom with psychotherapy, journaling exercises, and self-care strategies.

What are examples of self sabotaging behaviors? ›

7 Common Self-Sabotaging Behaviors
  • Procrastination. Procrastination, or putting something off and making excuses, is a common self-sabotaging behavior. ...
  • Courting Temptation. ...
  • Reprioritization. ...
  • Self-Medication. ...
  • Perfectionism. ...
  • Defensiveness.
Oct 7, 2022

Can trauma cause self sabotaging? ›

Post-traumatic and dissociative symptoms fly under the radar, and the enactments of those issues in personal relationships, self-care, and professional life are attributed to other factors—often reinforcing self-blame, self-defeating patterns, and the tendency to push others away.

What are the three types of sabotages? ›

These were:
  • destruction: where action involved the destruction and mutilation of the work environment;
  • inaction: where as a result of deliberate inaction predictable destruction occurred; and.
  • wastage: where deliberate action led to the wastage of, for example, raw materials.

Is self sabotaging a symptom of depression? ›

These self-sabotaging behaviours can become the norm for people who struggle with Mental Health, but they can be more extreme and more damaging. Self-sabotaging has been a part of my life with depression for as long as I can remember.

How do I detox my subconscious mind? ›

8 Ways to Give Your Mind a Deep Cleaning
  1. Be mindful.
  2. Start writing.
  3. Put on music.
  4. Get some sleep.
  5. Take a walk.
  6. Tidy up.
  7. Unfocus.
  8. Talk about it.
Nov 10, 2020

Is self-sabotage a symptom of ADHD? ›

When people with ADHD are activated, they are often plagued by self-sabotaging, negative internal talk that prevents them from believing they can do things. It can be conscious or unconscious and can keep folks from setting, working towards, and reaching goals. It holds them back from doing what they want to do.

What mental illness sabotages relationships? ›

Borderline personality disorder, often called BPD, is a personality disorder marked by fear of abandonment and rejection, unstable relationships, mood swings, and impulsive behavior, among many other BPD symptoms.

Why do I self-sabotage every relationship? ›

Conversations with psychologists confirmed that the main reason why people sabotage their relationships (knowingly or unknowingly) is fear – fear of getting hurt, fear of intimacy, and fear of rejection. Another important finding was related to self-esteem.

Why do I subconsciously ruin things? ›

Self-sabotage can come from fear of failure, of rejection, of not meeting your own and others' expectations, and becomes a way to preserve yourself from pain and disappointment.

Is self sabotaging a mental health issue? ›

Borderline personality disorder causes a broad range of reactions that can be considered self-destructive or self-sabotaging. It influences thoughts, emotions, behavior, and communication, adding a degree of volatility and unpredictability to daily living that can be unsettling for BPD sufferers and their loved ones.

Is self-sabotage a defense mechanism? ›

Although self-sabotage looks negative, it actually started as a protective mechanism to keep us safe from any potential danger or harm. For our minds, what is familiar is considered safe, so any attempt to let go of the familiar and embrace the unfamiliar might trigger self-sabotaging mechanisms.

Why do people try to sabotage? ›

Some of the most common reasons include: They're envious of your accomplishments. They feel threatened by you. They're trying to protect themselves by making you look bad.

Is self sabotaging subconscious? ›

Self-sabotage is when we do something that gets in the way of our intent, or of our bigger dreams and goals. We want something, but somehow we never accomplish it. Your subconscious views self-sabotage as self-preservation: Safeguard and defend yourself even if it's no longer needed.

What causes self sabotaging behavior in relationships? ›

Conversations with psychologists confirmed that the main reason why people sabotage their relationships (knowingly or unknowingly) is fear – fear of getting hurt, fear of intimacy, and fear of rejection. Another important finding was related to self-esteem.

Is self sabotaging a symptom of anxiety? ›

When you struggle with chronic anxiety, so many decisions are driven by fear rather than rational thinking. As I've become increasingly familiar with my anxiety triggers and actions that follow, I've also become increasingly familiar with my behaviors that self-sabotage.


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