Sabotage – Why You Hold Yourself Back & How to Stop

What is Self Sabotage? | Causes & Signs | Overcoming it | Self Therapy

Self-sabotage is when we actively or passively take an action that prevents a positive outcome.

We may become so used to behaving in this way that we are no longer aware of the negative impact this is having on our relationships, career, and personal goals.

Self-sabotage affects mental health and can manifest itself in many ways, including addiction to drugs, alcohol, and food, anger and attitude problems, procrastination, disorganization and more.

Self-sabotage becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as we deliberately prevent ourselves from achieving positive outcomes, and in the process reinforce a lack of self-belief.

This self-destructive behavior impacts self-esteem, self-confidence, and our overall life experience.

The way out of self-sabotage is to recognize when it is occurring and why. Once we understand this, we can begin to work on reinforcing positive behaviors that replace self-sabotage.

Let’s explore some of the reasons we self-sabotage and why we do it.

7 Ways We Self-Sabotage & Why

1. A Need for Control

One of the most common reasons for self-sabotage is the need for control.

If you have past trauma stemming from a situation that you were unable to control, you may well have developed a coping mechanism in which you try to control every situation you are in.

Being in control helps you feel safe and secure, as opposed to feeling vulnerable and weak, as you did in that past.

However, while you might feel safe and secure, your need for control means that you pass up opportunities, that you don’t push boundaries and seek to fulfill your potential in different areas of life. You are essentially limiting your life experience.

For example: You may avoid opening yourself up emotionally in friendships and intimate relationships because you fear getting hurt. You may feel that opening yourself up means giving someone else the opportunity to hurt you.

It may even be the case that you subconsciously feel that giving someone else the opportunity to understand you on a deeper level may result in them not liking you as much as they do now. Instead, you think it’s better to remain a closed book, a little elusive and more in control of what someone else knows about you and how close they get to you.

In reality, though, this isn’t good for your emotional health or the health of your relationships. You aren’t giving yourself the opportunity to build intimacy through vulnerability, which is what brings two people closer together.

2. Fear of Failure

Another driver of self-sabotage is the fear of failure. Rather than risk the possibility of failing, you don’t even try.

You may deliberately avoid pathways in life that require you to learn a new skill or take on responsibility.

This may stem from childhood trauma. Perhaps you grew up with pushy parents with high expectations that you were never able to meet, which made you feel inadequate and that you were destined to be a disappointment.

Perhaps you used to be quite fearless and confident but had a bad accident or particular incident where you didn’t meet your own expectations, and that caused deep-seated emotional trauma.

Fear of failure is a common theme in many people’s lives and what holds them back from exploring their potential.

Life examples:

Many people fear job interviews and the rejection that may arise as a result. Instead, they suffer in a job for many years that they don’t like and makes them unhappy.

Some people pass up the opportunity to have children because they believe they won’t be a good parent, despite being a responsible and kind human being.

Those who suffer from fear of failure may sabotage potentially positive outcomes before a situation has even occurred.

For example: You might avoid getting into an intimate relationship because you believe it is destined to fail and that success isn’t something you deserve.

You may find yourself saying things like “it wouldn’t work anyway”, “it’s too good to be true”. “I’ve been there before and look how that turned out!”

You may apply these phrases to any bit of good luck or potential opportunity that comes your way.

The reality of fear of failure is that those who fear failure are more likely to fail, not just because of self-sabotage but because thinking negatively only seeks to breed more negativity.

Life is a series of peaks and troughs and we will have varying success across a range of different life areas. That success is dependent on many factors, some of which we can’t control. However, the worst thing we can do is not make the most of opportunity by not even trying.

3. Procrastination

I doubt there’s an adult on Earth who hasn’t found themselves putting off an important task because they can’t face up to doing it.

Procrastination is simply subtle avoidance. When we lack the motivation and inspiration to do something we will find any excuse to put it off.

When we procrastinate, we turn our energy to something else that needs doing but isn’t as urgent. It still needs doing though, so it justifies our avoidance of the more important task.

For example: Writing this article is taking a lot of effort.

It’s a nice day and I’d much rather go outside and water the garden, go for a run, or play the piano.

But I’ve wanted to write this article for a long time, so I’m pushing myself to do it.

It’s not easy, but the reward of being able to share it with my readers is the motivation I need.

However, when you keep putting things off you get used to resisting the motivation and inspiration and begin to prefer the ease of avoidance. While it feels good in the short-term, procrastination becomes a habit and your life begins to stagnate.

Serial procrastination typically has one of the following underlying causes:

  1. Poor time management
  2. Lack of confidence in ability
  3. Feeling overwhelmed by what needs doing
  4. Depression, stress, or anxiety
  5. Lack of inspiration

4. Difficulty Expressing Yourself

Many of us find it hard to talk about our feelings, particularly if they relate to past trauma that arouses negative feelings from the past.

But bottling up emotions can cause anger management issues and affect relationships.

You may find you are irritable and easily angered, that you pick fights with your partner over silly things like him/her leaving the cap off the toothpaste or leaving a mess in the living room.

You may find that you are easily offended and can’t take a joke, and that you are passive aggressive or overly sarcastic.

Because of your internal unhappiness, you may constantly pick holes in others. In doing so you harm your happiness and risk losing relationships with your friends and family.

Of course, the only way out of this cycle of self-sabotage is to communicate, to open up to those you love and care about and tell them how you are feeling.

You can also miss out on rewarding experiences by not being able to communicate and express yourself. He who dares wins, as the saying goes. If you don’t participate then you can’t win the prize!

5. Blame & Excuses

A common trait of those who self-sabotage is blaming others for the difficulties you face, and making excuses for your procrastination, disorganization, and lack of pro-action.

Because you are sabotaging your life, you are likely to face questions from friends and family who want to know why. They want to know why you haven’t tried, why you haven’t taken a simple action that would benefit your life, or gone the extra yard to make the most of an opportunity.

To deflect uncomfortable conversations and the truth surfacing, you will seek to blame the behavior of others. You will invent excuses as to why you couldn’t make a positive decision or take action, but ultimately you are self-sabotaging and missing out your chance to grow from experience.

For example: You might use every excuse under the sun to avoid studying for a test because you are fearful of putting the effort in and still failing.

By taking this approach, if you do fail the test, you have numerous excuses as to why you didn’t pass: “I was too busy and had no time to prepare”. “The workload was too much for me”. “Other people have had more time to study than me”. “My computer is too slow”. The list goes on…

If you tend to find fault elsewhere whenever you face difficulties, you need to take a closer look at the part you played in what happened.

6. Walking Away When Things Get Tough

Life isn’t all plain sailing. Sometimes we need to go the extra mile and even suffer a little to get the outcome we desire. It’s a fine balance at times.

Sure, walk away from situations that make you emotionally and physically unwell, but if you’re quitting too soon then you are sabotaging opportunity.

If you find yourself leaving a job as soon as the workload gets a little heavier, or your boss expects better quality work, it might be time to question whether you are underachieving and missing out on better opportunities because you don’t want to challenge yourself.

Perhaps you’re afraid of conflict or criticism, perhaps you lack confidence in your ability. Perhaps you are used to being lazy and getting what you want with little effort. Whatever the reason, working through challenging circumstances is essential for personal growth.

7. Dating The Wrong People

Why do some people always date the wrong people?

You probably know someone who goes from one bad relationship to another. Rather than analyze the previous relationship and work out what they don’t want in the next one, they choose the exact same type of person and get the same outcome.

Self-sabotage in relationships is common but often complex, and low self-esteem and confidence play a big role.

Deep down you may believe you aren’t worthy of better, and that a positive, happy relationship is something that happens to other people.

Or perhaps you have a warped view of a “normal relationship” due to childhood influences, and as such you attract partners with similar negative traits to the adults that you were around as a child.

Most of us know what it is like to have stuck around in a relationship too long, trying to make things work when it’s clear that you’re two different people heading in different directions.

The problem is that we have an emotional attachment to what the relationship was like previously, and so living through those “good time” memories sabotages our future happiness.

You may find that you keep getting into relationships where your partner is only interested in sex and not commitment. You say you understand and accept the arrangement but in the back of your mind you hold onto the belief that this person will fall in love with you and make a long-term commitment.

Fooling yourself in this way ultimately hurts your self-esteem and impacts your emotional stability. The longer you stay in such relationships the more you sabotage the chance of finding a positive relationship that reflects your values.

Overcoming Self-Sabotage

We all self-sabotage to some degree at different times in our lives, and no doubt you recognize yourself in some of the aforementioned areas. I know I do.

Like most emotional problems the root cause stems from past trauma, often from childhood experiences. This is because the patterns laid down in our earliest relationships often repeat in relationships throughout life.

We become attached to the ways in which we behave and find it hard to let them go. It can be difficult to break out of the same destructive patterns.

Entwined within these behaviors are coping mechanisms that give us a sense of safety and stability, but in reality they eventually cause the opposite.

For example: You may ruin relationships because you use aggression to deal with difficult situations.

This may be your default behavioral response based on what you saw your parents do as a child. Or perhaps you grew up in a big family with many siblings, and bad behavior was the only way you could get attention.

Conversely, because of an abusive relationship where your thoughts and feelings weren’t considered, you may struggle to speak up or defend yourself in your present relationships.


In my experience, the first step in curing self-sabotage is self-therapy.

Start an honest dialogue with yourself.

Instead of reacting to life on auto-pilot, consider your actions and objectively question if your decisions have your best interests at heart, and whether the outcomes are likely to be beneficial.

The way I do self-therapy is to literally talk to myself. In fact, my wife often asks “Who are you talking to”.

I will analyze and work through past events and current situations. It’s a great way to identify how your actions and mindset have led to certain outcomes and pathways.

Once you begin to understand yourself better you will feel more confident communicating your thoughts and feelings with others.

It goes without saying that counseling and one-to-one therapy is also hugely valuable, especially if you are dealing with deep-rooted trauma that you find difficult to address. But self-therapy is a good place to start.

The important thing is that you make a conscious decision to address your self-sabotage and the areas in which it is occurring. Start to become mindful of your life’s trajectory. Taking control of your actions is empowering and will build self-confidence.

How to Get Started

There’s no better time than the present to start making change.

tart your self-therapy now with these questions (use a notepad or device to jot down your answers):

  • What areas of your life are you happy/unhappy in?
  • Are you stuck in repetitive cycles of negative behavior? If so, what are they?
  • Are you living the life you want to live or are others dictating the pace?
  • Are you in control of your decision making or are past experiences dictating your behaviors and outcomes?
  • Do you feel ready to make change in your life?
  • Is it about time you opened up and started talking about your thoughts and feelings with close family, friends, or a therapist?

Self-sabotage can be destructive, but it’s also something you can address, sole, and expel from your life.

If you need any further advice, please leave your comments or questions below.


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