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Think back for a moment to a goal you’ve set for yourself over the past few months.
Maybe it’s that New Year’s resolution to lose 20 pounds or your goal to save money so you can take a trip or complete some of your other goals this summer. No matter what your recent goal was, are you making measurable progress?
If your answer is no, think about what went wrong.
Was it time that stood in your way of succeeding? Or maybe other things in your life took priority?
Or, have you ever considered that it may be your own actions that are preventing you from achieving your goals?
No matter what you want to initially blame your lack of success on, if that little devil on your shoulder always seems to have the final say, there’s a good chance you’re engaging in self-sabotaging behavior. Ask yourself:
Be honest. If you relate to some of these questions, it’s possible that you’re sabotaging your own success.
In this article, we are going to look at what it means to self-sabotage and why people tend to act in this self-limiting way. Then we will look at 5 actionable steps that you can take starting today to put an end to these harmful actions.
But first, let's look at what it means to sabotage yourself in the first place so we will know what we’re trying to tackle.
What You Will Learn
- What Does It Mean to Self-Sabotage?
- Why Do People Sabotage Themselves?
- 5 Ways to Stop Your Self Sabotaging Behavior
- Final Thoughts on How to Stop Self-Sabotaging Behavior
What Does It Mean to Self-Sabotage?
Self-sabotage refers to when people act in ways or display behaviors that undermine their larger goals. You can tell this is happening if there is something that you ultimately want to achieve, but somehow you’re never quite able to get there.
This type of behavior can have a negative impact on almost every part of your life, both personally and professionally. This damaging behavior is common and it becomes a cycle of habits that make you feel like you’re not good enough for the things that you want. People self-sabotage for endless reasons, but many of them begin with having a lack of self-confidence.
You may be aware of your self-sabotaging behaviors, or you may be doing them unconsciously. Perhaps you know what you need to do to work toward your goal, but you decide to sit down and scroll through social media instead. This would be a conscious form of self-sabotage.
But, let’s say you are afraid of failing at work and therefore you do things to stand in the way of getting promoted, such as turning work in late or taking excessive time off during important times of the year. This may be an unconscious way to prevent your boss from giving you more responsibilities at work (and therefore more opportunities to fail).
There are a lot of examples of self-sabotaging behaviors, such as:
While we all may engage in these behaviors from time to time, if actions such as these start to interfere with achieving your goals, you’re likely sabotaging your own success.
Let’s take a look at why people would stand in their own way of reaching their goals.
Why Do People Sabotage Themselves?
It’s important to know that there isn’t one single reason why people sabotage themselves. This could happen for several reasons, but in the end, your subconscious likely views these behaviors as being a form of self-preservation.
Sometimes the ways in which we sabotage ourselves are big and pretty obvious, while at other times, the actions are so subtle that they can easily be missed. But either way, it's often our mind's way of defending us.
Here are some root causes of this behavior:
A need for control: People like to feel in control. If you accept failure before you even try, you feel like you have control–despite the fact that failure is not the outcome you truly want.
Lack of self-worth: If you don't believe you're worthy of achieving the things that you go after, you will live out a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without self-confidence, you probably tell yourself that you're not good enough or smart enough to achieve your goals, and then you act accordingly. You won't be able to live up to your potential if you're constantly convincing yourself that you can't.
The blame game: If you believe you're going to fail, your actions will follow suit, but you may have a tendency to blame that on something or someone else. If you think you won't earn the employee of the month award because you're not personally close with the director like other employees are, you're placing blame on other people and denying responsibility for achieving your goal. Then when you don't get the award, you won't be surprised because you already decided that would be the outcome, but you can transfer blame to someone else. It's easier to justify a lack of effort if you're defeated in the first place.
Fear of failure: If you give your full effort toward achieving your goal and you still fail, that offers some proof that you may need to go back and adjust your goal. But if you don't try your hardest and then you fail, you’ll know that you left some effort on the table, so you will have a reason to assign to your failure. It's much easier to fail if you can explain it away– even when you do accept responsibility. This cause of self-sabotage is especially overwhelming.
Fear of success: You may struggle with the idea of imposter syndrome, should you succeed. If you had to work at 100% to achieve your goal, will you fail if you fall back to 95% at some point? You may worry that you really aren’t qualified therefore will eventually be “exposed” as a fraud. Because of this, you may start to do things that prevent you from achieving your goal once the end is in sight.
Now, if you know you sabotage yourself, but you can’t see, to relate to any of these potential reasons behind this behavior, it may be a good idea to seek the advice of a licensed professional.
It’s not always simple to recognize some automated behaviors that have gone on for years. So if you have tried to negate these patterns in the past and it hasn’t worked, getting therapy could be a viable option.
There could easily be something present that you don’t see at first, but someone else could help you identify. Therapy may be especially helpful for self-sabotaging behaviors because you could subconsciously start to sabotage your therapy process–which will quickly be caught on by any good therapist, and they could then bring that issue to the surface.
Now that we know why some people exhibit self-sabotaging behaviors, let's take a look at what we can do to stop them.
5 Ways to Stop Your Self Sabotaging Behavior
1. Ask Yourself: “What’s the Point?”
In order to stop engaging in unhealthy behavior, you have to identify its function in your life.
One thing that self-sabotagers have in common is that they’ve learned that whatever negative behavior they exhibit works well to achieve their desired outcome. However, while it may be a quick-fix, it has the opposite impact in the long run.
For example, let’s say that your boss decides to challenge all employees over the next month to secure as many new clients as they can. Whoever builds the largest network gets recognition and a bonus. The idea of this friendly competition makes you nervous because you know you can do well, but you’re scared you’re going to give it your all and then come in second, third, or worse.
So, you decide to take a trip in the middle of the month to use up some of your ever-accruing PTO. But your “ducking out” on the competition also results in losing 25% of the time you had to build your group of clients.
So when the results were announced and your co-worker took the prize, you told yourself it was ok because you had missed a huge chunk of time due to your impromptu vacation.
In this example, you effectively dodged losing fair and square to other employees. But, in the long-run, you missed an opportunity to get any kind of recognition for your hard work, and allowed other people to shine in the spotlight when the boss was looking. This put other people in the front of the line for future promotions.
Because self-sabotage “works” effectively to serve some purpose in your life, this should act as a starting line to stop these behaviors. You just have to identify what that purpose is and then come up with healthier alternative behaviors to serve that same purpose. You won’t be able to stop sabotaging yourself until you can meet that identified need in some other way.
In this case, you’d be trying to avoid losing by taking yourself out of the running. Some ideas for overcoming this fear would be to change your perspective of the situation. Rather than seeing a loss as a complete failure, look at it as an opportunity to reveal your true character as a leader. Be a role model for the other employees who didn’t get the prize and show some self-control and grace.
So take the time to engage in some self-reflection so you can think through your decisions and behaviors. This is the only way you will get the necessary information to start the process of personal transformation.
2. Learn to Be Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
In order to learn any new behaviors, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. And this goes for learning how to replace your self-sabotaging behaviors with new healthy behaviors.
To learn how to be comfortable outside of your comfort zone, start small. Figure out what emotion you’re trying to avoid and be mindful the next time that emotion surfaces. Once you feel it, sit with it for a bit instead of looking for an instant way out. Be mindful of your passing thoughts and the physical reaction going on in your body. Let yourself feel it for a few moments.
Keep doing this every time you feel this emotion–each time for a bit longer than the last. Once you’ve been able to come up with an alternative behavior to replace your former self-sabotaging acts, try to make it a habit to turn to that behavior instead.
And keep in mind that you’re not wrong for feeling whatever you’re feeling. While emotions may feel uncomfortable, they’re not going to hurt you or put you in danger. Being afraid of rejection is normal–I think everyone would want to avoid this feeling. It becomes a problem when your actions in response to potentially feeling this emotional pain cause you to miss out on better things in the long run, like promotions, relationships, or new opportunities.
If you can accept the reality of potential failure and view it as an opportunity, you will be able to live a happier life than if you were to live out your days in fear.
3. Define Your Values
When you clearly define your values–the things that matter the most to you—and then link your healthy actions and behaviors to them, you will be less likely to sabotage your success.
But there is a key to defining your values. You have to move beyond the overarching values that so many people have (think: health, family, time, etc.) and connect something personal with each value to make it more motivating to you.
So let’s go back to the self-sabotaging behavior of taking a vacation to avoid potential feelings of failure at work. This may mean that you value success, as many people do. And we can say the alternative behavior you’ve chosen is to spend time looking for missed opportunities if you don’t win the prize.
If you ask yourself why you left work to go on vacation instead of fully participating in the competition, you may say it was because you don’t like to feel unsuccessful. But this statement is a little too common and it’s very vague.
If you want this value to be motivating, you have to be more specific. Perhaps you want to feel successful because you enjoy the things that come along with success–the recognition and the potential financial gain.
This is more specific, but it could still be clarified. What would you do with your success?
Maybe you would go for that managerial role or become a leader of a team. Maybe you could finally switch out of being in a role that is controlled by what other people want and step into a role where you get to sit in the driver’s seat and make some decisions yourself.
Now you have a defined value. Now your value is motivating and you’re more likely to take positive actions toward achieving your goals. This is critical if you want to resist the temptation of a habitual self-sabotaging behavior.
4. Speak Up
Staying quiet when you're in a meeting or when you're having a personal interaction doesn't make you seem polite (if that's what you're going for), it adds to your image of being ineffective. If you’re shy, it’s important to learn how to be assertive when you're going after what you want.
You have to have the confidence to jump into a conversation to let people know your thoughts or intentions.
There are a few things you can do to gain this level of confidence. First, get clear on what you want your message to be. Don’t just think about how you’re going to say it– consider how it will be received as well. Think about your audience and your tone so your message is communicated in a way that gets you what you’re looking for.
If it’s necessary, leave any emotion out of your words. When you let your emotions speak for you, your clarity becomes fuzzy and you run the risk of speaking from a defensive stance. Communicate with strength and empathy.
Finally, part of speaking up for yourself is accepting potential consequences. Be ready for any possible responses you may hear after speaking your truth. If this seems tough at first, find an advocate to support you while you’re gaining the necessary strength to do this on your own.
Once you’ve gained the courage to speak up, it will be easier for you to stick to your boundaries, clarify acceptable behavior (from yourself and from others), and start living a healthier life with a greater sense of empowerment.
5. Create SMART Goals
Fearing the unknown can lead to self-sabotage because uncertainty makes people nervous and often leads to nervous behavior, which can then cause you to feel incapable of succeeding. The best way to know what to expect is to write solid goals and plans to achieve what you want.
You can do this by using the SMART goal method when writing your goals, which requires you to think through potential obstacles ahead of time. Doing this will help you clearly define what you want and exactly what you need to do to get there. Once you have a firm deadline for your goal, there won’t be time for self-sabotaging behavior. Rather, you will have smaller objectives that you need to accomplish before achieving your ultimate victory.
Once you have firm objectives and goals, you will be clear about what is coming next after every step that you complete. You will also gain confidence in your work and in the direction you're moving.
Final Thoughts on How to Stop Self-Sabotaging Behavior
Self-sabotaging behaviors aren’t as complicated as they may initially seem. They’re really just habitual actions that you take that undermine your ultimate goals.
If you want to overcome these habits and replace the negative behaviors with more positive ones that will help you live a happier life, follow the steps laid out in this article.
Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.