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How to Recognize and Stop Self-Sabotaging Behavior

Published on October 1, 2020 8:14 AM EST
How to Recognize and Stop Self-Sabotaging Behavior

Self-sabotage is a term that means we create problems in our everyday lives that interfere with our goals. This sounds like a counter-intuitive statement.

Why would we take the time to set goals and invest emotionally in these goals’ outcomes, only to become the very reason we fail? How do you determine which behaviors are self-defeating? Maybe you already know why you self-sabotage and want to know how to stop?

How to Recognize and Stop Self-Sabotaging Behavior

All these questions can be challenging to answer, but the benefits of understanding self-sabotage make doing the work worth it. 

Why would you want to sabotage yourself?

According to Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., there are six principal reasons people engage in behaviors that stand in the way of their goals. Those reasons are:

  1. Self-worth
  2. Control
  3. Perceived Fraudulence
  4. It provides a scapegoat
  5. Familiarity
  6. Boredom

I have struggled with self-sabotage since I was a child, and two of her reasons stuck with me as I read over her list. Self-worth is a factor because “You feel undeserving of success or happiness. In an ironic twist, some of the most driven people strive to work hard and aim high because they feel they need to make up for a self-imposed sense of inadequacy.”

My mother and father abandoned me when I was a child, and my maternal grandmother took in my sister and me. My grandmother demanded perfection and was emotionally and verbally abusive. I tried to do everything flawlessly.

In high school, I got exceptional grades and competed on the swim team. That didn’t make me feel adequate enough, so I took part in the community college’s dual enrollment classes.

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Now, a few kids did this with a class here or there, but I took a full-time course load at night after school. My schedule was crazy, and looking back on it now, I can’t imagine doing that again.

I was one of the first two students (my friend and I) to graduate with an AA before graduating from high school. I looked up the article while writing this, and the journalist quoted me: “It’s odd,” said 17-year-old DeSanto, “but we’re odd students.”

I started crying when I read it because I know what younger me didn’t say out loud. This rare achievement still didn’t make my parents love me the way they should have. The exceptional amount of work I put into getting a college degree at 17 didn’t stop my grandma from being angry at me because I bit my fingernails.

I wasn’t an “odd student;” I was the abandoned child of drug addicts who spent every day wondering why the people I loved didn’t love me back. I tried finding self-worth in the achievements I could present to others. 

My self imposed sense of inadequacy has been the driving force behind many of the “achievements” over the years. It is likely the main reason I continue to think I should get a doctorate in a field that doesn’t fulfill me. 

Low self-worth and low self-esteem are the primary reasons people struggle with ‘perceived fraudulence,’ or imposter syndrome.

Hendriksen says, “As the bar continues to rise—you’re promoted to a new position, or you obtain higher levels of education—you feel you only have further to fall when you (inevitably) come crashing down. If you call attention to your triumphs, it’s more likely you’ll be called out as a fake.”

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Some of us have been faking our entire lives, but what do these behaviors look like in practice? 

How to determine self-defeating behaviors

Most people recognize that substance abuse is a form of self-sabotage. The addict knows that getting high will cost them the goals they have been working toward or land them in a jail cell, yet they continue to choose it.

The other behaviors that people use to engage in self-sabotage are not so obvious. Procrastination, lateness, stress eating, and perfectionism are all examples.

Procrastination can manifest itself in many ways. For me, it usually has to do with managing my expectations and reality. For example, I don’t particularly like to write in segments. So what ends up happening is I will tell myself that, “I do not have time to write an entire article, so I won’t write anything.”

The flip-side of this is that I will get distracted by other tasks and put things off until the deadline because I know that I can get it done in time.  

You might think that as long as the task gets done, then it isn’t self-sabotaging. However, according to Clarity Clinic, “When individuals put things off, especially until the last minute, this leads to a stress response in the body.

They may start feeling nervous or anxious that the task will not get completed on time—or at all. This worry can cause headaches, stomach pains, and tension in the body.” This stress response can also affect your performance. 

Stress eating, lateness, and perfectionism all act in similar ways. If your goal is to eat healthy foods and take care of your body, but you rob the cookie jar at the first sign of stress, you undermine your plan. Joanna Pantazi, at Youniverse, reminds us that perfectionism is not a highly desirable trait but rather a self-deprecating obstacle. 

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The need for perfectionism can keep people from even attempting something because they are afraid they will fail. Sometimes, they are even scared of succeeding.  She also says, “A manifestation of perfectionism is completing a task in a much longer time than required, because of all the back-and-forth steps we took until we regarded the results of our work as perfect.” 

Did any of those six reasons you might be self-sabotaging jump out at you? Did you recognize some of your behavior in these scenarios? Don’t worry, you aren’t alone, and here are a few tips to help you stop!

What actions can you take to stop self-sabotaging?

The first step to stopping the pattern of self-sabotage is to understand why you do it. This will require some compassion for yourself and an introspective look on what needs you are trying to fill. It has taken me nearly 20 years to understand that I buried myself under achievements because I was looking for self-worth from everyone but myself. Having that information can help to formulate a plan 

Devising a plan with healthy alternatives is the second step. In the past, I have said things like, “I am going to mean it this time when I say that I will not take on more things than I want to do. I am going to say ‘no’ to something that doesn’t align with my goals.”

I can ask myself, “Am I doing this because I am trying to win someone else’s love? Will doing this get me closer to the things I desire? How much is someone’s perceived disappointment in me affecting my decision?”

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This is not the time to be tough on yourself, but it’s the time to love the person you are. Whether it is rephrasing the way you speak to yourself, going for a quick walk when you are stressed, or scheduling the time for tasks, you will need to develop something that changes the pattern. 

It isn’t enough to understand and plan, though. You have to implement it. Part of having a successful plan includes planning for the things that can go wrong.

Now, this doesn’t mean being anxious or weighing every potential outcome. It means going into with your eyes wide open and a plan for the most likely scenario. I know that the next time I hear someone say they are going back to school, I will feel like I have not achieved enough. I know that I will instantly feel the need to achieve more.

What will I say to myself when that happens? How will I navigate the feelings of inadequacy when they pop up? Because they will; acknowledging the truth about my motives doesn’t render them irrelevant.  It is going to require building up some emotional tolerance. 

It will be an uncomfortable process to experience these emotions, but it is how we build a tolerance. I took a break while writing this to speak with my therapist about my response from 20 years ago. I told her how frustrated I was with myself because I am not the same person I was from high school.

I have accepted things and didn’t know why I was crying about a comment I had made so long ago.  I wished I had said anything else other than how “odd” I was. She reminded me that we couldn’t go back and undo the trauma, and I had about 37 years of brainwashing to work through. It has to be done daily with every decision you make. 

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Be honest with yourself about self-sabotage. You can stop; just remember to be honest about the needs you are trying to fill. Identifying alternative behaviors and planning for obstacles is also a critical step. Embracing your emotions and learning how to manage them will set you free from a prison of your own making.

Charles Glassman has poignant words for each of us going through this, “You can’t imagine just how much believing in negative thoughts is affecting your life… until you stop.”

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