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Why do we self-sabotage?

What is self-sabotaging behaviour?

Self-sabotage can be defined as any behaviour that goes against our self – our wider goals and values.

Rarely do we set out to self-sabotage. In fact, it’s usually the reverse… You might be surprised to find out that most self-sabotaging behaviours stem from self-preservation. 

Sometimes we self-sabotage to escape uncomfortable feelings. Perhaps we haven’t been taught how to manage – and process – difficult thoughts and feelings, and so we do whatever we can to stuff them down in the moment. We might, for instance, turn to alcohol and drugs to find some relief – albeit a temporary one.

Self-sabotaging behaviours can also be learnt (and outdated) coping mechanisms from the past. We may have had to adopt certain behaviours in order to survive when we were growing up. For example, if we grew up in an abusive household, we might have needed to fight our way out of it. But whilst this hardy exterior may have helped us back then, if we carry it through to adulthood, it’s likely to have a damaging effect on our relationships. 

As the saying goes, “neurons that fire together wire together”. Or put more simply, the brain likes the familiar. The more we run a neural circuit in our brain, the stronger that circuit becomes. 

This is why it can be so hard breaking out of self-sabotaging behaviour. Until we learn new, healthier ways of thinking and behaving, and practice them over and over again, we’ll find ourselves easily reverting back to coping in the way we know best – even if it comes at the cost of our self.

In these cases, we need to take active steps to work against our self-sabotaging behaviours. We must first identify what they are, and then work to replace them with healthier ways of relating and behaving.

Signs of self-sabotaging behaviour 

You listen to your inner critic – “you’re not good enough”, “everything thinks you’re an idiot”, “nothing will ever work out”, “you’re going to muck it all up again”… We all have an inner critic – but we also have a choice as to whether we listen to it. There are all kinds of techniques we can use for quieting this inner voice. But the first step is to identify it. Listen to the kinds of stories it tells us – and realise that it isn’t you.

You procrastinate – procrastination stems from the fear of failure. The irony being that when we procrastinate, we end up fulfilling our own self-prophecy. Next time you feel the pull to put things off, acknowledge the discomfort and do it anyway.

You avoid anything that runs the risk of pain – when we feel like we’ve been burned in life, we might find ourselves avoiding situations that leave us open to experiencing the same pain again. But the truth is, everything worth having in life involves stepping outside our comfort zone – love included.

Using substances – alcohol and drugs might help numb the pain in the short-term, but they tend to cause us damage in the long run. If you find yourself turning to the bottle to stuff down difficult emotions or to “get through” social situations, this is a sign you might be self-sabotaging.

You’re a self-confessed control freak – whether we like it or not, nothing is permanent. And when we try to control situations – or people – it leaves us stuck, and we block our own growth.

You can’t say no – you might be thinking to yourself, what’s so nice about being the nice guy? People-pleasing is one of the most socially accepted forms of self-sabotage around. Boundaries are there to protect us – to ensure we’re channelling our energy into the areas of our life that are worthy of it. Without them, we leave ourselves wide open to being walked all over.

You’re a caretaker or “fixer” – constantly looking after other people can serve as a distraction from facing our own issues. It can also be a sign of codependency.

You suffer with low self-esteem – when we don’t believe ourselves to be worthy of the good stuff, we might subconsciously set ourselves up for failure. In this sense, we stay ‘safe’ by proving to ourselves that we were right all along.

How to break free from self-sabotage

Breaking free from self-sabotage usually involves delving into the past to discover where it stems from. Once we’re able to pinpoint where the behaviour started – and what role it served – we can practice self-compassion and self-forgiveness for what we did when we were in survival mode – when we simply didn’t know any better. And from there, we can begin to learn healthier, more effective ways of behaving which will serve us in the long term.

You’re not stuck. You can break the cycle. You can heal yourself.