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Why we self-sabotage (and 3 ways to stop doing it)

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.

Why we self-sabotage (and 3 ways to stop doing it)
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If you have low self-esteem, you probably have been down this rabbit hole way too many times—sabotaging your way to happiness, to good relationships, to promotions, recognition, or a well-deserved moment in the limelight.

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In retrospect, your behavior may often leave you to wrestle your own mind. It may seem illogical, bizarre, and counterintuitive to everything you stand for or are striving for—to buy comfort food when on a diet, call a drinking buddy when trying to become clean, or binge-watch movies instead of spending time preparing for an important presentation.

We all generally want the best for ourselves—so why do we try to sabotage our chances of getting what we want, have worked so hard for, and rightfully deserve?

Self-sabotage is the action we take to thwart our own best intentions and goals. We do it because we want something, and then we fear that we may actually get it, that we won’t be able to handle it, and so we ruin everything—be it getting a promotion, finding the perfect relationship, or starting a business. So why not save ourselves from the pain, the embarrassment, the disappointment if we mess up and kill all the chances in their infancy before we can get hurt.

Simply put, self-sabotaging is a fear of failure and a fear of success, all at the same time.

Let’s unpack what may be causing such self-destructing behaviors.

Negative self-image

People with low self-esteem are especially prone to self-sabotaging. Because they are not fond of themselves, they often behave in ways that reaffirm these beliefs and may purposely seek out self-embarrassing situations and failure. The inner dialogue goes along the lines of I knew it—you are a loser. You don’t deserve this. You are not good enough. You are a fake. No one would ever like you. And so on.

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It sounds like a very self-destructive way of living, but there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for it. It’s called Cognitive Dissonance Theory, and it states that we want to maintain consistency between our beliefs and values on one hand, and our actions on the other. Therefore, when something happens that clashes with our core, we most often change our actions to align them with what we regard to be true about ourselves.

Therefore, if you feel worthless, you may go out of your way to validate your own self-beliefs and elicit similar reactions from others, just so that you can prove to yourself that you were right all along. I told you so is often what you hear on repeat by your inner critic.

Fear of greatness

The idea was introduced by Abraham Maslow in his book The Farther Reaches of Human Nature in 1971, where he talks about the dread of self-actualization and of becoming who we are destined to be.

Maslow also devised the concept of the Jonah complex, which is “the fear of one’s own greatness, the evasion of one’s destiny, or the avoidance of exercising one’s talents.” It comes from the Bible story of Jonah, who was called by God to warn the citizens of a city of His divine wrath. But he hopped a boat instead and wound up in the belly of a whale.

Maslow captured these feelings:

We fear our highest possibilities. We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments, under the most perfect conditions, under conditions of great courage. We enjoy and even thrill to the godlike possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities. So often, we run away from the responsibilities dictated, or rather suggested by nature, by fate, even sometimes by accident, just as Jonah tried in vain to run away from his fate.

We often talk about the fear of failure, but feeling unworthy can also come from being scared of success and feeling that we may be unfit to handle it.

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Self-preservation

People with low self-esteem often live in fear—of failure, of rejection, of not meeting their own and others’ expectations. So, self-sabotaging becomes a way to preserve themselves from pain and disappointment.

It makes perfect sense. You don’t want the people you love to hurt you; therefore, you hurt or leave them first. You don’t want to face rejection; therefore you never apply for the job you really want. You don’t want to be “found out” as a fraud, later on; therefore you act in ways to undermine your chances to get the promotion and have more responsibilities, and so on.

Ultimately, it’s the fear of actually getting what you want and that you may be dissatisfied that it’s not what you expected, or that you may disappoint others once they see the real you.

Either way, the outcome is the same. You undermine yourself, even hurt and disappoint others, driven by fear of being hurt or disappointed first.

Overcoming self-destructive behaviors is possible, but it’s not easy. It requires a certain level of introspection. You have to understand the source of your self-incriminating actions and try to actively confront them.

Improve your self-image

Self-sabotaging often comes down to negative self-opinion, to the core of who we believe we are. And this self-view is generally challenging to mend.

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One way to successfully change what you think of yourself is to view yourself more broadly.

In 1985, Patricia Linville, then a professor of psychology at Yale University, proposed a model of self-esteem that she called Self-Complexity Theory (SCT). It focuses on self-knowledge and specifically on how we choose to define ourselves.

We all have different aspects or roles we play, such as mother or father, sister or brother, friend, wife or husband, professional, etc. The more of these self-aspects we use to describe ourselves, the greater our self-complexity. So, seeing yourself as more than one thing helps with your self-esteem, as your self-image is not contingent on your successes and failures only in one domain.

Make small, incremental changes

We often self-sabotage because we feel intimidated by a big goal, a public recognition, a sudden success. You have to be aware of these possible triggers and be prepared. For instance, if you fear public speaking, start small and speak in smaller groups first, or aim to ask one question at every meeting you attend. If you want to lose weight, again apply similar logic and make tiny, gradual changes in your diet and exercise program.

Kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement, states you only need to improve by 1% today, compared to yesterday. So do one extra push-up, read one additional page, write one more paragraph, walk five minutes farther, etc. Over the course of a year, this incremental change compounds to 37% better than where you started. Pretty impressive.

The idea is to reduce the unease that comes from shooting for stars, feeling overwhelmed by the big goal and by what you may do once you actually get there.

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Set goals and make detailed plans

The fear of the unknown is one of the greatest influencers of a lack of confidence. People with low self-esteem function better in their comfort zone. Anything out of their “normal” may throw them into high anxiety and panic attacks because they fear they won’t know how they will handle the unfamiliar. And to self-preserve and save themselves from being in such situations, they self-sabotage. It’s often their go-to behavior to manage their worries about the unknown.

So, next time you are faced with a situation that is new and scares you, make a detailed plan in the format of action/outcome/reaction scenarios, if possible. It will help subdue the anxiety by giving you a sense of control over the situation.

Self-sabotage doesn’t have to be here to stay.

We sometimes may put too much pressure on ourselves, driven by ambition, desire to succeed, perfectionism, or simply because we want to be happy, rich, fulfilled—as soon as possible. This often exacerbates our anxieties and spins our fears out of control. What if I fail? What if I’m not good enough? What if I’m found out or if everyone sees my flaws?

Being in the limelight requires courage, which may not come easily to those who are shy and more introverted, or those with low self-esteem.

When you think that the pendulum has swung way too far from your comfort zone or that you must be crazy to dream your big dreams, remember what Abraham Maslow experienced when he asked his students which among them would write a great novel, be a great composer, or a great leader:

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Generally, everybody starts giggling, blushing, and squirming until I ask, if not you, then who else? Which of course is the truth. . . . If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities.

Is a life full of regret for unmet dreams really worth living?


Evelyn Marinoff writes about confidence, mental health, and well-being. Follow her on Twitter @Evelyn_Marinoff.

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