You say you’re going to start waking up earlier to have a healthier start to your day, but then you stay up all night binging Wednesday on Netflix and sleep through your alarm. You’re finally in a great relationship, but you keep finding fault with your partner. You say you want to go to graduate school, but you keep missing the deadlines for application. Self-sabotaging behavior can strike anywhere in our lives, leaving us feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, depressed and anxious. Today we’re talking about what self-sabotage is and two concrete ways to go from self-defeating to self-winning.
What Exactly Is Self-Sabotage?
Self-sabotage is any behavior you’re doing that doesn’t match the goals you’ve set. It’s when you’re doing or not doing something that hinders you from achieving any aspiration or objective you’ve set for yourself. Self-sabotage is generally subconscious, but even when you know you’re doing it, it’s often difficult to stop.
Self-sabotage can be very sneaky and disguise itself like a lot of things, such as:
- Not asking for help
- Overeating or eating for comfort
- Using drugs and alcohol
- Smoking or vaping
- Overspending/compulsive shopping
- Overdoing it in general (taking on too much)
- Controlling or jealous behavior
- Picking fights with your partner, coworkers or friends
- Setting unrealistic goals (too high or too low)
- Compulsive gambling
- Constantly seeking approval
Why Do We Self-Sabotage?
I know you’ve been face-palming and calling yourself an idiot. I know you’ve been angry and impatient with yourself when your self-defeating behaviors show up (again), but I need you to take a breath and give yourself a little break. Self-sabotage isn’t you being a dumbass. You’re self-sabotaging mostly because of something we psychologists call the approach-avoidance conflict. Kurt Lewin introduced this concept way back in 1931, and it’s found a strong foothold in much of modern psychology because it’s been found to drive so much of our behavior.
Basically, the approach-avoidance conflict happens when you’ve got a goal that has both positive and negative sides to it. The two sides are like the devil and angel sitting on your shoulder. Maybe you’re trying to lose weight but then find yourself at a friend’s birthday party wanting a piece of cake. Your brain then has to deal with this conflict of wanting the cake now (approach) with not wanting to think about a painful thing like your diet (avoidance). Maybe you’re dating. You want to go out on a date with someone you just met on a dating app (approach), but then you’ve got conflicting thoughts like, “He’s probably going to be another loser” or “I’d rather stay home and binge watch something” (avoidance).
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A broader way to look at this is having any goal (approach and feeling good) weighing against a fear of failure (avoidance and feeling bad). Our unconscious brains can see many of our goals as a threat and avoid them. Yes, it’s great to have a partner, but what if I get hurt? Will I have to be vulnerable? Yes, it’s great to have a better job, but won’t it be more demanding? What if I don’t measure up?
What all this means is that when you self-sabotage, it’s really your psyche trying to protect you. It’s your subconscious trying to keep you where you are, so you’ll stay safe. Over the years, you’ve accumulated distorted beliefs that are driving your feelings, which then drive your behavior. Again, the majority of these beliefs are unconscious, so you don’t realize it’s happening.
Two Concrete Ways to Move from Self-Defeating to Self-Winning
Tip #1: Up Your Self-Awareness
If you don’t notice your unhealthy patterns or self-defeating behaviors, there’s no way to change them, so getting better at self-awareness needs to be at the top of your list. According to research by Tasha Eurich, there are two types of people: those who think they’re self-aware and those who actually are. Her research shows that a staggering 95% of people think they’re self-aware but the real number is closer to 10-15%.
But how can this be? I’ve been to therapy, and I’ve watched Oprah! The issue is that we have a TON that’s hidden from our conscious awareness. We don’t realize this, but we just “feel” that something is true, so we put that out there, but we’re actually wrong a lot of the time!
A great tool to be more self-aware is to notice who pisses you off in your day-to-day interactions. It’s common to be annoyed by qualities in someone that we don’t like in ourselves. These qualities might be blind spots, so you might not realize that these are things you need to work on or be aware of.
So, the next time someone pisses you off, instead of complaining about them, take a proverbial look in the mirror. Why is this person bothering you so much? Do they remind you of something you don’t like about yourself? Do they remind you of someone from your past? It’s not a given that certain things “should” make us angry. Everyone has different reactions to different things. Take a moment and self-reflect when someone gets under your skin. As always, working on your mindfulness will also help you be more self-aware.
Tip #2: Journal in a Specific Way
Journaling can be a great way to change your self-sabotaging behavior, but I want you to do it in a specific way. On the page start, with this:
- I want to (name the goal)
- But I keep thinking (name the thoughts)
- So, I keep doing (name the behaviors)
For example, you might write:
- I want to wake up earlier and work out.
- But I keep thinking it’s going to be really hard and I’ll be so tired in the morning. Is it really going to help anyway? If I want to be healthier, I’m also going to have to look at my eating. I’m going to need to figure out an eating plan. I’ve tried this so many times, and it never works.
- So, I keep sleeping in and then beating myself up about it, or I wake up early a couple of times and then quit because it just sucks.
When you write this out, you can see how hard you’ve made things for yourself! Now write:
- What else could I think about waking up earlier to work out?
- Problem-solve from these new thoughts.
So you might write:
- Just because something hasn’t worked in the past doesn’t mean it won’t work now. I might be tired the first few mornings, but I’ll get used to it after a week. I know I’m going to feel really good about myself when I make this a habit. First things first, I don’t need to tackle my eating or anything else. Right now, it’s just about getting there on the days I’ve committed to.
- I’m going to put the alarm across the room, so I have to get out of bed and can’t hit the snooze. I’m going to ask my sister to meet me at the gym for the next week. I’m going to reward myself with a latte at my favorite café after every workout. I’m going to keep the focus on each day and not look ahead.
All of this is called cognitive reframing, and when we reframe our thoughts, we start to think differently. Since we feel the way we think, we then start to feel differently about the goal or situation. Once we’re feeling more positive, we’re more motivated and less afraid and can then take different, consistent actions.
Resources for Self-Sabotage: What it Is and How to Stop Doing It
Smith, N.W. On the Origin of Conflict Types. Psychol Rec 18, 229–232 (1968). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03393765
Tasha Eurich TED talk: Increase Your Self-Awareness with One Simple Fix
How to Make Mindfulness a Consistent Habit
Self-Sabotage: What it is, Why You Do It, and How to Stop It
Four Ways to be More Self-Aware