Self-sabotage can show up in any relationship: with our partner, boss, friend or, the one that hurts the most, in our relationship with ourselves! When you self-sabotage you’re holding yourself back from the person you want to be. Today I’m going to teach you why you self-sabotage, the surprising ways it can show up that you didn’t even realize and my 4-step process for stopping the sabotage and creating connection and trust in all your relationships.
What is Self-Sabotage Exactly?
If you self–sabotage it means you have thought patterns and behaviors that stop you from doing what you say you want to do and reaching your goals and dreams. These limiting beliefs show up in 2 ways:
- Most are unconscious so you don’t even realize you’re acting from them such as not realizing that your procrastination is actually a sign of something deeper, or
- You consciously know what you think but you believe your thoughts are a fact, so haven’t thought to change them. An example of this would be thinking a fact is that you really can’t trust men. You’ve had lots of interactions with men that all prove your theory, so it becomes something like grass being green – it just is. Because of this belief, all your interactions with men are through that lens and you keep proving yourself right (this is called confirmation bias) but it becomes a form of self-sabotage.
But Why Do I Self-Sabotage, Abby?!
There are many reasons people self-sabotage, but they all break down to one thing: protection. Your brain believes these behaviors are protecting you from some kind of emotional hurt. You end up avoiding true intimacy, vulnerability and emotional closeness with yourself and other people which, of course, protects you. If you’re not truly close to someone, your emotional brain thinks you can’t get hurt.
You might be thinking, “But I want to be close to someone!” The proof is in the pudding. If you’re not close to others or finding people you can trust, it’s because you have an unconscious belief that it’s dangerous, no matter what your conscious brain is telling you.
In general, self-sabotaging behaviors are maladaptive patterns from childhood. This means we were emotionally hurt in some ways as children and created behaviors to protect ourselves. These behaviors morph as we grow into adults, which is why it’s so hard to pinpoint where they came from.
Most of this comes from insecure attachment styles. Your attachment style is the way you’ve learned to deal with relationships, which stems from your early childhood relationships with your caregivers. There are basically two types of insecure attachment styles. People with an anxious attachment style are, you guessed it, anxious in their relationships. They often need a lot of reassurance, can be clingy, controlling and jealous (among other things). It’s this anxiety that stops others from truly getting close.
People with an avoidant attachment style avoid getting too close or relying too much on anyone for different reasons. They’ve learned to be self-sufficient and not need anyone else so avoid intimacy and true emotional closeness.
But let me give you an example of how these unhealthy coping skills in childhood grow into unhealthy coping skills in adulthood that you might not realize are connected. Maybe you felt insecure as a child due to some negligent parenting. Because you couldn’t always count on your parents to comfort you, you self-soothed by sucking your thumb. You used this tactic until you were about eight-years old, at which point, you’d been getting a lot of criticism (and maybe even shaming, making the situation even worse) because it was deemed inappropriate to keep sucking your thumb.
At that point, you needed to find something new to soothe yourself, some new external source of comfort, so you turned to food. Now you started to gain weight, which increased your internalized shame and maybe you even suffered some romantic or friendship rejection because of your weight as you moved into your teen years. So, you decide to lose weight and stop eating and now you need a new external source of comfort so you start drinking.
The drinking seems to “work” for a long time as you make friends, go out and find an ability to socialize and calm your nerves. As you get older though, you begin to drink more or more often, and it becomes a problem at work and in your relationship but you keep drinking despite any negative consequences. You sabotage jobs and relationships because of your inability to stop drinking. You tell yourself you should stop, but you just don’t feel able.
Now, if someone asked you at 40 why you were an alcoholic, I doubt your first answer would be “because I didn’t feel safe and secure with the way my parents loved me when I was three-years-old.” And this is why it’s often so difficult to give a “why” for your self-sabotage; your coping skills have morphed and changed since you were a child so it’s hard to follow the thread backwards.
Of course, along with these negative and unhelpful patterns of behavior we end up with negative and damaging thoughts and beliefs. Your 3-year-old self didn’t have adult thinking or reasoning. They only knew they felt unsafe and scared. As that little person got older they started to think there was something wrong with them or their parents would have loved them the way they needed. Older still, that person starts to feel they’re not really worthy of anyone’s love or praise and deep down they think, “If they really knew me, they wouldn’t love me.”
Once again, low feelings of self-esteem in adulthood are hard to trace back because so much of what happened to our little psyches was before our brains were developed and before we could think critically and rationally.
In the end, you might end up with unconscious beliefs about relationships that create self-sabotage. You assume they won’t last. You assume that they always fail so you jump on problems and make them bigger without realizing what you’re doing. You assume the other person will abandon you, so you always leave them first. Or maybe you assume that the other person will try to control you, so you feel suffocated or trapped and leave for that reason.
Often, self-sabotage boils down to your need to control a situation. Feelings for others or taking risks at work makes you feel unsafe, so you create control in this negative way. It’s only when you feel like you’re in full control that you feel safe (even though that doesn’t last long).
Am I Self-Sabotaging, Abby?
Self-sabotage shows up in a bunch of ways you might not recognize as self-sabotage so it’s important to know the most common signs:
- Criticizing or picking fights with others: You’re impossible to please, and your partner eventually gives up trying and breaks up with you. Or it’s your first day at your new job and you’ve got something negative to say about everyone.
- Cheating in some way: Browsing dating sites; following busty women on Instagram; flirting with a coworker; having a physical or emotional relationship with someone else are all ways you’re keeping your options open (consciously or subconsciously) so you can avoid emotional closeness and hurt.
- Self-harm behaviors: Abusing drugs or alcohol, binging, purging, eating poorly, staying up too late, and not taking care of yourself.
- You’re a perfectionist with sky-high expectations
- Being jealous or paranoid: You worry that your partner is seeing someone behind your back or that Jane at work is out to get you fired. You become a control freak and demanding with your partner or with your boss about getting rid of Jane.
- Rages, anger and resentment: Holding a grudge or staying resentful is a way of protecting yourself by pushing away other people. As long as you’re mad, no one can really get close to you.
- You tear yourself down: “What’s wrong with me?” I’m always X; I can never Y. I’m a big, fat pig. I look disgusting.” You put your low self-esteem out there and almost dare your partner to break up with you or for others to put you down too.
- Procrastination: You put off doing that report for work because you unconsciously or consciously don’t think you know what you’re doing. By doing it at the last minute, you don’t give it your best so, if you fail, there’s an excuse and you get a feeling of control over the situation – you’re deciding when you’ll do something but often you’ll cut of your nose to spite your face in these situations.
- Trouble stating your needs: When you consistently don’t say what you need you’re likely self-sabotaging. Not only will you ruin relationships and jobs this way, it’s yet another way to guard yourself from hurt. “If I don’t say what I want, they can’t reject me.”
What the Heck Should I Do, Abby?
Step 1: Be Mindful
Really Abby? Again, with the mindfulness? Yes! I’m not going to spend a lot of time here on this because I’ve done SO MUCH on mindfulness but let me say this:
Mindfulness is a superpower! It helps you stay in the moment so you can avoid conflicts and misunderstandings, create more happiness and contentment in your life and create more intimate and connected relationships! Yes, it does all that!
Mindfulness simply means that you’re aware of what you’re thinking so you don’t let your thoughts and feelings blindly drive your actions and behaviors. Mindfulness puts you in control of your life and gives you a pause button instead of just reacting.
If you’re not mindful and aware of how you’re feeling in a moment you won’t be able to stop your self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors. There are many roads to mindfulness, but the absolute best thing is to start meditating (yes, I’m on that again too). If you’re not already doing this, you can sign up for my free Meditation Starter Kit, which starts you at just three minutes a day (you know you have 3 minutes)!
Step 2: Identify Your Feelings
Now that you’re aware and starting to notice yourself in your moments, you can start looking at your self-sabotaging. Ultimately, you want to identify your true thoughts and limiting beliefs but that’s tough to do out of the gate. They’re so unconscious or buried so deep, we generally can’t see what assumptions and thoughts are holding us back. So, we’re going to work our way back to that. Since you feel the way you think, it’s easier to look at your feelings first and then trace them back to your thoughts.
Depending on how entrenched all this self-sabotaging is, you might initially have a difficult time identifying any feelings other than numb (nothing) or angry. But identifying feelings is a skill, believe it or not. And just like any other skill, the more you do it, the better you’ll get. Really, I promise!
The key is to ask yourself, “What else am I feeling?” Sometimes it’s helpful to have a list of feelings you can choose from to prime the pump a bit. There’s an excellent list of feelings from the Hoffman Institute that I refer my clients to. I especially like it because it also identifies body sensations you may be having which you might not realize are prompted by your feelings.
What I want you to do is to carry around a little notebook with you for 3 days (a week is the best but a minimum of 3 days is good too) or use the notes app on your phone and track how you feel over the course of the day. It’s best to also make any notes about what was happening or who you were thinking about or interacting with when you had X feeling.
The reason this is SO important is because when you want to change something, the best thing to do is to start tracking it. Want to lose weight? Start tracking what you eat in a day. Want to save money? Start tracking what you spend in a day. Want to change self-sabotaging behavior? Start tracking how you feel in a day.
All of your behaviors, ultimately, are driven by your feelings. You don’t “just say something” or “just do something.” Somewhere, it starts with what you think about a situation, which makes you feel a certain way.
I want you to be as curious and non-judgmental as possible. What you’re doing is upping your self-awareness which is, obviously, the big key in stopping self-sabotaging behavior.
Step 3: Start Identifying Your Thoughts
Now you’re seeing that whenever you have to interact with your boss you get anxious and your stomach gets queasy or you’re noticing that you crave a drink when you’re feeling resentful with your partner. Tracking these feelings, in and of itself, will often change the game for you. Maybe you’re realizing for the first time that you even feel resentment with your dad or anxiousness when someone compliments you. Congrats!
But it’s time to take it a step further because we’re looking to identify those thoughts! For that, you’re going to ask yourself questions about these feelings you’ve tracked to uncover what’s really going on so you can change it.
I’m not a big journal person but, I have to tell you, I highly suggest you journal these answers. You can do it in your head but it’s not going to get you there easily. If you don’t want to journal, then get yourself to a therapist to discuss these items out loud.
Some journaling might be general prompts and questions such as:
- Do I get uncomfortable when things are going well or when I’m successful?
- Do I focus mostly on the positive or negative aspects in other people (or get more specific in an area – in my partners, boss, friends, coworker, mom)?
- Do I only feel good when someone else tells me I’m good?
- When I feel close to people I…
- When I succeed I…
- I feel best when…
- Do I often look back at something and realize I overreacted or wonder why I got so upset? (We say that when it’s hysterical, it’s historical).
- I always…
- I never…
- I’m always…
This will definitely give you lots to think about and you can also ask more specific questions about situations where you noticed your unwanted feelings:
- I’m anxious around my boss because…
- I feel resentful when I think my partner doesn’t have my back and I don’t say how I really feel to them because…
Tracking your feelings and related thoughts will help you identify triggers you haven’t noticed before.
Step 4: Change the Game
As you begin to uncover and begin to understand all these feelings and thoughts you can finally begin to change them. You can choose new reactions and actions. You can choose to think differently about a situation and ask yourself some deeper questions such as:
- Why do I think it’s my partner’s job to have my back? Why don’t I have my own back and why isn’t that enough?
- Is it possible my partner does have my back, but they express it in ways I’m not noticing?
- What else could be true about how my partner feels about this situation?
Ultimately, to change the game, you’ll need to take full (yes, full) responsibility for your life and everything in it. This means no more blaming other people, no more waiting for them to rescue you (reassure you, give you a compliment, or fix an issue by standing up for you).
This means it’s time to start seeing these things as a “you” issue and not a “them” issue. With every situation, think about how you can take responsibility to see the situation or person through a different lens where you’re not a victim, where you don’t blame and where you’re not counting on others to be a certain way for you. It’s all about you being a certain way for you. It’s all about you feeling confident and secure and loving yourself, no matter what.