Self-Sabotage is a painful and destructive pattern to find yourself in. What’s most troubling is that this pattern often rears its problematic head at the dawn of new endeavors, long-awaited accomplishments, and celebratory milestones. It is during these times when we need ourselves the most, but instead, we end up cleaning up self-made messes or jeopardizing opportunities. Being caught in the pull of self-sabotage can result in increased depression, feelings of shame and guilt, and overall poor life satisfaction. It is a wedge between you and the life you want the most. The first step in healing is identifying the reason(s) you self sabotage.
Self-Sabotage can feel a lot like an inconvenient monster emerging from the depths of personal consciousness, and it’s often attached to our deepest wounds and biggest questions. Am I worthy enough to feel good about my life? Do I deserve success? Can I maintain joy and happiness? Is a good life really for me?
At first glance, self-destructive tendencies are confusing and mysterious. Maybe you’re binging on Netflix until 3a.m., making it impossible to stay present at work the next day. Or, perhaps your goal is to save money, but you’re making a ton of unnecessary purchases. It’s hard to accept and understand why anyone would derail their progress, but as we dig into what creates these patterns, we will get a better grasp on them, as well as make headway in healing. Self-sabotage, like most other problematic human patterning, is yet another trailhead to more profound knowledge of self.
1. Low Self-Worth
“I’m not good enough for this job.”
“Do I deserve to be happy with my partner?”
“Is happiness for someone else? It can’t be for me.”
“I’m going to mess this up anyway!”
Feelings of unworthiness commonly manifest as self-sabotaging behaviors. Self-sabotage can work as a feedback loop: we feel “not good enough”, then something good happens, but we get in our own way and destroy an opportunity, thus finding our evidence that we don’t deserve good things.
Low self-esteem hurts, and it’s often born out of a time in which we had little control over our self-perception. Perhaps your childhood lacked proper nurturing, and you blame yourself in efforts to harness control over your environment. “If I can be better, I will get more love” But the love doesn’t come, because you weren’t the problem in the first place. In order to survive a difficult or painful situation in childhood, you told yourself a story that you weren’t good enough. These stories can persist into adulthood and shape our behavior until they are examined and understood.
Human beings are universally imperfect, and often self-critical. In a culture dominated by messages that happiness is found in the next degree, the bigger house, or the next i-phone upgrade, it’s easy to feel you’ve fallen short in some way.
Low self-worth negatively affects our ability to take risks and go after what you want. High levels of self-worth allow us to push personal limits, accept exciting new life prospects, and increase our capacity for joy and growth.
Try the mantra: “I deserve to be happy” and, “I am good enough to deserve a happy life.” And ask yourself, if I was happy would I still engage in the same behaviors?
2. Fear of the Unknown
“Would I survive if I changed XY & Z about my life?”
“Change is hard!”
“I’m comfortable with what I know.”
“Things might not turn out okay!”
Self-sabotage impedes upon reaching your fullest potential and actualizing your wishes and dreams. Self-destructive behaviors are often acted out as a way to create predictability, especially when life is in transition towards something different or better. It may seem counterintuitive, but if one is used to life looking like a mess, then there’s some incentive to keep the familiar mess and forgo the mysterious.
Clinging to predictability may be a response to anxiety or a history of traumatic experience. If the unknown has proven itself to be particularly painful or dangerous in the past, then the urge to self-sabotage into familiarity may be even more compelling. The human psyche is merely trying to protect itself through the maladaptation of self-destruction to maintain the status quo. Change can feel like a threat to safety for someone with a history of trauma.
Change is scary for all of us, but if trauma is present, it becomes even more complicated. This is yet another reason that it’s imperative to explore and examine our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors with self-compassion. Self-exploration becomes a smoother process when infused with self-love.
Try the mantra:“I’m excited for change, what can i do to set up growth for myself? Or, “change is scary, but I can handle it.”
3. Separating from Family Stories
“My family won’t get it.”
“I grew up working class, I’m not used to this.”
“We aren’t affectionate in my family.”
Adults are still largely operating within their systems of family of origin. We may leave home, but our consciousness remains “peopled” with the folks who helped shape us, for better or for worse, into who we are today. We make vows in childhood about what’s possible for ourselves, and we receive messages from those around us about how to stay in line, or remain a part of the family. “I am never going to let anyone hurt me again”. “ I have to curb my own emotions for the sake of my family’s reactions.”
In terms of self-sabotage, we may be destroying opportunity if it doesn’t fit into the image we have of ourselves in our family of origin. “We didn’t have money growing up, is it okay to want financial success?” Does where you’re going look drastically different from where you’ve been? Is achieving success separating you from your family? Is the culture of your family to be unhappy, or caught in a struggle? If so, you may have a hard time accepting ease.
We may also experience the urge to “get in our own way” or stop progress if we feel we are doing better than our family. Perhaps we’ve internalized beliefs like, “having money is selfish” or, “academia is for snobs”. We fear that being different and advancing towards our potential will result in a loss of belonging, or kinship in shared struggle.
And lastly, some of us are afraid of not measuring up to familial expectations. This fear of failure can be so anxiety provoking that self-destruction can ensue. Again, familiarity is compelling in the face of anxiety and fear. The potential of failing may be too overwhelming with the internalized judgment of commentating family members.
Try the mantra: “I can be different from the family and still remain a part of it” and, “there’s nothing wrong with the life that I want to build.”
Awareness is the First Step
It’s not easy to come to terms with self-sabotage. It’s really hard to know why you do it, and there may be many reasons why you’re stuck in this pattern. It’s okay to be starting off on this journey of greater self-discovery, and to not see the whole picture quite yet. The first step in healing self-sabotage is to recognize when you’re doing it. You may feel yourself getting gripped by this pattern again and again, but awareness will help to loosen its hold and allow you to gain the clarity and power you need to change course. If you accomplish something big, what usually happens after? What happens leading up to the accomplishment? Do you notice yourself making choices that increase hardship in your life? Questions like this can lead us to greater understanding of ourselves and the reasons why we may be engaging in problematic patterns.
With eventual awareness of the reasons you're self-sabotaging, it becomes easier to catch yourself prior to engaging in thoughts and behaviors that will have a negative effect on your life. Understanding self-sabotage allows you to pay attention more deliberately to your inner experiences that influence sabotage behaviors. Are you afraid of the unknown? Are you worried about losing identification with family? Are you feeling like you don’t deserve good things? You could be experiencing a combination of all three. These are points for self-exploration.
Self-sabotage is a challenging pattern that often shows itself at inconvenient times in our lives. It’s hard to understand and difficult to spot, but with awareness, self-exploration and the help of a therapist, it’s possible to heal this pattern and get out of your own way. Recognition of the pattern is the first step and then you can practice using a new mantra to help yourself navigate away from the unwanted behaviors. Reach out to a trusted friend, or therapist if you feel yourself falling back into self-sabotage. As you move through healing self-sabotage, you can address deeper issues around self-worth, fear of the unknown and how you belong to your family. The most challenging obstacles often encase the greatest gifts.