Making It Worse for Yourself: How Self-Sabotage Works

How Self-Sabotage Works

Often in life, we ​​strive for self-improvement, but then we find ourselves self-destructing. For example, once again, we postpone tasks for the night before the deadline, or we begin to speak obvious nonsense on a date with an attractive person. In a word, we find ourselves in a situation where we know in advance that we are making the wrong choice – and we still make it. But why? Let’s look at examples and explain how to save yourself from self-destruction.

What is Self Sabotage?

Self-sabotage is repetitive thinking and behavior that gets in the way of our goals. Psychologists believe that self-sabotage can be a manifestation of auto-aggression – actions aimed at causing physical or moral harm to oneself. This phenomenon is also called the craving for self-destruction.

For example:

  • You have an important job interview in the morning. But you have fun with your friends the day before in the morning.
  • You are planning to change the field of activity. But you always put off drawing up a specific action plan, being distracted by other things.
  • You dream of learning to dance. But almost all dance studios, as luck would have it, are on the other side of the city, and those closer to home are sometimes too expensive, sometimes the schedule could be more convenient, and in general, it’s impossible to go there.
  • You want a strong and stable relationship. But you choose an emotionally unavailable partner.

Often we sabotage ourselves without realizing it, and we may not notice the contradiction between our desires and actions. At the same time, if something does not work out, we feel like a victim of circumstances. So self-sabotage can look very different. 

How Self-Sabotage Works

Some Types of Self Sabotage

Procrastination. When you’re doing anything other than what needs to be done. According to psychologists, procrastination can result from depression, poor time management, and doubts about one’s abilities. From the outside, it may seem that there are no reasons and the person is lazy.

Perfectionism. The belief that everything must be done perfectly. Perfectionism is a positive quality. However, according to psychologists, this is how a person sacrifices his success for an unattainable ideal. High standards lead to endless delays and failures. Perfectionists lose their temper and motivation when something goes wrong (which is inevitable). They become ashamed. It suppresses them. They feel as if everyone around them has been let down. The desire to do everything perfectly for a perfectionist turns into the fact that he does not do anything in the end.

Unlock Your True Potential: 10 Powerful Affirmations for Perfectionists to Embrace Progress

Self-damaging behaviour. Sometimes people may turn to alcohol, other psychoactive substances, or harm to drown out internal conflicts. For example, when we want to succeed at work, but internally we are sure that this is impossible. Also, addictions can often result from avoidance – when it is easier for a person to “fill in” everything that he feels because it is too scary to deal with. 

Destruction of meaningful relationships. Self-sabotage in relationships is the behaviour that prevents them from being built and stored. People prone to this kind of internal sabotage expect things to end badly and seek to avoid disappointment. Psychologists attribute this to an insecure attachment style. When people do not feel enough support from a partner, it is more difficult for them to experience stressful situations and conflicts in a couple. They feel they have to protect themselves and either avoid relationships altogether or tend to end them as soon as things get tough. The third option for self-sabotage is to get stuck in a relationship that hasn’t brought happiness for a long time because change is very scary.

Breaking the Happiness Illusion: Unveiling the Real Path to Joy

Signs That Can Often Be “Detected” Self-sabotage

  • avoidance of responsibilities
  • “forgetfulness” about promises
  • failure to keep commitments
  • chronic lack of preparation
  • being late for important meetings
  • tend to give up when things get difficult

How Self-Sabotage Works

Why Hurt Yourself?

Psychologists have long been trying to understand why a person destroys his own life. The very first study of self-sabotage looked like this. In 1978, Harvard scientists called two groups of students and asked them to take tests. The first group took a test of knowledge and ability that they could handle. Psychologists gave the second group a test where they could only answer randomly. After the test, all participants were told that they did great, but there was one more test to take. Before that, you can take a pill of your choice: one will make you “smarter”, and the second – “stupid”.

We fear failure and want to blame it on external factors, so we choose not to do what is up to us. 

Of course, it was a placebo. But the participants of the second group chose “braking” pills. Illogical? The subjects were not sure that they coped with their knowledge. They would like to write off a possible failure on a pill.

This is how self-sabotage works. We fear failure and want to blame it on external factors, so we choose not to do what is up to us. Self-sabotage reduces the risk of facing negative experiences. This is an occasion to say “Well, not fate” and eliminate responsibility, regret, or shame if you failed to achieve your goal. 

Therefore, psychologists believe self-sabotage is a defense mechanism that provides temporary relief from difficult experiences we do not want to face. For example:

Imposter Syndrome

If you feel like you’re not talented, smart, or educated enough, then it might seem easier to do nothing than let someone “expose” you. A person with impostor syndrome may feel this way no matter how much experience or achievement they have. 


You may not be sure of your desires if you want one thing and do another. All the options available may be too complicated. Then self-sabotage can be an unconscious action that pushes for some option to stop painfully choosing. And then it reduces stress and anxiety. For example, when it’s scary to sort things out with someone, we can endlessly postpone the conversation. Subconsciously, we hope that the person “understands everything himself”, and the need to speak will disappear.

The Power of Now: Using Mindfulness to Reduce Stress

Fear of Success

Psychologists believe that one of the causes of self-sabotage is the fear of success. It may sound counterintuitive, but being successful comes with more responsibility and risk. For example, if you are promoted, you will have to learn how to draw up business plans, calculate budgets, and be responsible for the team and not just yourself. A person may want to succeed but avoid the pressure associated with it, and as a result, change in general. 

Fear of Judgment

Self-sabotage often comes from fear of other people’s expectations. Unconsciously, a person may be afraid of rejection or ridicule from loved ones if he does not achieve the goal. This fear can be so strong that it “paralyzes” any action. It is better to do nothing than to explain later why it did not work out.

How Self-Sabotage Works

How to Fight Yourself

Mindfulness is a key tool in the fight against self-sabotage. Here’s how you can use it, so you don’t fall prey to your fears.

Embrace Mindfully You: Uncover the Power of Mindfulness for a Balanced Life

Rethink Your Behavior

If you feel that you are acting to your detriment, there is no need to criticize yourself for sabotaging. Think about it as your psyche’s way of protecting yourself from stress. Remember that “kicking” yourself is not only inhumane but also useless. Try to be compassionate towards yourself. Try to understand why you “go” into self-sabotage and what causes your fears and difficulties. After that, you can find an opportunity to overcome them. 

Watch Yourself

You can keep a diary to keep track of patterns of behaviour that are often repeated. If you repeatedly find yourself “flopping” the chance to get a great job or build a relationship, think about why you avoid them. If life starts to resemble Groundhog Day in terms of repetitive scenarios, you are probably a victim of self-sabotage, not circumstance.

Consider Alternatives

Behind self-sabotage is often the avoidance of unpleasant experiences, such as fear of rejection, commitment, or imperfection. Once you figure out what you’re avoiding, think of alternative ways to deal with every situation you’ve sabotaged.

For example, it might look like this:

Fear: Rejection in a relationship

Self-sabotage path: Don’t talk about it to anyone, suffer, avoid conflict, and prepare to die alone 

Alternative paths: Learn more about insecure attachment styles, tell your partner how you feel, together Discuss how to deal with it

Start With Small Changes

If you’ve been on the path of self-sabotage for a long time, it can be hard to start acting differently in frightening situations. Try to take time with your time – it’s normal for changes to take time. Move towards overcoming in small steps and gradually try to meet the difficult emotions that arise along the way.

Big Goal: Get your dream job a Smaller

Goal: Do well in an interview

Quite a Small Goal Tough: Refuse to go to a bar with friends the night before an interview (even if you want to)

Work With Negative Beliefs About

Yourself negative beliefs about yourself. They may sound like: “I’m good for nothing” or “I ruined my life.” Write them down as they come to you during the day, and try to devise replacements that express a more realistic and less catastrophic outlook on life. For example:

“I’m not good at anything” ⇒ “I’m not good at it yet, but it’s okay, I just need practice”

This can reduce the intensity of negative emotions. Then the need for self-sabotage as an attempt not to feel will also decrease.


Self-sabotage can be a temporary or permanent strategy. It depends on the degree and duration of the internal conflict. 

In the long run, self-sabotage leads to many negative consequences. Among them are stress, decreased self-confidence, motivation, satisfaction, productivity, and mental health deterioration (development of anxiety, depression, personality disorders).

Contact a psychologist if you can’t get rid of this behaviour alone. He will analyze the underlying causes of self-sabotage and help to avoid it in the future.

Escaping the Dangerous Trap of Toxic Productivity: A Guide to Balanced Living

Passionate mental health advocate providing resources to those in need. Enjoys learning through reading and documentaries. Aiming to promote mental well-being. Protection Status