You want to move to the next level in all aspects of your life, yet something keeps getting in your way. Could you be that “something”?

We all self-sabotage to some degree. It might be forgoing that workout class or being late for that date as things get serious. It can be difficult to overcome our own “stuff.”

But when self-sabotaging behavior becomes persistent, it may lead to you facing challenges in every area of your life, including home, school, work, and relationships.

Understanding why self-sabotage happens and how to deal with it can collectively be another step closer to unlocking your true potential.

Self-sabotage can be seen as a pattern of thoughts and behaviors you engage in, often without even knowing it, that creates obstacles to achieving your goals.

If this sounds negative, take heart; the word “sabotage” is a bit of a misnomer, or a word that doesn’t actually mean what it appears to be communicating.

“Self-sabotage isn’t sabotage at all,” explains Shirani Pathak, a licensed psychotherapist in San Jose, California. “It’s actually a protective mechanism created by your psyche in order to keep you safe from any potential danger or harm. What’s familiar to us is what our psyche considers safe.”

In other words, you may not even be aware of self-sabotaging behavior, and this isn’t something you do on purpose.

“When we’re wading out into unfamiliar waters because we’re looking to make a change, it can trigger all of the alarm bells in our internal system that tell us: Danger! Danger!” Pathak adds. “Then, our brains send the command for us to engage in a familiar behavior to bring us back into familiar waters.”

Self-sabotaging behavior looks different for everyone. It largely depends on context.

More generally, though, here are some signs you may relate to:

  • procrastination
  • avoiding responsibilities, even if it’s because you “forget”
  • breaking promises or not following through on commitments
  • lack of preparation
  • misalignment between your desires and actions
  • showing up late to important appointments or meetings
  • substance use
  • giving up when things get more difficult

Examples of self-sabotage behavior

  • You have an important job interview in the morning. You stay out late drinking with your friends the night before.
  • Your family is paying for college. You fail your entry exam because you didn’t prepare for it.
  • You want to get married and start a family. You choose another partner who is emotionally unavailable.

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Self-sabotage isn’t a condition itself, but it may be a sign of several things. Here are a few causes of self-sabotaging behavior:

Imposter syndrome

If you’re experiencing feelings of self-doubt, or beliefs that you’re not talented enough due to imposter syndrome, you may drop the ball rather than risk someone finding out that you’re a “fraud.” This, of course, isn’t the case, but you may feel like it is, despite your education, experience, and accomplishments.

You’re on the fence

Ambivalence refers to having mixed feelings about someone or something, unsure about which next step or decision to make. It can make you feel like you’re in a difficult situation, and all your options present challenges.

When you self-sabotage, you unconsciously move things in one direction or the other, so you’re no longer stuck with making that tough decision. This may decrease your feelings of emotional overwhelm or anxiety about decision-making.

Fear of success

“A person may self-sabotage out of fear of being successful,” says Keischa Pruden, a licensed therapist in Ahoskie, North Carolina.

“That may sound confusing, but being successful comes with much more responsibility and risk-taking. A person may be afraid of the added pressure of success,” she adds.

Typically, increased success brings about a number of changes, like the ones listed above, and more, such as, where you live, to the people you spend time with. This can come with a sense of loss or fear of the unknown.

Fear of what other people think

It’s not uncommon to self-sabotage to avoid the stress that comes from others’ expectations.

“Subconsciously, a person may fear rejection or ridicule from friends or loved ones if they don’t achieve their goals,” says Pruden. For some, that pressure may lead to thoughts or behavior that result in self-sabotage.

Avoiding emotional pain

Self-sabotage mitigates the risk of dealing with discomfort, says Jocelyn Patterson, a licensed mental health counselor in Sarasota, Florida.

“Self-sabotage can offer us that easy out of saying ‘it wasn’t my destiny’ rather than being left with the uncomfortable feeling that not reaching our goals was our own fault,” she says.

“Nobody likes the feeling of regret, embarrassment, or shame,” she adds. “Even if our actions are conscious, it feels better to say ‘not getting that opportunity was my choice.’”

Becoming more aware of your tendencies to self-sabotage can help you take action. Here are a few tips to consider:

Reframe it

Pathak shares that the most effective way to stop self-sabotaging is to shift your narrative around what it is.

“Once you stop viewing it as sabotage and start viewing it as parts of your brain trying to keep you safe, then you can develop the skills of compassionate curiosity to notice what’s going on and what you’re afraid of,” she says.

When you can start to have compassionate curiosity about your fears, you can begin to work through them. She adds, “You can make the parts of your brain that are scared your allies instead of enemies as you’re making the change.”

Identifying the cognitive distortions you engage in most often may also help you in this process.

Observe the patterns

It’s said that the way we do one thing is the way we do everything.

You may find it helpful to keep a journal and reflect on scenarios that keep showing up.

“If you find yourself in similar situations more than once — whether it’s that dream job interview, long-term relationship, or argument that never gets resolved — ask yourself why,” says Patterson.

“Why have I ended up here again? If you feel like your experiences are playing out in a loop, like ‘Groundhog Day,’ self-sabotage may be the reason,” she says.

Create alternative actions

Underneath self-sabotage, there’s often an uncomfortable emotion you’d rather not feel, like fear of failure, success, abandonment, commitment, or inadequacy.

Once you’ve identified what that is, consider using a journal to list out the self-sabotaging (or self-preserving) behaviors you’d usually take.

From there, identifying three alternative actions can help in getting closer to your goals. Examples of some common feelings and subsequent actions are below.

FeelingAct of self-preservationAlternative actions
Fear of promotionKeeping quiet in meetings even when you have things to say1. Talking with my manager about my fears
2. Reaching out to a mentor
3. Posting positive affirmations at my desk
Fear of abandonmentCheating on my partner, so I get to “leave” first1. Talking to my partner about difficult feelings
2. Suggesting couple’s therapy
3. Reading books on attachment theory
Fear of commitmentWaiting until the last minute to send in a college application1. Planning a manageable pace of courses with a guidance counselor
2. Expressing fears to my parents
3. Applying to 5 backup schools

Make small changes

If self-sabotage has been a pattern of yours for a long time — say, years — it’s going to be difficult to begin taking steps toward doing things differently. Instead, try to take it slow and recognize it will take time.

“Large changes in behavior start with very small changes in behavior,” says Dr. Suraji Wagage, a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, California. “Practice acting in small ways that move you toward your goals while acknowledging difficult emotions that come up as you do.”

Engage in positive self-talk

“Figure out your negative internal dialogue and change it to more positive self-talk,” says Pruden. “Once you have a more positive self-concept, you can begin to stop self-sabotaging and work towards the life you deserve.”

You may find it useful to make notes of unhelpful thoughts you have during the day. Jot them down in your journal or phone. Then declare a replacement thought that is more aligned with how you want to feel, either in your head, out loud, or by writing it down.

“This is impossible” becomes “This is new, and I am learning how to own this.” When you shift your internal narrative, your external reality can start to reflect that change.

Reach out for support

Self-sabotage can be complex, and you don’t have to do this alone.

A mental health professional can help you explore your thought patterns and show you how they lead to certain behaviors.

You may find it useful to use our search tools to locate a therapist near you.

Self-sabotage is your brain’s way of trying to protect you from emotional pain.

If it’s no longer serving you, there are lots of options available to begin to change things. You can identify your patterns, come up with alternative action steps, and work with a mental health professional to help you achieve your goals.

Most importantly, as you transition to a new way of being, try to be compassionate to yourself, says Wagage.

“We all act in ways that confirm the stories we tell about ourselves,” she says. “If you have internalized negative stories about yourself, that is painful and difficult. It’s natural to try to minimize future pain,” she says.

And once you know differently, you can do differently.