Once upon a time, the world was a treacherous place for humans. We were wimpy creatures. Tigers had bigger, sharper teeth; insects had poisonous stings; gorillas had muscles bodybuilders only dream of; the sea was filled with seemingly alien creatures — even 99 percent of plants would’ve kill us if we consumed them.

In other words, before the invention of fundamental technology such as weapons and farming, humans were at the mercy of their environment.

This constant danger burned a crucial lesson into our DNA: stay safe. What is self-sabatoge, and what can we do to overcome it?

This is why we do things such as:

  • Conform to social norms. There’s safety in numbers, right? After all, if a particular activity isn’t safe, why are all these people doing it?
  • Stay in our comfort zone. Because if you stay behind that invisible line, you can stick to your habits, engaging in the same patterns day in and day out.
  • Care about what others think of us. If your tribe members decided to kick you out of the camp, your chances of survival alone in the “wild” would be tiny.

What all these come down to is that changes — even positive ones — are inherently bad. Sure, you might be depressed right now, and living with the love of your life sounds like a great dream. But when you change, the future becomes unknown, and that freaks out your lizard brain. As far as it’s concerned, you’d rather languish and survive in camp than risk it in the wild.

That, my friends, is the root of self-sabotage.

Self-Persuasion and Self-Sabotage

The real danger of self-sabotage is that it’s often subconscious. The behavior is so logical and natural to the person engaging in it that he or she often doesn’t know it’s happening.

Here’s an example: Following a nasty breakup with a boyfriend four years ago, a close friend of mine swore off men for good — until she met James. They hit it off and soon developed a relationship. Two years into the new relationship, James proposed and they were to be married nine months later.

That’s when she sabotaged the life she said she wanted. She would accuse James for not trying hard enough with their wedding preparations, even though third parties saw how unusually involved he was for a groom. She would bug him to find a better-paying job, despite the fact that she knew what he does for a living and that he had no desire to change careers.

When I asked her why she was trying to break up the relationship, she said she wasn’t. Those are legitimate concerns, she insisted.

The line between “legitimate concerns” and “self-sabotage” is thin at best. Many times it’s indistinguishable. In fact, no self-sabotager will admit to self-sabotage. It’s not because they are lying — they genuinely think there’s a legitimate reason for doing what they do.

Overcoming Self-Sabotage

What happened there was my friend’s subconscious trying to protect her from another breakup. Self-sabotage is the same in relationships as it is in, say, business.

Have you ever had a chance to ask your friends why they failed at something? The reasons they give you probably are external — lack of funding, the bad economy, an inconsiderate boss, inadequate technology, etc. But it’s never “my fault.”

That’s the ego at play. Most of us subconsciously work on our excuses before we set out to do anything, and even hold back (self-sabotage) just so that when we fail, we can protect our ego.

Your ego’s primary job, of course, is to keep you safe. As you desire to progress, your ego is that small voice that keeps your foot on the ground – often pointing out what the reality is (one of the ego’s primary concerns). Your ego also is the one responsible for rationalizations.

Unfortunately, there are no surefire ways to overcome your ego. It’s part of being human. But there are a few things you can do to minimize its negative impact. Here are three:

  1. Consciously take responsibility for your life. When you set out to do something, write it down and take responsibility for it. Adopt a goal-oriented life philosophy: that it’s not about what you do (amount of hours you spend at work), but what you achieve (number of patients you helped). That way you give your excuses less grip on the amount of effort you put into what you do.
  2. Identify your defense mechanism. Those of you who are frequent readers of Psych Central might have come across an excellent article about common defense mechanismsby John Grohol, PsyD. Look at the list and watch what you say to yourself to justify your self-sabotage. We all have a few favorites.Identification is a powerful psychological mechanism to help you conquer the subconscious habits you engage in. To defeat an enemy, you must first know who you are dealing with.
  3. Change your perception of your abilities. A 2007 study by social psychologist Jason Plaks found that people who view their abilities as fixed were more likely to be anxious when they face dramatic success, causing them to perform worse in subsequent tests.

To overcome your ego, you need to believe that your skills are malleable. One of the best ways to do that is to get educated. There are plenty of articles in Psych Central about how various factors improve your ability to learn, such as this one.