Counseling psychologist Rosy Saenz-Sierzega, Ph.D, was working with a client who yearned to find a better job. But he wouldn’t apply for any job until his resume was ready.
The problem? It was taking him months to “perfect” it.
In reality, he was sabotaging his success, ensuring he’d stay stuck at his current company.
Sometimes, we sabotage ourselves by setting unrealistic expectations. We decide to try something when we can do it perfectly—which means we don’t do anything at all. We stay in the dead-end job. We stay in the toxic relationship. We don’t finish the degree.
We also assume that because we haven’t done something before, we can’t do it. Divorced clients often tell Saenz-Sierzega that they can’t date because they don’t know how. Maybe they got married at a young age and never did online dating. However, “There is pretty much nothing that we have ever known how to do before actually trying to do it,” she said. “By default, practicing a behavior helps us get better at it, so saying you can’t do something because you’re not an expert at it, is not only a lie, but it’s a great way to disallow any chance of success.”
Or we convince ourselves that we’ll fail, so we accelerate the process, said Saenz-Sierzega, who works with individuals, couples and families in Chandler, Ariz. We party the night before a big exam (like the SATs). We go back to a bad relationship. We don’t do our homework. We drink or take drugs. We break the law.
We sabotage ourselves because we think we don’t deserve anything better. “Sometimes it doesn’t even occur to us that we matter, that we are allowed to have needs, and that we have the right to live healthy lives,” Saenz-Sierzega said.
Maybe someone else’s destructive voice reverberates through our minds. They said you’ll never amount to anything. They said you’ll never succeed. Too many clients tell Saenz-Sierzega that they’re unlovable because their ex told them so, because their parents told them so. We cling to these false beliefs, not giving ourselves a fair shot at success (whatever success looks like for you).
We sabotage ourselves because of our big imaginations, according to Karin Lawson, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and writer in Miami. We don’t take positive steps in our lives, like pursuing the promotion or going back to school or following our recovery program because our imagination invents all sorts of overwhelming, negative scenarios. We imagine that we’ll fail, or be laughed at or be rejected. We imagine any kind of outcome that feels vulnerable or that we deeply fear.
We sabotage ourselves because we try to avoid uncomfortable feelings or situations, Lawson said. Similarly, we sabotage ourselves because we prefer certainty and predictability over the unknown, she said. “Even when we continually put ourselves in negative situations, recreating those negative situations gives us some predictability and with that predictability comes a sense of safety and security (even when we’re actually unsafe).”
Or we simply feel indifferent. “This can be one of the most difficult reasons to work through a self-sabotaging behavior because we need to be invested in change to give it the energy and dedication that it many times entails,” Lawson said.
We might have zero clue that we’re sabotaging ourselves. “[M]aybe we never learned that we are in control of our own lives and that we can make decisions, maybe we keep doing the same thing over and over because we don’t know differently,” Saenz-Sierzega said.
But you can change this. Below are some ideas on how.
Explore your self-sabotage. Increasing your awareness about your self-sabotage is the first step, Lawson said. Reflect on where you might be sabotaging yourself. Reflect on your relationships and your job—how you let others treat you, how you feel. Reflect on how you structure your days and how you care for yourself. Reflect on what you allow. Lawson suggested these additional steps:
- Write down your other options or alternative decisions (besides the one “you default toward”).
- Identify the barriers that stop you from making a different decision. Maybe it’s because it’s uncomfortable or new or scary. Maybe it’s because it takes a lot of effort, and you’re just so exhausted right now.
- Identify the numerous ways you can manage these obstacles. One way might be to have support from a friend to keep you accountable. Another might be to research a skill you’d like to learn, like how to be more assertive.
Build momentum. Start with activities you already enjoy, such as reading, attending church, hiking or drawing, Saenz-Sierzega said. “Use that momentum to ask yourself what else you can try to keep moving toward enjoying life.”
Seek things that personally matter. Set goals or make decisions based on your values, what matters to you and what changes you want to make, Saenz-Sierzega said. “Remind yourself why these changes are important to you and what you are working toward and why.”
Remember that you get to decide. If you’re sabotaging yourself because of something someone said, remember that “you get to decide who you are, not anyone else,” Saenz-Sierzega said. And if you’re confused about who you are, she suggested using this gauge: Pay attention to what you do, to the behaviors you engage in. Because if you do nice things for others, you’re a nice person. If you work hard, you’re a hard worker.
Clients regularly tell Saenz-Sierzega that they can’t quit their soul-sucking job or make new friends or stop looking at their ex’s social media. In other words, she said, they believe: “I can’t help myself.”
And yet you are the only person who can do these things. You are the only person who can make changes, who can learn what you need to learn, who can say yes, who can say no, who can seek support or professional help, who can say this isn’t how this story is going to turn out. Because you are in control of your own life. Don’t take that power away from yourself.