Self-sabotage: why we do it, and how to stop it!

woman sitting on the grass with her head down

We’ve all heard of the term, “self-sabotage” - but many of us don’t notice when we are actually sabotaging ourselves. You might think “oh no, I don’t do that” - but how often have you been doing really well with a new routine or idea… and then, you just stopped, for no reason? Perhaps you were doing well at work and in line for a promotion, but then just lost interest and stopped bothering?

Sometimes we genuinely do lose interest in something, or a routine or regime change doesn’t work out. But a lot of the time, we can find that actually we have sabotaged our own efforts.

It sounds odd, but the reason we self-sabotage can be to protect ourselves. Our subconscious and our inner saboteur are there to protect us from the dangerous unknown. They protect us from experiencing negative things like failure or disappointment.

When we self-sabotage we avoid failing, being disappointed or scared - but we also pass up new experiences, successes and achievements. Self-sabotage keeps us trapped in our comfort zone, preventing us from moving forward with our lives.

While we might consciously want to do a new thing or achieve a new goal, subconsciously many of us will do something to sabotage that aim. This subconscious fear of the unknown is a natural survival instinct and perfectly normal - but also perfectly infuriating!

After all, if we stay inside of our comfort zones, they can begin to shrink and we become fearful of doing anything out of the norm. This can lead to a deep seated unhappiness and a feeling of being unable to do anything. Without sometimes stepping outside of our comfort zone, our lives can become dull and stifling.

If we don’t confront our inner saboteur and challenge our limiting beliefs, we risk allowing this primal instinct to protect ourselves to stand in the way of success and happiness.

How then do we conquer our self-sabotaging behaviour?

Recognise it.

Before we can change anything, we must recognise our self-sabotaging behaviour. Perhaps it comes in the form of wasting time on social media and then claiming we have “no time” for self improvement, exercise or housework. Perhaps we begin a new healthy eating regime and as soon as we begin to see results we slip back into old patterns of eating unhealthy foods or laying in bed rather than going to the gym.

It’s easy to excuse these behaviours, to tell ourselves we genuinely didn’t have any time or really were too tired to go to the gym - but if we’re brutally honest with ourselves we can often find that actually, we engineered the situation for failure. Often our self-sabotaging behaviour can be recognised by a feeling of a resistance against certain situations.


Keep a journal.

A journal can be really helpful in exploring why we feel that resistance to certain things, and also in identifying our limiting beliefs. Asking ourselves the tough questions in the private, safe setting of a journal can really help to break down those limiting beliefs.


Don’t beat yourself up.

It is possible to take responsibility and hold oneself accountable for an outcome, without also becoming negative and unkind to ourselves. Accept that yes, it was my own actions that caused this outcome - but don’t linger on that and begin a hate campaign against yourself. Nobody has ever hated themselves into being successful, fit, healthy or anything else. Be kind to yourself; after all, that sneaky inner saboteur is more like a scared child that needs care and attention.


Put a plan in place.

If you know that your inner saboteur always makes the excuse of not having enough time to cook a healthy dinner, put a plan in place so that time is no longer an issue. That might mean spending your Sunday afternoon preparing healthy meals for the week that require minimal effort; it might mean buying in pre-prepared healthy meals.

Don’t wait until you’re in the same situation again, and expect a different result just because you recognised your self-sabotaging behaviour with the benefit of hindsight last time. Look at ways of making it easier to achieve your goals, or to do the scary thing. Tell others about what you’re doing, so that you’ll be held accountable.

If your issue is with wasting time on social media, look at downloading an app that blocks certain sites from your computer for a set number of hours. This can work wonders for our productivity.


Create a new set of beliefs.

Once we have identified our limiting beliefs we can work on changing them. A great way of doing this is by contradicting them. For example, if we are plagued by a belief that we never finish anything, we can counter this in relevant situations by silently repeating “I finish everything I begin.”

We might tell ourselves “I am highly organised and productive in my work.” It sounds silly, but changing our internal thought patterns must begin somewhere, and contradicting them is arguably the best place to start.

Take small steps.

If we are working on changing a habit that’s been ingrained for our entire lives, it’s likely to take a while. We won’t suddenly overturn a lifetime of poor eating habits simply by telling ourselves we can.

Small steps can become giant leaps over time; begin by promising yourself you’ll add more vegetables to one meal per day, or have one day per week where you don’t eat a certain food. This can easily build up over time without feeling like a difficult task. When we make smaller changes, our inner saboteur is less likely to be triggered by the fear of massive change.


Make it a habit.

Regardless of what limiting beliefs we have identified, or what particular self-sabotaging behaviour we are trying to overcome, regularly stepping out of our comfort zone a little will help the whole picture. This might mean wearing a pair of shoes or item of clothing that makes us feel a little daring; we might take a different route to work or visit a new place at the weekend.

There are numerous tiny things we can do each day to keep stepping slightly out of our comfort zone. Over time this serves to expand the comfort zone so that it’s not quite so limiting.


Acknowledge your feeling.

So often we distract ourselves with other things because we’re scared to feel something negative. As a grown adult it can be hard to admit to feeling fear, even to ourselves. But without acknowledging it, we can’t move past it. Be totally honest with yourself about how you feel, and explore why that might be.


Practise mindfulness.

Yes, we know mindfulness is mentioned in almost every blog we post - but with good reason. When we are fully present in our world, we are more likely to recognise self-sabotaging behaviours and stop them before they cause any damage. In the modern world there are so many different ways we can be distracted from what we’re doing, and mindfulness can help to rein that back in a little, so that we stay on course for whatever we’re aiming to achieve.

Self-sabotaging behaviour is not something we can conquer overnight; it takes time and persistence. Over time though, we can make small incremental changes that will add up to fantastic results.

If you’ve found success in overcoming a self-sabotaging behaviour, leave a comment and tell us how you managed it.