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Psychology Behind Self-Sabotage

psychology behind self sabotage, cutting the branch that the person is sitting on

Self Sabotage is a way through which we destroy our physical, mental and emotional health or deliberately hinder our own success and then being often by undermining personal goals and values. This process might be conscious or unconscious. An example would be someone who has a fear of failure waiting till the last possible moment to start working on a project. Self sabotage is often used interchangeably with self handicapping. Self handicapping is defined as any action of implementing a handicap or a barrier aimed at impeding success or withdrawing or reducing effort and justifying failure.

Self sabotage being away through which we hinder our own success, it is generally considered to be an action done with the aim of self protection. In the above example, where they employee waited till the last possible minute to start working on the project, the employee is ultimately giving themselves a way out or an excuse. If the project fails, then the employee has the option of blaming it on starting it so late, i.e. the handicap. However, if the project becomes a success, the individual would be able to emphasize their own ability to withstand the barriers of the handicap. It has been found that self esteem plays an important role in self sabotage. Both individuals with high and low self esteem engage in self sabotaging. While individuals with low self esteem might self handicap to protect against failure, individuals with high self-esteem, might engage in self handicap in order to enhance the implications of their success. It is also generally considered that individuals who engage in self handicapping or self sabotaging may experience a lower decline in self-esteem when exposed to failure than those who do not engage in such actions. It is also suggested that individuals who value others' evaluations of them highly tend to engage in more self sabotaging actions. Furthermore, individuals who were more perfectionistic also had a higher chance of engaging in self handicapping behavior.

When it comes to relationships, research has found a few different reasons why people engage in self sabotaging behavior. One of these reasons is the motivation to self protect and fear of getting hurt. This means that sometimes people engage in self sabotaging behavior when they are in a relationship as a way of protecting themselves from getting hurt similar to how they previously did, either in the current relationship or in any previous relationship. A person's attachment style in their adulthood is determined by the way they were treated in their childhood by their parents and caretakers. If the parents were neglectful or were not present when the child needed them, the children may grow up to develop insecure attachment styles. Such insecure attachment styles have been linked with increased self-sabotage behavior in adult relationships.

Ultimately, self-sabotaging is a way through which, consciously or unconsciously, with awareness or without, individuals protect themselves from real or perceived threat. The threat may not actually be there, but if the individual thinks that there is some sort of threat, even that is enough (sometime) for them to engage in self-sabotage behavior to protect themselves.

The following are some ways through which you can stop self-sabotaging:

  • SMART goals: One way through which we self-sabotage our own goals when we have the internal fear of failure is setting ourselves up for failure. An example would be to set a goal of getting six pack abs in a week. This is unattainable. In such cases, it would be better to make smart goals.

    • S- Specific. Target specific areas for improvement.

    • M- Measurable. Find a way to measure your progress.

    • A- Assignable. Specify who will do it.

    • R- Realistic. Ensure the goal is realistic and is attainable.

    • T- Time-related. Set a time frame for achieving the goal.

  • Identify and address fear of change: Sometimes, we tend to engage in self-sabotage because we have a fear of change. This may not be a conscious process. Identify whether you have a fear of change and pinpoint exactly what the fear is about and whether it is rational to have that fear. Remember to acknowledge the fear.

  • Let go of the need for control: Sometimes, our excessive need to control every single aspect of life is what causes us to self-sabotage. This need for control only increases the level of distress we feel. Try to let go of this constant need for control. Start with something small.

  • Identify the triggers for self-sabotage: some common triggers may be any thoughts or statements that you have with ‘shoulds’. ‘I should be perfect at all times’. Identifying these would help in reducing self-sabotaging behavior.

  • You can come up with alternative, rational and more compassionate thoughts for yourself, instead of the musts and shoulds.

Self-sabotage might seem so very external to you and you may deny that you engage in such behavior. But think about it, have you ever engaged in such actions due to your fears. It is okay if you have. However, it is important to reduce such self-sabotage as they are maladaptive and unhealthy in coping with the problems you have. Anytime you do engage in such behavior, stop and ask yourself why you are doing it, and if there is any other healthier alternative that you can try out instead.

Kaizen Wellbeing is an online therapy platform in Dubai, UAE that caters to South Asian community. There is a dearth of good therapy establishments that accommodate the mental health needs of the brown community. We aim to bridge that gap by providing you quality and affordable care by qualified and warm therapists. Reach out at or +971 50 961 8796 and book your first session towards understanding yourself and other’s better.

If you have any queries please put them down in the comments section and we will try our best to answer them and help you out.

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