Self-Sabotaging Behavior: Why You Do It And How To Stop

What comes to mind when you hear the word “self-sabotage”?

After all, everyone does that to some extent.

We like what’s familiar.

We want comfort and harmony. 

Some of us develop quite the arsenal of self-sabotaging behaviors, though.

And if your life is less than what you’d like it to be, chances are you’re in that club. 

But what exactly does it mean to self-sabotage?

What should you look out for?

And once you see the signs, what can you do about it?

What Is Self-Sabotage? 

What does self-sabotage mean, exactly? And how can you recognize when you sabotage yourself?

Self-sabotage is an umbrella term to describe any behavior — more or less conscious — that undermines your efforts to improve your life and relationships and holds you back from becoming all that you could be. 

Simply put, if your actions create problems in your daily life and stop you from reaching your goals, they qualify. And it all starts with your thinking. 

self-sabotaging behavior

If that sounds familiar, then the following examples of self-sabotaging behaviors should, too: 

  • Substance abuse
  • Comfort eating or stress eating
  • Self-injury (cutting, etc.)
  • Procrastination 

Some forms of self-sabotage will get you to a hospital (or worse) more quickly than others. But every single one of them will keep you from living the life you want. 

Self-Sabotage Examples

Example #1: Substance Abuse 

You’re up against the clock, and you need to be at your best to do the job right.

But what you want more than anything is a stiff drink or something else that always makes you feel better (though it takes more and more of it to get that effect). 

So, you have that drink (or whatever) — and then another. And eventually, you no longer care that you’re not even half done.

And you know well enough that your mind won’t be any clearer tomorrow morning, thanks to those extra few ounces. 

What happened to your excitement about finally cleaning up and changing your life for the better?

You washed it down with a little something. And like everything else, it’ll pass.

Example #2: Compulsive/Stress Eating

You know you’re stressed when you start buying and eating every comfort food you can get your hands on.

There’s nothing wrong with comfort food, but when you’re stressed or want to feel safe and comfortable, food is what you turn to. 

And that habit of “eating your stress” has gotten in the way of reaching for better things — goals that have given way to your need for comfort. 

Whether you binge or deliberately starve yourself, you’re still letting food and your feelings toward it hold you back and poison your life.

And you know you want better. You deserve better. But breaking free of either habit is something you can’t do alone. 

Example #3: Procrastination 

You’ve just run across a fantastic new opportunity, and, of course, you copied and pasted that link right onto your planning page.

It’s even in your top 5 “things to do”! You’re serious about this one. 

Except… that application is really long. And they want you to write about why you want the job. “Tell us about yourself,” it says.

And you feel… frozen. You’ll think about it for a while and get back to it. Whatever you write has gotta blow their minds! 

But the words just aren’t coming. And other things keep clamoring for your attention — like the next episodes of the show you’re watching. You need a break. So, you’ll just put that application on the back burner for a bit.

It’s still on your to-do list. You’ll get to it… when you get to it (which is probably too late). 

What Causes Self-Sabotaging Behavior? 

So, why do we self-sabotage? If you’re guilty of it yourself, you probably have some ideas. 

Keep in mind the following causes don’t mean you’re broken or that you’ll never succeed.

On the contrary, the fact that you’re reading this suggests you want to learn to stop sabotaging yourself.

To that end, it helps to know what you’re up against: 

  • Fear — because the misery you know is better than what risk could lead to
  • Self-doubt — because you don’t believe you’re capable of succeeding
  • Anxiety — because things could always get worse
  • Trauma — because you’ve paid a steep price for your risk or someone else’s
  • Abuse — because someone has convinced you you don’t deserve any better

When it comes to fear, it’s not just failure you’re trying to avoid; success brings its own unknowns, and that can be enough to send you into another spiral.

Sometimes, you’ll push buttons to rush into a confrontation you believe (at least subconsciously) is inevitable.

You expect to eventually say something that will offend a person you’ve come to like and make them reject you. So, why not save time and provoke them as soon as possible?

Other times, you’ll do something to sabotage a golden opportunity to change your life for the better — just to hold onto what you know. 

Your small, comfortable life is hard to give up for the mere possibility of having the life you truly want, especially when you doubt your ability to make that dream a reality. 

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How Do I Stop Self-Sabotaging Behavior? 

Now that you know what you’re facing, you’re ready to take action and replace your self-sabotaging behaviors with healthy, self-advancing ones.

The following seven steps can help you get unstuck and create a life you love. 

Document and Analyze Your Behavior

When you’re feeling stressed about something, write about it.

Write what’s bothering you, what you want to do, what you’re afraid of, what you’re tempted to do, and what would be the likely result if you gave in to that temptation.

Get to Know Your Patterns.

The more you take note of your behavior, the more you see patterns in it.

self-sabotaging behavior

You see the old habits that continually, without fail, steer you in a direction that sabotages your efforts and keeps you stuck. 

Identify Your Triggers. 

When you see your patterns, you can also see your triggers more clearly. You see what prompts you to change course and choose the default path that keeps you right where you are — far away from the life you want.

Communicate Your Habits, Mistakes, and Progress. 

Let the people closest to you know what you’re dealing with, and be honest about your mistakes.

Share with them what you want to do and involve them when you have progress to celebrate. 

Make a Plan. 

Once you know your triggers, you can make a plan to consciously choose a different response to each one.

You can also take steps to repair damaged relationships and rebuild on a better foundation. Identify what needs to be done, and do it. 

Challenge Yourself Daily.

Give yourself a daily mission that scares you (at least a little).

Train yourself to tolerate some discomfort and to respond to setbacks in a way that strengthens rather than does harm to you and your relationships.

Practice Self-Compassion. 

Don’t forget to treat yourself with compassion every day, with mindful self-care, which should include positive affirmations and a new, daily gratitude habit. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.

How Do You Help Someone Who Is Self-Sabotaging? 

If someone you love is trapped in a cycle of self-sabotage, you want to know how you can help them break free of it — sooner rather than later. Here are some ideas:

  • Acknowledge the pain behind their behavior. 
  • Encourage them to talk to a therapist (everyone needs a good therapist). 
  • Communicate your boundaries/expectations and encourage them to do the same. 
  • Get them talking about what they want and what they think is in their way. 
  • Invite them to join you in something that has helped you stop self-sabotaging. 

Help your friend work through the steps described above to address their behaviors, identify their triggers, and make an actionable plan.

Then be there for them, as much as you can. Your support and belief in them may be just the catalyst they need.

Do you practice self-sabotaging behaviors?

Now that you know what it takes to identify and understand self-sabotaging behavior, what will you do today to build a more empowering, self-supportive habit? 

Or what will you do to help a self-sabotaging friend start improving their life? 

Whomever you’re trying to help, be patient with them. Self-sabotaging goes deep, and it’s a tough habit to break.

But for those willing to put in the work, there’s plenty of reason to hope for a fantastic outcome. 

Just as self-sabotage begins with your thinking, so does every win.

Check this post to know the self-sabotaging behaviors that you might be doing. Also, continue reading to know what self-sabotage is.