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How to overcome self-sabotaging behavior

11 Mar 2024 4 min read
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Ruby Liu MY

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Interpersonal relationship
Psychology in everyday life
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

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There are moments in life that are difficult to put into words – those seemingly insignificant yet profoundly impactful instances. Perhaps you can relate to these experiences:

  • Despite being genuinely interested in the job you have an interview for next week, you find yourself opening Instagram and scrolling through threads, then binge-watching a new Netflix series, procrastinating until Sunday evening before starting your preparation.
  • Your crush asks you out for a meal, and initially, you are surrounded by pink bubbles of excitement in your mind. However, in the end, you come up with excuses to avoid the date.
  • You hope to make new friends by attending a club, but you have a premonition that you won't fit in and end up not going to the event.
  • When things don't go as expected, a self-critical inner monologue takes place, such as: "I've really messed up. I knew I couldn't do it."

In various spheres of life, be it academics, career, or relationships, we all have our unique ways of engaging with the world, reflecting our thoughts and values. However, as illustrated by the examples above, there are times when our actions contradict our true aspirations and intentions. This is what some describe as "self-sabotage" – a phenomenon where individuals consciously or unconsciously engage in self-destructive behaviors, avoiding the discomfort of confronting challenging thoughts and emotions. Ultimately, this undermines their long-term goals and causes significant distress.

Why do we engage in self-sabotaging behavior?

While the term may imply being one's own enemy, we can view these behaviors as an opportunity for profound self-understanding and reflective awareness of their impact on our lives. This understanding empowers us to make changes and break through the barriers that impede our progress.

  • Conscious self-sabotage: You are aware that your behavior may hinder your progress towards long-term goals, yet you still choose to engage in it. For example, having an important presentation the next day but opting to watch Netflix instead of preparing for it.
  • Unconscious self-sabotage: Your behavior may hinder your progress towards long-term goals, even though you are not consciously aware of it. For instance, desiring a relaxing Friday night at home, but agreeing to join an evening class when your partner suggests it, despite not truly wanting to.


Self-sabotage can manifest in various forms in our daily lives, such as procrastination, chronic anxiety, excessive self-criticism, reliance on substances, fear of intimacy in relationships, perfectionism, and more. Some psychologists suggest that the underlying causes of self-sabotage often stem from a desire to protect ourselves – guarding our self-esteem and avoiding overwhelming feelings of insecurity and anxiety. It can be seen as an "unconscious survival strategy."

The root causes of self-sabotaging behavior are diverse and may include, but are not limited to:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Inconsistent thoughts and beliefs
  • Fear of change
  • Fear of failure or past experiences of failure
  • Frequent invalidation from others (e.g., experienced during childhood)
  • The need for control
  • Social norms and peer pressure
  • Unhealthy habits, such as excessive or uncontrolled drinking
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The "self-fulfilling prophecy" and the cycle of self-sabotage

Self-sabotage often sets off an unconscious cycle that perpetuates itself. Here's a simplified example:

  1. Innate self-perception: I always fail when it comes to public speaking.
  2. Opportunity arises: Members of the organization ask me to give a speech to promote the association's ideals.
  3. Negative thoughts emerge: What if the speech doesn't go well? It could harm the association's image and deter future members.
  4. Triggering of past negative experiences: Memories of previous struggles with public speaking resurface.
  5. Self-sabotaging behavior: Procrastination, not willing to prepare the speech, and avoidance of relevant information.

When this cycle of self-sabotage occurs, it reinforces our thoughts and beliefs, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, our expectations and beliefs about an event influence the outcome, further solidifying our initial thoughts and expectations as reality.

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Embracing New Habits to Overcome Self-Sabotage

To overcome self-sabotage, it is essential to cultivate new habits and engage in introspective work. Here are some steps to guide you on this journey:

  1. Observe and record patterns of self-sabotaging behavior: Pay attention to and write down the sources of stress, your behaviors, thoughts, emotions, and bodily reactions, as well as the subsequent self-sabotaging actions. Analyze whether your behaviors and thoughts involve any negative beliefs. Reflect on whether your actions and thoughts are influenced by negative beliefs about yourself.
  2. Reflect on the purpose of your self-sabotaging behavior: Seek to understand the underlying needs or desires that drive your self-sabotaging actions. For example, if you frequently procrastinate, explore how it serves you e.g. to protect you from the fear of failure or success.
  3. Understand the needs behind self-sabotage and find alternative behaviors: Once you grasp the needs driving your self-sabotage, explore healthier ways to fulfill those needs. For instance, if excessive eating helps relieve work-related stress, create a personalized list of alternative stress-relief strategies by observing how others in high-pressure jobs cope. Another example, if you tend to procrastinate by playing video games, try taking a 20-minute walk as a solution to avoid procrastination. Consider deleting games from your phone or working in a location where games are less accessible, such as a coffee shop. Collaborate with friends or colleagues to work together, providing mutual support and encouragement.
  4. Embrace change while maintaining self-compassion: As you work on making changes, remember to approach yourself with kindness and understanding. Accept that everyone has limitations and room for growth. Be honest with yourself, learn from mistakes, and take responsibility for your actions. 
  5. Connect your new behaviors with personal values and purpose: Reflect on how your new behaviors align with your long-term goals and establish a sense of meaning and purpose in your actions.

Understanding the reasons and mechanisms behind self-sabotage allows us to gain a clearer understanding of our own needs. To overcome the mountain of "self-sabotage," we need to engage in deep inner work. The highs and lows of life are nourishment for growth. By witnessing the intricate landscapes within ourselves, we may gain a better understanding of how to experience the journey of life.

Interpersonal relationship
Psychology in everyday life
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
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Ruby Liu MY

Well-being Promotion Officer of Jockey Club TourHeart+ Project

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