Why We Self Sabotage & How to Recognize The Signs

Self-Help

Take a good, long look at the main image for this post. It’s definitely visually interesting and catches your eye for sure, but it’s more than just a cool picture. If you look closely in the background, you will be able to see some of the examples of how I personally self-sabotage. Like the crumpled and empty bag of chips: the go-to food that I binge on when I really want to feel like garbage. Or the Apple Watch left on the charger when I’ve given up on working out. Or the Amazon boxes representing how I often online shop to make myself feel better (even though I always end up feeling guilty afterwards).

I write about self-sabotage because I have become so familiar with it. I’ve walked through life hand and hand with self-sabotage for a VERY long time without even realizing it. It wasn’t until the last two years when I really started to understand what self-sabotage was and the impact that it had on my life. Since then, I’ve become much more aware of how to recognize the signs of self-sabotage before it starts to control me.

So, what is self-sabotage?

Self-sabotage is deciding what you want and then doing everything that you can to make sure that it doesn’t happen for you. It’s knowing exactly what you need to improve yourself and make yourself happier, but not doing it. It’s staying in your comfort zone because it’s safe and familiar even though you want to change your life. Self-sabotage is always VERY sneaky and can easily go unnoticed as it often takes the shape of prostration or perfectionism, which means that most of the time we don’t even realize that we’re doing it.

Although it might be hard to spot, it’s the absolute worst place you could be in. Self-sabotage is like putting yourself in a prison and taking away your opportunity to grow and explore in virtually every way. It interferes with every aspect of your life and as a result, it keeps you from accomplishing life-long goals. 

Self-sabotage is pretty straight forward: you want one thing, but you do the exact opposite in efforts to keep yourself from making progress. It could be binge-watching Netflix and eating junk food even though you want more than anything to be in shape. Or it could be waiting years for the “perfect” moment to start a blog or a business.

It’s something that you do subconsciously every day to the point where it becomes automatic. But the problem isn’t just that one night you decided to reach for ice cream and cookies out of comfort. The problem is that slowly those little moments build up over time and drastically change your life. Those hundreds of days of unhealthy eating and bingeing become an extra 50 pounds. That choosing to never leave your job and start a business means never being the entrepreneur you’ve always dreamed you’d be. The very real danger of self-sabotage is that someday you could look back on your life disappointed and discontent. You’ll look back and know that you never did get in shape, write that book, build that business, travel the world, or learn another language and wonder why.

So, why then? Why would we sabotage our OWN efforts throughout our lives and prevent the very things from happening that we want most? Well, it’s not that we’re masochists that want to see ourselves suffer for the joy of it.

What causes self-sabotage?

I recently started reading the book The Four Agreements,” by Don Miguel Ruiz which helped to give me some insight about what causes self-sabotage in the first place. Bare with me until the end, because I swear this comes full circle. 

In the earlier parts of “The Four Agreements,” Ruiz discusses how we as children, from the moment we are born, we are domesticated just like animals. We don’t grow up having the opportunity to choose what we want to believe. We are told what to believe. We are taken under the wing of our parents, teachers, neighbors, or church, and taught the beliefs of the adults around us. We are taught the beliefs, the stories, and the opinions of our community and how we should view the world.

We were taught the names of everything based on the language of the adults in our lives; we were taught what we should believe about history; how we should dress; what we should eat; what holidays we should celebrate and how we should celebrate them; how we should connect with a higher power; what political party to affiliate with; and above all – how to behave. Then we were rewarded or punished based on how “good” we were. The reward is the attention that we receive from other people when we make them happy. We are rewarded many times throughout the day and punished many times throughout the day. But the reward feels good so we keep doing what’s expected of us.

For example, if you were a good girl or boy all year round, you got a stocking at Christmas filled with toys. If you played baseball and got home runs, your parents clapped excitedly with pride in their eyes. But just as you were rewarded for being “good,” you were also punished for being “bad.” The punishment was receiving anger and disappointment or even worse – being ignored. Like if you told your devoted Catholic parents that you didn’t want to go to church. This happened at any time, for any reason, in countless little moments throughout our upbringing. 

As children, we try to please mom and dad, our teaches, our peers, or the church and so we start acting out of fear of being punished which usually manifests as rejection. Eventually, we become a copy of mom’s beliefs, dad’s beliefs, teacher’s beliefs, society’s beliefs, and friends’ beliefs. And we believe things like: women are supposed to be caretakers, men are supposed to be breadwinners, you have to be successful in life by making a six-figure income, you have to be beautiful and grow your hair out for boys to like you, you must go to college, travel is a waste of money, etc. 

As children we couldn’t choose our values, morals, and beliefs, we could only agree with the information that was passed on to us – we could only make an agreement. We agree with that information, we store it, we embody it and that information slowly becomes a belief system that controls our entire lives. Eventually, the domestication is so successful that we don’t need anyone to domesticate us. We do it ourselves. It becomes automatic that we do certain things in life, behave a certain way, dress a certain way because that’s what makes other people approve.

As Ruiz puts it, “The human mind is like a fertile ground where seeds are continually being planted. The seeds are opinions, ideas, and concepts. You plant a seed, a thought, and it grows.”

During this domestication process as children, our family and the people around us gave their opinions about us without even thinking or understanding the impact that their words could have. They planted a seed in our minds and it grew. We believed theses opinions and lived in fear of the opinions because they meant that we were not good enough. If you don’t believe me, talk to any woman who was told as a 13-year-old-girl by some boy at school that she was hideous and unattractive. Ask her how that impacted her. Ask any therapist if what people say to us as we’re growing up causes us to develop an opinion about ourselves. Of course, it does.

Words are powerful. They have the ability to drastically change a person’s opinion about the world and about themselves, especially when that person is a child or a teenager. They internalize everything that happens to them – their entire perspective and life story is based on it. 

But it’s not just what children hear about them that plants seeds. We also are affected by the negative thoughts that parents or other adults have about themselves or others as we are growing up. For example, if the women in your family are self-conscious about their looks and their weight and talk about it around you a lot, this will give you ideas about what makes a person’s body perfect or ugly. Hearing negative things about how people look or how they should look better creates an idea about what YOU should look like to be accepted.

Why do we self-sabotage?

This is how self-sabotage starts to come into play. Ruiz put it so well in “The Four Agreements” when he wrote…

“During the process of domestication, we form an image of what perfection is in order to try to be good enough. We create an image of how we should be in order to be accepted by everybody. We especially try to please the ones who love us, like Mom and Dad, big brothers and sisters, the priests and the teacher. Trying to be good enough for them, we create an image of perception, but we don’t fit this image. We create this image, but this image is not real. We are never going to be perfect from this point of view…Not being perfect, we reject ourselves. And the level of self-rejection depends upon how effective the adults were in breaking our integrity. After domestication is no longer about being good enough for anyone else. We are not good enough for ourselves because we don’t fit with our image of perfection. We cannot forgive ourselves for not being what we wish to be, or rather what we believe we should be. We cannot forgive ourselves for not being perfect.”

That is why we self-sabotage. Through our environment, we heard hundreds of thousands of other people’s ideas, standards, conversations, comments, and compliments and we develop our own idea about how we should be to be perfect. We got lost in all of the outside beliefs and we got the idea that we were NOT that. That we are flawed and unworthy. And that as much as we want to be happy, healthy, vibrant, loved, fulfilled – we don’t deserve it.

For that reason, we sabotage our own efforts. Who are we to deserve to be healthy and happy? Who are we to have all of our dreams come true? We don’t deserve it. We’re not ___(fill in the blank)___ enough. So we get in our own way. We prevent ourselves from growing, improving, and moving forward because we don’t see ourselves as the perfect person who is truly deserving of those accomplishments. We self sabotage slowly over many years, and sometimes even a lifetime, preventing the very things from happening that we want the most.

However, as toxic as self-sabotage can be, it’s also 100% preventable. It’s never too late to realize what we’re doing and make changes. It’s never too late to become a better version of ourselves and get out of our own way. The other great thing about self-sabotage is that once you realize that you’re doing it, it’s easy to stop. You realize how your subconscious mind is controlling your life and you become aware enough to make better choices. Suddenly it seems ridiculous that you would ever consider doing those things to yourself.

Recognizing Self Sabotage 

With that in mind, I put together a list of 11 ways that we self-sabotage so that next time you’re doing these things without thinking you can catch yourself in the act and make a change. You can decide at that moment to avoid the self-destructive and sabotaging behavior and instead choose to operate from a place of self-worth and self-respect. Take a look …

1. Procrastination

Of course, I had to mention procrastination first because it’s something that we are all incredibly guilty of. It’s also something that you can do disguised as something productive. I remember whenever I had to work on a super important project in school, suddenly THAT was the time I felt motivated to spend an hour and a half at the gym or to remove EVERYTHING from my closet Marie Kondo style, donate half my clothes, and then reorganize. But no way would I want to do those things at any other point. One of my absolute favorite parts of the book You Are A Badass,” by Jen Sincero is from her chapter “Procrastination, Perfection, and a Polish Beer Garden,” where she writes… 

“Procrastination is one of the most popular forms of self-sabotage because it’s so easy. There are so many fun things you can do in order to procrastinate, and there’s no lack of other people who are totally psyched to procrastinate with you. And while it can be super fun in the moment, eventually the naughtiness buzz wears off and you’re sitting there a few years later, feeling like a loser, wondering why the hell you still haven’t gotten your act together. And why other people you know are getting big fat promotions at their jobs or taking trips around the world or talking about the latest orphanage they’ve opened in Cambodia on NPR.”

Remember that next time you find yourself putting off something that you have to do for your number one dream in life and suddenly that naughtiness buzz won’t feel so good anymore. 

2. Hesitation

The second most popular way that we self-sabotage is by something that seems 100% harmless, and it’s hesitation. Like hesitating to start the business that you want and thinking it over for months, if not years, weighing the risks in your head again and again. Hesitating to book that two-month trip to Southeast Asia you’ve been saying you were going to do since you were 14. Hesitating to pay for that program that you know will help you level up in your career. Hesitating to create that Match.com profile when you’ve been single for years and all you want is to find someone you could spend your life with.

In a way, hesitation is very similar to procrastination but it’s your brain’s way of trying to protect you because that thing that you want to do for your own growth, expansion, and happiness is foreign. And your brain HATES anything unfamiliar. It’s much easier and appears much more pleasant to stay in your comfort zone and not do that thing, but you know that the only person it’s hurting is you. Anyone who has grown mentally, physically, or spiritually will tell you that it wasn’t comfortable, but it was worth it. 

3. Perfectionism 

Perfectionism, my number one favorite way to self-sabotage. I’m so guilty of needing everything to be flawless in order to move forward, especially when it comes to my website and my brand. If something is not completely perfect in my mind, it’s garbage. Like right now, it kills me that my website is not absolutely professional and flawless in my eyes.

But the truth is, “perfect” is a made-up concept, and every single person’s idea of perfect is entirely different based on their own experiences, opinions, and preferences. I know this because I once showed my resume to over 20 people before I sent it off to employers and not a single one of them agreed on what makes a “perfect” resume. They all had entirely different opinions on wording, formatting, or content. After months of showing it to each one of my professors, several women at the career center, my peers, and professionals in the industry, I finally understood for the first time that perfect is bullsh*t. Every single person has a different idea about what perfect is and that made-up idea of our own concept of perfection is completely unattainable. Needing something to be flawless does nothing at the end of the day but keep you in place and prevent you from moving forward because there will always be something that you need to improve.

DONE is far better than perfect. By getting something DONE rather than trying to make it perfect you are getting out of your own way and taking the first step towards accomplishing your bigger goals in life. Twenty YouTube videos published is far better than spending months creating one “perfect” video. A month of showing up to the gym but not having your “best” workouts is far better than killing it in the gym once. It’s far better to focus on getting things done and on making incremental improvements over time.

4. Setting unrealistic goals 

Another way that we sabotage ourselves is by setting goals and deadlines that are nearly impossible to achieve. Like setting a goal to build your entire website in one weekend, apply to 25 jobs, finish the book you just started last night, finish a project, and go vegan. We set goals that are so difficult to accomplish in such a short time period that we are bound to fail – further proving to ourselves that we do in fact suck and don’t deserve the things that would make us happy.

I do this one to myself so often, it should be called pulling a Heather. I love to put so much on my plate that it’s impossible to keep up with. But this one can easily go unnoticed too because it can be disguised as being motivated. It can appear that we’re just “go-getters” that want to be successful. Maybe some people can accomplish all of those things in a short period of time. Some people do in fact work well under pressure. But it’s a clear sign of self-sabotage if you find yourself setting big goals for yourself left and right and then being unable to follow through with any of them. 

5. Negative self-talk

Do you know that little voice in your head that tells you terrible things about yourself and is hypercritical of everything you do? That’s your negative self-talk. And while it may seem harmless because it lives inside your head and isn’t noticed by anyone else, it is truly harmful. Negative self-talk will subtly undermine everything that you’re trying to do. It convinces you that you’re not talented enough, smart enough and pretty enough, and prevents you from reaching your potential by convincing yourself that you’re not good enough to do it. That you might as well not even try. This form of self-sabotage is especially sneaky because it could cause all of the other forms on this list: hesitation, perfectionism, comparison, EVERYTHING.

My favorite writer and number one girl crush, Elizabeth Gilbert, wrote in her book “Eat Pray Love,” “You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select what clothes you’re gonna wear every day. This is a power you can cultivate. If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind. That’s the only thing you should be trying to control. Drop everything else but that. Because if you can’t learn to master your thinking, you’re in deep trouble forever.”

6. Self-comparison 

Self-comparison is one form of self-sabotage that is SUPER hard for anyone to avoid when we live in a time where we have social media and have access to everyone else’s highlights and accomplishments 24/7. Comparing yourself to someone else is allowing yourself to get so wrapped up in someone else’s life that it makes you blind to your own progress, accomplishments, or highlights.

I do this to myself all the time. I compare myself to the women that I admire the most in the world who all have created successful blogs, books, and podcasts. Many of them even became millionaires simply making a career for themselves sharing what they’re passionate about. For example, I’ll catch myself comparing my own journey with my blog to the life of Jenna Kutcher (one of the most successful bloggers in the world). I’ll compare how many posts I’ve written, how my website looks, or how big of a following I have, while completely becoming blind to the fact that I’m improving as a content creator EVERY WEEK. 

The problem with self-comparison is that someone else’s perfection is an illusion and we have no clue about the challenges or rejection that person had to face to get where they are or what they have today. So focusing on someone else’s comparison is nothing but a big waste of time. Because not only do people not share their hardships but comparing yourself to someone else does nothing but drain you and fuel the negative self-talk. That energy would be spent so much better by working on yourself.

Next time you catch yourself comparing yourself to another person, refocus your energy to how you can improve yourself. Catch yourself comparing your body to someone else’s body? Put your sneakers on and your AirPods in and go to the gym. Find yourself comparing yourself to someone who just published a book? Start writing YOURS or brainstorm ideas or start learning how to self publish. Stop sabotaging and start DOING. 

7. Not trusting yourself 

This form of self-sabotage stems from the fact that we’ve all been consuming information since the day we were born and hearing other people’s opinions and beliefs whether we want to or not. So it can be the most difficult thing in the world to trust YOURSELF. It’s so easy to trust your parents, neighbors, co-workers, and friends opinions about how you should live but it’s not easy to trust ourselves. 

It’s unfortunate that we are the one person who understands our values, needs, and beliefs more than anyone else, yet we’ve been programmed to distrust our own abilities and our own instincts. Our own thoughts are useless while we get hung up on others. This is extremely self-sabotaging because even though you may know that college is not the right path for you, or that your dream is to move across the world, or that you’ve found your soul mate, you don’t trust that instinct and do the exact opposite. You end up living in a house that’s not right for you, but your parents approve of it. You end up going to college when you’ve always wanted to go to cosmetology school. Or you end up living in the middle of nowhere when you’ve known your entire life you want to live in a big city. Not trusting yourself and your own feelings, you end up creating your life for other people. And while they may be pleased and you have to listen to fewer passive-aggressive comments around the holidays, you’ll end up being miserable.

The biggest regret that people have on their deathbed is that they lived for other people and did what they were “supposed” to do rather than what they wanted to do. They didn’t trust in their own feelings, opinions, and beliefs enough to create the life that they imagined for themselves. 

8. Not doing it 

Playing off of number seven, the next big way that people sabotage themselves is by just not doing it. By not doing it, I mean giving up altogether because you’re afraid of the outcome if you really were to go for it – whatever “it” is. It’s being so worried about what could happen, doubting your own abilities, or comparing yourself to others to the point where you throw your hands in the air and say, “F*ck it! I might as well not even try.” “I might as well not even try to open up my own massage studio because it will be terrible and no one will come and I don’t know how to start my own business anyways.”

Instead, you hold yourself back all together. This one is incredibly sad because whenever someone adopts this mindset, it’s so obvious that they don’t believe in themselves enough and they fear and comparison control their life. Their faith in themselves is so low that they don’t even bother chasing their biggest dream, or getting in shape, or trying to improve themselves. When I think of this form of self-sabotage I keep hearing Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh in my head saying, “Why bother?”

9. Not creating time

Another very subtle way that people sabotage themselves is simply not creating time for something. You may expect yourself to succeed in making life changes but you don’t designate any time or mental space to accomplish them. You say you want to write a book, but you NEVER set time aside for writing days. Or you say that you’re going to learn a new skill but you never create time in the day to practice. That’s why one of the easiest ways to get yourself to do something is not by making a to-do list or setting a goal, it’s by putting it on your calendar. We all know that one person who’s been saying that they were going to learn __(fill in the blank)___ for years, but they never actually do it. Or that one person who always says they’re going to run a half marathon, but never trains. By not creating any time to actually accomplish goals, you become that person who’s all talk and no action. 

10. Self-generating stress

This next one is very similar to setting unrealistic goals, but in this one, we purposefully stress ourselves out. It’s where you turn into a bit of a masochist and intentionally put tons of stress on yourself. Growing up, I knew plenty of people who did this. I went to schools where virtually everyone was an overachiever who took mostly AP classes, popped Adderall like candy, and wanted to get into Ivy League schools. I knew so many people who had to be taking all AP classes, and play Varsity sports and be in multiple school clubs (which they had to be the president of). I watched so many of my peers put so much stress and pressure on themselves that they lived on the edge of a nervous breakdown at all times.

The difficult thing about this form of self-sabotage is that it also can be disguised as being motivated and hard working. But the problem with this form of self-sabotage is that you’re always living in a state of stress, unhappiness and being overwhelmed. You can’t even relax and be proud of yourself for accomplishing one thing because you immediately have something else to focus on that stresses you out. It’s similar to whenever it was finals week in school and you have 6 or 7 exams to take. You get incredibly stressed out about your math exam and focus all of your energy on it the night before, but once it’s over all you have is a temporary moment of relief before you begin stressing out and panicking about your AP Psych final the next day.

The major issues that I see with this form of self-sabotage are that it makes you unhappy and sucks all of the joy and contentment out of life. You become so consumed with filling up your life with the stress that there’s no time or moment of quiet reflection and pride for your accomplishments, there’s only room for being overwhelmed. The other problem that these so-called “overachievers” fail to realize is that by constantly piling on more stress, more projects, more goals, and more meetings, it prevents you from actually doing something WELL. You may get things done, usually in a panic and in a hurry, but was it really your best work? Sure you read 10 books this week, but did you really comprehend them? 

11. Focusing on low priority tasks

The final way that we sabotage our own efforts is by working on low priority tasks and avoiding high priority tasks leaving them undone. This is another way that I personally self-sabotage. It’s kind of like when you write an entire to-do list and then do all the super easy ones first that only take two minutes, but days later you still didn’t do the most important things.

This form of self-sabotage prevents you from leveling up and doing the things that really set you apart and make you happy. The things that might not have been easy or comfortable, but create the most growth. Those items are the things that make the difference between being the person that you want to be and the person who held themselves back through self-sabotage and settled for a life that was comfortable but mediocre. 

How do you put an end to self-sabotaging behaviors? 

At this point, I’m willing to bet you found several examples of self-sabotage that you do. You might have even realized that you self-sabotage more than you realized. However, the good thing about self-sabotage is that it’s a bad habit that CAN be broken. All it takes is awareness and a little bit of time. 

You’ve read through many common examples of self-sabotage and now understand where those destructive behaviors come from, so you’ll be able to catch yourself doing them and make a change. You can decide at that moment to avoid the self-destructive and sabotaging behaviors and instead choose to operate from a place of self-love.

It won’t happen right away, and this process could take several weeks or even months to break, but I believe it can be done. It just takes making SMALL changes in behaviors. It takes noticing that you’re procrastinating filling up your gas tank and making the decision to do it right now. Or realizing that you haven’t given yourself time to finish a project and clearing up a few weekends to make it happen. You’ll start to recognize those behaviors and over time those bad habits will be replaced with ones that HELP you rather than HURT you. 

To start, I recommend identifying the areas of self-sabotage that you do and pick one thing at a time that you want to work on. Because trying to make massive changes all at once isn’t realistic and will only lead to failure. You can’t possibly break every single self-sabotaging behavior that you’ve accumulated throughout your life all at once. 

Instead, pick one small thing to work on at a time and that will help you to create larger transformations in your life. It could be any one of the things that I’ve mentioned above – like procrastination or setting unrealistic goals or perfectionism, or it could be another form of self-sabotage that you discovered about yourself like disorganization. 

Although it may be difficult to work on banishing self-sabotage over the next few months, imagine how much your life would improve if you did. Imagine how much it could help you to get the body of your dreams, build your business, learn something new, or perform better at work all because you learn to let go of those behaviors that weren’t serving you. You may not be able to go back in time and change the past and all of that information you absorbed during domestication or your self-proclaimed idea of perfection, but you could change your future.

Lastly, I recommend telling yourself that you’re worthy. We are bombarded with so many ideas about how we SHOULD be that it can be so easy to believe that we aren’t good enough. In order to completely get rid of self-sabotage, you have to address the root of the problem, otherwise, your subconscious may just get more creative with how to sabotage you. Remind yourself each and every day that you are worthy of everything that you’ve ever wanted: health, happiness, success, and love. I personally do this by picking one mantra in the morning that I repeat to myself throughout the day and that helps me to work on my self-talk and self-worth. You can choose to work on it however you want, as long as you DO address it. Your bad *ss future self will thank you.

Thank you for coming to Lost Online!

As always, let me know what you think in the comments! Did you realize find any of these forms of self-sabotage that spoke to you? Were you more guilty of self-sabotaging behaviors than you realize? Share ONE way you self-sabotage and how you’re planning on working on it over the next few weeks! Also, have you ever read, “The Four Agreements?” What are you thoughts on the book? Or was there any particular part of this post that helped you? I would love nothing more than to hear from you!

If you like what you read here, remember to go down to the bottom of the page, click that”+” symbol, and type in your email where it says “follow blog via email.” You’ll have all future blog posts sent right to you! Thanks for coming to Lost Online!

Photos by Ray Reyes @rocketsciencephoto.

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