Self-Sabotage: The Ways in Which we Hurt Ourselves, and What to do About it

Written by Ashley Vaden, LMFT

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re familiar with the benefits of mindfulness and prioritizing self-care in day-to-day life. For the most part, we understand how mindfulness can bring awareness to harmful and intrusive thoughts and patterns, help us become less reactive, and is an adaptive, accessible way to deal with stress. We hear over and over again to “love ourselves” and put ourselves first, but as soon as we feel triggered or overwhelmed, our self-care practices are the first to go, if we even implement them at all.

What is getting in the way of our self-care?

What is contributing to our self-neglect, and how can we “fix” it? One obstacle to prioritizing our self-care may be self-sabotage. Now I know this phrase may sound quite dramatic, and your initial thought might be, “I’m not sabotaging myself!” But in fact, all of us can exhibit self-sabotaging behaviors to protect ourselves. That’s right; sometimes we self-sabotage to offer ourselves protection from painful feelings or realities. This becomes problematic when we aren’t aware of how we’re doing this or that we’re doing this, and we over-protect ourselves.

For example, if one has a deep fear of intimacy or commitment, one may continue to pick fights with a partner or even choose partners that are not compatible. Or I may have a project that I need to work on that typically gets put on the backburner as I prioritize running errands or hanging out with friends because I’m afraid to fail or put myself out there. An even more subtle way we can self-sabotage is by experiencing a lot of anxiety or cyclical thoughts to avoid dropping into the physical sensation of grief, which can be a very intense emotion.

What do we do about our self-sabotage?

Let’s go back to the word “fix,” because I think this is an important point: We don’t need to fix ourselves or even work on ourselves. I know this may sound like it’s conflicting with my overall message or point of this article, but let’s go deeper. There isn’t anything about you that needs “work” or “fixing.” In fact, all of the behaviors, patterns and thoughts that you’ve experienced and exhibited are ways that you’ve learned to survive throughout your lifetime to get your underlying needs met. The bottom line is, even if you’re self-sabotaging, you’re doing the best you can!

We all have needs; to feel safe, to feel seen, to have others notice us, and take delight in who we are. However, because we are imperfect humans and thus our parents or caregivers are imperfect, throughout our lives we will experience times when our needs are not met, or we are faced with something that floods our system that we just can’t integrate or make sense of at the time. These things can become “stuck” in us, or become part of our programming.

Understanding is Key

Maybe our parents got divorced when we were little, so we feel fear around close relationships. Maybe we saw a family member pursue a creative dream, and we heard our parents discuss how that person “will never make any money as a ____,” so we push down our own creative aspirations. Whatever the cause, once we bring awareness to our self-sabotage, that’s really all we need to do! Because that awareness and understanding are key. We learn what the underlying need is, and then we can determine how to meet that need in an adaptive way, instead of setting ourselves up for failure. We may also see that we don’t need protection from our worries at all!

How to Increase our Awareness of Self-Sabotaging Behaviors:

Here are 3 simple strategies to increase awareness of self-sabotaging behaviors so that we are in greater alignment with our worth and value:

Identify Core Beliefs

Let me ask you this. If I told you by next year, you would have a dream come true, such as a loving relationship, or double the amount of money in your savings account, what negative thoughts or obstacles come up for you? “Oh that would never happen, I’m too needy” or “I’m terrible with money; I’ll never have a cushion to fall back on.” Write them all down. Now, instead of spending time obsessing over what is getting in the way of you reaching this dream, use these thoughts as guides for what you want to work on and what needs you have.

For example, feeling insecure and desperate in relationships may be an indicator that I need to work on building self-trust and keeping small promises that I make to myself. Poor money habits can lead me to make a plan and keep boundaries around my spending. This awareness is key because once we understand our negative core beliefs and thoughts, we can be awakened to how we are holding ourselves back. When we see that these beliefs are optional, we can then be intentional about our worth.

Develop a Journaling Practice

Type or write from your stream of thoughts without editing, trying to write “well,” or judging your thoughts. This is how you meet yourself! You’ll notice themes that continue to re-emerge, identify triggers much more readily, and even solve your own struggles by being introduced to them more and more over time. When you feel triggered, ask yourself “Does this feeling remind me of an earlier time in my life?” By looking back, we may recall painful memories or experiences where this feeling originates and our needs were not met, or we were not authentic to ourselves. Then, direct your attention to what you need to stay in your worth in the present moment.

Remember that “self-sabotage,” while it may sound scary, is really just a way we’ve protected ourselves when something is no longer working. Sometimes, we get tired of our own stuff or tired of feeling the way that we do. It’s important to remember in those moments that we’re doing the best we can, and we aren’t “wrong” for feeling how we feel. But in order to implement self-care practices that we know will be helpful for us long term, we have to identify ways in which we are holding ourselves back, and how to meet those needs and feel security while attempting to branch out and put ourselves first.

I hope you’ve found this helpful. If you’d like to go deeper, next time I will be writing about what to do to implement changes in your life and work toward your goals/leave self-sabotage in the dust!