Here’s Why You Keep Self-Sabotaging—And How to Stop the Cycle
Here's what it means to self-sabotage, what this behavior looks like, and how to break the cycle.
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Are you self-sabotaging?
People dealing with self-sabotaging behavior often ask themselves, “Why does this keep happening to me?”
Maybe you click on just one more YouTube video before going to bed. You could be up late watching videos on how to sleep better, while your true goal is to wake up early. And you keep finding yourself in this same position over and over.
Engaging in self-sabotage or creating your own challenges, either consciously or unconsciously, is an all too common cycle. Self-sabotage is any behavior—whether it’s using drugs or alcohol, starting fights, being a perfectionist, procrastinating, or many other types of behavior—that undermines your progress towards a goal.
Whether you aim to have a satisfying job or a healthy relationship, get an education, or improve your health, the goalposts can get further and further away due to your own self-sabotaging behavior.
Licensed mental health counselor Denise Fournier, an adjunct psychology professor at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, says self-sabotage is essentially what happens when you commit to doing something and go against that commitment.
“For example, it’s what happens when you decide you’re going to start your new fitness routine first thing Monday morning, but then stay out late drinking on Sunday night, so that you’re in no shape to follow through with that commitment the next day,” she says.
Another common way people self-sabotage is through their relationships. You may deeply want a strong relationship, but you may be overly critical, start fights, or reject someone before they can reject you.
Jane Greer, a marriage and family therapist in New York City, author of What About Me, explains it as putting forth goals that you aspire to, or things you want, and getting in your own way, obstructing it from happening. Again, you might not even be consciously aware that you are specifically doing things that undermine your progress.
Although it’s not in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the list of officially recognized psychiatric disorders, it is a common issue that makes it hard to implement changes. Some therapists may also clinically refer to self-sabotaging behavior as self-defeating behavior.
Here’s what therapists want you to know about self-sabotaging and how to stop yourself.
How do people self-sabotage?
Self-sabotage can happen with anything, according to Greer. Self-sabotaging a goal to eat healthier or get in shape is one common example, but there are many other ways people self-sabotage.
Paul Hokemeyer, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist in New York, and author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough, sees self-sabotage with relationships, finances, and food.
For example, Hokemeyer sees people self-sabotage by choosing short-term pleasures over their long-term financial well-being when their goal is the opposite. (Here are some goal-setting tips.)
Self-sabotaging in a relationship might look like gaslighting, infidelity, or refusing to meet your partner’s close friends and family.
Why do people self-sabotage?
You may not be completely on board
People have many distinct parts, and the different parts of your personality may have different agendas, Fournier explains. Although people might consciously want to change or engage in new behavior, part of you may not be on board with this commitment.
“We might have a self-protective part that feels afraid of the change and what will come along with it,” Fournier says. “We might have a rebellious part that likes to break the rules.”
When we don’t have an awareness of these parts, we have trouble understanding why our conscious intention and effort aren’t enough to make the change happen, according to Fournier.
You may have limiting core beliefs
Everyone has core beliefs that form in childhood about how we see ourselves, others, and the world. These beliefs can be positive or negative. (For example, you can believe people are inherently good or bad. You are inherently lovable or unlovable.)
Negative beliefs will continue to stick with you through life, unless you become aware of them and work on transforming them.
“If there’s a core belief that says, ‘I’m unworthy of achieving success,’ or ‘Nothing will ever work out for me, so there’s no use in trying,’ we’ll find ourselves self-sabotaging as a way of proving and reaffirming the core belief,” Fournier says.
Stephanie Newman, a clinical psychologist in New York City, and author of Barbarians at the PTA, says people may believe or feel they are unlikeable, unlovable, or deserve punishment. And you might not even be aware of these beliefs.
“Nobody is born and says, ‘I think I’m going to be self-defeating,’ often it’s out of deep underlying feelings where you begin to repeat a pattern,” Newman says.
(Try these instant self-confidence boosters.)
Your early life experiences may get in your way
Self-sabotage also can stem from early experiences and what you learn from family members about dependability and reliability. If your family provides and meets your needs for things like love, security, and safety, for example, you learn to trust that others will follow through.
“So then we learn to trust that we can have the things we need to feel secure,” Greer says.
If you have past experiences of people disappointing you, you learn to be that way towards yourself, too.
“You couldn’t depend on the people that were supposed to protect and take care of you, and you didn’t learn how to do that for yourself,” says Greer about this experience. Therefore, she explains, it becomes difficult to protect and take care of yourself and make sure you get what you want.
(These are the signs you’re not taking good care of yourself.)
A stress response may override rational thought
“People self-sabotage for a number of reasons that have at their core a hyperactive limbic system reaction,” Hokemeyer says. The limbic system is the set of brain structures that plays a role in controlling emotions.
This reaction or system overrides rational thought and compels people into destructive behaviors.
“Many of my patients who come to treatment for self-sabotaging are very clear about what the ‘right’ thing is to do and report helplessly watching their selves run right over their intentions and straight towards the destructive behaviors time and time again,” Hokemeyer says.
“The reason for this is that at some point in their developmental path, they suffered an event, or a pattern of events, that caused their central nervous to go into overload.”
In response, the nervous system is hardwired with a stress response that floods or overrides higher-level thought processes.
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Why is it so hard to stop the cycle?
One reason it’s hard to break the cycle of self-sabotage is a lack of awareness. That awareness is necessary to integrate and stay consistent with intentions and commitments, Fournier says.
Another challenge is that making a change requires getting out of comfort zones and taking a certain degree of risk.
“If we aren’t aware, we’ll unconsciously opt for the discomfort that comes with self-sabotaging over the discomfort of making a change,” Fournier says.
(Here are some risks to take before 40.)
It’s not as simple as telling yourself to start or stop
According to Newman, a lot of people look at the behavior and think, “just stop,” but it’s more complicated.
“It’s tied into emotion. Sometimes it’s deeply embedded, and the patterns have gone on for a long time because of how someone feels deep down, and it’s not in their conscious awareness that they believe they should be punished, for example,” she says.
Since there’s always something deep underneath, self-sabotaging behavior isn’t something you can necessarily fix quickly.
“It works over time, but it does take a little time to look at these patterns, to understand them, and to point them out,” Newman says. “Sometimes people do them anyway even though they know better, and then they wind up in the same position.”
Hokemeyer adds that it’s tough to stop the cycle because, for some, there are deep roots in the most primitive part of their nervous system.
“At this level of our beings, we are operating in what is referred to as our reptile brain,” he says. “Reptiles don’t think about the right or wrongness of their behaviors. In fact, they don’t think at all. They just impulsively act.”
Lack of self-trust may begin early in life
For Greer, it all goes back to taking care of yourself and securing what you need. If you don’t learn how to trust yourself to provide what you need, you’re going to trip over your own feet.
Again, early childhood experiences in families with disappointment, illness, grief, or other abandonment, show people that things don’t happen, come to fruition, or manifest, according to Greer.
“It doesn’t mean you don’t long for them or want them; it just means you haven’t got a clue how to get them,” she says. And what most people experience is somehow what they recreate.
“So either they become the abandoning person, or they experience people who leave them in the same way they felt abandoned by a parent in their childhood,” Greer says.
How to stop self-sabotage
Give yourself some grace
Don’t be too hard on yourself because it isn’t easy to change. Remember quitting the thing or the behavior and learning how to stop self-sabotaging isn’t just about the surface level of behavior.
That’s why it’s important to stop being hard on yourself and instead be kind, according to Newman. “Understanding the thoughts you have and the behavior and the emotion together as a package is how you can deal with this,” she says.
Break it down into steps
Greer recommends putting together all the steps and breaking down what you actually have to do to keep a promise to yourself and stop self-sabotaging. For example, you may want to get healthier or start exercising more. (Here’s how to lock in a new habit.)
Start with a realistic goal and then tackle how you’re going to implement change, what’s realistic, and how you’re going to hold yourself accountable.
“Write it down, break it down into steps so that you’re really planning it out, and check-in with yourself daily,” Greer says. That way, it’s not just a big looming objective or goal.
“Figure out what days you’re gonna go to the gym and then how long your gonna go for, then put in your backup plan and hold yourself accountable,” she says. “Let’s say something comes up and you can’t go, you check in with yourself, and you can plan to go tomorrow. So there’s ongoing accountability where you answer to yourself.”
Remember that if you don’t make it important, it does not remain important.
“If you don’t make yourself front-page headline news, you’re going to wind up at the back of the paper,” Greer says.
(These are the top life skills for wealth and success.)
Tend to the whole self
The first thing people need to know, according to Hokemeyer, is that you can’t think or will your way out of self-sabotaging behaviors alone. This is especially true for those whose nervous system plays a part in self-sabotaging behavior.
(These self-care quotes can help you take care of your mind and body.)
“The best treatment strategies have robust physical and relational components,” he says. “As to the physical, I recommend my patients engage in some sort of intervention that recalibrates their central nervous system.”
He recommends acupuncture and yoga, which place the body in a state of stress and then alter the response to one of heightened pleasure and relaxation.
Hokemeyer also suggests daily journaling as a way to keep track of progress and recognize patterns. “The mere act of filling up two pages with a brain dump and one page of positive affirmations is highly effective in recalibrating our unconscious responses to life’s events,” he says.
“The biggest advice I can give someone who’s ready to break the cycle of self-sabotage is to get support in diving a little deeper and exploring what’s beneath the surface of their awareness,” Fournier says.
“Working with a therapist or coach can be a really helpful way to break through entrenched and ineffective behavior patterns and overcome patterns of self-sabotage.”
Hokemeyer agrees and says it’s critically important for people seeking help for self-sabotaging behavior to collaborate with others.
“Self-sabotaging behaviors thrive in isolation, and they are cured in reparative relationships with other human beings,” he says. “Working with another person provides emotional support and cognitive accountability to change and evolve into our best selves.”
The bottom line
Self-sabotaging behavior is a challenging cycle to break—but it’s not impossible.
First, understanding that people self-sabotage for several different reasons and in all different areas of life is key. Self-sabotaging may be a form of protection or risk-taking. It may also be rooted in limiting core beliefs or early life experiences where people did not learn self-trust.
The cycle is hard to break because doing so requires accountability, commitment, and getting out of your comfort zone. It also takes understanding the emotions and experiences that drive the behavior. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as telling yourself to stop.
If you want to stop self-sabotaging behavior, start with some self-compassion. Follow up by outlining small steps to help you keep a promise to yourself. You might also want to consider looking at how your nervous system might play a role in your behavior, too.
Any habit or pattern that doesn’t serve you or fulfill your needs is worth looking at deeply with help. Working with a supportive therapist is one way to explore these deeper issues at the heart of self-sabotage while providing another layer of accountability.
Next, check out these self-love quotes that will remind you of your worth.
- Denise Fournier, PhD, licensed mental health counselor and an adjunct psychology professor at Nova Southeastern University in Florida
- Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist in New York, and author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough
- Stephanie Newman, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City, and author of Barbarians at the PTA
- Jane Greer, PhD, marriage and family therapist, New York City and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship