Why do we self-sabotage?

Do you ever feel that the world is against you, or that something or someone is holding you back?

Could that someone be your inner saboteur, asks Liz Nowosad?

Self-sabotage can be described as a combination of negative thoughts, feelings and self-defeating behaviours, caused by low self-esteem and a lack of self-worth and confidence that create roadblocks on the path to success. When you consciously want something but subconsciously make sure you don’t get it, your inner saboteur is at work. The behaviours are subtle, but by learning to recognise them, you can begin to overcome them.


Most of us have doubted our ability, attractiveness and worth at some point. You may try to pass off your self-perceived weaknesses’ as strengths, but if you modify yourself in an attempt to win someone over or control the opinion they form of you, you are in a sense trying to control or dominate their thoughts and actions. Such behaviour means you want something from that person, be it their acceptance, attention, respect or approval. You are however, putting them in a position where they are secretly in command of you. Any action you take to appear strong before another person is usually read by that person as a weakness. Think about your past interactions and relationships. The general rule is the more you demand or crave somebody’s respect or approval, the less successful you are in gaining it.

Unworthiness is the self-perceived belief or feeling that you don’t deserve success, popularity and ultimately, happiness. It comes from poor self-image and low self-esteem. By building your self-esteem you will be comfortable enough with yourself to be the person you are, not the person you think others want you to be. There is nothing more attractive than somebody who is comfortable in their own skin and at peace with who they are.


The late psychotherapist, Martha Baldwin Beveridge, author of Self-Sabotage: How to Stop It & Soar to Success, believed that the inner saboteur is activated when you experience strong emotions – particularly positive ones. “If someone expects rejection but gets joy and happiness, it conflicts with their repressed expectation,” she said. “Becoming a saboteur is a way of dealing with that, creating an outcome that doesn’t conflict with their beliefs.”

It’s quite common for people to want what they can’t have and to cease wanting it when they eventually get it. Another common behaviour is to pick fights with a loved one, especially when the partner is being particularly kind or loving.

“My parents had a cold and volatile relationship,” says Monica, 31. “Their marriage wasn’t a happy one and my father had affairs. Consequently, my view of relationships is fairly poor and I find it hard to trust men. As soon as things start to go really well in a relationship and I begin to develop trust, I pick a fight or tell the poor guy I need space. I’m much more comfortable going out with someone who will treat me badly, cheat and let me down, because that’s what I expect.”

Like Monica, some people find it difficult to live ‘in the moment’ of a happy relationship, because they are living in fear and constantly expecting the worst. When it does go wrong – often because they have initiated conflict – they feel almost relieved and the ensuing misery vindicates their negative beliefs.

“It is possible to free ourselves from deeply ingrained patterns of self-sabotaging behaviour, but only if we recognise that we are doing it,” says consultant psychotherapist Mark Dunn. Next time you suspect you may be putting a spanner in the works, ask yourself, “What would my ideal relationship be like?” Make a list of qualities that your ideal partner would possess and then make another list based on your current relationship and partner. Compare the lists. Are you with the wrong person? Or are you with the right person, but sabotaging your relationship because of your own insecurities?

Make time to acknowledge your partner regularly and allow yourself to tune into your feelings. Instead of pushing the other person away, indulge in their affection for a few moments. How does it feel? Do you feel smothered and trapped or does it feel good to be loved and adored? Notice when you feel afraid and don’t try to push that feeling away. When you have finished feeling that fear, focus on what feels good about the relationship.


How often do you focus on what is not working, what is not right or what is missing from your life? Your mind cannot move away from something, only towards it – so when you say, “I don’t want ‘X’ to happen,” you automatically gravitate towards ‘X’.

Concentrate on what you want, and enjoy what you already have. Live in the moment, not in fear of what could happen in the future. Think about what’s going right and what’s working and be sure to acknowledge and be thankful for it. If you think in this way, you will attract more of what is working.

There may be times when you feel you don’t have what it takes to succeed and that your goals are too unrealistic and beyond your capabilities. Instead of lowering your goals, increase your self-confidence.

“When you approach a situation with confidence and you know that you can make a difference, you experience self-empowerment and when you have empowerment you have the will, motivation and stamina to achieve your goals,” says NLP practitioner Maya Phillips, author of Emotional Excellence. “With beliefs like that you can succeed at anything you want.”


“Fear of failure and fear of success are two common aspects of the fear of change, both reflecting similar negative beliefs of low self-worth and self-doubt,” says psychotherapist Lisa Sidorowicz. “When strong self-worth is present however, change can be welcomed as an opportunity for growth, forward movement and personal fulfillment.”

Change can be scary. It means leaving your comfort zone, letting go of old routines, beliefs and processes and venturing into the unknown. The idea of undertaking a new challenge can bring up uncomfortable feelings.

It may cause you to doubt your abilities and intelligence or your capacity to overcome any obstacles that may arise.

You may decide that the fear of messing up, of being judged and humiliated (“What if I don’t measure up? What if I make a mistake?”), does not merit taking the risk, no matter how attractive the offer.

Conversely, there is fear of success. “Many people are afraid to unleash their full potential, not because they fear they will fail but because they fear their power and ability to succeed,” says Sidorowicz. “Some are scared of success and happiness because of the changes it will bring. They may feel they don’t deserve it, or are scared of losing it once they get it. Others dwell on the potentially negative reactions of their friends and family and are concerned about losing love and acceptance because of envy, jealousy and resentment. Such beliefs tap into deep-seated self-doubt and often result in self-sabotage.”

Next time you experience fear, ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Acknowledge your fear and then let it go. Remind yourself that worst-case scenarios are nothing but products of the imagination and they rarely come to fruition.

Take a moment to put things in perspective and then make a list of the things you want to change, the things you can change and the things you’d like to change but have little or no power over, such as other people’s actions and feelings. Next, devise an action plan and silence your inner skeptic with positive thinking and affirmations.

As Canadian ice hockey coach, Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.”

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