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What's the deal with self-sabotage

05 August 2013

How many times have you had your goal in sight only to find that you end up sabotaging it in some way?

One classic example is getting an interview for the job of your dreams. You go out the night before, drink way too much and turn up at your dream interview, late, smelling of stale wine and forgetting answers to straightforward questions. This is all too common and is known as self-sabotage.

Self-sabotage comes in many forms but it is basically any behaviour, action or thought pattern that stops you getting what you want or being the person you strive to be. It is mostly unconscious as we don’t often know it is happening. Self-sabotage occurs in all aspects of life, from relationships, work, financial situations and our health.

Often when we look at why we failed at something we are quick to focus on external reasons, such as the interview panel was unorganised or the lighting really gave me a headache. We rarely blame ourselves and it’s certainly not common to explore what was really happening for us at the time.

This is our “ego” at work. Our ego protects us and keeps us safe. It acts as our internal voice which warns us of potential hazards and pitfalls.

Let’s return to the example of the dream job interview. Our ego might be reminding us of the reality of getting the dream job, “you might not be able to do it well”, “people will see you can’t do it and your reputation will be ruined”, “what if it goes wrong?” Does this sound familiar?

Finding the root cause of our sabotaging behaviour can be very difficult and it’s usually several factors that are involved, commonly:

Low self-esteem

If we don’t feel that we are good enough or that we deserve the thing we strive for we might make choices which reflect this. For example, if you don’t feel that you deserve success then you may unconsciously sabotage it when it is near.

Need for excitement

You will have no doubt come across people who seem to always be in the middle of a drama or crisis. Life looks to be going smoothly and then suddenly they quit their high paying job to become a reality TV star which they then regret. They have great friends but suddenly distance themselves from their circle which leaves people feeling angry and results in friendship loss. Sabotaging things which are going well to generate excitement can be linked to high boredom levels among other much more complex issues.

Fear of failure

This is a big one, especially in the workplace. For many people failure is not an option. The fear of it stops us moving forward and taking the next step just in case we fail. This type of sabotaging behaviour can really hold people back and stops people reaching their full potential.

Society doesn’t view failures in a positive way. However failure can be seen as a learning opportunity and can actually help us be even more successful. I’m sure even the smartest cookies have failed along the way.

Need for control

Sometimes if we think something won’t work or is too good to last we can unconsciously make it happen this way as this allows us to re-affirm that we were right all along.

So what can we do to overcome our overprotective ego and become more aware of our self sabotaging behaviours?

Be clear about your goals

Having clear goals for your future in all aspects of your life is important but we often don’t think beyond the end point, such as the dream job or the perfect relationship.

Without a plan on how to get there this changes from a goal to a dream. So get out that pen and paper and make a start on your plan. What is it that you actually want and what steps do you need to make to get there, what might the obstacles be which could stop you getting there?

For me, moving to New Zealand from the United Kingdom had been a dream for years, a fantasy I indulged in when the real world got too much. I always wanted it but didn’t quite know how to achieve it until the fateful day I saw a magazine advertisement for a seminar all about moving to New Zealand and that was it, the plan was hatched, the list was made, the obstacles were considered and here I am having achieved my goal.

Take small steps in your goal planning as each small success brings you that bit nearer the goal and by achieving some success you are less likely to self-sabotage as you get used to making small shifts successfully.

Be aware of yourself

Being aware of what is driving our self-sabotage is key to being able to spot it and change it. Sounds easy, doesn’t it. But self-observation and understanding take time and practice. It is usually those moments in life that leave you scratching your head and wondering “what just happened” that can be the start of the self-knowledge journey and once you can spot your sabotaging behaviours you can start to move forwards towards your goals.

So do you procrastinate over those jobs you know will lead you nearer your goal? Do you have a great idea which will be achievable but suddenly find a distraction which stops you following through? Well this is classic sabotage behaviour so when you spot it, STOP it and think about what is really going on, what are your real concerns and what is it that’s really stopping you.

Re-define success

All too often success is seen as the ultimate goal, but what does it really mean?

Success to me is the fact that I moved to New Zealand which was pretty scary at the time. I survived the immigration process, I got a job I love, I made awesome friends, I get to live near the beach and I’ve been with my partner for 18 years. I also have the most perfect cat.

That is my version of success but to someone else this would be far removed from their ideal and success for them might be having a six-figure wage, driving a fancy car, living in the penthouse and being CEO.

We all have different ideas of what success means to us, but remember it isn’t a black and white thing which can be clearly defined. Often self-sabotaging behaviour is based on our fears of success. What happens if I hook up with the man of my dreams and he lets me down or I let him down? What happens if being the CEO is really stressful and I can’t cope? What happens if I move half way around the world and I don’t get a job or make friends?

Remember to be realistic about what success means to you and what it looks like in reality. Having lots of money doesn’t necessarily mean you will be free from stress, and problems and having the man of your dreams doesn’t mean you will never argue. A more realistic view will enable you to be less fearful of the outcomes and less likely to sabotage the pathway to success.

The reality is that we are all human and we have flaws. We won’t always succeed and we certainly won’t always get the things we want but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for the best. Don’t let self-sabotaging behaviours forge the path of your life. Take control and be honest with yourself.

Success in whatever it is we are trying to achieve, from losing weight to getting our dream job, is down to us, and you never know what you can achieve until you try.

Melanie Shaw has 20 years’ experience of working in the mental health field and has specialised in trauma therapy work in the United Kingdom where she has spent most of her career. While in New Zealand, Melanie has worked in in-patient settings as a senior clinician specialising in mental health rehabilitation and recovery with service users with high and complex needs. Melanie is now the mental health specialist at Lifeline Aotearoa where she works to support, develop and oversee mental health services with a significant focus on the National Depression Initiative and peer support services.


Last updated on the 17th March 2016