Overcoming Self-Sabotage: A Guide to Breaking the Cycle

If you're stuck in a cycle of self-sabotaging beliefs and behaviors, working with a mental health professional can help. With the guidance of a therapist, you can uncover the fundamental beliefs that lead to self-sabotage and learn tools and strategies to overcome them. Making small incremental changes and acting on them slowly is key to preventing your sabotage mind from putting on the brakes. Take more bite-sized actions that won't derail you.

Self-sabotage may seem mysterious and complicated, but it doesn't have to be. As a psychologist and therapist, it's something I help my clients work on every day. In the rest of this section, I'll give you a concrete definition of what self-sabotage is and provide some specific examples of what it looks like in real life and where it comes from.

What is Self-Sabotage?

Self-sabotage is when you undermine your own goals and values. In other words, you recognize that there is something out there that you really want and you think it's good for you (for example, avoiding those 20 pounds you just lost), but then you do things that directly conflict with that goal (for example, eating junk food).Of course, there are infinite ways in which we all fall into self-sabotage.

So before we move on to understanding what causes it and what to do about it, let's take a look at some practical examples of what self-sabotage could look like in your own life.

Examples of Self-Sabotage

Everyone is engaged in self-sabotage from time to time. For some people, it's an occasional thing with relatively minor consequences. But for others, it's a chronic pattern that leads to major problems in their life, work, and relationships. Here are some of the most common examples of self-sabotage: procrastination; using food or other substances for emotional reasons; engaging in relationships that don't really work; and avoiding taking risks or trying new things. But remember, all of these things are normal and not necessarily signs of a major problem. We all put things off from time to time, for example.

Like all of us, we use food or other substances from time to time for emotional and not strictly nutritional reasons. However, when these things become consistent patterns with significant negative effects, that's when it's worth looking at them further.

What Causes Self-Sabotage?

Just as self-sabotage can take an almost infinite variety of forms, there are many, many forms in which it develops and takes root. There is not a single reason why self-sabotage occurs. For example, someone might engage in self-sabotaging behavior because they have low self-esteem and need external validation from others. It's self-sabotage because the way they've learned to meet their need for confidence and self-esteem is by fostering relationships that don't really work, but that make them feel superior and self-confident.

Obviously, this gets in the way of their long-term goal of having a healthy romantic relationship, but they keep falling into it because self-esteem is so low and they don't have a better way to approach it. On the other hand, someone else might engage in self-sabotaging behavior because they have an underlying fear of success or failure. The behaviors and results are the same, but they come from completely different backgrounds.

How to Overcome Self-Sabotage

Of course, this is not to say that there are no common patterns when it comes to what causes self-sabotage. People who chronically self-sabotage learned at some point that it “works” very well. I put the works in quotation marks because it works in a short-term sense, but it usually has the opposite effect in the long term.

The fact that self-sabotage “works” on some level or at least it did at some point is absolutely fundamental and is the starting point for definitively changing your self-sabotage behaviors. Before you can undo unhealthy behavior, you have to understand the role it plays. If you want to stop self-sabotage, the key is to understand why you're doing what you need to fill. Then, get creative to identify healthier and less destructive ways to meet that need.

Finding Alternatives Before you get hard on yourself and commit to change, be compassionate with yourself and commit to understanding. Only when you understand the need your self-sabotage is filling can you cultivate alternative behaviors to meet that need. And only when you meet that need in any other way can you give up self-sabotage forever. Once you have a clear understanding of what your self-sabotage needs, the next step is to generate ideas for alternative behaviors that address the need, but in a way that doesn't hurt you.

One of the best ways to develop alternative behaviors for self-sabotage is to study other people like you.

Anticipating Obstacles

First, create a list of other people you know with similar circumstances. For example, if the behavior you would like to find an alternative to is eating junk food as a way to relieve work stress, make a list of others you know with high-stress jobs. Then contact and do some research.

Ask them how they handle work stress. Gather all these ideas you find in one list. Even if you have identified the underlying need and a set of healthier behaviors to address it, you still need to anticipate potential obstacles to using those new behaviors.

Tolerating Discomfort

If your alternative behavior to stress eating after work is eating a small healthy snack instead of eating junk food, what could stand in the way of that new behavior? It's easy to stick to new behaviors and good intentions when the conditions are right.

But if you want to eliminate self-sabotage forever, you also need a plan for when times are tough. It is not enough to have good alternative behaviors to self-sabotage. You also need contingency plans for the inevitable obstacles that will arise when you start implementing them.

Clarifying Values

Letting go of self-sabotage is not simply an intellectual problem of planning and strategy.

To form any new habit or set of behaviors, you must be able to tolerate discomfort - especially emotional discomfort - and this is just as true for replacing self-sabotage behaviors with alternative healthy behaviors.

This is not the most necessary step to let go of self-sabotage but it is the most powerful. When you clarify your values and aspirations - the things that truly matter - then letting go of unhealthy habits becomes much easier because there's something bigger than yourself driving your decisions.