Self-Sabotage: Why We Do It (And How to Avoid It)

3 Jan ‘23
6 min
Work performance
Judith Knuvers
Reviewed by psychologist Jan Helder
A new year often feels like a new beginning — a moment to finally make those changes we’ve been looking to make for a while. Maybe you’ve even started the year with a New Year’s resolution. However, when you look back at previous years, you know that these dreams and goals don’t always come true. You tend to sabotage yourself. Why do we do that exactly? And more importantly, how can we avoid it?


Most of us know how easy it is to get in your own way. You begin the year feeling hopeful and determined to do things differently — this year you’re finally going to make those changes you’ve wanted to make for some time. But, for one reason or another, things don’t work out. After a few weeks, you experience some resistance, and eventually, you give up. You’re not the only one. 80 per cent of people don’t keep their resolutions for longer than a month.


Obviously, if that happens once, it’s not a big deal. But self-sabotage doesn’t just crop up at the start of a new year — it happens all year long and it often influences us more than we think.


Your inner saboteur


We all know that inner saboteur that keeps getting in the way. It’s the voice that says: “You could just stay home”, instead of going to Pilates. You desperately want to reach your goals, but you notice that things aren’t going as planned. You feel resistant, get in your own way, and do things that result in the opposite of what you want (such as lying in bed for too long when your resolution is to stop running late in the morning).


Self-sabotage means that you’re getting in the way of yourself and your own success. Either consciously or unconsciously, you create obstacles that stop you from achieving your goals.


Often, we so desperately want to make a change that we place an unnecessary amount of pressure on ourselves. As a result, we turn something that should have been fun (such as Pilates lessons) into something we feel resistant towards. In this regard, we have a tendency to slip into black-and-white thinking: “Because I didn’t go yesterday, I probably won’t go today either” or “Because I didn’t go this month, I probably won’t go next month either.” 


Self-sabotage prevents us from achieving our dreams and goals. That’s not just a shame — it also has an impact on our mental health. Not accomplishing our goals can lead to low self-esteem, doubt, anxiety and symptoms of depression.


Why do we get in our own way?


Self-sabotage can have various causes, but it often stems from fear — fear of failure, fear of change. We feel anxious and we sabotage ourselves, for example by displaying avoidant behaviours. If you’re afraid of failure, then you might sabotage yourself by not applying for a promotion even though you want it. If you’re afraid of change, then you might notice that you put off changes (for example, finding a new job). Procrastination is a very common form of self-sabotage.


✨ Also read: Why Do We Procrastinate (and How to Avoid It)?


“For many people, self-sabotage is a way of avoiding failure,” explains psychologist Paul. “We make things much bigger in our minds: ‘If I slip up during my presentation, people will see that I can’t do it and I’ll get fired.’ Sometimes we make it so big that we stop daring to put ourselves in certain situations. For example, we might decide to never give a presentation again, even though it’s actually really important for our personal or professional development,” adds Paul.


Perfectionism and fear of failure also play a role here. When you have (unrealistically) high expectations for yourself or you’re afraid of failure, you’re more likely to sabotage yourself, for example by setting unobtainable goals. When you don’t reach these goals, you then decide that it’s on you. Maybe you feel disillusioned or disappointed with yourself. This can lead you to place even higher expectations on yourself, which causes the pattern to keep repeating.


👉 Also read: Are You Putting Too Much Pressure On Yourself?


Handling uncertainty


A negative self-image can also lead to self-sabotage. When we feel uncertain or don’t think we can do something, we’re more likely to get in our own way. The reason is that it’s less embarrassing to fail if we know we haven’t given our best.


“Somebody with self-sabotaging thoughts will think: ‘If I don’t try my best, I know I’m going to fail. But at least I’ll be prepared for it. I won’t be failing because I can’t do it; it’ll be because I didn’t try my best”, explains Paul. We’re trying to gain control in an uncertain situation.


Self-sabotage at work


At work too, you might notice that you’re getting in your own way. Maybe you keep putting things off or you avoid uncertain situations. “It’s less embarrassing to not achieve your goals when you’re self-sabotaging than to not achieve your goals when you’re trying you’re best,” says Paul. The idea that ‘at least you did your best’ often doesn’t do a lot to make you feel better. Fortunately, many things might help us to achieve our goals and dreams.


How to avoid self-sabotage


1. Become aware of it


Self-sabotage is often unconscious. That’s why it’s important to become aware of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours, as well as your triggers. In which situations do you notice that you’re sabotaging yourself? What is happening in those moments?


Maybe you notice that you’re constantly looking for a distraction or that you often delay things. Become aware of the thoughts and feelings that come up and write them down.


2. Embrace uncertainty and failure


Self-sabotage often stems from fear — fear of uncertainty and fear of failure. You sabotage yourself unconsciously because you’re afraid. Learning to manage difficult emotions, such as rejection, disappointment, failure and uncertainty can help to reduce self-sabotage.


3. Make a plan


Make a plan to achieve your goals and turn your dreams into a reality. A clear plan can help you to stay focused and motivate you to keep going, even when your inner saboteur crops up.


4. Take small steps


Often, we have such high expectations for ourselves that we already know we’re not going to meet them. It’s as if we want to fail. Instead of adjusting our expectations, we decide that we’re the problem: “What did I tell you, I can’t do it.” 


By starting small, we show ourselves that we can. This way we build self-confidence and can slowly work towards our goals without becoming overwhelmed.


Setting small, attainable goals can help here. If a goal is too big, it often creates (too much) tension and quickly feels unattainable. A smaller, more specific goal gives us confidence that we can achieve our goals.


5. Seek out an accountability partner


An accountability partner can help you to keep going at times when your inner saboteur comes to the surface. It’s great if the other person doesn’t exhibit the same self-sabotaging behaviours as you. Otherwise, you might end up helping each other to sabotage, and obviously, you want to avoid that.


Maybe you know somebody who already goes to Pilates three times a week or somebody who gets up early every morning. You know that this person can help you. In return, you may be able to help this person with something else.


6. Talk about it


You’re not the only one with an inner saboteur. Do you feel like you’re getting in your own way? Then talk to someone about it. Other people might be able to help you see why you are self-sabotaging and can share their own experiences. As well as speaking to someone you know, it might also help to have a conversation with a psychologist.


Each day is a new day


A new year often feels like a new beginning — a moment to finally make those changes we’ve been looking to make for a while. But we don’t always need to wait for a new year (or a new month) to achieve our goals and make our dreams come true. Know that you can take the first step at any time. And if you don’t manage it today, know that tomorrow is always a new day.


Interested to find out how an OpenUp psychologist can help you here? Book an introductory consultation.