The Mystery of Self-Sabotage: What Is It & How to Stop Doing It

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Summary: When you struggle with self-sabotage, it feels like going to war with yourself. Here’s what you need to know to end the battle once and for all.

Self-sabotage simply means getting in your own way when doing not only the things you have to do but also, at times, the things you most desire to do.

Some may even call it an art. Why? Because it ironically takes dexterity to go against yourself and stop the process of self-growth. 

It’s like knowing how praised your work could be, but instead, you procrastinate and push your deadlines forever. Or, on a more personal level, you’re in a relationship that you objectively know is great for you, but you do like Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride and…well, run away.

If you’re struggling with similar situations, know that you’re not the only one. You can explore more about how your behaviors may be damaging yourself and how to unlearn them.

As they say, every journey begins with a single step. Here’s the first step you can take towards a life of self-support, self-respect, and being your greatest cheerleader. 

Man procrastinating

What Is Self-Sabotage?

Self-sabotage is any behavior that hinders your development in any area of your life. It’s that moment when the only thing making your life more difficult is yourself. 

A 2011 article in Psychology Today describes self-sabotage as “a misguided attempt to rescue ourselves from our own negative feelings.” Think of it as your psyche creating protection because it doesn’t know how to deal with hardships in a healthier way.

Examples of self-sabotaging behaviors

These self-harming behaviors can take different forms, depending on the life category they show up in. Here are some examples in romance, in the relationship with yourself, and in work.

Romantic relationships

  • Running away from healthy relationships. Studies have shown that “relationship sabotage is a product of goal-oriented defensive strategies informed by attachment styles.” Simply put, having an avoidant attachment style will prompt you to self-sabotage and run away from the intimacy you actually desire to experience.
  • Repeating the same relational pattern. Being stuck in a self-destructive pattern is quite common when it comes to romantic relationships. It’s about those red flags you see at the beginning and decide to ignore.
  • Focusing on what goes wrong. There is no such thing as a picture-perfect relationship. But sometimes, self-sabotage can look like only directing your energy towards the things you don’t like about your partner instead of appreciating the highlights of your life together.

Relationship with yourself

  • Emotional eating. For example, when someone consciously wants to get fit, but they hit a blocker somewhere along their process. Instead of overcoming it in an efficient way, they might indulge in overeating.
  • Poor habits. Think of smoking, going to bed late, eating loads of junk food, scrolling through social media for hours, isolating yourself from social situations, and the list can go on and on.
  • Spending money compulsively. Sabotaging your finances is a big one. Have you heard of “I’m spending money I don’t have?” That’s exactly what it means.

At work

  • Imposter syndrome. Thinking of yourself as less than your real value. Feeling out of place in a situation that you’ve worked hard to achieve. Diminishing your true potential because you’re not feeling worthy enough.
  • Procrastination. A big symptom of self-sabotage is procrastinating doing your work, postponing tasks, and feeling stuck in the process of advancing in your career. This can happen because you might feel too overwhelmed, or you’re subconsciously afraid of either failure or success.
  • Perfectionism. It’s feeling like you are not good enough, so you’re trying to overcompensate by doing everything right in the smallest detail. Paying attention isn’t inherently a bad thing, but when perfectionism strikes, there will always seem to be other things that could be done faster, better, and more efficiently. 

Why Do People Self-Sabotage?

“Why do I self-sabotage? What’s wrong with me?” you might ask yourself. Actually, a number of good reasons could be the cause of constantly getting in your own way. 

  1. Stress. When put under stressful situations, people are likely to develop coping mechanisms that could potentially be self-sabotaging. Think about emotional eating, daydreaming, smoking, overuse of social media, etc. According to this study, coping mechanisms “are subconscious or unconscious adaptive responses, both of which aim to reduce or tolerate stress.” 
  1. Trauma. Unprocessed trauma will drive self-sabotaging behaviors in an unconscious attempt to protect the traumatized parts of your psyche. For example, in a family where someone lost all the money they had due to one bad business decision, the child raised in that environment might be deeply afraid of failure. Therefore, they will develop mechanisms such as perfectionism or procrastination to keep them from advancing in their career.
  1. Limiting beliefs. The way we think of the world with our minds will model how we see the outside reality with our eyes. When you have a belief deeply rooted in your subconscious mind of “I’m not enough to do this or that,” “I can’t make this amount of money,” “I can’t have a relationship,” you will unconsciously act according to them, and shape your reality in this way, although you don’t rationally want to.

Most of the causes of self-harming behaviors stem from our past experiences, our childhood, and our family history. The good news is that healing is possible and desirable, as the consequences of self-sabotage might not be pleasant to bear.

Main Consequences of Sabotaging Yourself

Being caught in a constant cycle of self-sabotage won’t probably result in the kind of life you desire to live and create. And that is because:

  • You undermine your success
  • Unhealthy habits can become chronic, therefore putting your health at risk
  • You lose motivation and feel depleted of energy
  • Your relationships suffer
  • You experience high levels of anxiety
  • You stop trusting yourself and your abilities to overcome challenges
  • The more you do it, the more you might struggle with low self-esteem

Ending the pattern of getting in your own way can seem like a rocky road ahead. But here are a few ways to support you on your journey. The end destination might be more surprising than you’ve ever expected.

Marisa Peer on self-sabotage
Marisa Peer, trainer of Mindvalley’s Rapid Transformational Hypnotherapy for Abundance Quest, and her husband

How to Stop Self-Sabotaging: 5 Tips From Marisa Peer

Marisa Peer, globally celebrated psychotherapist and trainer of Mindvalley’s Rapid Transformational Hypnotherapy for Abundance and Uncompromised Life Quests, emphasizes the unbelievable power your mind truly has on you. And if you can master that to your own benefit, the world is yours, as the saying goes.

Your potential expands as you move towards it. You could never know what you are capable of because as you get to it, your potential allows you to go even further.

— Marisa Peer, trainer of Mindvalley’s Rapid Transformational Hypnotherapy for Abundance Quest

#1: Heal your limiting beliefs

Limiting beliefs are the lens through which we see reality and the “tools” that shape our external world.

In the Rapid Transformational Hypnotherapy for Abundance Quest, Marisa underlines that we learn the beliefs that we’ve lived with by the age of five years old. So everything in our environment will be absorbed and internalized, although most of the time, it’s not the truth.

Imagine yourself as a child who sees your parents fighting all the time. Therefore, you build a belief around relationships that “Love is hard,” “Love makes me suffer,” or “I’m not capable of being in a healthy relationship.”

Years later, you might find yourself struggling to find a partner. The problem, according to Marisa, is that you’re still subconsciously running on those old familiar patterns you’ve learned in your childhood.

The human mind loves what is familiar. And it always wants to go back to comfort and familiarity because that’s what it perceives as safe. Basically, your mind has its own “same old, same old” of keeping you safe.

But you don’t need to be safe, you need to be excited, to take risks.

— Marisa Peer, trainer of Mindvalley’s Rapid Transformational Hypnotherapy for Abundance Quest

The way to move forward and ascend in your journey is to challenge your beliefs. Write down all the beliefs that you have about yourself, relationships, abundance, wealth, finances, family, success, etc.

And then find your reasons for each and every one of them.

“I can’t have…”:

  • Money because…
  • An abundant mindset because…
  • The love I want because…
  • A fit, healthy body because…

And once you identify the reasons, just ask yourself: “Why do I believe this?” Who taught you that belief, and what did they know? What was their background? And what made them qualified to be right about viewing life in this way?

Many times limiting beliefs drive you to self-sabotage because you don’t trust that you can do so much better than your present situation.

#2: Embrace self-acceptance and self-love

Marisa points out how important it is to nurture self-acceptance and self-love in order to stop self-sabotaging behaviors. What happens is that you can get caught up in a cycle of hating yourself for an unhealthy habit and the resistance towards the habit is what makes it worse.

She says, “Parts of loving yourself is accepting who you are and making the best of who you are.” You can accept something and either make the best of it or consciously choose to change it. But the first important step is acceptance.

This 2013 study has found that patients in therapy who learned to show compassion to the parts of themselves that they didn’t like experienced real transformation. On the other hand, patients who showed hatred and resistance towards their self-sabotaging mechanisms found it more difficult to change and therefore continued engaging in the toxic patterns.

Marisa encourages you to celebrate your enoughness. You’re enough now and you always have been. 

However, accepting who you are doesn’t mean you’ll stay on the couch eating chips and watching Netflix all day long. Instead, accepting that you are enough just as you are, makes you more ambitious. And it definitely makes you realize that because of your enoughness, you’re deserving a flourishing career, an outstanding relationship, or a healthy and fit body.

#3: Overcome the fear of success

One of the biggest reasons for self-sabotage is the fear of success. Why? Because at your core, your mind is wired to fear change. Naturally, you’re hardwired to survive, and the way the human brain knows to keep safe is by always sticking to what is familiar. 

To overcome the fear of change, you have to be absolutely clear that you’re able to direct, influence, and control the direction of change in your life.

— Marisa Peer, trainer of Mindvalley’s Rapid Transformational Hypnotherapy for Abundance Quest

Marisa suggests a practice where you think about how incredible your life can actually transform once you welcome change, step by step. You should think about the abundance that change can bring into your life. And think about the wealth that can be created by change.

Once you dismantle the lie your mind is telling you about fearing the unknown, you can visualize the new possibilities. And once you’ve fully felt with all of your senses what that life will look like, your self-sabotaging habits might slowly fade away.

#4: Focus on the healing power of connection

Have you ever thought people often connect to unhealthy behaviors and addictions because they feel disconnected from other people?

And because they feel like there isn’t someone to connect with, then they will find something. That something can take the form of alcohol, drugs, casual sex, social media, video games, or shopping. 

It’s something that takes away a bad feeling to a good feeling for a short amount of time. That is why Marisa’s advice is to focus on connecting to people when you’re fighting self-sabotage. For example, instead of emotionally eating hiding in your home, invite your friends over and cook dinner together.

Or if you feel like overspending on new clothing items that will end up in the back of some drawer, invest in a different activity involving people around, such as a yoga or a dance class. It’s the togetherness that makes it all exciting. And that’s what brings healing at the same time.

#5: Eliminate destructive relationship patterns

When it comes to self-sabotage in relationships, a common way to break those patterns keeping you stuck is firstly identifying what kind of role you’re playing with your partner.

As Marisa explains, “We play the only part we’ve ever known.” And when you haven’t grown up in a family where your needs were met and your parents loved each other, you start playing a certain role, thinking that this will make you worthy of love.

The roles you play could include: 

  1. Getting sick. Being sick might make you feel like your primary caregivers would give you love and attention. Then you unconsciously develop different illnesses so that you have a reason to receive love.
  1. Achiever. It’s about wanting to be a perfectionist, always the best, and doing everything right. This way, you receive praise and attention, so you feel loved.
  1. Carer. You may feel like there is no one there to fulfill your needs, so you decide to be the person who offers everyone exactly what you want. 
  1. Rebel. When all the other parts are taken in a family dynamic, there you may feel left out. This will most likely make you choose to be different and more rebellious.

Same as with limiting beliefs, once you identify the role you’re playing in a relationship, Marisa challenges you to ask yourself, “Why am I still playing this part? Why am I not playing a part that makes my heart sing, for instance?” 

The most important thing to do that will stop sabotaging your relationships is understanding that you don’t need to do anything, be anyone, or chase in order to be loved. You make the best of who you are in a relationship; you don’t need to turn the world upside down to find that someone.

As the famous song goes, love is all around. So you don’t have to go above and beyond to receive the love you’re looking for. It might be just around the corner.

4 roles in relationships

Get Out of Your Own Way

Sometimes, the biggest act of self-love that you can show yourself is getting out of your own way. And let life do its magic.

Once you accept and truly embrace who you are with your perfectly humane flaws, you might uncover an unbelievable potential that was lying within you this whole time.

And if you need a little guidance and support, then Mindvalley is the place to find exactly what you are looking for. 

When you unlock your FREE Mindvalley access, you’ll find sample classes of transformational quests, such as the Rapid Transformational Hypnotherapy for Abundance and Uncompromised Life, guided by Marisa Peer.

What is more, you can accelerate your transformation with the guided meditations available to everyone, wherever you are in the world.

You can choose to show up today. Your best life is waiting for you. 

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Alexandra Tudor

Alexandra Tudor

Alexandra Tudor is a former content writer for Mindvalley and a psychology enthusiast. From clinical experience working with both children and adults, she's now in the process of becoming a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in the IFS method and family constellation therapy.
Written by

Alexandra Tudor

Alexandra Tudor is a former content writer for Mindvalley and a psychology enthusiast. From clinical experience working with both children and adults, she's now in the process of becoming a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in the IFS method and family constellation therapy.
Marisa Peer - Trainer
Expertise by

Marisa Peer is the trainer of Mindvalley’s Rapid Transformational Hypnotherapy for Abundance and Uncompromised Life quests. She’s the creator and founder of Rapid Transformational Therapy® (RTT®) and has been named the “Best British Therapist” by Men’s Health magazine and featured in Tatler’s Guide to Britain’s 250 Best Doctors.

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