The Science Behind Self-Sabotage

Date Published: October 25, 2021
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Self-sabotage is defined as active or passive behaviors and beliefs that directly prevent us from achieving our goals. It is often a frustrating cycle that lowers self-confidence and can leave one feeling stuck. Behaviors that are self-sabotaging create problems in a daily life such as procrastination, relationship issues, or putting yourself down.

Sometimes these behaviors can be passive, and people can be unaware they are even doing them, which can make them harder to detect.

Why do we self-sabotage?

There are many reasons we self-sabotage. If we lack confidence, then we won’t believe in ourselves to achieve the goals we set. This is coupled with fearing success – we worry that we aren’t qualified for a certain position or lack the skillset to be successful.

On the flip side, we can also fear failure which is a roadblock to achieving our goals. When we’re fearful of failure, we likely avoid the beginning the project.

We all feel better when we are in control of a situation. When we feel a lack of control, we can predict negative outcomes and accept them as truth before even beginning. Along with this, it is easy to place blame elsewhere. If we predict we are going to fail, then when it comes true, we can blame somebody else for the wrongdoings.

What does self-sabotage look like?  


Procrastination is very common; it can arise from feeling overwhelmed, poor time management or doubting one’s own abilities. Or it can come from seemingly nothing at all.

Here’s how it typically feels: You are prepared to do your task. You’ve done the research, developed a plan and set aside time to complete that plan. However, when you sit down to actually do it, your motivation disappears.

So, you avoid the task. We can often trick ourselves into still feeling productive by cleaning our home or completing other tasks. But we are still procrastinating at the end of the day.

Relationship Issues 

One form of self-sabotage is creating issues within relationships. This looks like picking fights, dating the wrong people, and the inability to communicate needs.

Subtly undermining a relationship by picking unnecessary fights is a sign of self-sabotaging. This looks like picking fights over menial things such as a movie or restaurant pick. Or, on the other side, it looks like reactions that are triggered easily; being easily offended or angry.

A continual pattern of dating the wrong kind of people is also a form of self-sabotage. If a person is actively seeking out relationships that they know aren’t good for them, they’re preventing themselves from finding a more secure relationship.

This looks like dating the same kind of partners, even though the relationships continue to end poorly. Or simply staying in a relationship that is static and unlikely to move forward.

Lastly, the inability to communicate your needs effectively or at all is a form of self-sabotage in relationships. Continuing to let your partner, friend, or family member treat you in a way that doesn’t align with your preferences makes it hard for your needs to be met.

Negative Self-Talk

Another form of self-sabotage happens internally with negative self-talk and putting yourself down. This is a direct result from having little confidence in oneself. We can tell ourselves that we are incapable of achieving our goals because we are not skilled enough or because we ‘always’ fail.

Typically, we set higher standards for ourselves than we do for other people. We tell ourselves, “I’m not good at this,” or “I know I’m going to fail anyway.”

How can we stop self-sabotaging?

Documenting self-sabotaging behaviors can be a great start to ending them. If we recognize when and where we are self-sabotaging in our lives, it is a lot easier to target those triggers. Take note when you feel an emotion that is distressing and think about what lead to that emotion. Another great way to uncover self-sabotaging behaviors is through regular exercise.

What about within our relationships? This is similar to identifying our own triggers. Journaling what bothers you in relationships or what makes you upset can uncover where we are self-sabotaging. We can also analyze our childhood relationships and look for patterns with our current ones.

Self-sabotage is most often derived from feelings of anxiety, angry or negative self-talk. Once we understand the emotions that lead to self-sabotaging behaviors, we can aim to manage those emotions and eventually stop the thought process or beliefs that cause those emotions.

When we have control over those emotions and actively push them away, we are then able to change our behaviors and though processes and develop self-supporting behaviors instead.


If you or someone you love struggles with self-sabotaging, please reach out to us. Our team of therapists is here to provide support and guidance. We look forward to connecting with you.