Why Do We Self-Sabotage?

By Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.

You may be self-sabotaging without even realizing it.

Whether you refer to it as self-defeating behavior or standing in your own way, self-sabotage can interfere with the best-laid plans and goals. Why do we do it? Turns out there are many reasons why, instead of shooting for the moon, we end up aiming right for our foot.

Self-sabotage is any action that gets in the way of your intent. On a diet? Birthday cake calories at the office obviously don’t count. Need to reach a deadline for an assignment? You’ll focus much better if you finish the next episode in your Netflix queue, right? Thinking about breaking up with your partner? You’ll get right into it after you rearrange the living room furniture first.

There are countless ways we sabotage ourselves, but procrastination, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, overeating from stress, and interpersonal conflict are among the most widely used and recognizable. These actions can be especially dangerous because they’re so subtle—you may not notice the extra cookie you’re taking or the additional drink you want to order before last call—and, at the time, they may even appear to calm you down and relax you. But as these actions increase, self-sabotage builds and can create a deep well of self-defeat that’s hard to climb out.

So, why indeed do we do Sabotage Ourselves? Here are six big reasons.

Reason 1: Self-worthYou feel undeserving of success or happiness. In an ironic twist, some of the most driven people strive to work hard and aim high because they feel they need to make up for a self-imposed sense of inadequacy. But when the fruits of their labor lead to good things—whether it be a material benefit, or increase in status or power—they make the situation worse for themselves. Why is that?

The concept of cognitive dissonance sheds some light on the answer. People like to be consistent—our actions tend to be in sync with our beliefs and values. When they aren’t, we make an effort to line them up again. If we start to rack up the victories and accomplishments, yet still view ourselves as flawed, worthless, incapable, or deficient, we pull the plug to get rid of the dissonance. If it feels bad to fail, it feels even worse to succeed.

Reason 2: Control. It feels better to control your own failure rather than the possibility of it blindsiding you and taking you by surprise. Self-sabotage may not be pretty, but it’s better than spinning out of control. At least when you’re steering the ship, going down in flames feels more like a well-maintained burn.

Reason 3: Perceived fraudulence. As the bar continues to rise—you’re promoted to a new position, you obtain higher levels of education—you feel you only have further to fall when you inevitably come crashing down. If you call attention to your triumphs, it’s more likely you’ll be called out as a fake. This is otherwise known as good ol’ impostor syndrome.

How does this manifest? You may do the bare minimum and hope it goes unnoticed. Or you may push hard and go big, but worry you’ll be revealed at any moment. Either way, feeling like a fraud easily leads you towards procrastination and diversion—if you’re faced with a task that makes you feel like a phony, it’s a lot more tempting to refresh Instagram again, research frying pans, or realize there’s no time like the present to immediately start a DIY spice rack project.

Reason 4: For a handy scapegoat. If things aren’t resolved (or when they aren’t resolved, because that’s the only option, right?) we can blame the action instead of ourselves. Of course she left me—I was never around. Of course I failed the class—I barely studied for any exams. While these reasons may be true, they are more frivolous, and easier to come to terms with and swallow than the deeper reasons we only believe to be true: Of course she left me—I’m not worthy of love. Of course I failed the class—I’m incapable of grasping the material.

Reason 5: Familiarity. Again, people like to be consistent. We even tend to choose consistency over our own contentment. If you’re used to being or feeling overlooked, mistreated, or exploited, it’s strangely reassuring to put yourself in that position. You’ve probably been there your whole life, and while you may not be happy, that which you know is preferable to the unknown.

Reason 6: Sheer boredom. Once in awhile, we self-sabotage simply to push buttons. Picking a fight and inciting drama can give a rush, but of course, these are not random acts. Sabotaging ourselves creates the familiar feeling of instability and chaos, plus, if we’re stuck at the bottom, we might as well brandish power while we’re down there.

So how can you stop sawing off the tree limb you’re sitting on? Look at the proverbial root. However your self-sabotage materializes, beat it at the root: Fear of failure.

I get a lot of raised eyebrows when I say that: Most people think of self-demolition as fear of success. But deep down, despair over achievements isn’t truly a fear of ambition and your own worth—it’s a fear of trying one’s best and not succeeding, of being personally let down and publicly humiliated as we worry that our best just might not be good enough. It’s enough to make us take refuge in DIY spice racks.