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Authors: Dr. Abbie Maroño
Published: June 11, 2023

Have you ever desired something so intensely that the fear of losing it weighs on you, even before it’s yours? You envision finally getting what you’ve longed for, settling into the reality of it being part of your life, only to face the possibility of it being taken away. And what if, deep down, you don’t believe you’re deserving of it in the first place? So, you stop pursuing it altogether.

Whether the object of our desire is a place, person, or possession, the decision to give up out of fear that we might lose it, is just one way in which we engage in self-sabotage.

More broadly, self-sabotage refers to behaviors or thought patterns that prevent individuals from pursuing and achieving their goals, effectively undermining their own success and well-being. It’s a paradoxical situation where, despite having clear objectives or desires, a person engages in actions that directly conflict with reaching those outcomes. Self-sabotage can manifest in various ways, including procrastination, self-doubt, engaging in unhealthy relationships, substance abuse, and setting unrealistic goals that set one up for failure.

Why Do We Self Sabotage?

At its core, self-sabotage is often driven by underlying psychological issues such as fear of failure or success. If we sabotage ourselves, we can attribute the failure to our actions rather than our abilities, providing a protective but destructive shield against the fear of not measuring up. In other words, self-sabotage provides us with a false sense of control in situations where we feel powerless. Thus, making self-sabotage a complex interplay between the need for self-protection and the fear of vulnerability.

Physiologically, the fear response triggered by the prospect of failure or success can activate the body’s stress response system, leading to behaviors aimed at reducing anxiety and discomfort. This response is mediated by the amygdala, a region of the brain involved in processing emotional reactions. When faced with a perceived threat—such as the risk of failing or succeeding—the amygdala signals the release of stress hormones like cortisol, preparing the body for a fight-or-flight response. In the context of self-sabotage, this physiological response can manifest as avoidance behaviors, procrastination, or engaging in activities that ensure failure, as these actions can temporarily reduce stress and anxiety by avoiding the feared outcome.

Individual Differences

Some individuals are more prone to self-sabotaging behaviors than others, and the disparity is largely linked to self-esteem. Research has shown that individuals with lower self-esteem are more prone to engage in behaviors that undermine their success because they have a more pessimistic view of their abilities and potential outcomes. This is consistent with the theory of self-verification, which suggests that people prefer to receive feedback that is consistent with their self-view, even if it is negative, as it provides a sense of predictability and control over one’s environment.

Moreover, self-sabotage is often rooted in past experiences and learned behaviors. For example, individuals who experience frequent criticism or high expectations in childhood may develop a fear of failure that persists into adulthood, leading to self-sabotaging behaviors as a way to avoid criticism or disappointment. Similarly, those who have experienced success followed by negative consequences may develop a fear of success, leading to self-sabotage as a way to avoid these perceived negative outcomes.

Breaking The Sabotage Cycle

The first step to stopping self-sabotage is to recognize when we are self-sabotaging. This awareness is critical, as it forms the foundation for change. Once we’re aware of our self-sabotaging behaviors, we can begin to understand the triggers and underlying reasons for these actions.

For those struggling with self-sabotaging behaviors, seeking professional support is often the best course of action. Mental health and emotional well-being are complex, and navigating them without expert guidance can sometimes do more harm than good. Each person faces unique challenges, and therapy offers tailored support that addresses these individual needs directly. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is commonly recommended for tackling self-sabotage. It’s highly effective in helping individuals identify, challenge, and change the negative thought patterns fueling their self-defeating behaviors, encouraging a shift towards more positive and realistic thinking.

However, I understand that not everyone is ready or able to seek professional help. If this applies to you, there are still steps you can take to combat negative thought patterns on your own. Mindfulness and meditation are powerful tools for increasing self-awareness and managing the stress and anxiety that often lead to self-sabotage. These practices can help you stay grounded in the present, enabling you to respond to situations with more clarity and less fear. By adopting these approaches, whether through professional therapy or personal practice, you can begin to work through and eventually overcome the patterns of self-sabotage that hold you back

Setting realistic goals also plays a crucial role; it prevents the cycle of setting unattainable targets and facing inevitable failure, instead fostering a sense of achievement and gradually boosting self-efficacy. Moreover, practicing self-compassion, by treating oneself with kindness in moments of failure can significantly diminish self-criticism, a common catalyst for self-sabotage.

Breaking the cycle of self-sabotage is not an easy task because it demands that we confront and understand the uncomfortable reasons behind our behaviors. But despite this discomfort, you will be better for having done the hard work. We all deserve to lead lives where we stop standing in our own way, making room for positive experiences and happiness.

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