One of my biggest learning curves was a time when I crashed financially and lost everything. Well, everything of a material nature anyway. The year I faced up to my increasing debt levels and the fact my house had been repossessed was a catalyst for significant change. From that time I stopped running on autopilot. I began the slow journey of consciously taking responsibility.  That meant working my way out of making painful choices and finally overcoming self-sabotage which had been a feature of my life up until that point.

At that time, when I was in that downward spiral everyone had an opinion. I was given much sage advice to help me rise out of the negative direction of travel I was headed. But I wasn’t hearing anything except my inner denial and fear.   If you have kids or are a trainer or coach you know that giving advice is the least effective way to change behaviours. Knowledge in itself does not make changes.  There have been many situations in my life when I did know what to do but I just wasn’t galvanised into action. Unfortunately, often we are forced into action because life just gets too painful.

Owning Our Propensity For Self-Sabotage

When it comes to self-sabotage, I know I am not alone.  Self-sabotage is a common yet deeply frustrating behaviour that many people experience. It involves making decisions and taking actions that hinder your progress and success. Despite having the intention to achieve our goals, we find ourselves engaging in behaviours that do the opposite.  In this article I will explore what self-sabotage is, its connection to imposter syndrome, the reasons behind it, and practical steps to stop making painful choices. Additionally, we delve into how the brain processes self-sabotage and how it can be reprogrammed to support healthier decision-making.

What is Self-Sabotage?

Self-sabotage refers to behaviours or thought patterns that undermine our success and well-being. This can manifest in various ways, such as procrastination, self-doubt, negative self-talk, and engaging in harmful habits. These actions create a cycle of failure and disappointment, often reinforcing a negative self-image. One of the most common causes of self-sabotage is the insidious notion of imposter syndrome.

Why Do We Self-Sabotage?

The reasons we can self-sabotage are varied.  Each of us has our own experiences and situations which either consciously or unconsciously make us make painful choices.  Research shows several psychological factors contribute to self-sabotage.  Here I outline some of those points and others I have experienced through coaching clients:

1. Fear of Failure

The fear of not succeeding can be so overwhelming that it’s easier to not try at all. This way, failure is certain but controllable. This mindset stems from a deep-seated anxiety about the unknown and the potential pain of falling short. When we fear failure, we often engage in self-sabotage by procrastinating, avoiding new opportunities, or setting ourselves up for failure with unrealistic expectations. This avoidance can feel like a protective mechanism, shielding us from the immediate pain of failure. However, it ultimately limits our growth and keeps us from achieving our true potential. Overcoming the fear of failure involves changing our relationship with failure itself, viewing it not as a definitive end but as a valuable part of the learning process.

2. Fear of Success

Success can bring its own set of challenges and expectations, leading some to avoid it altogether. This paradoxical fear arises because success often comes with increased visibility, higher expectations, and the pressure to maintain or surpass current achievements. People who fear success may sabotage their efforts by downplaying their abilities, refusing opportunities, or underperforming intentionally. This fear can be rooted in a discomfort with change or an unwillingness to step out of one’s comfort zone. Addressing the fear of success requires understanding that success does not have to mean losing control. It involves building confidence in one’s ability to handle new responsibilities and embracing the growth that comes with success.

3. Low Self-Esteem

People with low self-esteem may not believe they deserve success, leading them to engage in self-destructive behaviours. When individuals lack confidence in their worth or abilities, they may undermine their efforts and achievements. This self-sabotage manifests through negative self-talk, reluctance to take on challenges, and a tendency to give up easily. Low self-esteem can create a self-fulfilling prophecy where the fear of inadequacy results in actions that prevent success, thereby reinforcing the negative self-perception. To counteract low self-esteem, it is essential to practice self-compassion, celebrate small victories, and gradually build a more positive self-image through supportive relationships and constructive self-reflection.

4. Comfort Zones

Change, even positive change, can be uncomfortable. Self-sabotage keeps us within familiar territory, even if it’s not ideal. Our comfort zones represent a psychological state where we feel at ease and in control, free from anxiety and stress. However, staying within these limits can hinder personal growth and prevent us from seizing new opportunities. Self-sabotage maintains the status quo by making us avoid risks and challenges. This can result in missed opportunities for development and success. Breaking free from our comfort zones involves gradually exposing ourselves to new experiences and embracing the uncertainty that comes with growth. By doing so, we can expand our horizons and achieve greater fulfilment.

5. Cognitive Dissonance

When our actions don’t align with our beliefs about ourselves, it creates discomfort. Self-sabotage can be a way to align reality with negative self-perceptions. Cognitive dissonance occurs when there is a conflict between our actions and our self-beliefs. For instance, if someone believes they are not worthy of success, achieving success can create an uncomfortable dissonance. To resolve this, individuals might unconsciously sabotage their success to match their negative self-view. Overcoming cognitive dissonance requires changing either the behaviour or the underlying belief. By challenging negative self-perceptions and reinforcing positive self-beliefs through evidence and affirmations, we can align our actions with a healthier self-image and reduce self-sabotaging tendencies.

6. Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is the persistent belief that one is not as competent as others perceive them to be. Those suffering from this syndrome often feel like frauds, attributing their success to luck rather than their abilities. This was one of the problems I was dealing with, although I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time.   My hidden but real lack of confidence manifested in self-sabotaging behaviours.  Imposter syndrome leads to self-sabotage because we may unconsciously undermine our efforts to prevent being “exposed” as imposters.

When The Pain Gets Too Much

In some respects, I realised that I had to go through the painful consequences of those automatic reactions and choices I was making to understand two crucial points. First, I had created that situation through my thoughts, beliefs, and self-talk. Second, feeling the pain motivated me to change my behaviours so that the situation never arose again. This realisation was a pivotal moment in overcoming self-sabotage.

The Painful Path to Change At Work

One of my biggest frustrations is seeing teams and leaders in a downward spiral in some shape or form. They often don’t galvanise into action until the painful consequences of their choices become undeniable. Sometimes, the outcomes are predictable and preventable. However, like me in my earlier situation, many people fail to realise that the pain can be minimised or even avoided. They continue to learn through the consequences of painful choices because they don’t understand that they can change their programming.

Understanding and Changing Our Programming

Overcoming self-sabotage requires an awareness that we are capable of changing our internal programming. Once this awareness is achieved, it becomes possible to switch to a different way of thinking or overcome limiting beliefs by visualising and believing in a different outcome. This shift in mindset is fundamental in overcoming self-sabotage and fostering a more positive approach to life and decision-making.

Away and Toward Motivation

A simple way to understand this shift is through the concept of “Away and Toward” motivation. We are either moving away from something “Not Wanted” or moving toward something “Wanted”. The problem with moving away from something not wanted is that it becomes our focus. And guess what? What we focus on multiplies. This focus on the negative aspects can inadvertently lead to more negative outcomes.

Ways To Overcome Self-Sabotage

The good news is that there are some strategies and techniques we can all use to overcome self-sabotage and change our programming.   Here I outline some practices and mindset shifts to adopt to recognise and prevent self-sabotage.

1. Recognising and Addressing Self-Sabotage

Recognising that you are self-sabotaging is the first crucial step in overcoming this destructive behaviour. It is essential to acknowledge when things are not progressing positively and to take early action before you crash. By intervening early, you can pivot the downward spiral into a more positive direction. Pay close attention to your inner feelings; if they are less than positive, make a concerted effort to feel better as frequently and as intensely as possible each day.

Observe your thought patterns closely. Is your negative chatter running unchecked in your mind? If so, take proactive steps to counteract it. Meditate to quiet your mind, start a gratitude journal to shift your focus to positive aspects of your life, surround yourself with positive people, or write down your negative thoughts and then rewrite them with a positive slant.

Additionally, try to uncover any limiting beliefs that may be making you feel bad or helpless. These beliefs can often be deeply ingrained and may require significant effort to change. If you find yourself unable to change the direction of your negative thoughts and feelings on your own, it is wise to seek coaching or expert help. Professional guidance can provide the tools and support needed to overcome self-sabotage and foster a more positive and productive mindset.

2. Choosing to Learn Through Fear and Pain vs. Love and Trust

Life presents us with the choice to learn through fear and pain or love and trust, shaping our experiences and personal growth. When everything is going wrong, it often feels as if we are trapped in a cycle of fear and pain, leading us to make decisions rooted in self-preservation and doubt. These moments, though challenging, can become profound learning opportunities, teaching resilience and self-awareness.

However, unless we consciously choose otherwise, we may remain stuck in this negative loop. By actively deciding to learn through love and trust, we open ourselves to a more compassionate and supportive perspective. Embracing challenges with a mindset of love and trust enables us to grow in a nurturing environment, fostering confidence and a deeper connection to our true selves. In essence, our approach to life’s difficulties determines whether we are hardened by fear or strengthened by love.

3. Switching Focus to Positive Outcomes

It’s essential to switch your focus to what you want and imagine yourself achieving it. The trick is to not get into a situation where “Away” motivation is even triggered. By focusing on positive outcomes and what you genuinely want, you can create a more constructive and empowering mindset. This proactive approach helps in overcoming self-sabotage, enabling you to break free from negative cycles and make healthier, more beneficial choices.

4. Set Realistic Goals

Breaking down larger goals into smaller, manageable steps is essential for maintaining motivation and preventing overwhelm. When goals seem too big or unattainable, it’s easy to become discouraged and fall into self-sabotaging behaviours. Instead, divide your goals into smaller, actionable tasks that you can accomplish step by step. Celebrate each small victory along the way, as these achievements build momentum and confidence. Setting realistic and achievable goals also helps in managing expectations and reducing stress. By focusing on what you can do today, rather than being overwhelmed by the bigger picture, you create a sustainable path towards success. This approach fosters a sense of progress and accomplishment, which is crucial in overcoming self-sabotage.

5. Develop Healthy Habits

Engaging in activities that promote well-being is a powerful way to combat self-sabotage. Healthy habits such as regular exercise, meditation, and adequate sleep play a significant role in maintaining mental and physical health. Exercise helps in releasing endorphins, which improve mood and reduce stress. Meditation and mindfulness practices enhance self-awareness and emotional regulation, making it easier to recognise and change self-sabotaging behaviours. Adequate sleep is vital for cognitive function and emotional stability, reducing the likelihood of negative thought patterns. Incorporating these habits into your daily routine creates a strong foundation for a healthy and balanced life. Over time, these positive practices can significantly diminish the tendency to engage in self-sabotage.

6. Seek Support

Therapy or counselling can provide valuable tools and strategies for overcoming self-sabotage. Professional support offers a safe space to explore the underlying causes of self-destructive behaviours and develop effective coping mechanisms. A therapist can help you identify and challenge limiting beliefs, process past experiences that may be contributing to current issues, and build healthier thought patterns. Counselling also provides accountability and encouragement, which are essential for sustained change. In addition to individual therapy, support groups or coaching can also be beneficial. Connecting with others who are facing similar challenges can provide a sense of community and shared understanding. Seeking support is a proactive step towards healing and growth, enabling you to break free from self-sabotage and move towards a more fulfilling life.

The Challenges of Overcoming Self-Sabotage

Overcoming self-sabotage is not a straightforward process and can be fraught with challenges. One significant obstacle is the deep-rooted nature of these behaviours and thought patterns. Because they are often ingrained over many years, changing them requires consistent effort and perseverance. Another challenge is dealing with the discomfort that comes with change. As individuals step out of their comfort zones, they may experience heightened anxiety or resistance, making it tempting to revert to old habits. Moreover, societal and environmental factors, such as unsupportive relationships or high-stress environments, can exacerbate the tendency to self-sabotage. However, recognising these challenges and preparing for them can help individuals stay committed to the process of change. Support systems, whether through friends, family, or professional help, can provide the necessary encouragement and accountability to keep moving forward.

Self-Sabotage Can Be Conquered

Self-sabotage is a complex but conquerable challenge. I haven’t completely conquered some of my self-sabotaging behaviours and choices, but at least I am now aware of it and so can mostly stop before it gets too painful.  By understanding its roots and employing strategies to reprogram the brain and cultivate healthier habits, it is possible to stop making painful choices and pave the way for a more successful and fulfilling life. Embrace the journey of self-improvement with patience and persistence, knowing that each step forward is a victory against self-sabotage.

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I help leaders develop self- mastery, helping them to become confident in their own inner guidance.

I collaborate with leadership experts, managers and HR professionals to help them get their own message and unique services and products to a wide audience.