How to Stop Self-Sabotaging Behaviors: 7 Keys to Lasting Change

Most of us engage in self-sabotaging behavior at some point in our lives. Self-sabotage commonly shows up as perfectionism, procrastination, disorganization, negative self-talk, or making unhealthy or poor choices that interfere with our happiness, success, or well-being.

If you’re someone who struggles with self-sabotage, you’re not alone. Yet, take heart; you can break free from the cycle of self-sabotage, and I’m about to show you how. 

This blog takes a deep dive into what self-sabotage is, why it happens, and how to recognize self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors. Then, I’ll give you seven sure-fire strategies for defeating self-sabotaging behaviors, so you can start living the joyful, fulfilling, successful life you deserve.

Table of Contents

What is self-sabotage, and how harmful is it?

Self-sabotage is when your actions or thoughts are working against rather than being aligned with your best interests. Self-sabotage starts with your thoughts—which are based on your beliefs—and is expressed through your behaviors. These counterproductive or self-defeating actions hold you back from realizing your full potential and negatively impact your life in many ways.

Self-sabotage often starts as a response to perceived risk or harm; we think something may not be good for us, so we engage in behavior that protects us from experiencing that harm. When repeated over time, the behavior does more harm than good. 

In its extreme form, self-sabotage can be flat-out self-destructive, causing irreparable harm to your mental and physical well-being—in which case it’s imperative that you seek the help of a qualified health professional.

“Self-sabotage is what happens when we refuse to consciously meet our innermost needs, often because we do not believe we are capable of handling them.”   ― Brianna Wiest, The Mountain Is You: Transforming Self-Sabotage Into Self-Mastery

Recognizing self-sabotage: 14 examples

Sometimes it’s easy to recognize a self-defeating habit or behavior; other times, it’s not so clear. In most cases, we choose behaviors that will protect us or improve our lives. But, in the case of self-sabotage, the desired self-protection may lead to counterproductive or even self-destructive behaviors.

According to Stacee Reicherzer, Ph.D. Clinical Faculty, SNHU, “Self-sabotage … is really the avoidance of pain, albeit in a way that’s not especially helpful to our lives. The ‘sabotage’ aspect of this comes in when, in our efforts to avoid pain, we limit ourselves from doing, being, becoming someone who’s happier in a new relationship, a new job or a new situation out of fear.” [source]

Below are 14 examples of self-sabotage, though it’s important to note that each individual’s experience may vary significantly. Only by first recognizing the behaviors we want to change can we take steps to change them. 

  1. Impulsivity: Acting on a whim without thinking through the consequences can lead to adverse outcomes.
  2. Inactivity: Avoiding physical activity or not taking care of one’s health can lead to physical and mental health problems.
  3. Financial carelessness: Spending beyond one’s means, not saving, or making unwise financial decisions can lead to financial strain that can wreak havoc in your life.
  4. Self-isolation: Withdrawing from social interactions and avoiding meaningful connections can result in loneliness and a lack of fulfillment.
  5. Unhealthy coping mechanisms: Turning to harmful coping mechanisms, such as overeating, to deal with stress and negative emotions can lead to long-term harm.
  6. Repeatedly underestimating your abilities (low self-confidence): Underestimating your abilities or not believing in yourself can prevent personal growth and success.
  7. Procrastination: Putting things off, avoiding tasks, and missing deadlines are all forms of procrastination that can lead to self-sabotage.
  8. Negative self-talk: Constant self-criticism, self-doubt, and negative thoughts about yourself can erode your sense of well-being while robbing you of happiness and success.
  9. Being afraid to take chances: Exercising appropriate levels of caution is prudent, but succumbing to fear of failure or always shying away from taking risks can limit your ability to achieve your full potential.
  10. Staying in unhealthy relationships: Surrounding yourself with toxic people or staying in unhealthy relationships can negatively impact your emotional and psychological health and reduce your overall happiness.
  11. Aiming low: If you set low goals or none at all, or you expect very little from yourself and your life, you’re likely engaging in some self-sabotage.
  12. Avoiding responsibilities: Cutting class or not going to work when it’s crucial that you do or not filing your taxes are a couple of examples of responsibility avoidance.  
  13. Stirring up unnecessary conflict in relationships: Everything’s going fine, but then you decide to say or do something that you know is hurtful to another person; this is just one way we sabotage ourselves and our relationships.
  14. Perfectionism: Setting impossibly high standards for oneself and being unable to accept imperfection can lead to stress and burnout. 
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12 Reasons people adopt self-sabotaging habits

Here are a dozen common reasons people may engage in self-defeating or self-destructive behaviors: 

  1. Difficulty managing emotions and stress 
  2. Fear of failure or success
  3. Weak self-image, including low self-esteem and self-worth 
  4. Accepting compliments or praise is uncomfortable
  5. Negative past experiences or trauma
  6. Issues with self-trust or trusting others
  7. Learned unhealthy coping mechanisms early in life
  8. Unable to handle inevitable life changes and challenges 
  9. Difficulty setting and enforcing personal boundaries
  10. Impulsivity,i.e., the desire to go after what you want in the moment instead of what you want most
  11. Lack of clarity about your goals and values
  12. Inability to recognize self-limiting beliefs 

It’s important to understand that self-sabotage often stems from deeply rooted psychological and emotional factors and can be complex.

 However, you can learn to recognize and overcome your self-sabotaging tendencies once you are armed with the proper support and resource. Practicing self-love is a great place to start. 

“When we self-sabotage, it is often because we have a negative association between achieving the goal we aspire to and being the kind of person who has or does that thing. If your issue is that you want to be financially stable, and yet you keep ruining every effort you make to get there, you have to go back to your first concept of money.” ― Brianna Wiest, The Mountain Is You: Transforming Self-Sabotage Into Self-Mastery

7 Keys to stopping self-sabotaging behaviors and regaining control of your life

If you’re ready to kick self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors out of your life, these seven keys will help you do just that.

1. Become more self-aware

When you increase your self-awareness, you’re better able to recognize and address the underlying worries, fears, beliefs, and emotional factors that drive self-sabotage. Moreover, self-awareness can foster a greater sense of self-compassion; practicing self-kindness and self-compassion leads to a stronger, more loving relationship with yourself. 

 Self-awareness is a crucial step in defeating self-sabotage. It helps you better understand and address the root causes of your self-defeating behaviors, so you can develop healthy habits that serve you instead of unhealthy ones that hold you back.

2. Monitor and reframe negative self-talk

You spend more talking to yourself than anyone else. Stanford University’s Dr. Fred Luskin found that we have around 60,000 thoughts per day, of which 90% are repetitive. For self-saboteurs, many of those thoughts take the form of negative self-talk—(and you guessed it— we repeat those damaging messages again and again and again.

Learning to transform negative self-talk into positive self-talk is one of the best ways to stop self-defeating behaviors.

“The habits and behaviors you can’t stop engaging in—no matter how destructive or limiting they may be—are intelligently designed by your subconscious to meet an unfulfilled need, displaced emotion, or neglected desire.” ― Brianna Wiest, The Mountain Is You: Transforming Self-Sabotage Into Self-Mastery

3. Track situations where you either participated in counterproductive behavior or thought about it

Monitoring self-sabotaging behaviors is a crucial step in stopping them. When you track your sabotaging habits, you gain a deeper understanding of your tendencies and identify which triggers and situations lead to self-sabotage. 

So start paying attention to times when you’ve found you either are about to engage in self-defeating behavior or times you only realized you sabotaged yourself after it already happened. Ask yourself these questions: 

  • What thoughts are/were going through my mind?
  • What am/was I feeling?
  • What triggered the desire or impulse to self-sabotage?
  • What was I doing when the urge came upon me to procrastinate, act impulsively, underestimate my abilities, or engage in another self-sabotaging behavior)?
  • What did I learn from witnessing my thoughts, words, and behaviors?
  • What can I do differently next time?

4. Practice mindfulness

Developing a daily mindfulness practice is a life changer. As you tune into your heart and your true desires, you’ll be better able to tune out those worries and fears that made you engage in self-sabotaging activities in the first place.  

By becoming more mindful and introspective, you’ll gain beautiful insights into your behavior and spot your self-sabotage triggers more quickly. Once you’re in tune with really going on with you, you are better able to develop coping strategies and establish healthier habits. Self-awareness coupled with mindfulness will transform your life in ways you can’t even imagine.

5. Recite self-love and self-compassion affirmations

If you don’t like what’s playing on your radio or streaming service, you change the channel. You can choose what you hear inside your head and heart, too. 

Believe and Create has developed a list of 29 affirmations for overcoming self-doubt and 99 affirmations for self-love and self-esteem. Bookmark these free posts on your device so you can access our affirmations to help you change your inner world—which, in turn, will change your outer world in the form of greater self-confidence and a happier, more successful life.

6. Get crystal clear on your core values

Values are the beliefs and principles that guide our behavior and influence our choices. When your actions are aligned with your core personal values, you are more likely to feel fulfilled, motivated, and confident.

By clarifying and understanding your values, you can identify the areas of your life that are out of alignment and may contribute to self-defeating behavior. James Clear—author of the New York Times best-selling book Atomic Habits—offers a list of core values on his website that you can access for free (list of core personal values).

7. Consider Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Last but certainly not least, it may be time to discuss your self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors with a licensed medical professional via CPT or another therapy prescribed by a healthcare professional. 

According to Brad Brenner, cofounder of the Therapy Group of New York, “Psychodynamic or cognitive behavioral therapies will help you to unlock and understand the memories, beliefs, and lifelong patterns that have created your self-destructive actions. This is the… most important step in acknowledging and defeating your behavior.” [source]

Frequently asked questions FAQS about self-sabotage

How do I fix self-sabotage?

You can stop self-sabotaging behavior through self-awareness, engaging in positive self-talk, and tracking and observing factors associated with your self-destructive patterns. You can also work with a therapist or health professional to help you work through unhealthy behaviors and mindsets that lead you to engage in self-sabotaging behaviors.

What is the most common sign/symptom of self-sabotage?

The most common symptom of self-sabotage is engaging in behaviors that undermine personal goals and well-being, such as procrastination, self-criticism, substance abuse, or avoiding important tasks or relationships. These behaviors may temporarily relieve anxiety or stress but ultimately perpetuate feelings of failure and low self-esteem.

Is self-sabotage a coping mechanism?

Self-sabotage can be seen as a coping mechanism in the sense that it serves a specific purpose or function for the individual engaging in the behavior. For many people, self-sabotage may serve as a way to manage feelings of fear, anxiety, insecurity, or stress. However, while self-sabotage may seem like a good coping mechanism in the short term, it ultimately undermines an individual’s happiness and ability to achieve goals.

Is self-sabotaging a symptom of anxiety?

Self-sabotage is not a universal or defining characteristic of anxiety. Some individuals with anxiety may engage in self-defeating behaviors, while others may not. Additionally, self-sabotage can be a symptom of other mental health conditions, such as depression, low self-esteem, or substance abuse.

It is important to remember that every person is unique and may experience anxiety and self-sabotage in different ways. By seeking professional help and developing healthy coping strategies, individuals can break free from the cycle of self-defeat.

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