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How to Tell if You're Sabotaging Yourself

Neglecting health, time with toxic people, and feeling bored.

Key points

  • Self-sabotaging behavior can be challenging to overcome, especially if it is based on denial, which keeps the pattern in play.
  • Self-defeating behavior operates as a way of unconsciously “preventing” happiness by sabotaging any potential for it.
  • When a pattern of self-sabotage centers around a person’s relationships, they tend to gravitate to what they believe they deserve.
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Self-sabotaging behavior can be challenging to overcome, especially if it is based on denial, which keeps the pattern in play. When self-sabotage is affecting a person’s life, it often boils down to one overarching theme: fear of happiness.

For many who are in a habit of sabotaging their happiness, it is because they may have experienced significant loss, pain, and trauma earlier in their lives—making happiness something that is both wanted and feared. Self-defeating behavior operates as a way of unconsciously “preventing” happiness by sabotaging any potential for it. Three areas affected most often by self-sabotage include romantic relationships, career, and overall physical and emotional well-being.

No one is immune to self-sabotaging behavior. However, the focus should be on understanding how often a person engages in self-sabotage and the underlying reasons. Examining the ways in which people engage in self-sabotage helps provide insight into patterns that typically include feelings of inadequacy (not feeling “good enough”) and faulty beliefs about themselves and what they feel they deserve.

Three common areas where self-sabotage occurs include:

Neglecting Overall Health

Health is more than just physical health. Yet if we drink in excess, are sedentary, or have a poor diet, these patterns will catch up to us sooner than later.

However, there is more to our overall health than moderate exercise and clean eating. Some struggling with mental health issues may forego annual physicals or may not see their dentist regularly. Most common is that people with histories of extensive childhood trauma or mental health challenges will avoid seeking out professional help because they do not know how to emotionally or physically support themselves or do not believe they are worthy of being taken care of due to their histories of neglect and trauma.

For example, research suggests that people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) have higher percentages of chronic or poorly defined medical syndromes, including chronic fatigue, temporomandibular joint syndrome (TMJ), and back pain. Similarly, many with BPD also experience higher rates of seeking out medical specialists, have higher rates of prescription drug misuse, including sleeping pills and pain medication, and also have higher incidences of foregoing their physical and mental health. Others with histories of chronic childhood trauma or a diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (c-PTSD) may have additional diagnoses of fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems, or co-morbid mental health challenges.

When overall health is neglected, it is often because of fears of inadequacy or fears of not knowing how to care for themselves. Many adults who were raised in adverse conditions were not taught life skills, including how to tend to their physical and emotional health. Recovering from this pattern of self-sabotage typically requires professional intervention, including teaching healthy and adaptive skills, monitoring progress, and providing ongoing support.


Often (not always), feelings of boredom are actually red flags of deeper issues that may stem from trauma. For example, many who have developed a “flight” trauma response turn to distractions such as technology, workaholism, substance addictions, excessive or dangerous workout routines, binge eating, or other compulsive behaviors as a way of self-medicating and pushing away more vulnerable feelings.

“Boredom” can include feelings of impulsivity, an inability to remain calm, or having distracted thoughts (i.e., rumination, obsessive overthinking). Self-sabotage can be seen as “comfortable” because chaos or instability may feel familiar, or a person might feel like that is all they deserve. When feelings of “boredom” surface, it is important to examine the underlying motivations for impulsive self-numbing behavior.

Choosing Toxic People

This can include choosing romantic relationships that resonate with early trauma and create a pattern of repetition compulsion, or it may include seeking out friends who are predatory, who undermine our happiness, or who gossip behind our backs.

When a pattern of self-sabotage centers around a person’s relationships, a hard truth to accept is that a person will gravitate to what they believe they deserve. For example, if a person grows up with critical parents or caregivers who are emotionally and physically negligent, the beliefs that are instilled at a young age may include... “This is all I deserve,” or “I am unworthy of better.”

If there is a habit of self-sabotage that includes choosing toxic relationships, it is important to recognize a few patterns that can help separate conditioned “beliefs” (and self-sabotage) from authentic connections and healthy relationships.

First, look at your friends and partner. Do these relationships resonate with past pain? For example, are friends reminiscent of a painful time in your life when drinking or partying were the norm? Does your partner resonate with personality traits, attitudes, or behaviors that recall an abandoning parent or abusive caregiver? What patterns have previous partners shared with your current one?

While these may be tough questions to ask ourselves, the goal is to help shed light on how self-sabotaging behavior may be affecting our choices in our relationships.

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Keuroghlian, A., et al. (2014). The relationship of chronic medical illnesses, poor health-related lifestyle choices and health care utilization to recovery status in borderline patients over a decade of prospective follow up. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 47(10), 2 – 15.

Kulacaoglu, F., et al. (2018). Borderline personality disorder : In the midst of vulnerability, chaos, and awe. Brain Sciences, 8(11), 1 – 11.

Linehan, M. (1993). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment Of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Publications.

Walker P. (2014). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving. Azure Coyote: Lafayette.

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