Self-Sabotage: How to Recognize and Conquer It

Overcoming these eight self-defeating patterns can change your life.

Posted Jan 07, 2020

Geralt/ Pixabay
Source: Geralt/ Pixabay

How many times have you heard the old saw repeated: “You are your own worst enemy.” While that may not always be true, what is true is that we have the capacity to sometimes create, and certainly add to, our own misery. Said simply, sometimes in life we actually sabotage ourselves.

Self-sabotage consists of a host of things we do that are self-defeating. It seems the world is a challenging enough place without adding fuel to the fires of adversity. In my career, I’ve been blessed to observe some of the most talented and successful people of their respective generations. I’ve also seen many promising careers and life trajectories never realize their true potential. Avoiding self-sabotage seems to be an important aspect of realizing the career and life you’ve imagined for yourself. While there are many self-defeating things we do, listed below are eight of the most common things I’ve seen. How many sound familiar?

1. Trying to please everyone all the time. Are you a “pleaser?” Many of us are. Pleasers fear rejection. The first stanza of the famous 1927 Max Erhmann poem "Desiderata" states: “As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.” But in reality, it’s simply impossible to please all people all of the time.

Lesson to be learned: Without becoming completely self-centered, you need to become comfortable with other people’s disappointment.

2. Thinking intuitively and acting impulsively. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman spent a lifetime in research trying to convince us that human beings are inherently irrational largely because we trust our intuition. Yes, the maxim “trust your gut” is bad advice. Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky have proven that intuitive thinking is flawed with a myriad of decision-making biases that lead to bad decisions.

Lesson to be learned: Mind the gap between impulse and action. Slow down, take a deep breath, and rather than employ intuitive decision-making, use more rational, deliberate decision-making processes.

3. Procrastination. Waiting for the moment of absolute certainty, while seemingly rational, often ends in frustration as opportunities are squandered waiting for the perfect moment to act.

Lesson to be learned: In reality, the moment of absolute certainty seldom, if ever, arises.  Sometimes you simply need to act. You can almost always deal with the consequences.

4. Fear of failure. A fear of failure can be paralyzing. Procrastination is most often fueled by a fear of failure. No one likes failure. It can be embarrassing and even costly. What we forget is that it can teach powerful lessons that predict later success.

Lesson to be learned: Anything worth having is worth failing for. The most productive learning and the greatest personal and professional breakthroughs come with a journey characterized by milestones of failure.

5. The belief that life is a destination. How many times have you strived to attain something or someone only to realize the happiness you thought you would experience was short-lived. Then you quickly scan the horizon for new destinations. You once again engage in the quest to attain the “destination” only to, once again, be disappointed once it is achieved.

Lesson to be learned: Life is a journey, not a destination. The moment your brain and body stop being challenged, they begin to die. There is wisdom to be gained from a journey that contains both success and failure. That said, be careful not to fall prey to the “grass is greener” effect. Envy and change for the sake of change alone are almost never productive. As Erhman would say: “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

6. Listening to the negative (toxic) people in your life. You know who they are. They see the glass as forever half empty. They are envious of the success and happiness of others. Sadly, there is a host of unhappy people around. Yet, they derive a moment of respite from their unhappiness by seeing others unhappy. To that end, they will often say and do things that are critical, mean-spirited, or just plain hurtful to try to make you as unhappy as they are. 

Lesson to be learned: Let us return to the wisdom of "Desiderata." “Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit… Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.” By allowing negative people to affect you, you give them tremendous control over your life. Is that what you really want to do? So instead, surround yourself with people who possess a warm heart, a smile on their face, as well as a compassionate and supportive presence. Finally when people say or do things that hurt you, invoke Hanlon’s Razor. Simply said, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

7. The tendency for self-blame. Much of the world is unpredictable. In an effort to add order and meaning to a world that often seems out of control, we often accept the blame for things that go wrong even though we had equally shared culpability or no culpability whatsoever.

Lesson to be learned: Take responsibility for those things for which you are truly responsible and over which you have control. Such actions are growth-promoting and are evidence of maturity. But jettison the rest. Taking responsibility for the things over which you have no real control (other people, for example) is a fool’s errand that ultimately leads to frustration, anger, and erosion of your self-esteem.

8. Guilt. Sometimes we make mistakes and we truly are responsible. Guilt is a burden that can teach powerful lessons, but it can also be punitive and paralyzing. There is a reason the windshield is large and the rearview mirror is small.

Lesson to be learned: To paraphrase Maya Angelou, if you had known better you would have done better. So now you know. And as Oprah Winfrey has noted, you do not have to be held hostage by your past. Mistakes are what you did, they are not who you are. Move on.

Geralt/ Pixabay
Source: Geralt/ Pixabay

It’s been said that life is what you make of it. Everyone is born with potential of one kind or another. Yet many promising careers and life trajectories never realize their true potential. One thing I’ve observed which separates those who seem to realize their potential from those do not is that those who are most happy and successful are able to avoid the eight self-sabotaging tendencies I’ve just described. As I began with a stanza from "Desiderata," so I shall end: “With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”

© George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D., 2020.