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What’s Hiding Behind Your Self-Sabotaging Behaviors?

Conquering the "Four Horsemen of Fear."

Key points

  • Most of us struggle with self-sabotaging behaviors even though we want to change them.
  • Self-sabotaging behaviors like procrastination and perfectionism may be a way to avoid our fears.
  • By understanding the function of our behaviors, we can start to change them.
Toa Heftiba/Unsplash
Source: Toa Heftiba/Unsplash

One of the most common strategies psychologists use to understand a behavior is to do a functional analysis—which is basically when we look at a given behavior and try to figure out what function, or purpose, it serves.

People don’t just do things randomly—our behaviors and habits exist for a reason.

Here’s the weird thing about self-sabotaging behaviors: No matter how destructive we know they are, or how badly we want to stop engaging in them, they still serve a specific function—which is, often, to help us avoid facing our fears.

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about the four most common limiting beliefs that hold us back from flourishing: the "Four Horsemen of Fear." These include Fear of Failure, Fear of Ridicule, Fear of Uncertainty, and Fear of Success.

We instinctively avoid things that terrify us—which is usually adaptive. But the longer we avoid the horsemen, the longer we avoid doing the things that lead to us flourishing.

So, although fear-avoidance has historically been adaptive for our species, for many of us in modern times, it’s become maladaptive. If we want to flourish, we have to understand the most common self-sabotaging behaviors the horsemen hide behind by performing a functional analysis.


The busier you stay, the more productive you are, right?

Spend hours getting to “inbox zero." Spend your time putting out every small fire that pops up. Have a great new idea? Immediately chase it while leaving your current projects half-finished.

Think procrastination is your problem? Think again.

Performing a functioning analysis on procrastination may yield interesting results. Many chronic procrastinators can get stuff done when they’re up against a deadline.

The real question is: What is procrastinating helping you avoid? For many, the horsemen whisper: If you never finish, you never risk failure or success.

Perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome

Perfectionism and imposter syndrome are two sides of the same coin—feeling like you aren’t good enough “yet.” You’re not ready. You’re unqualified. Better to wait until you learn more or feel more confident.

How long have you been “writing” your book or article, but still won’t publish it? How long have you been thinking about, or tinkering on, that project but still haven’t shipped it? How long have you thought out every possible scenario and created the “perfect” plan, but still haven’t taken the steps to go from idea to execution?

Read all the self-help books and productivity “hacks” you want, but productivity isn’t your problem. Fear is.

The horsemen whisper: As long as you don’t put yourself out there, you never risk ridicule or failure.


Most people would rather choose the path that leads to predictable misery than the one that offers the chance of a better life. Humans are creatures of habit. We gravitate toward what we can anticipate. Uncertainty is terrifying.

So, we choose the path of least resistance. We lock our dreams and aspirations away in a box and throw away the key. We take the job that sucks but offers a steady paycheck. We spend 45 years of our lives miserable, looking forward to the day we retire so we can “finally enjoy life.” Then we hit 65, retire, maybe enjoy a few years of health with our loved ones, then die around 80.

We sacrifice 45 years of our life in misery to enjoy the last 15 because the alternative of venturing into the unknown is terrifying.

The horsemen whisper: As long as you stay in your comfort zone, you’re safe from uncertainty.

Wrap Up

Now you know each of the Four Horsemen of Fear, how they disguise themselves, and why we self-sabotage. Overcoming them comes next.

More from Corey Wilks Psy.D.
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