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Women and Self-Sabotage: How We Sell Ourselves Short

Where does self-sabotage comes from in women? What can we do about it?

Women’s liberation has brought us into this rich environment in which we finally have more autonomy, equality, and power than at any other time in history. (Though there are still plenty of glass ceilings to shatter).

Even with these external validations as we step into our power and embrace our rights, sometimes we fall into a pattern of self-sabotage. We may not see it within ourselves at first. And we may not know how to handle or prevent it once we do recognize its presence.

Why Women Self-Sabotage

Self-sabotage comes from a deeply rooted place within us. When women self-sabotage, it often stems from:

Underlying self-doubt:

Each of us struggles with self-doubt occasionally, and it can emerge in the form of self-sabotage in the most inopportune times. This often plays out in workplace situations, where women may sell themselves short for a promotion or fail to self-advocate.

Complying with old roles:

Self-sabotage can feel like the “safest” option for women when we are trying to people-please by staying stuck in old roles from our past. Self-sabotage through compliance with old roles can happen when women are concerned about displeasing people who have seen them in a certain role in the past.

Worrying about image or reputation:

Sometimes self-sabotage is a side effect of “nice girl syndrome.” While there is nothing wrong with being a nice person and considering others (in fact, it is something to strive for, right?), women sometimes take this to a whole new level.

Being nice, having compassion, being genuine, shouldn’t mean self-sacrifice. We can embrace our power and live within our values without putting everyone else first. Martyrdom is not going to win us any prizes.

Making ourselves miserable in the interest of “being nice to others” is masochistic and cruel. We need to treat ourselves with as much love and compassion as we do everyone else. Sometimes that may mean setting aside “nice girl syndrome” to embrace a more realistic, empowered version of ourselves.

We don’t need to live in the dichotomy of “nice girl or bitch.” Women didn’t ask for or create those narrow definitions, nor should we subscribe to their limitations on our lives.

What Are Some Ways to Stop Self-Sabotage?

Women can step away from self-sabotage through conscious practice. The process requires introspection and may be painful at times, as it requires us to strip away old, useless versions of ourselves and break up with other people’s expectations of us.

Be accountable:

When we notice ourselves behaving or thinking in a way that works against what we want, need, or feel, it is imperative to examine our intentions. Staying accountable for our self-sabotage puts us back into the driver’s seat and we can either choose to continue on that track or make a change that is in line with our own self-interest and needs.

Create an anti-self-sabotage plan:

If we start to notice a pattern in our self-sabotage, it can be helpful to make a plan ahead of time to help take the decision making out of the moment. Our emotions about a situation can make it difficult to make a healthy decision, so making an anti-self-sabotage plan can help.

For example, if we recognize that we tend to self-sabotage when confronted with making a decision on the spot, we can create a rule ahead of time that we require three hours to make decisions.

Developing a rule like this may prevent women from making a split decision and reverting back to people-pleasing tendencies that harm us rather than help.

Start a mutual accountability group:

It is quite likely that you have friends who are familiar with self-sabotage, too. Consider starting a self-sabotage accountability group. It doesn’t need to be complicated—just make sure that you trust the women in your group to be honest with feedback.

You can keep it open-ended or connect regularly. Having some outside perspectives on your thoughts and behaviors can be a helpful means of keeping self-sabotage at bay.

More from Teyhou Smyth Ph.D., LMFT
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