Helping Adolescents Recognize and Recover from Self-Sabotage

When adolescents get into self-defeating behavior, they need help to get out.

Posted Feb 10, 2020 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

A journalist asked four good questions about adolescents and self-sabotage. Some of my responses follow.

What do we mean when we say “self-sabotage” and what is the connection to motivation?

For me, self-sabotage refers to patterns of personal thinking and acting that work against one’s own best interests and well-being. In the process, self- injury is done. “I end up doing what makes me unhappy or causes me harm.”  

How do young people self-sabotage? For starters, consider several examples.

  • “When other people won’t give in, I can push so hard they often pull away.” And a possible friendship is lost. The motivation can be an overriding desire for control.
  •  “When I consider risks of failing, I can decide it’s safer not to try.” And a good opportunity is avoided. The motivation can be protecting against disappointment. 
  •  “When I wish I was less lonely, I can still act distant to be around.” And there are fewer invitations into relationships. The motivation can be social shyness.

In general, the motivation that drives the pattern of self-sabotaging decision-making is often empowered by two dynamics: force of habit and denial. Consider a last stage adolescent (age 18 to 23) away from family and financially struggling with self-sabotaging overspending. Force of habit causes the young person to repeat a buying pattern without giving it much thought: “I automatically used my credit card and didn’t reckon the expense.” Coupled with this impulsiveness is denial of the long-term consequences. “I only thought about what I wanted now, not about debt I was adding to later.” 

Much self-sabotaging behavior seems “thoughtless” at the time, committed in a motivational state that lacks much present and future awareness. Easy to get into, self-sabotage can be hard to break out of because a persistent habit must be broken and one must practice realistic thinking ahead.

What common self-sabotaging behaviors might educators see in their students?

Two common self-sabotaging behaviors that are often connected in adolescence come to mind: Internet escape and procrastination.

First, young people today grow up in two worlds, not one. To the old offline world of conventional experience has been added the online world of Internet invention – the greatest circus of human entertainment ever created, and just a quick click away. So now, when there are responsibilities to fulfill, the young person is always faced with a new evolutionary temptation. They can either choose to engage with burdensome and boring demands of responsibility, or they can choose to escape into the excitement of electronic enjoyment. Thus, it’s easy for Internet escape to become one avenue for self-sabotage when it significantly interferes with important engagement, like doing homework for example.

Second, there is a related work habit that is easy to get into that can prove personally costly – repeatedly putting off demands one doesn’t like for Internet delights instead. Procrastination is a very common form of self-sabotage because it is always a bad bargain – buying freedom now by adding more demands later on. Procrastination piles up demands with less time to get them met, creating stress as an emergency motivator to get last-minute production accomplished. “I pulled an all-nighter, rushed the paper out, and now I’m really exhausted from anxiety and lack of sleep.”

What might be underlying problems that cause these behaviors?

Low self-esteem can be a source of self-sabotage. Self-esteem-is two concepts built into one. “Self” is how I define myself and “Esteem" is how I evaluate myself. In general, when a young person defines themselves broadly and evaluates themselves kindly, they will support positive self-esteem and behave in self-enhancing ways. 

However, sometimes when an adolescent defines themselves narrowly (“I’m nothing but my problem!”) and evaluates themselves harshly (“Whenever I mess up that just goes to show what a loser I am!”) they can engage in a pattern of self-sabotage. In doing so, they seem motivated to prove that they are powerless to define themselves differently and deserve the blame they are giving themselves. Helping such an unhappy young person usually includes broadening positive self-definition and (forsaking criticism) appreciating themselves for the worthwhile person they are.   

A deeper and more difficult problem that underlies self-sabotage can be addictioncoming to compulsively depend on a self-destructive substance, activity, or relationship for survival: “I choose to keep doing this to myself because I can’t do without it.”  

Addiction is a deeply entrenched pattern of self-sabotage and usually requires support and help to recover. Thus there are assisted abstinence programs like the 12-step kind to support breaking the pattern and maintaining sobriety, and there are out-patient and in-patient treatment programs of the therapeutic kind to develop rehabilitative self-understanding. One or both can be helpful in recovering from this extremely destructive form of self-sabotage. 

How can students who exhibit self-sabotaging behavior be helped?

To assist young people who are suffering from self-sabotage, help them identify the pattern of painful consequences their choices are creating, normalize what is happening (because self-sabotage is very common), accept power of responsibility, get some supportive and maybe professional assistance, and harness the restorative power of making self-enhancing life choices. 

Helpful for parents of children in addiction: attend Al-Anon meetings for emotional support and self-management guidance in how to maintain adequate detachment, independence, and healthy self-care when daily living around the self-destructive behavior of those you love.