The key to understanding and doing away with behaviors that obstruct our goals is in how we conceptualize self-sabotage in the first place. Much has been written about the behavioral aspect of this phenomenon, starting with identifying links between self-sabotaging behaviors and low self-esteem, negative thought cycles, and lack of self-compassion.
While these connections are all true, they only scrape the surface of what truly underlies self-sabotage. Recent advancements in our understanding of the unconscious suggest that what have historically been called self-damaging behaviors or self-sabotage are, in fact, deeply rooted adaptations to prior adversity.
Imagine Alex, a successful web designer, excited that he gets to provide for his kids in a way that his parents did not. In a post-COVID world, he is able to work from home, so he decides that he does not need a babysitter. He wants to be available to his kids even while working.
This results in high stress, feelings of inadequacy, and, you guessed it, not quite being able to remain meaningfully engaged with his children. Alex feels defeated and like a failure.
In another part of town, Jenny is dreaming of going to graduate school and becoming a writer. This is the second year in a row that she has not been able to write her essays and send in her application on time. Jenny feels depressed and berates herself for self-sabotaging her future.
Self-Sabotage Is an Unconscious Survival Strategy
These and many other life experiences may quickly be labeled self-sabotage. However, to truly understand the roots of such patterns, we must dig deep into what motivates them.
Research into the unconscious underpinnings of our behaviors (cf. Weinberger & Stoycheva, 2019) suggests that all mental life has an unconscious component. What we call self-sabotage in the present moment could very well be motivated by unconscious goals and adaptations that, in the past, saved our life or, at the very least, preserved our psychological health. What we term a maladaptive behavior or a self-fulfilling prophecy today was, at one time, a survival strategy.
If you look closely, both Alex and Jenny’s goals have conscious (wish to be an engaged father, desire to publish a book) and unconscious (ending up disengaged, feeling unable to send the applications in) aspects to them. Similarly, your own desires and aspirations, and the behaviors that deter you from achieving them, very likely have conflicting components both within and outside of your awareness.
Perhaps you want to stop falling for unavailable partners, yet always end up with someone who cannot fulfill your needs. Or maybe, like millions of others, you are struggling to start exercising and find yourself watching TV on the couch every evening. To help Alex, Jenny, and you confront and overcome the obstacles to their, and your, conscious goals, we must first bring the unconscious conflict to light.
1. Learn the function of your self-sabotaging behaviors.
When we term a behavior self-sabotaging, we are not only oversimplifying its role but also precluding ourselves from truly understanding its function (which is not, in fact, self-sabotage). The patterns of acting that led you here are not just useless barriers to your success. They often serve an unconscious purpose, which was adaptive at an earlier point in your life.
Take young Alex, for example. Perhaps he grew up with emotionally unavailable, detached, and critical parents. Having somewhat realized the devastating impact of early abandonment on his emotional life, sense of self, and relationship with others, Alex frantically vowed to himself that he will be open, engaged, and always available to his children.
However, at the same time, he continues to dread feeling disconnected or abandoned. The conscious desire to provide care for his kids in a way his parents did not is coupled with an out-of-awareness devastating fear of loneliness (the kind he experienced as a child). If we understand his motivation in this way, we can see more clearly that the so-called self-sabotaging behavior of running himself into the ground serves an unconscious function of helping him feel connected with his children and soothing his fear of abandonment.
Now think about Jenny’s difficulties with progressing professionally. Suppose we looked deeper into her life experiences and found out that she lost an older sibling to a car accident when she was 10 years old. Jenny may not have been able to properly grieve the loss and, thus, may experience survivor’s guilt related to her sibling’s death.
In turn, she feels unable to progress in life and becomes depressed and unable to send in her applications when she thinks of the opportunities she has that her sibling would never be afforded. In this way, remaining stuck is serving the function of making her feel connected to her lost sibling.
Whether or not we call it self-sabotage, the reality is that remaining stuck professionally can serve an unconscious psychological purpose. It is a psychological compromise that was made earlier in life when, perhaps, she had fewer resources and emotional literacy to help her cope with a devastating loss.
2. Identify the underlying needs and bring them to consciousness.
Recognizing that patterns that may at first glance appear self-sabotaging in fact have a purpose and function deeply rooted in early experiences helps us approach them with less judgment and more self-compassion. In turn, the next step in tackling them becomes to identify the needs that underlie them.
For example, the unconscious need that drives Alex’s behavior in refusing to hire a babysitter may be that he is terrified his children will have another attachment figure in their lives and, as a result, he fears the possibility of feeling disconnected from them. Jenny’s inability to apply to graduate school, on the other hand, may be anchored in an out-of-awareness need to feel connected with her sibling, but which is masked by survivor’s guilt. Identifying the former, however, would require Jenny to face some very distressing emotions and to actually grieve her brother.
3. Search your belief system for trauma-related negative beliefs.
This is not so much a step as it is a process that can run parallel to the other two: search for core beliefs related to yourself, others, and the world that may be rooted in adverse experiences, rather than in objective reality.
These statements are usually general and extreme (e.g. they may contain words like “always” and “never”). For example, thoughts such as “I don’t deserve this” (self-related), “Anything I achieve will be taken away from me” (world-related), or “Nobody ever cares about me or my achievements anyway” (other-related) constitute such trauma thoughts.
For Alex, a core component of his belief system may be “If I let others take care of my children, I am like my parents” or “A caring loving parent, someone different from my parents, would never delegate child care to a stranger.” Such thoughts preclude Alex from seeing that by hiring a babysitter, he would not only be adding one more person to the village of caregivers that get to love his children and care for them, but also allowing himself to work during work hours and be fully present for his children after that. Feeling less stressed and preoccupied while with them will result in more quality time with his kids.
Jenny’s core stuck thoughts may sound something like “I don’t deserve to get ahead in life if my sibling isn’t given a chance to” or “There is no point in working for my dreams if it can all be taken away in a split second.”
Identifying such trauma-related thoughts is not easy. Unlike emotions, which tend to be more readily identifiable (it is easier for us to say "I am sad" or "I am nervous"), thoughts feel so intrinsic to us that we usually find it hard to recognize that they may be just as impacted by adversity as emotions. It is much more obvious that "Public speaking makes me anxious" than "Because I lost my brother as a child, I don't believe that I should be allowed to progress in life."
Beliefs just are; we do not often question where they came from or how we learned to think that way. Yet if you wish to change behaviors that prevent you from accomplishing your goals, you have to ask yourself not only why you feel what you feel, but also how you learned to think the way you think and if it serves you.
When to Seek Therapy
As I have discussed elsewhere, bringing unconscious material to awareness and making changes is difficult work. In a lot of ways, our earlier adaptations work against us, so changing our habitual patterns of acting and relating to others is effortful and requires a lot of practice.
When it comes to tackling so-called self-sabotage, you may be able to follow the steps above and still find yourself unable to make meaningful shifts. In those situations, seeking a therapist can be an invaluable step toward healing.
In certain situations, former adaptations may be especially difficult to change. For example, if you grew up in an abusive environment where becoming invisible and agreeable saved you from psychological and physical harm, being assertive or even choosing partners that would allow you to voice your needs and thoughts may be difficult. After all, disagreeing with someone feels exceedingly dangerous based on your prior experience. A therapist can help you see these patterns and also assist you in creating a roadmap to achieving sustained and meaningful change.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Weinberger, J. & Stoycheva, V. (2019). The unconscious: Theory, research, and clinical implications. New York: The Guilford Press.