Self-sabotage: why do we do it?

“Secretly, we feel a fraud… and arrest ourselves before we get near a successful outcome.” Photo by niu niu on Unsplash

Self-sabotage is the art of frustrating our own plans and good intentions.

Why would we want to do that?  Logically, wouldn’t we want to follow through on all good things?  Not necessarily. Here are a few ways in which we can find ourselves self-sabotaging:


“Sometimes we are unconsciously afraid of the responsibility success would bring.  Therefore, we soft-pedal our efforts, or even put things in the way of ourselves, in order to avoid that responsibility.


If we experience low self-esteem, then we may feel we don’t deserve success in our endeavours.  Secretly, we feel a fraud in our own skin, and therefore we act as our own police, and arrest ourselves before we get near a successful outcome.


We may be so used to the role of victim, that we are more comfortable there.  Succeeding in an endeavour feels too alien to us, and we don’t have the language for it.  Our world of sensory meaning is geared up for ‘victim identity’; we find this identity safe, and return there like an animal that prefers valleys to hills.


“We may have a habit of using our own suffering to acquire meaning and support.  Strange as it seems, we can become locked into a behavioural cycle similar to self-harm.  This can involve two ‘pay-offs’.  Firstly, while self-harming, some people can experience heightened ‘aliveness’ (though motivations vary – see this link).  Secondly, some people believe, consciously or unconsciously, that their suffering brings them closer to support and help of others.  (This behaviour can be exaggerated by a national health system which only helps people suffering acutely and urgently, ignoring them the rest of the time.)

The above four types of self-sabotage might be labelled:

  1. Fear of responsibility
  2. Low self-esteem
  3. Victim identity
  4. Skewed reward system


Because it is often hidden from ourselves, self-sabotage can be one of the hardest behaviours to spot and unravel.  We get stuck behind our own castle walls.

Moving ourselves away from self-sabotage involves training ourselves into new habits, in particular:

  1. Learning to accept responsibility for our own outcomes
  2. Learning to respect ourselves and invite respect from others
  3. Learning to step out of the victim role into an equal role
  4. Learning a sense of reward from achievements, however small at first


Much of our progress will be witnessed in the language we use.  Self-sabotage has its own language.  Example phrases might be:

  • “Every time I try to get better, something happens to push me back.”
  • “I don’t really know what I think any more.”
  • “[Insert name of person] is so mean to me.”

As we improve, we may notice our language changing.  It may include more references to our own responsibility and agency; it may be less apologetic, and more assuming of equality with others.


The main thing is… it’s always possible to step out of self-sabotage, and to start to follow our own good intentions with action.  It takes a lot of self-understanding.  We need to become better at reading our own self-destructive behaviour.  Uncovering our own hidden self-sabotage is particularly hard, as it may well be hidden even from ourselves.  Our destructive actions have an emotional history of cause and effect, so we need to show ourselves, and be shown, quite some empathy in the journey.

If we can tempt ourselves out to play – with responsibility, respect, equality and expectation of reward – then there is hope.