The mechanics of self-sabotage

If you want to run faster, don’t blame the track, work with it. Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

Self-sabotage, in psychological terms, is the art of making oneself less happy, while officially trying to make oneself happier.  It has simple forms and complex forms.  On a simple basis, a person might get drunk in order to forget (trying to avoid unhappiness), and end up losing control of their behaviour and upsetting everyone (creating unhappiness).

How does it happen?  It could be described as a fault in the way our minds handle actions and consequences.  Since we were babies, we have been doing four things in a constant cycle:

  1. We have been trying out different ways of acting.
  2. We have experienced the results of those actions, and have had the opportunity to consciously notice those results.
  3. We have connected together actions and results, understanding a chain of cause and effect.
  4. We have then adapted our actions to eliminate the worst results, and enable the best results.

Our behaviour therefore goes in a four-stage circle of learning: test, result, interpretation, and adaptation.  This is very similar to the trial and error of the scientific method.  Unfortunately, this process often goes wrong at stages 3 and 4.  We experience the results of our actions, but we fail to understand cause and effect, and we fail to adapt our behaviour.


John is constantly suffering because he is short of money.  He lives on benefits, and is capable of work, but jobs often go wrong because he loses his temper with his bosses.  John’s benefits depend on him demonstrating anxiety.  However, getting work would depend on him reducing anxiety.

In his early life, John saw the results of his losing his temper: he lost, or gave up, jobs.  His interpretation was that the jobs caused the bad temper, and therefore decided to adapt by not working.

After that, he became anxious due to lack of money.  That anxiety led to him receiving enhanced benefits.  His interpretation was that demonstrating anxiety causes money to come in, and he therefore now lives in a cycle of demonstrated anxiety, without working.

John is unhappy, because he wants to be financially independent of the state.  However, his chain of interpretation has led him to a pattern of action which is self-sabotaging.  He constantly presents himself as incapable of work (making himself less happy), while also presenting himself as desperate for financial independence (trying to make himself happier).

John’s case for benefits is genuine and good. However, he may wish to review his interpretation of cause and effect, especially with regard to his temper.


Like John, Susan is constantly suffering because she is short of money.  She lives on a mixture of benefits and business income. She also suffers from an eating disorder, and persistent relationship problems.

With regard to finance, food and relationships, her problems can be traced back to a difficulty in learning consequences.

  1. Financially, she overspends.  She then experiences the usual financial punishments for overspending.  But she then interprets those punishments as caused by other people being mean, rather than by her behaviour.  As a consequence, she persists in the behaviour and never adapts.
  2. Food-wise, she frequently starves herself.  She then experiences physical discomfort and tiredness.  But she interprets this as illness, rather than a result of her self-starvation.  As a consequence, she persists in the self-starving, and never adapts.
  3. Relationship-wise, she blames others for her problems.  She then experiences their withdrawal.  But she interprets their withdrawal as caused by the other person, not by her blaming behaviour.  As a consequence, she persists in driving others away.

She insists she wants to help herself.  But she never performs the adaptations that would make her wealthier, more healthy, and more sociable, because all her interpretations of events blame something other than her own behaviour.

The two examples above are fictional, but hopefully strongly recognisable.


Self-sabotage and self-delusion are intimately connected.  Most of us do not want to see ourselves as the author of our own problems.  So we hide from the ‘personal responsibility’ cause-and-effect perception, and instead blame others, or just ‘life’.

If, however, we can begin to see ways in which we cause our own problems, or can forge our own solutions, then we begin to free ourselves from delusion, and to adapt our behaviour.

A good example is an athlete who wants to run faster. She can blame gravity, friction, oxygen inefficiency, and the pressure of competition. But, together with her coach, she might be better thinking of cause and effect, and how she can improve her interaction with gravity, friction, oxygen and competition.


  1. Choose one aspect of life you find problematic.  Spend some time looking closely at your own pattern of actions in this area.
  2. Try to notice the results of your patterns of action.
  3. Try to construct a clear picture of cause and effect.
  4. Try to identify an adaptation you could make to your behaviour, which might have a chance of causing a different result.  Give it a try.

Then return to step 2.  This should bring about a cycle of review, analysis and change in your behaviour.  Try to avoid blaming others or getting distracted.


We self-sabotage when we make ourselves less happy, while insisting we are trying to be happier. It happens when we fail to correctly interpret our actions and their consequences. In particular, it happens when we blame life, rather than taking responsibility for adapting our own behaviour.