What Are the Signs of Self-Sabotaging Behavior?

August 29, 2023   •  Posted in: 

On the road to success, there are many obstacles. But what happens when the biggest obstacle is…ourselves?

Many people experience this, and it’s called self-sabotage. We might stay up late the night before an important event or start picking fights with a new partner even though we really like them. We get in our own way, and intentionally or subconsciously, prevent ourselves from achieving success.

Read on to learn more about why you might be self-sabotaging, how to recognize the signs of self-sabotage, and how you can stop self-sabotaging if you’re getting in your own way of success.


Signs of self-sabotaging behavior

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word “sabotage” as “to intentionally prevent the success of a plan or action.” The term has traditionally been used in the context of military and political operations[1]. For example, an army could sabotage their enemy by destroying buildings or weapons.

When we talk about self-sabotage, we are referring to what happens when this destructive behavior is directed toward oneself. Many people – for a variety of reasons – self-sabotage. They might start a fight with a partner just when the relationship is going well. Or they might make a mistake at work when they’re about to receive a promotion.

In the world of psychology, self-sabotage is often called self-handicapping. The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior defines self-handicapping as “the process whereby a person creates or chooses obstacles to behavior or a performance setting, for the purpose of protecting self-esteem in an esteem-threatening situation”[2].

We all get in our own way sometimes. But people who self-sabotage show a pattern of thinking and behavior that isn’t aligned with what they truly want – or what they say they want. Research shows that people who self-sabotage invent issues even when there aren’t any[3]. To others, these behaviors can seem intentional, but the person who is self-sabotaging may not even realize they’re doing it.

People self-sabotage for many different reasons. They could have low self-esteem and feel like they aren’t worthy of success or happiness. They could have learned unhealthy self-sabotaging behaviors during childhood or from past relationships. They could be afraid of failure (or success) and sabotage their own chances rather than try hard and find out whether they’re truly able to meet their goals.

Psychologists say that people self-sabotage in order to avoid blame for failure. In other words, if you self-sabotage your chances of success, then it’s not a true failure, and your self-esteem doesn’t take the same hit.

The exact signs and behaviors of self-sabotage depend greatly on each person and the circumstances they’re faced with. But, in general, people who self-sabotage ruin the positive things in their lives. They may act in ways that deliberately damage the positive aspects of their lives or they may avoid taking action to gain these positive things to begin with. They behave in ways that prevent themselves from getting the things they say they want in life.

Take a look through the following common signs of self-sabotaging behavior to see if you recognize any of them in yourself.

Picking fights

One common sign of self-sabotage in relationships is picking fights. This can happen in romantic relationships as well as in friendships.

To an extent, fighting and interpersonal conflict are a normal part of relationships; just because you have conflict sometimes doesn’t mean you’re engaging in self-sabotage. But try to pay attention to whether you’re always the person who initiates the conflict – and if you’re starting fights for reasons that seem unimportant later.

Picking fights in this way could be a sign that you’re self-sabotaging by ruining a good relationship.

Chronic procrastination

Procrastination could be a sign of many things, including mental health conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But in other scenarios, chronic procrastination could be a sign of self-sabotage.

You could procrastinate getting started on a work project and deny yourself the opportunity to succeed. You could put off important tasks when you know this will make your life more difficult later. You could procrastinate because you don’t feel like you’re capable of succeeding or because you’re afraid of failure.

It’s important to get to the root of procrastination because if you have an underlying mental health condition, then it’s likely you’ll need treatment. But sometimes, procrastination can be a sign of self-sabotage.

Giving up before trying

Many people self-sabotage simply by giving up. They have goals, but rather than work consistently toward them, they give up on the goals or change them frequently. If you’d rather give up than keep going toward a goal, especially after you’ve encountered a setback, then you may be engaging in self-sabotaging behavior.

Meeting your goals requires commitment and persistence. It’s okay to change your goals as your values change, but if you give up on them too quickly, then you may be ruining your own chances of success.

Abusing drugs and alcohol

Not all forms of alcohol and drug use are examples of self-sabotage, but they can be.

Many people use substances to self-medicate. For example, they could live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression but use drugs and alcohol to cope with their symptoms rather than get needed support. In these cases, it could be a way you’re self-sabotaging.

Many people with substance use disorder may also self-sabotage because of low self-esteem or self-worth. They may not be able to see a life past addiction, so they continue using and stay locked in the cycle.

Being overly critical of yourself

Some self-sabotage isn’t about behaviors, but thinking patterns. Being too critical of yourself is a common way of self-sabotage. Being critical and talking down to yourself could prevent you from going after your dreams. Self-criticism could prevent you from taking action toward your goals.

If you have low self-esteem, you could convince yourself that you’re not worthy of the good things in your life. This could lead you to engage in negative self-talk, which becomes self-sabotage because it lowers your self-esteem even further.

Running from commitments

Sometimes, you may refuse to make serious commitments in your life as a form of self-sabotage. A classic example of this is refusing to make a commitment to a romantic partner. They could be everything you want in a partner, and you could sabotage the relationship due to resistance to commitment.

Or you could have a great job, but quit because you’re afraid to commit to a career.

People are reluctant to make commitments for a variety of reasons, but if you find yourself constantly behaving this way, it could be a sign of self-sabotage.

Being a perfectionist

Being a perfectionist is another example of a behavior that’s not necessarily a sign of self-sabotage, but commonly leads to self-sabotage. Perfectionism is a personality trait that causes people to constantly strive for perfection and set very high (sometimes impossible) standards for themselves.

Although perfectionism might sound like a character trait that helps you to succeed, it can actually be a sign of self-sabotage. For example, if you expect yourself to always be perfect, then you might give up on goals when you can’t reach that standard of perfection.

Not taking breaks

Likewise, working too hard and not taking breaks can be a form of unintentional self-sabotage.

You might consciously think you’re working hard in order to meet your goals. But in reality, overworking yourself without taking any breaks is only bound to lead to stress and burnout. You might not think that overwork is a form of self-sabotage, but it can absolutely be destructive to a happy future.

Refusing to seek support

Lastly, some people self-sabotage by refusing to seek support. Whether you live with a mental health condition or you’re simply going through a difficult time, it’s always okay to ask for help. If you refuse to ask for or accept support when you need it, you might self-sabotage your health, your relationships, and your future.

Communicate with the people around you. Let them know, with assertiveness, what you need from them. Try to catch yourself when you’re tempted to use passive-aggressive communication – this is often a sign of self-sabotage as well. People can’t support you unless you tell them you need their support.


How can I stop self-sabotage?

No matter why or how you self-sabotage, there are ways to stop. The keys are to identify these behaviors and work on improving your self-esteem so you know you’re worthy, and capable, of success.

Here are three ways to stop self-sabotaging.

Be mindful of the behaviors

As they say, awareness is the first step. Use the above list to recognize signs of self-sabotage in yourself. What behaviors or thinking patterns do you engage in that are sabotaging your own chances of happiness and success? Why do you think you get in your own way? Where did you learn this type of behavior?

Practice mindfulness, and write down each instance in which you have self-sabotaged. Write about the outcome of your behaviors and how you’d like to do things differently next time.

Stick to a plan

Self-sabotage makes you behave in ways that aren’t in alignment with your values or goals. To circumvent this, create an intentional, step-by-step plan that will help you accomplish your goals and live the life you desire. Then, stick to the plan – no matter what.

When you feel tempted to stray from the plan or ruin your chances of success, notice that you’re behaving in this way and practice awareness. For example, perhaps you make a plan to go to the gym every day. But during the first week, you miss a day, and you use perfectionism to self-sabotage by thinking, “I haven’t had a perfect week, so it’s not worth continuing with this plan at all.”

Catch yourself when you’re self-sabotaging in this way, and return to your original plan.

Get therapy and support

Lastly, don’t be afraid to get professional support if you need it. Some underlying reasons behind self-sabotage require mental health treatment, and there’s no shame in that.

For example, if you live with substance use disorder, you may self-sabotage by deciding to spend time with people who you know are triggers for you. If you have an anxiety disorder, you may be so worried about failure that you self-sabotage before you get there. For example, you could feel so anxious about a job interview that you cancel it to avoid anxiety.

Don’t forget that one of the signs of self-sabotage is refusing to ask for help. A mental health therapist can help you recover from mental illnesses and make healthy changes to your thinking and behaviors.


Get mental health treatment at The Center

If you decide you want to try professional mental health treatment to get out of the cycle of self-sabotage, then our team at The Center • A Place of HOPE can help.

We use a Whole Person Care approach when developing your treatment plan. That means we take every aspect of your well-being into consideration when working with you, including your history of self-sabotaging behaviors.

Get in touch with us for more information about admissions, and how we might be able to help you stop self-sabotaging and go after your dreams.

[1] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/sabotage
[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/self-handicapping
[3] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022103116304577?via%3Dihub

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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