We’ve all had that feeling — the sinking sensation that our plans are being derailed and the keen awareness that we’re part of the problem. Sometimes being within striking distance of our dreams makes us do crazy things, like get in our own way.
When we get close to the thing we want, it’s not uncommon to feel uncomfortable. This goal or desire is unfamiliar, and humans crave familiarity. When we don’t have it, the need for control kicks in. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance, but to people like you and me, it may just feel like our brain is going haywire. It’s in these moments that we start telling ourselves that self-induced failure is better than actual failure. Insert: self-sabotage.
According to Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD) and the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast, the root of self-sabotage is almost always fear of failure. “Most people think of self-demolition as fear of success. But deep down, despair over achievements isn’t truly a fear of ambition and your own worth — it’s a fear of trying one’s best and not succeeding…” she explained in an article for Psychology Today.
So how can we snap out of it when we find ourselves slipping into self-sabotaging behavior?
First, we have to know the signs.
1. You’ve become a professional procrastinator
The irony that it took half a day to write this is not lost on me. Procrastination comes in various shapes and sizes, and if you’re like me, it often masquerades as busyness or hyper-productivity. Thanks to “productive procrastination” all the little errands and to-dos in life got done at the expense of the larger ones.
The truth is, indulging in procrastination typically just makes the one big task a bigger deal than it needs to be. “If we could remember how much trouble it causes, we probably wouldn’t procrastinate the next time,” explains Monica Ramirez Basco in her book The Procrastinator’s Guide to Getting Things Done. “The problem is that we are so used to using procrastination as our coping strategy that we do it automatically, without considering the big picture.”
Procrastination is a way of life — we all do it in some form or fashion. But Dr. Basco explained in her book that being aware of our motivations helps us get out of the constant cycle. After you know the why, take note of when you have the urge to procrastinate. For example, when you find yourself saying you’re too busy or don’t have the time to pursue the things you want to, try keeping an activity log for a week or two. Once you identify where there are pockets of unused or poorly utilized time, you’ll be able to set boundaries to prevent slipping into a state of dilly-dallying.
Procrastination is just one of fear’s many cunning disguises. Don’t let it fool you.
2. You pass up new opportunities
There’s a rare chance to showcase your work at the cool new gallery in town. A photographer you know asks you to be an assistant at a wedding they’re shooting. A friend offers to set you up on a blind date. Somehow the deadline to submit your portfolio to the gallery passes you by, the wedding just doesn’t seem to fit in your schedule, and you politely decline the introduction to the date said friend had in mind. This is self-sabotage at its finest.
New opportunities that are outside of our comfort zone can be the breeding ground for imposter syndrome. The discomfort they illicit causes the mixtape of lies in our head to ratchet up to full volume. I’m not good enough, I’m not ready, I’ll look silly, there’s no way they’ll choose me. Hit pause, flip to side B, and the playlist continues.
Rather than slipping into a pattern of negativity and self-criticism, choose self-compassion. Stress on the brink of something new is normal and nothing to be ashamed of. Plus, that anxious energy can be harnessed and used to your benefit. As Dr. Hendriksen said in another article for Psychology Today, authentic modesty keeps you real, so it doesn’t hurt to “keep a little impostor [sic] syndrome in your pocket.”
Channel your inner Shonda Rhimes and fight the fear by becoming a “yes” woman. Don’t give yourself the time to mull it over, or you will surely say no. When a door opens, no matter how challenging, walk through it. You can figure out all the details later.
3. You find yourself under the spell of bad habits
We all have one (or five) bad habits that we default to under stress. Whatever our vice is, that thing feels comfortable and familiar, even if we know it’s not the right choice. If you notice the usual suspects popping back up, it may be time to stop and examine what areas in your life are requiring growth, because girl, you are self-sabotaging.
The fear and anxiety you feel about a new thing is still going to be there once the pint of ice cream is finished, the good times are over, and Netflix asks that super judgy question, “Are you still watching?” We know this. But it doesn’t stop the craving for comfort.
Don’t go for the quick fix. Find new ways to reward yourself. If you struggle with stress eating, resolve to give yourself a non-food related break once you hit a specific milestone. If TV is your kryptonite, don’t convince yourself that you’ll just watch one episode. You know better. Instead, go for a walk, read a book, or spend time catching up with a friend for a “brain break”.
It feels like my bad habits tend to creep back in like smoke in the night when my brain is trying to decide between fighting through to pursue the thing I actually want to do, or cowering in comfort. And where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Don’t let it rage out of control. The most effective way to put out a potential fire is to simply sit down and do the work, build in healthy margins for yourself, and for the love of all that is holy, put down the spoon.
4. You refuse to own your identity
A friend calls you a writer and you’re quick to dismiss it. Another asks about your date and you start off by clarifying that it was more like two people, you know, just hanging out.
I’ve noticed that the refusal to own my identity or situation is typically a prerequisite for self-sabotage. For those of us who default to deflection, it’s often because taking on our desired identity feels like being set up for failure. If we can convince ourselves that we never really took on the identity in the first place, we can be convinced that it’s OK if things don’t work out the way we’d hoped.
Well, I never really said I was a writer, so it’s fine that they’re not interested in my book proposal. I never claimed to be a painter, so no wonder they picked the other artist to showcase, since they’re the real painter. I mean, I have a camera and I take pictures, but I’m not a photographer, so it’s no wonder they don’t want to hire me as an assistant.
This leads to self-sabotaging behavior number two: passing up new opportunities.
Own who you are now and who you want to be. Start by removing the word “aspiring” from your lexicon. You either are or you aren’t and by stating that you are the thing you want to be you’ll put just the right amount of pressure on yourself to deliver. Because who wants to be the writer who doesn’t write or painter who doesn’t paint?
5. You’ve got your guard — and your dukes — up
Have you ever found yourself in a fight that you know you good and well you started? You’ve already committed to the battle, so now you’ve got to win the war. There’s no backing out.
Picking a fight, both in our personal and professional lives, can be a common way that we trip ourselves up. “We are all insecure about something,” Annie McKee, author of How to Be Happy at Work, explained in an article she wrote for Harvard Business Review. “And when insecurity gets triggered, we can find ourselves behaving in ways that don’t make us proud…. Sometimes we even start fights just to distract people.”
Start to address this form of sabotage by fostering honest lines of communication with those closest to you. When you’re not in a state of stress, have a conversation with your partner, spouse, or roommate and allow them into the process. Maybe that involves giving them permission to call you out when they sense that you’re itching for a fight. Or maybe it’s making them aware of your triggers so the confrontation doesn’t catch them off guard.
Do some soul searching of your own. When you feel yourself going on the defense, stop and consider what your motivations are in the moment. Did that person really get under your skin that much, or do you just want to feel like you’re in the driver’s seat and this is an easy way out? Stop, take a breath, and pause before you say something you can’t take back.
At the root of self-sabotage is a fear of failure and an overwhelming sense of being “found out” as a fraud. The only way to get over the fear is to fail and see that it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. It’ll take daily reminders, but the more times you fall, the more you’ll remember that it doesn’t hurt that bad. And you’ll develop the strength to get up and do it again.
None of us are as perfect as people perceive us to be. When we’re challenging ourselves it’s only normal that we have to punch above our weight for a bit, but flexing that muscle is what makes it grow. If you want to break the cycle of self-sabotage, choose consistency over comfort. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be a lot less painful than you think.