Self-sabotage: the art of getting in your own way

Along with every other living thing on planet earth, the aim of every human being is to ‘thrive and survive’. Surviving is when we cope with and come through difficult times; thriving is when we flourish, prosper and grow. Understood in this way, self-sabotage is anything that someone does that hinders their ability to thrive and survive. Although seemingly counter-intuitive, self-sabotage is both very common and also very easy do engage in. In this post we take a look at this all-too-human of traits.

Origins of self-sabotage

Human beings are not born to self-sabotage. If we were, we would be an odd species indeed if from the moment of our birth we acted against our instincts to thrive and survive. So, if our first breath is not automatically a prelude to a life spent undermining ourselves, how do so many of us end up doing precisely that? The answer can usually be found in our infancy and early childhood when the twin forces of ‘nature and nurture’ shape our relationship with both ourselves and the world around us. When nature and nurture is positive i.e. we have a good upbringing, human beings tend to develop good levels of self-esteem. When it is negative, the opposite outcome is more likely. And it is low self-esteem that results in self-sabotage.

Why do it? Because it makes sense

If from a young age all a child knows is that they are not valued by the world – by parents, family, friends and wider society – or they learn from the outside world not too value themselves, they will draw the only conclusion they can: they don’t matter. This idea, which ALWAYS starts with the outside world, becomes internalised by the child and accepted as fact. And when a child knows they don’t matter, when they have low self-esteem, they feel bad – anxiety, depression and anger – and when they feel bad, self-sabotage make sense. Paradoxically, self-sabotage often gives a child a sense of control because it is the only thing in their lives that IS within their control.

Examples of self-sabotage

Human beings are a thinking, behaving, feeling and relating species. Therefore, self-sabotage can exist in all of these ways. For example:

  • Thoughts – ‘I am useless.’ ‘I don’t deserve good things to happen to me.’ ‘Once a failure, always a failure.’
  • Behaviours – denial of pleasure, self-harm, compulsions, addictions, perfectionism, procrastination
  • Feelings – conscious focusing on and deepening of difficult emotional states
  • Relationships – forming ‘toxic’ relationships, causing relationships to fail, unhealthy relationships with objects/possessions

There is a spectrum of self-sabotage from the severe to the less severe, but the outcome is the same in that it undermines to greater or lesser degrees an individual’s thriving and surviving.


Given that self-sabotage is so obviously damaging, it might seem impossible for someone to do it without realising. The answer it seems is that this is entirely possible. As I have suggested, self-sabotage is often the result of a difficult or at least problematic upbringing. For the child to become aware they are self-sabotaging, they will need the adult world to tell them. And when the adult world is the problem, this doesn’t always happen. The child grows up thinking that what someone else would call self-sabotage is normal behaviour. This lack of awareness can affect people well into their adult lives, especially if they continue to be surrounded by an adult world that doesn’t care or doesn’t notice.

Creating self-awareness

There are many ways self-awareness can be created, such as:

  • A conversation with someone had by accident or design
  • A blog or post on the subject of self-sabotage
  • A self-help book
  • Life becomes harder than it needs to be
  • Curiosity
  • Time
  • An event or incident
  • Maturity
  • Boredom
  • Responsibility
  • A memory
  • A glimpse of the benefits of change
  • Inspiration from a book or film

No doubt there are other ways, but once created self-awareness can make it hard to go back to how things were.

Awareness: painful and liberating

Once someone becomes aware they are self-sabotaging, they can compare it to life-affirming ways of thinking, behaving, feeling and relating – ways that promote thriving and surviving. Awareness can be variously painful and liberating. Painful because someone realises how their life could have been. Liberating because someone realises how their life can be. Replacing a life of self-sabotage can be hard because through practice and repetition, someone has become very good at it. However, with the right type of self-encouragement and support from caring relationships, overcoming self-sabotage is absolutely possible.

How to overcome self-sabotage

The good news is that there are many ways to overcome self-sabotage. Below is a list of some of them.

  • Develop and cultivate self-awareness
  • Kindness and compassion
  • Identify causes (usually from childhood)
  • Recognise self-sabotaging thoughts, behaviours, feelings and relationships
  • Hand back self-sabotaging thoughts etc. to the adult world responsible
  • Rediscover your true self and how they think, behave, feel and relate
  • Seek out supportive relationships
  • Create new patterns of thinking, behaving, feeling and relating
  • Set small, sustainable changes
  • Set goals, make plans

To quote the L’Oréal brand: choose to thrive and survive because ‘You are worth it’

Doing it yourself or doing it with others

There is no right or wrong way to overcome self-sabotage. Many people overcome it by themselves through some or all of the above ways, while others seek support either from people they know personally, or from professionals like coaches and therapists.

If you or someone you know is affected by self-sabotage, but you are unsure what to do next, then we’d love to hear from you. With over 15 years’ experience, we have helped many people to thrive and survive.