Self-sabotage is a way of engaging in self-destructive behaviors. When things are going great, such as your romantic relationship, you may do something that causes disruptions in your relationship. Sometimes, not doing anything is also considered as self-sabotaging, such as procrastinating or avoiding.
There are common signs of self-sabotaging behaviors. For example; procrastinating, dwelling on your past mistakes, breaking promises you make to yourself, refusing to seek help or support, making excuses for your behavior, not communicating your expectations, and second-guessing yourself may suggest that you are engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors. These behaviors are also indications of having low self-esteem. For this reason, low self-esteem and self-sabotaging are related, but having low self-esteem is not directly causing for you to self-sabotage. Low self-esteem is just one of the predictors of self-sabotage. My clinical experience showed me that even people with high self-esteem can engage in self-sabotaging behaviors.
In my sessions, I may ask you, “Are there particular areas in your life that you are self-sabotaging?”, and the most common answers I get are: “Relationships”, “Work/Career”, and “Self-care”. In addition to having low self-esteem, here are the most common reasons people engage in self-sabotage::
1.Fear of Failure: Repeated failed attempts are likely to create a fear of failure. Maybe in your past, you tried and failed. Growing up in a dysfunctional family home where you tried but couldn’t make healthier choices may give you an impression that if you try again, you will fail in your adult life. In therapy we work to uncover your childhood traumas and learn which internalized messages you learned from your family home that sets you up for failure or for fear of failure.
2.Fear of Success: Often people are not afraid of success per se, but rather what comes along with success. What brings success to a person may be “recognition”, “attention”, “respect” or “money”. This all sounds positive and like things that will improve your life quality when you have them. But the definition of success is subjective. If you don’t know how to handle the attention that you will receive once you succeed, or if this is an unwanted attention for you, you will feel overwhelmed. A similar situation may occur for money and recognition. For some, being successful means having more external pressures from family and friends. For others, recognition means being under the spotlight to an extent that you don’t feel comfortable. When this is the case, fear of success is more likely to act as self-sabotaging behavior.
3.Self-worth: If you are self-sabotaging because you don’t believe you deserve good things, then this may signal a low level of self-worth. Self-worth has a different meaning than self-esteem. For this reason, it is possible that you may have a low self-worth but high self-esteem, or vice versa. However, low self-worth and low self-esteem, together, makes you more likely to engage in self-sabotaging.
Your self-worth tells you, “You are important. Your emotions are important. Your thoughts are important. You deserve good things such as love and recognition. You are worthy.”
Your self-esteem tells you, “You got this! I trust you. It is okay if you fail, at least you will try and enjoy the process. You are capable.”
For example, you are about to introduce yourself in front of a group of people. When you experience low self-worth, you may have these kinds of thoughts before you speak up: “No one wants to hear about you. They are going to hate you. No one will even listen”. For the same situation, when you experience low self-esteem, you may have these kinds of thoughts instead: “You are going to make a mistake and embarrass yourself. Probably people won’t even hear what you are saying”. As you can see, while self-worth is about who you think you are, the core identity, self-esteem is about what you think you are able to do, capability.
4.Imposter Syndrome: I see imposter syndrome as the main reason of self-sabotaging and stems from lack of “feeling of belongingness” and having “self-doubt”. This syndrome is directly invalidating your own experience.
For example, you won a game and people are giving you compliments. Rather than owning the compliment and saying, “Thank you”, you tell them “It was a pure luck.”
A person with imposter syndrome, often uses these types of “invalidation statements”:
“Who do I think I am?”
“Someone could definitely do better”
“Why did they even pick me?”
“I am nothing special”
“Anyone could do this”
To engage in self-sabotaging, you don’t have to have all four reasons. Often, having one of them may be enough for you to engage in self-sabotage. If you realize you have any of these four potential causes of self-sabotage in a specific area of your life, please consult with your therapist.