From the outside, self-sabotaging behavior seems like a problem with a simple fix: If you realize you keep flubbing opportunities to better your life, simply channel your inner Terry Crews and tell yourself to knock it off already. But the problem is more nuanced than that. It takes serious self-reflection to understand why you keep shooting yourself in the foot in the first place.
Self-sabotage occurs when your conscious mind (the logical one that makes shopping lists and reminds you to brush your teeth) is at odds with your subconscious mind (the emotional one that stress-eats Snickers bars and drunk dials your ex). That disconnect—that clash of needs and wants—manifests itself in self-sabotaging behavior. Gambling away your rent money, accidentally-on-purpose missing the deadline to enroll in grad school, getting drunk the day before a giant work presentation: It’s your subconscious way of preventing pain and handling fear.
We asked therapists, financial experts, and life coaches about how people can reconcile these internal rifts and move forward with their positive goals once and for all. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Be Kind to Yourself and Seek Out Accountability
Shame about self-sabotaging can be an enormous obstacle to taking different action. Try to see your actions (or inaction) with love and compassion, as if you were witnessing it happen in a young child and want to help them get past whatever is blocking them. Can you get clear on what you actually want; what is the benefit to you, the reason for doing what you want to do in the first place? Once you’ve figured that out, what would be the smallest commitment you could make to yourself that would represent a step in the right direction? See if you can find a trusted friend (or your partner, if you’re in a relationship) to help hold you accountable to taking this small step, and then build upon your successes. – Neil Sattin, relationship coach and host of the Relationship Alive podcast
Zap Fears and Bad Thoughts
Sit down and imagine what it would be like to have what you want or to reach your goal. Imagine every step. When you're doing this, write down any negative feelings, weird fears, or random thoughts that come up. If you imagine yourself getting into great physical shape, what comes up for you? Do you picture yourself doing boring workouts for the rest of your life? Do you fear getting unwanted attention from men? Do you imagine your spouse or friends making fun of you for going to the gym and being vain? The key to your self-sabotage lies in those fears and thoughts. Facing whatever is holding you back and causing you to self-sabotage won't be easy. But it's better than the lousy regret you'll feel if you don't. Life's too short to not go after what you want most. – Dr. Christie Hartman, dating and relationship expert
Identify Root Causes
Some people are comfortable in chaos. It's a difficult thing to recognize about yourself, but an important lesson to learn. If chaos is comfort, then it's easy to understand how appealing it can be, consciously or not, to self-sabotage. Imposter syndrome is another reason we self-sabotage. We get nervous we aren't qualified, or shouldn't be doing something and therefore either drop out or put ourselves in positions where we're asked to step down. It's not always easy to recognize about yourself, so listen to other people if it gets pointed out to you. It never hurts to speak to a professional, whether that's a therapist or a business coach or someone else, in order to get some perspective from a neutral third party. Take the time to unearth the why. Understanding that you're self-sabotaging is important, but figuring out the root cause will prevent you from doing it again.
– Erin Lowry, author of Broke Millennial: Stop Scraping by and Get Your Financial Life Together
Face Your Fears
If you procrastinate all the time, cause unnecessary conflict in your relationship, or drink too much alcohol throughout the week, take a long, hard look in the mirror and decide if that’s really what you want to continue doing. Ask yourself: Do I really want to sabotage my chance at being truly happy in life? What do I really have to fear by not living up to my true capacity in life? When you do this exercise, you’ll realize it’s really not worth the energy of sabotaging your chances of success just because you fear not achieving it. It’s much easier to face your fears and “fail” than it is to continuously quit before trying. Don’t waste your talent and squander your chances of being happy.
– Justin Stenstrom, life coach and founder of Elite Man Magazine and the Elite Man Podcast
Here, Have a Pep Talk
Self-sabotage is a fear that our best isn't good enough. But remember, no matter what happens, you are good enough. Changing self-sabotaging behaviors often makes you feel anxious, because it means you're challenging familiar attitudes you've long held about yourself. – Racquel Jones, licensed clinical social worker
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