“Why do I keep doing this?”
“How does this keep happening to me?”
You might ask yourself these questions when you feel trapped in patterns that create problems in your life and keep you from achieving your goals. Although you try to make changes and disrupt these patterns, somehow you end up in the same place, again and again.
If this sounds familiar, you could be sabotaging yourself. Self-sabotage refers to behaviors or thought patterns that hold you back and prevent you from doing what you want to do.
You can sabotage yourself in a number of ways. Some are obvious, but others are a bit harder to recognize.
Blaming others when things go wrong
Sometimes, bad things just happen without anyone being at fault. Sure, some misfortunes might be solely the fault of someone else, but that’s not always the case.
If you tend to find fault elsewhere whenever you face difficulties, it may be worth taking a closer look at the part you played in what happened.
Say your partner has some relationship behaviors that affect you both. You decide they won’t change and break up with them. You feel good about the breakup, since their unwillingness to change kept you from moving forward together. Your friends agree you did the right thing.
But if you don’t take time to explore how you might have contributed to some of the issues in that relationship, says Maury Joseph, PsyD, you sabotage your chance to learn and grow from the experience.
Choosing to walk away when things don’t go smoothly
There’s nothing wrong with moving on from situations that don’t meet your needs. This might be the best option sometimes. But it’s usually wise to take a quick step back and ask yourself first if you really made an effort.
Maybe you can’t seem to stay in any job for very long. You left one job because your supervisor treated you unfairly. You were let go from a second because of overstaffing. You left your next job because of toxic coworkers, and so on.
These are valid reasons, but such a pervasive pattern could have something more to it. Doubts about your own ability to succeed or hold a steady job could lead you to do things that disrupt your performance or keep you from thriving at work. Maybe you’re afraid of conflict or criticism.
It’s tough, but working through challenges and problems helps you grow. When you give up before you’ve put in much effort, you may not learn how to make different choices in the future.
Have you ever found yourself stalled or stuck when faced with an important task? You’re far from alone in this.
You’ve prepared, done all your research, and sat down to get started, only to find you just can’t begin. Your motivation has completely disappeared. So you avoid the task by cleaning out the refrigerator, organizing your junk drawer, or starting a movie marathon.
Procrastination can happen for no apparent reason, but it typically has an underlying cause, such as:
- feeling overwhelmed by what you need to do
- trouble managing time
- doubting your ability or skills
Picking fights with friends or partners
You can subtly undermine yourself (and harm your relationships) in a number of ways.
Maybe you’re always ready to argue, even over things that don’t really matter, like who chose the last restaurant you went to. Or you do things to provoke reactions, like leave a mess in the kitchen or purposely “forget” important dates.
On the flip side, you might get offended easily or take things personally, whether they’re directed at you or not.
Or perhaps you have a hard time talking about your feelings, especially when upset. So you resort to snark and passive aggression instead of more effective communication methods.
Dating people who aren’t right for you
Self-sabotaging behaviors often appear in relationships. Dating people who don’t check all your boxes is one common type of relationship self-sabotage.
- keep dating a similar type of person although your relationships keep ending badly
- try to make things work with a partner who has very different goals for the future
- stay in a relationship that’s going nowhere
Maybe you’re monogamous but keep developing attractions to non-monogamous people. You give non-monogamy a try, more than once, but end up frustrated and hurt each time.
Or you want kids but your partner doesn’t. Everything else is working, so you stay in the relationship, secretly hoping they’ll change their mind.
By falling into these patterns, you’re preventing yourself from finding someone who’s a better match long term.
Trouble stating your needs
If you have a hard time speaking up for yourself, you may have a hard time getting all of your needs met.
This can happen in:
- family situations
- among friends
- at work
- in romantic relationships
- in everyday interactions
Imagine you’re in line at the supermarket with a sandwich when someone with a full cart of groceries cuts in front of you. You’re in a hurry to get back to work, but you can’t bring yourself to say anything. You let them go ahead and end up late for a meeting that you really couldn’t afford to miss.
Putting yourself down
People often set much higher standards for themselves than they do for others. When you fail to meet these standards, you might give yourself some pretty harsh feedback:
- “I can’t do anything right.”
- “I won’t make it, so why should I bother?”
- “Wow, I really messed up. I’m terrible at this.”
Whether you criticize yourself in front of others or have a habit of negative self-talk, the same thing can happen: Your words may eventually be taken as truth. Believing these criticisms can promote an attitude of self-defeat and keep you from wanting to try again. Eventually, you might give up before you even begin.
According to Joseph, self-sabotage happens when you do certain things that were adaptive in one context but are no longer necessary.
In other words, these behaviors helped you adapt to a previous situation, like a traumatic childhood or toxic relationship, and survive the challenges you faced there. They may have soothed you or defended you. But these methods of coping can cause difficulties when your situation changes.
Here’s a closer look at some of the big contributing factors.
Patterns learned in childhood
The patterns laid down in our earliest relationships often repeat in relationships throughout life, according to Joseph. “We’re attached to these patterns. They mean something to us, and they’re hard to give up,” Joseph says.
Say you had a parent who never paid much attention to youunless they were angry.
“You know it’s not a good thing to get people mad,” Joseph says, “But they’re something very compelling about it, because of this upbringing. Getting people angry was the only way to get interest, so you feel stuck in this pattern where it’s tempting, attractive even, to get people mad at you.”
This might show up, for example, in your job, where you just can’t seem to show up on time. At first your supervisor is forgiving and encouraging, but as time goes on and you still fail to be on time, your supervisor gets angry and eventually fires you.
Past relationship dynamics
If you didn’t feel supported or heard when asking for what you needed in previous relationships, romantic or otherwise, you might struggle to communicate effectively in your current relationships.
Whether you had an abusive partner or one who simply didn’t care about your thoughts and feelings, you may not have felt able to speak up for yourself. You stayed quiet to defend yourself from anger, rejection, and other negative experiences. But as a result, you didn’t learn to advocate for your needs.
Your present situation differs from the past, but it can be difficult to break out of the same destructive patterns.
Fear of failure
When you don’t want to fail at your dream job, in your relationship, or even at being a good parent, you might unintentionally sabotage your own efforts to do well.
Wanting to avoid failure can lead you to avoid trying. If you don’t try, you can’t fail, right? So your unconscious mind might present you with excuses and ways to sabotage yourself.
For example, imagine you’re in a newer relationship that’s going very well. So well, in fact, you believe it’s only a matter of time before something happens to end it. “This is too good,” you tell yourself. “It can’t last.”
You don’t want to face the end, so you begin retreating from your partner, closing yourself off emotionally and starting arguments. Generally speaking, you’re motivated to bring about your own failure so you aren’t surprised when it happens.
A need for control
Self-sabotaging behaviors can also develop from your need to control a situation. When you’re in control, you might feel safe, strong, and ready to face anything that comes your way.
Some types of self-sabotage provide this sense of control. What you’re doing may not be great for your mental health or relationships, but it helps you stay in control when you feel vulnerable.
Take the procrastination example. Maybe you’re putting off that research paper because, deep down, you’re worried you won’t write it as well as you’d hoped. You know writing it at the last minute won’t help the quality, but it will put you in control of that outcome because you chose to write it at the last minute.
This can also happen in relationships. Opening up to someone emotionally can feel incredible vulnerable. By keeping things in, you maintain what feels like the upper hand. But at the end of the day, you aren’t reaping the rewards of building intimacy by sharing vulnerabilities.
Behaviors that worked for you in the past generally don’t help as much once your circumstances change. In fact, they often cause some harm. But you keep doing them because they worked well for you, once upon a time.
The good news? It’s possible to disrupt self-sabotaging patterns with a little effort.
Identify the behaviors
It’s not always easy to examine your actions deeply enough to note patterns of self-sabotage. “Admitting we are self-sabotaging is painful,” Joseph says. “Nobody rushes to that conclusion. We tend to avoid it for as long as possible, until we have no choice but to face it.”
If you feel comfortable examining your behavior to find patterns, it helps to look at areas of life where things seem to regularly go wrong.
Do any common factors stand out? For example, maybe you detach from relationships and begin picking fights once your partner says, “I love you.” Or maybe you have a pattern of quitting jobs right before your annual review.
Learn what sets you off
Once you figure out how you sabotage yourself, take note of when you do these things. What makes you feel like you have to act out?
Maybe an angry tone in your partner’s voice reminds you of being yelled at in childhood. You always shut down, even when the anger isn’t directed at you.
Other triggers that often put self-sabotaging behaviors into motion include:
- things going well
Track your triggers in a journal. Practicing mindfulness, or nonjudgmental awareness of your thoughts and behaviors in the present moment, can also help.
Each time you uncover a trigger, try to come up with one or two productive reactions to replace the self-sabotaging behavior.
Practice getting comfortable with failure
It’s normal to feel afraid of rejection, failure, and other emotional pain. These things are generally not fun to deal with, so you take steps to avoid them.
This becomes problematic when the steps you take involve self-sabotage. You might prevent unwanted experiences, but you’re also bound to miss out on things you do want, such as strong relationships, close friends, or career opportunities.
To manage this fear, work on accepting the realities of failure and pain. This is a hard task, and it won’t happen overnight. Start small by attempting to view your next failure, whether it’s a relationship gone sour or a missed opportunity at work, as a possibility.
Maybe the end of this relationship means you can finally hit on that cute barista. Or the missed work opportunity means you’ll have a bit more free time to get back into your hobbies.
Talk about it
If you notice certain patterns keep appearing in your relationships, try talking to the people you’re closest to about them.
You might try saying this to your partner: “I want our relationship to work, but I’m afraid of it failing. If I seem to shut down or pull away, it’s because I’m afraid of losing you. I’m trying to work through it, but I don’t want you to think I don’t care in the meantime.”
According to Joseph, simply talking through a self-sabotaging pattern out loud can prevent you from carrying it out. Plus, it can be a powerful learning experience when the situation plays out along a different path — not down the path of self-sabotage.
Identify what you really want
Self-sabotage can happen when you’re looking for a way out. These behaviors help suggest something about your situation isn’t working for you.
If you feel unfulfilled at work because your daily tasks don’t use any of your specialized skills, you might start watching Netflix whenever you’re bored.
Or you might tell yourself you want a relationship even though you’re happiest when you’re single. In response, every time you move past the casual dating stage, you start creating conflict.
Getting to know yourself better and exploring what you truly want from life can help prevent this kind of self-sabotage. It isn’t enough to know what you want, though. You also have to respect and support yourself enough to work for it.
It’s not always easy to recognize and stop some self-sabotaging behaviors, especially patterns you’ve followed for years, on your own. If your efforts to try different behaviors and responses haven’t worked, or only work for a while, therapy may be a good option.
There’s no shame in needing professional support.
“There may be something present you don’t see,” Joseph says. “Sometimes it’s not possible to uncover all underlying factors on your own.”
Therapy can be particularly helpful for self-sabotage because at some point, you might unintentionally begin sabotaging the therapy process. A good therapist will pick up on this and help bring the issue, which you probably weren’t aware of, to the surface.
Our guide to therapy for every budget can help you take the first step.
Self-sabotaging behaviors are often deeply ingrained and hard to recognize. And once you do recognize them, noticing how you hold yourself back can be hard to come to terms with.
But keep in mind that by recognizing these behaviors, you’ve taken the first step toward changing them. And you don’t have to do it alone. Friends, loved ones, and trained therapists can all offer support.
Maybe you doubt you have what it takes to win that art contest. But instead of saying, “Why bother?” and crumpling up that entry form, fill it out and submit your best work. What you learn about yourself could have just as much value as winning.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.