For the most part, many of us live with a goal. A reason we do, a purpose to be, an ambition to work towards. Being honest with ourselves, many may have spent a huge chunk of their childhood dreaming of aspirations. Most who did never stop, continuing that desire to achieve into their adulthood. When we finally arrive, though, some find it difficult to turn those childhood thoughts into a reality. Even if one has all the access to resources and opportunities needed, they still mentally struggle to reach their goals.
Goals vary case-by-case, but the ultimate purpose is still the same: achieve.
There are many reasons one may face as to why they haven’t yet reached their goals. For those whose goals allude them of their own doing, there is only one reason. Self-sabotage.
To be clear, we are not saying “If you haven’t reached your goals, it’s your fault.” An oversimplification, it generalizes and undermines those still trying. That would be inaccurate, at best, and unethical at worst.
How and why we self-sabotage
Hindsight is 20/20 (cliché bingo anyone?), so it’s easy to look back on our moments of heightened stress and see what caused them. Leaving that project for Sunday evening when we had all of Saturday and Sunday morning to start. Go to bed late, stressed, wake up restless, bad mood. Who knows what opportunities we may have missed that week if we’d entered it feeling 100% and ready? Tracing it back, it’s easy to say, “I should’ve just started it earlier.” But it doesn’t do much good to realize after the damage is done. Recognizing how we self-sabotage as we do it is key in turning self-destructive decision making around.
Risk factors for self-destructive behavior
If you’ve experienced
- Childhood trauma/abuse, neglect, or abandonment
- Emotional or physical abuse
- Alcohol or drug use
- Social isolation; exclusion
- Friends who self-harm
- Low self-esteem
You may be more likely to behave in a self-destructive manner. What’s worse is having one self-destructive behavior often leads to developing more.
The usual workload during the week is enough for some to not feel the energy needed to make a schedule for the next. This schedule could be crucial to reaching a goal, especially in the realm of fitness or skill building. Some have never learned the skills to break things up into smaller tasks through outlining or planning. You may feel like the task itself is intimidating and are unsure of where to begin. Conversely, you may be such a perfectionist that you still have no idea where to begin working. This may lead to feeling like a failure or fraud who doesn’t deserve to be in the position of such a task. As a result, the task intimidates them into not thinking about it. A cursed few, myself included, may even feel they perform better under the pressure of a deadline.
As important as it is to complete the tasks themselves, when we decide to complete them is just as important. Imagine the difference someone experiences in their productivity should they begin their tasks along with their day instead of waiting an hour or two just to “ease” into it. Ensuring we take on all tasks that require our attention early will allow them to be completed less stressfully. This gives us more time on projects for research or to build better fitness routines, yielding better results for either. Prioritizing our tasks for the day starts with ordering them by importance and sticking to it.
The familiarity heuristic is a concept in psychology that shows how bias is related to familiarity. Basically, our reptile brains cling to what we know. But everything we ever learn is new to us when we learn it. This flawed form of thinking can lead us to overvaluing what we know and undervaluing what is unfamiliar. When we’re under stress, we often feel we don’t have the energy to adapt to something new. Tired brains default to familiarity heuristic, resorting to old habits even if they don’t work as well or are counterproductive. Even when something new offers a clear advantage, we may still be drawn to our familiar and harmful habits.
We didn’t develop critical thinking, intellect, and opposable thumbs just to revert to animal brain in times of stress. It’s not always easy to tell when we’re relying on familiarity but going to our “happy place” is a start. Putting ourselves in a positive mental space makes for more clear study of our options. Pros-cons lists may seem wasteful but could be your best way of figuring out what works best for you. In any case, constructively analyzing your best paths forward while in a positive mental space is always best.
A catalyst in many self-saboteurs, this emotion starts affecting individuals prone to self-destructive behavior early on. Fear-induced self-sabotage can be traced back to someone’s childhood. Maybe their parent was overly critical and rejecting, inconsistent and neglectful, or the child became parentified.
Such a relationship with a caregiver can place the child on the path to patterns of self-sabotage. As the children become adults, their brain remembers this pain from their experiences with their parents. This alters their perspective of others as they treat peers and partners as if they are their parents. Some pick fights or become so controlling they push people away from them entirely. Others cheat or reveal all their insecurities becoming clingy, needy, and overbearing in the process. These are all subconscious ways that self-saboteurs use, pushing others away fearing rejection or feeling “trapped” when getting too close.
Luckily, if your fear of rejection or intimacy is strong, the solution can be as simple (or complex) as mindfulness. We are better able to understand, as adults, our capacity for stress and rejection as well as their actual effects. Rejection is not the end-all it may seem to be for some. Plainly stating, out loud, all your insecurities, worries, and fears to a trusted confidant can reduce their self-contrived significance. If the problems already seem smaller or less impactful just by saying them aloud, that’s a great start. Staying engaged and self-aware keeps us rooted in a state-of-mind that can more naturally overcome fear-induced self-sabotage.
Mental Health Condition
Anxiety disorders are characterized by “debilitating fear, worry, and distress”. A symptom of depression includes loss of interest in once-fun activities and/or responsibilities. Personality disorders make it nearly impossible for sufferers to relate to others in a healthy manner. Some who suffer from PTSD carry along impulsive personality traits with them. Even individuals who suffer from eating disorders do so by destroying their own physical well-being without reason.
It’s no surprise that any number of mental health ailments can lead someone to self-destruction. Symptoms involved in said disorders nearly always have to do with having their usual decision making and actions altered. “Debilitating” anxiety could lead someone to blow off an interview or audition. Depression can lead to people not paying their bills on time, or at all.
Fortunately, a self-destructive personality stemming from poor mental health has a tried and true treatment in counseling. Therapy helps each individual identify and understand the origin of their own self-sabotage. They teach how to manage stress or guide someone through healthy thought processes to navigate stressful moments. Counselors are usually accommodating of anyone else an individual may want to be a part of their sessions. It can be one-on-one, with another person, or in a group setting. A spouse or family joining the sessions can lead to significant gains made during the session. Some especially benefit from a long- or short-term behavioral therapy. Here, a counselor helps self-saboteurs become more familiar with triggers or how to respond in a less unruly manner.
If you find yourself engaging in self-destructive behavior, you may also be prone to self-loathing. You may have told yourself, or been told, you’re selfish and weak for being unable to overcome your destructive habits. You might be relegated to thinking of yourself as “not such a good person.” Good news: there’s no credible research to support such harmful thoughts. No one is inherently “bad” or evil because of their self-sabotage habits. You don’t have to accept this as a “way of life”. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support in friends and family while receiving counseling to become a better person for yourself. And definitely don’t allow ignorant opinions to define who you are.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline. 800-273-TALK (8255)
Self-Injury Outreach and Support. Learn and/or share personal stories while learning coping skills for the urge to self-harm.
If you enjoyed learning about self-sabotage, you’ll also like this article on Help-Saboteurs written by Ann Malmberg from Prepare/Enrich.
(Carlson, McDade-Montez, Armstrong, Dalenberg & Loewenstein, 2013) Development and Initial Validation of the Structured Interview for Self-Destructive Behaviors. NCBI, NIH PMC. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3656652/
(Sadeh, Baskin-Sommers, 2016) Risky, Impulsive, and Self-Destructive Behavior Questionnaire (RISQ): A Validation Study. Sage Journals. Retrieved from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1073191116640356
(Corneille, Monin, Pleyers, 2004). Is positivity a cue or a response option? Warm glow vs evaluative matching in the familiarity for attractive and not-so-attractive faces. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41, p. 431–437
Self-injury (cutting, self-harm or self-mutilation). (n.d.). Retrieved from: mhanational.org/conditions/self-injury-cutting-self-harm-or-self-mutilation
Mayo Clinic staff. (2018). Self-injury/cutting.