Working toward making meaningful changes in our lives is rarely a walk in the park. Old habits die hard, and it can take constant, vigilant effort to turn things around in a significant way. Sometimes striving to do things differently can be downright daunting. The changes we want to make can require us to go out on limbs that feel unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and even unsafe.
When this is the case, many people experience trepidation, and move forward with great caution. It’s under these circumstances that folks sometimes describe their responses as “self-sabotaging” – a term that suggests they’re undermining the process of achieving their goals. Although this notion is generally taken for granted as a truism in therapy land, when I explore what people call “self-sabotage” with clients, it often turns out that it has a lot more to do with resistance to adversity than a real desire to thwart one’s own success.
(One thing to note: I put quotation marks around “self-sabotage” because I don’t think it’s the best fitting term. I'll explain this more below.)
Assumptions About “Self-Sabotage”
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word sabotage as:
"the act of destroying or damaging something deliberately so that it does not work correctly."
This is important to note, and something I will refer back to throughout this post.
The idea of “self-sabotage” is often portrayed in two similar but distinct ways:
- As an indicator of low self-esteem.
- As a subconscious psychological defence mechanism.
“Self-Sabotage” and Self-Esteem
The idea that “self-sabotage” is a function of low self-esteem is an easy conclusion to draw in the absence of context. At a distance, we might see someone’s actions as counter-productive and deleterious to their wellbeing. From this we might assume that the problem lies in their regard for themselves. However, when we take a close-up look at behaviour that’s been labeled as “self-sabotage”, this portrayal generally doesn’t hold much water.
Out of the many conversations I’ve had with folks about so-called “self-sabotaging” behaviour, all of them have meant well when it came down to their actions. In fact, every single person I’ve talked to about “self-sabotage” has described how their actions were intended to be in their best interest, they just came with some unfortunate drawbacks.
For example, 9 times out of 10, Kris chooses to play video games (an option likely to bring immediate gratification with little long-term benefit) rather than studying for an exam (an option with less immediate gratification and more of a sense of challenge, but also with more long term benefit). When asked why he chooses gaming over studying in spite of the obvious long term benefits of the latter, he explains that he is motivated by a desire to maximize his experience of pleasure and avoid the stress associated with studying. Despite the shortcomings of Kris’s approach (lower grades and more stress in the long run), the choice of instant gratification over the discomfort and challenge of studying is still a “pro-Kris” decision: it shows that Kris has a preference for positive experiences. As such, it would be hasty for us to label Kris as having low self-esteem for “sabotaging” his academic success by engaging in more immediately gratifying activities.
It is often assumed that people with low self-esteem undermine the possibility of positive things happening because they feel undeserving. The idea that “self-sabotage” comes from having low self-esteem implies that people are gluttons for punishment, when they’re more often seeking to avoid distress and prolong experiences of feeling good. Behaviours that often get described as “self-sabotaging” generally fit better with esteeming oneself highly, rather than poorly. After all, if you like feeling good and avoid feeling bad, you must, in some way, see yourself as worthy of feeling good – otherwise you wouldn’t seek out good feelings. This ties into my posts on misconceptions about resistance and rethinking how we evaluate self-esteem.
“Self-Sabotage” as a Defence
The notion of “self-sabotage” as a defence mechanism assumes that it is a means to protect us from bad things happening. Based on conversations I’ve had with folks in therapy, this perspective isn’t too far off – actions that get called “self-sabotage” do generally serve as resistance to adversity, which is inherently protective. However, this take on “self-sabotage” could be tweaked in a couple of fundamental ways.
If “self-sabotaging” behaviours serve the interest of defence, then they’re really not sabotaging at all in the big picture. I mean, they are and they aren’t. These behaviours might work against us achieving particular goals and experiencing success in specific ways, but they also keep us safe – and safety is important! So “self-sabotage” often works for us just as much as it works against us, making the word “sabotage” somewhat ill-fitting in these contexts. At the end of the day, it’s more like self-protection with some kinks to iron out.
For example, Robyn spends a lot of time at home alone. She feels isolated, with a strong longing to connect with others in meaningful ways. However, Robyn knows that venturing out could be risky, and her attempts to connect could be met with rejection. She responds by continuing to stay home, watching TV, and going on the Internet – all of which help distract her from the sadness she feels when she’s lonely. These are the things that Robyn is most familiar and comfortable with, but they also feel mundane and unsatisfying.
Some might look at Robyn’s choice to stay home and avoid going out as “self-sabotage” – actions that get in the way of achieving the meaningful connections she’s longing for. However, for Robyn, these actions serve the important purpose of protection against rejection – which would actually make her sense of alienation worse. By acknowledging the importance of both Robyn’s longing for change and her need for safety, she might explore other options that could satisfy both aspects in preferable ways.
Here again, “sabotage” does not accurately account for Robyn’s actions. Sure, staying home rather than making efforts to connect with others might not satisfy her longing for interaction, but her behaviour is not geared toward doing deliberate damage so that her longing for connection will never come true.
“Self-Sabotage” as Resistance
All varieties of “self-sabotage” described above share a common thread: resistance. They all serve to create shelter from danger, discomfort, and other disaffirming experiences. Regardless of the pros and cons of those behaviours, they can be important acts of living, and speak to our concern for our wellbeing.
One other kind of “self-sabotage” that I’ve explored with clients (but haven’t mentioned above) involves resisting expectations imposed on us by others (including society in general). When people are expected to carry out certain tasks or follow a particular path in life, and those expectations don’t fit with our interests, identities, and desires, we might “self-sabotage” as a way of having our input one way or another.
As I mentioned in my post on boundaries, in some circumstances it’s not always safe for us to assert our desires in explicit and clear ways. We might have a well-founded sense that doing things our way will be met with judgment, misunderstanding, scorn, or even violence. In these circumstances, “self-sabotaging” behaviours allow us to resist those expectations in less obvious ways.
Here again, as acts of resistance, the term “self-sabotage” isn’t really fitting. If we’re striving to have our say and resisting outside impositions, we are not sabotaging ourselves. If anything, we’re sabotaging the plans and expectations imposed on us by others.
The term “self-sabotage” generally contains a negative bias, and assumes that we are acting against our own wellbeing. However, when we take a careful look at behaviours that are labeled “self-sabotaging”, they rarely actually serve that purpose. Every decision we make opens doors to certain possibilities, while closing the doors on others, regardless if they’re seen as “good” or “bad” choices. The notion of “self-sabotage” can often be better understood as resistance to adversity, even if the associated actions don’t quite align with improvements in the big picture. Nothing is perfect, and there are always kinks to work out of every move we make.
Have any of your behaviours been labeled "self-sabotaging"?
Are you thinking of ironing out some kinks?
if you'd like to see if I can help!