“Self-sabotage is when we say we want something and then go about making sure it doesn’t happen.”
– Alyce Cornyn-Selby
We can think we want something, but really want something else.
Consider this fable.
A talkative mouse, a rat, and a small shrew were trapped in a flood, desperately clinging to the side of a lilypad – and sinking fast! A helpful owl came to their rescue, first telling the rat to clamp its teeth onto its talons as the owl flew to safety. He then returned for the shrew, who received similar instructions. Finally, as the tides rose ever higher, the owl came back for our garrulous mouse.
“You are rescued and will live!” said the owl. “But I’ve noticed you talk a lot. Promise me you’ll keep your mouth closed around my legs and on no account open it, or you’ll fall to your fate!”
“Of course!” said the mouse, who proceeded to clamp his mouth onto his feathered rescuer’s landing gear.
They took off and flew across the floods. The owl was about to land on some high ground, but the mouse decided he wanted to alight at some other place.
“Not there…” shouted the mouse, but those were the last words he ever spoke as he fell into the swirling waters below.
The mouse in this story might be seen as the part of the mind that self-sabotages. The part, active in some people, that can’t help but spoil the good that might happen.
What is your priority, really?
When one need overrides others we may be seen to be self-sabotaging.
For example, if my desire and need to learn Spanish is outgunned by my need to be heard and noticed, then I may sabotage the Spanish class by continually interrupting or bringing up irrelevant points so people pay attention to me. I may believe my priority is to learn Spanish, but my behaviour points to maladaptive attention seeking.
This is why it’s so valuable not just to listen to what people say but to watch what they actually do.
If, on the other hand, I meet my needs for attention in healthy and sustainable ways, then I have the spare capacity to simply learn Spanish. I don’t need to unconsciously use the Spanish class to garner attention, thereby sabotaging the learning opportunity for both myself and others.
Doing one thing while believing you are doing another, and failing to free up spare capacity by meeting needs in balance are, I think, underappreciated facets of human psychology and problems. But it’s vital to appreciate them.
Seeing more clearly
If we are to be efficient and productive, and avoid self-sabotage, it is vital to understand our primal emotional needs and meet them outside of areas where we might need to focus in other ways.
If the loquacious mouse in our story had adequately met its need for attention outside of the rescue situation, it wouldn’t have felt compelled to seek the completion of this (totally valid) need in such an inappropriate way. Or was the need perhaps for control, as it tried to dictate just where and how it should be rescued?
When a client, or anyone, isn’t consciously aware that they’re doing one thing while professing to do another, we call it cognitive dissonance or denial.
Denial often sits right inside self-sabotage. I suspect cognitive dissonance impacts much more of human life than we (care to) realize.
But the hidden drive to meet fundamental needs inappropriately and blindly isn’t the only way we can spoil things. Sometimes it’s our beliefs that trip us up and stop us heading where we need to go.
The danger of submerged self-sabotaging beliefs
Graham, a client I had many years ago, told me how, despite being highly qualified and competent, he never seemed to earn much money. He needed to, because he had a growing family. And besides, like most people, he needed to enjoy some sense of status. But there was a problem.
He always seemed to do something to spoil things. Either he’d miss the deadline for a job application, or he’d lose the application paperwork so he couldn’t apply. Sometimes he’d get quite panicky and simply not turn up for a job interview.
I was interested in discovering just what might be going on under the surface. So I asked him to focus in on that feeling, to close his eyes and see what, if any, memory came to mind as being associated with that feeling – the famous Affect Bridge Technique.
After a time, a memory in which he’d felt something very similar came to mind. His father, who had been very physically and emotionally abusive and had never earned much money, had screamed at him, “And don’t think you’ll ever have money!” Graham’s father had beaten him immediately prior, so Graham was still terrified and therefore highly suggestible.
Graham realized that whenever he’d been in a position of earning more than his father’s low income, he’d been wracked with a sense of guilt, fear, and sadness.
We did some hypnotic work around that memory, specifically the Helping Hand Technique, and he began to find that he was no longer subconsciously resisting the idea of earning a better income – which he went on to do.
Why people self-sabotage isn’t always so clear, though, which is why it’s useful to understand the more common causes.
Reasons for self-sabotaging behaviour
Apart from subconsciously trying to meet emotional needs inappropriately (as in the Spanish lesson example) and submerged beliefs (as in the case of Graham), what other reasons for self-sabotage might there be?
- The familiarity of ‘failure’. Maybe we’re so used to situations not working out or to being around dysfunctional people that it feels more natural to ‘put a spanner in the works’ by behaving in such a way as to interfere with or destroy something promising – a kind of ‘better the devil you know’.
- Fulfilling someone else’s expectations of our failure. This applies in Graham’s case: His attitude to making money for himself and his family was dictated by his father’s assertion that Graham could never do that.
- An unconscious need to be in control. If we feel something is bound to fail because it’s ‘too good to last’, we might engineer its failure somehow so as to maintain a sense that we are still in control (because we caused it to fail).
- Feeling unworthy. Low self-esteem may drive people to feel they don’t ‘deserve’ success or happiness. There may also be an element of self-punishment if your client is prone to guilt.
- Bad habits or addictions such as excessive drinking, smoking, or uncontrolled anger. Of course, these habits may be not just a cause but a form of self-sabotage in and of themselves.
- Need for excitement. On an otherwise perfect sunny afternoon, seemingly out of the blue, someone might pick a fight, go into a silent mood, or drag up some unrelated contentious issue from the past. Suddenly, the afternoon turns into a battleground. The desire for ‘excitement’ can take different forms, not all of them constructive. This is really again just an unmet need seeking fulfilment in ways that cause problems rather than resolve them.
- Narcissism. The impulsive and reckless behaviour displayed by narcissistic sociopaths tends to leave a string of broken relationships and poor choices generally (though I suspect such people seldom seek therapy).
Not only can self-sabotage have many different causes, it can also take many different forms.
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Forms of self-sabotage
Self-sabotage can operate within the domains of personal relationships, career, or health. It can present as resistance to others’ attempts to help us. Or sometimes it might even be a legitimate signal from a deeper part of who we are that lets us know that, actually, this really isn’t right for us.
Some people might plan so much before embarking on some action that they’re never ready to begin, or they may perpetually feel that the ‘time just isn’t right’ for a relationship or change of career. Being overly meticulous and cautious may, paradoxically, make us less effective. Sometimes all we need to do is just… act!
So is self-sabotage a conscious affliction?
“I didn’t mean it!”
People seldom mean to sabotage themselves. It’s not generally a conscious decision to spoil things – and that’s a problem! Many of our emotional drivers remain unconscious, so we can be left with a feeling of “Why did I do that?!”
To ease the discomfort of not understanding, chronic self-saboteurs will often use conscious justification (or what seem like excuses) to explain why they had to yell at their professor and get kicked off the course, why they had to break off contact with a friend who was about to offer them a great job, why they had to end a promising relationship… or whatever the case may be.
Early learning – or should I say mislearning – can create a habit of self-sabotage to the point where things actually ‘going right’ may seem like a scary foreign land. The self-saboteur may be left confused as to ‘what went wrong’. They may conclude that nothing ever works out for them and they are just fated to live unsatisfying lives.
So what are some basic strategies we can use to help the self-sabotaging client and avoid this self-fulfilling prophecy?
Tip one: Teach your client about their emotional needs and the idea of spare capacity
As I mentioned, we need to know what needs in our life are not being adequately met and seek to meet at least some of these needs outside of the endeavour in question, whether that’s a work project, a relationship, or some other goal. Someone who is desperate for food simply cannot focus on a goal or the needs of others until that fundamental need has been satisfied. And the same goes for psychological needs.
Only when our needs have been satisfied can we find the spare capacity to truly be effective and successful. So many people give up a healthier diet or the fight for a cause when it stops providing them with positive approval or attention or status. Yet if these needs are met elsewhere, then these endeavours can be continued for their own sake.
This next point is one we delved into above.
Tip two: Uncover any hidden assumptions
Graham’s hidden subconscious assumption was that he couldn’t, and even shouldn’t, earn more money than his father had. Until we did the Affect Bridge exercise, he had little to no idea this unconscious conditioning and belief was shackling him. It had caused a strong sense of fatalism within him.
Unexamined assumptions may be picked up from friends, family, or the culture in general, producing, perhaps, a feeling more than an actual thought of “Who am I to do this?”
So self-sabotage may be rooted in hidden beliefs and assumptions. Sometimes people feel they don’t ‘deserve’ a relationship with someone decent or kind or attractive. They may be turned off by praise and generally feel unworthy or like a fake.
If we can pinpoint hidden self-sabotaging assumptions and beliefs, we can help our clients challenge then undo these conditionings from the past. To do this, we need to use the next stratagem.
Tip three: Encourage self-objectivity
One of the maxims inscribed at the Temple of Delphi in Greece enjoins us to “know thyself”. Self-knowledge requires calm self-observation without prejudice. If we are prejudiced against ourselves, as with low self-esteem, or prejudiced in favour of ourselves whatever we do, as with narcissism, then we are not being as objective as would be useful for self-development.
If we can observe our own behaviour calmly, we become more able to see what we are actually doing. When we become unafraid to look at ourselves, we can start to see where, why, and how we seem to put up roadblocks. If our clients can do this, they’ve already made progress.
If I have an underlying fear of success or failure, this may manifest as never trying (if I don’t try then I believe I haven’t actually failed). But unless I can see myself objectively, I may simply make up (and believe) reasons as to why things didn’t work out. If we don’t know what the problem is, we can’t correct it within ourselves.
We can help our clients observe themselves more clearly or honestly by asking Socratic questions but also by applying calming techniques, as when we ask our clients to hypnotically observe themselves as though they were someone else.
After I applied the Affect Bridge with Graham, he became able to see himself more objectively and to challenge and overcome his past, self-limiting conditioning. But we can also explore the very idea of ‘success’ with our clients.
Tip four: Remind your client that success isn’t black or white
People can have very set and often intimidating ideas of what success is. They might imagine that the perfect romance would mean never fighting, or that earning more money would vanquish all problems forever, or that to be successful they have to work 24/7, and so forth. Such presumptions may make success feel impossible.
We can elicit our clients’ assumptions as to what a great relationship or career is by asking them questions such as:
- What will success in this area feel like, or look like?
- What will life be like day to day once success has been achieved? Describe a typical day as you imagine it.
If the idea of success has been intimidating, we can ask more general Socratic questions too.
- Could someone have a wonderful relationship and still sometimes get irritated with their partner?
- Could someone gain financial independence (and we could also explore what that means) and still have frustrations and disappointments sometimes?
- Can becoming successful in whatever way be achieved without sacrificing all other enjoyments?
We might have our clients strongly imagine the reality of getting to where they need and profess to want to be. They may find it feels different to what they had been unconsciously assuming. We often fear what we don’t know, and that includes success.
But there’s another common cause of self-sabotage.
Tip five: Help them avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater
Self-sabotage may be caused by maladaptive perfectionism, which is, paradoxically, an imperfect way of approaching life.
You may have seen research that showed that people trying to lose weight with a strict diet are likely to overeat if they feel they’ve veered off their diet even slightly: “I’ve blown it now. I might as well completely binge!”1 They may have lost 10 pounds, yet if they have one candy bar they feel the whole effort has been useless and go back to unhealthy eating.
I’ve seen this phenomenon – what researchers have called the “what the hell effect” – in all spheres of life. People throw away great relationships after the first fight. They struggle a bit with one small area of a job so assume they just can’t do it. They see every little setback as an unmitigated disaster.
We can remind our clients that they don’t need to sabotage everything just because one element isn’t perfect. Challenge the idea of “If it isn’t perfect, then what’s the point?”
I’ll ask a client to imagine someone walking up 100 steps. If they pause, or even take a step or two back, does that mean they haven’t climbed all those other steps? Should they then feel and act defeated? Just return down again and forget the whole thing?
And if they do, who else might suffer as a result?
Tip six: Encourage thinking beyond the self
Most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as selfish. But it’s true to say (not from a judgemental perspective, more of an observational one) that self-sabotage ruins things for others too, and is therefore a selfish behaviour. People so often deny they are behaving selfishly because they don’t intend to be selfish. But behaviour is behaviour and consequences are consequences, regardless of intention.
The lover who feels compelled to end a great relationship hurts their partner; the coworker who sabotages a project scuppers it for everyone else; the father who sabotages financial opportunities spoils the chance of a better standard of living for his family; and so on. Once we get into the habit of seeing the needs of the wider group rather than just our own emotional impulses, it actually becomes harder to sabotage situations.
I said to one client who had a history of throwing away opportunities that her success wouldn’t be her success, but success for the world. When you become and achieve, you can add to the world. Your success can also be your gift to the world. This truth can give people permission to be successful, although I also like to encourage clients not to always have to wait for permission. Whose permission exactly are we waiting for before we do what is right for us?
Are you the mouse or the owl?
All of life is an exploration, and we can remind our clients of this.
I asked Graham to imagine if Cinderella had decided she really couldn’t go to the ball, even when she had the opportunity; or if the ugly duckling had ducked out of flying high with the swans (its true destiny) because it had concluded it wasn’t ‘good enough’.
Being open to life means seeing where certain experiences will take you and accepting openly the good as well as the bad. Of course, if something really isn’t working or it genuinely isn’t for your client, that’s fine. But if it’s really a reluctance to explore life and to experience the good and healthy, then it is an area that needs some work.
All life is about exploration. If we always hide in the undergrowth, we’ll never really live.
The mouse in the fable failed to observe the bigger picture when it followed its compulsion to talk and ruined its own deliverance. But we are not mice, and we shouldn’t live that way.
When I asked Graham whether he ultimately wanted to be the mouse in the story or the owl, he replied without hesitation: “The owl.”
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