CW: mention of self-harm but no violent descriptions
Self-sabotage sounds like a silly concept. Why would anyone choose to sabotage their own chances of success and well-being? It is not about making mistakes, everyone does those. Or doing something and later realizing another decision would have been smarter. Self-sabotage is deliberately, consciously or subconsciously, ruining your chances of being successful and happy. It is very counterproductive to what so much self-help literature suggests and it doesn’t make logical sense. Yet, a lot of people with mental illness and low confidence engage in it frequently. I certainly do, although I am not always aware of that it is what I am doing.
What is Self-Sabotage?
Self-sabotaging behaviour is to do things that are counterproductive to your happiness, well-being or success. It can be about healing, relationships, work, personal growth, physical and mental health recovery or management. And it can be about things that would make you feel better, or that would improve your life.
It can be as easy as not doing something you are supposed to be doing. Let’s say you are thirsty but instead of drinking, with the full knowledge that it would stop your dizziness and nausea, you just walk past the water bottle and push away the thought of drinking. It can be avoidance: like not making that important phonecall to schedule an appointment with a doctor or a therapist. It can be smoking although you have COPD or eating high-carb food although you have diabetes. Or it can be something more extreme: self-harm although you know healthier coping skills, drinking although you are in AA, or dating an abuser.
The one thing that all of those things have in common is that it is about giving up before even really trying. But this is not about laziness. You are not too lazy to try. This is about a fear of failure, a lack of confidence and in some cases, a feeling of that you don’t deserve anything good. Self-sabotage is about mental health and the inability to believe in that putting in effort is worth it.
For those of us who engage in self-sabotaging behaviour it is often linked to past experiences. You might have failed before, or someone told you that you will never succeed with anything. Maybe it is bullying that has made you feel like you are not worthy of anything. It can be little things, or big things. It can be anxiety, or depression, or trauma, or a personality disorder. There is something in you, that makes you believe that it is not worth it, that you will fail, that someone like you doesn’t deserve anything good. You are scared of failure and rejection.
I think that most self-sabotage happens subconsciously, You are not even aware of what you are doing, or if you are, then you don’t know why you are doing it. It leads to a very confusing and frustrating paradox: you know what you need to do to get where you want to be, but you are not doing it. It is like something is stopping you, and you are frozen, or do something radical to ruin your chances to get where you want to be.
I know why I do self-sabotage. There are several reasons but the main one is fear of failure. And that fear of failure is related to the invalidation that I have received as a child. I never once got to hear that anyone is proud of me. My skills were minimized or even made fun of by the people who should have supported me. Because of that, my confidence levels are pretty low.
Making Money and Past Failures
An example for that would be trying to make more money with my writing. I have sent in pitches, and so far none of them got rejected. But I am too scared to actually go for it all the way because I expect that either people will realize I am just an impostor or I will fail miserably in the work that I offer. So what do I do? I procrastinate. I don’t do it on purpose, but I do it because I don’t believe in myself enough to actually go for it. So deadlines are missed, topics become outdated and emails remain unanswered.
I freeze. And I get stuck with the feeling of absolute fear of failure. I don’t want to disappoint anyone, and I definitely don’t want to mess up. So I better not do it at all. Does that mean I don’t want to earn more money and become a stronger writer? Gosh no. I just feel that that goal is unreachable for me.
But it is not only that. I have failed a lot in my life. I am sure most people have, it is part of being human and can definitely be a learning process for growth. But for me, it turned into the thought that it is not worth it to put any effort into anything. Because it will be taken away from me anyway. I have turned my life around so many times, but each time, everything fell apart each time. So why should I try again?
I escaped the abuse of my past, only for it to catch up with me again. I lost a lot of weight, but then gained a lot again due to illness. And I aced university and was on my way to a PHD but had to put things on ice because of my mental illness. I was in volunteer work for several years and worked as an ambassador and community manager, only for it to be all taken away from me because of harassment.
So what would make it different this time if I tried? I am aware I have these thoughts, and I am aware that this is about fear and a lack of confidence. I mean, who even has the strength to reinvent themselves over and over again? But because of those experiences, I take the smallest setback as a sign of that it is not worth it. It will all fall apart again. So self-sabotaging by not doing anything, by giving up before even properly trying, seems like the safest option. I can’t fall down from the top, if I am at the bottom.
A very obvious form of self-sabotage is self-harm. Most people who self-harm know that there are healthier ways to handle the overwhelming emotions but they choose not to. The reason could be as simple as that they don’t believe they are worth any healthy options, or they believe they won’t help them. I certainly was often stuck in a place where it just didn’t seem to matter if I tried. I also had the feeling that I didn’t deserve to be treated well, or to feel okay. This sort of behaviour is very deeply rooted in my trauma.
Self-harm can take many forms, it can be things like denying yourself food or drink, not taking medication, not getting out of bed, or taking care of hygiene. I even sometimes deny myself sleep. I know that I will feel better if I take care of myself, but I subconsciously don’t do the things I know are good for me. This is really something where I can’t pin down the moment I make the decision to not take care of myself. It just happens. it has a lot to do with self-hatred, I believe, and the idea that it doesn’t matter anyway because nothing is ever going to be okay. So why try?
Self-sabotage is about giving up and not trying, despite the awareness that you should do certain things. You don’t believe in that you will succeed, you expect that you will fail or that you will be rejected. It is about negative foreshadowing, low self-confidence and sometimes even self-hatred. It might seem paradoxal, to actively work against what you know is good for you, or to procrastinate on the things that could lead to success. But to someone who doesn’t believe in themselves, it seems like the safer option.