Call it getting in your own way, call it self-defeating behavior, call it accidentally-on-purpose shooting yourself in the foot. Whatever you call it, if you have a goal, you can make sure it doesn’t happen with self-sabotage.
Self-sabotage is any action that gets in the way of achieving your goals. On a diet? Kids’ pizza crusts have no calories if they’re inhaled standing over the sink, you know? Want to rock your work assignments and get that promotion? You’re all in—right after a tiny bit of World of Warcraft. Thinking about taking your relationship to the next level? Perfect time to pick a fight about which way the toilet paper should hang.
There are a million ways we self-sabotage, but some of the most common are procrastination, self-medication with drugs or alcohol, stress eating, and interpersonal conflict. Actions like these are especially insidious because they’re relatively small—it’s just one argument, one trip to the fridge, one beer—and in the moment, they may even seem helpful. But like a river eroding away rocks, over time, self-sabotage creates a Grand Canyon of self-defeat from which it’s hard to climb out.
So, why indeed do we do this to ourselves? Here are six big reasons.
Reason #1: Worth. You feel like you don’t deserve to be successful. Ironically, many strivers work hard and aim high because they’re trying to make up for a sense of inadequacy. But when their hard work and high standards lead to good things—material reward, status, or power—they shoot themselves in the foot. Why?
A little concept called cognitive dissonance gives us the answer. Basically, people like to be consistent. Usually, our actions line up with our beliefs and values. But when they don’t, we get uncomfortable and try to line them up again. That’s why if we start to stack up some achievements, but think we’re worthless, incapable, or fill-in-the-blank deficient, we pull the plug to get rid of the dissonance. It feels bad to fail, but not as bad as it does to succeed.
Reason #2: Control. It feels better to control your own failure than to let it blindside you. When the possibility of failure is too hot to handle, you take matters into your own hands. Self-sabotage isn’t pretty, but it’s a dignified alternative to spinning out of control. At least when you’re at the helm, going down in flames feels more like a well-controlled burn.
Reason #3: Perceived fraudulence. As the stakes get higher and higher—you ascend to ever more rarified levels of education, take on more responsibility at work, or do something that raises your public profile—you feel you only have farther to fall. You think if you call attention to yourself by being successful, it’ll be more likely that you’re called out as a fraud. This is otherwise known as good old impostor syndrome.
How does this manifest? You may do as little as possible and hope no one notices. Or you may push hard and go big, but worry you’ll be revealed at any moment. Either way, feeling like a fake is a one-way ticket to procrastination and getting distracted—if you’re faced with a task that makes you feel like a big fat fraud, it’s a lot more appealing to check Twitter, research zucchini spiralizers online, or realize you’ve never made banana bread from scratch and, by gosh, seize the day and do that right now.
Reason #4: Familiarity. Again, people like to be consistent. Time and time again, we even choose consistency over happiness. If you’re used to being neglected, abused, ignored, or exploited, it’s oddly comforting to keep putting yourself in that position. You’ve probably been there your whole life, and while you’re not happy, the devil you know is preferable to the devil you don’t.
However your self-sabotage manifests, strike it at the root, which is this: fear of failure.
Reason #5: For a handy scapegoat. If things don’t work out (or when they don’t work out, because that’s the only option, right?) we can blame the sabotage instead of ourselves. Of course he left me—we argued all the time. Of course I failed the class—I didn’t start my term paper until the night before. These reasons, while true, are more superficial, and therefore easier to swallow than the deeper reasons we only believe to be true: Of course he left me—the real me is unlovable. Of course I failed the class—I’m incapable of understanding this stuff.
Reason #6: Sheer boredom. Once in awhile, we self-sabotage simply to push buttons. We pick a fight, incite drama, get a rush. Of course, this isn’t random–we do all things for a reason. Here, sabotage re-creates a familiar feeling of instability and chaos, plus, if we’re stuck at the bottom, we might as well wield some power while we’re there, right?
How to stop sawing off the tree limb you’re sitting on? Well, let’s look down lower, to the proverbial root. However your self-sabotage manifests, strike it at the root, which is this: fear of failure.
Now, I get a lot of raised eyebrows when I say that: most people think of self-sabotage as fear of success. But deep down, fear of success isn’t truly a fear of making it big—it’s a fear of trying one’s best and not succeeding, of being publicly humiliated as we worry, in the immortal words of Wham, that our best isn’t good enough. It’s enough to make us take refuge in spiralizer infomercials on YouTube.