The Psychology of Self-Sabotage — The Self Plotting Against The Self

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Self-doubt does more to sabotage individual potential than all external limitations put together. — Brian Tracy

Self-sabotage refers to the behaviors or thoughts that prevent individuals from reaching their goals or achieving success. It is a common psychological phenomenon that can have significant negative impact on an individual’s mental health, relationships, and overall well-being. Self-sabotage can take many forms, including procrastination, setting unrealistic goals, engaging in negative self-talk, and avoiding risks or new opportunities. It is often driven by a combination of internal and external factors, such as low self-esteem, fear of failure or success, and a lack of self-awareness (Blascovich & Tomaka, 1991; Dweck, 2006; Ruderman, 2006).


One of the main causes of self-sabotage is low self-esteem (Blascovich & Tomaka, 1991). Individuals with low self-esteem may believe that they are not capable of achieving their goals and may therefore engage in behaviors that undermine their own success. They may procrastinate, set unrealistic goals, or engage in self-defeating thought patterns, such as negative self-talk (Dweck, 2006).

Self-sabotage can also be driven by fear of failure or a fear of success (Ruderman, 2006). Some individuals may be afraid of failing and may therefore subconsciously engage in behaviors that ensure they do not succeed. Conversely, others may be afraid of success and may therefore engage in behaviors that prevent them from reaching their full potential. For example, they may avoid taking risks or seeking out new opportunities that could lead to success (Ruderman, 2006).

Researchers have found that self-sabotage is particularly common among high-achieving individuals who have a strong fear of failure (Marshall,, 2008). These individuals may engage in behaviors such as procrastination or setting unrealistic goals in order to avoid confronting the possibility of failure. In addition, self-sabotage can be driven by perfectionism, which is the tendency to set excessively high standards for oneself and to engage in self-critical thinking (Marshall,, 2008).

Another study found that self-sabotage can be triggered by events or situations that evoke feelings of insecurity or inadequacy (Schwinger, et. al., 2021). For example, an individual who is asked to give a presentation may engage in self-sabotaging behaviors if they feel unprepared or uncertain about their ability to deliver a successful presentation.

Self-sabotage can also be a coping mechanism for individuals who feel overwhelmed or anxious about their ability to handle the demands of their daily lives. By engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors, they may feel a sense of control over their circumstances and may be able to avoid the feelings of anxiety or inadequacy that they fear (Schwinger, et. al., 2021).

Yet another cause of self-sabotage is a lack of self-awareness (Dweck, 2006). Individuals may be unconsciously driven to engage in these paradoxical behaviors and thus be unaware of the negative thought patterns or behaviors that are hindering their success. They may not realize that their procrastination is preventing them from reaching their goals. In order to overcome self-sabotage, it is important for one to become more self-aware and to identify the specific thoughts and behaviors that are holding back success or progress (Dweck, 2006).

In addition to addressing the underlying causes of self-sabotage, it is also important to build a support system of friends, family, and colleagues who can provide encouragement and accountability (Ruderman, 2006). This can help individuals stay motivated and on track as they work towards their goals (Dweck, 2006).


The consequences of self-sabotage can be significant. Research indicates this insidious behavior consistently leads to decreased productivity and decreased overall well-being (Blascovich & Tomaka, 1991). Engaging in self-defeating behaviors can prevent individuals from reaching their goals, which can lead to feelings of frustration, disappointment, and low self-worth (Dweck, 2006). It can also damage relationships, as others may become frustrated or disillusioned by an individual’s inability to follow through on their commitments (Ruderman, 2006).

In addition to the negative impacts on an individual’s personal and professional life, self-sabotage can also have negative impacts on mental health. Chronic self-sabotage can lead to increased stress and anxiety, as individuals struggle to meet their own expectations and those of others (Blascovich & Tomaka, 1991). It can also contribute to the development of negative thought patterns, such as perfectionism or self-criticism, which can further undermine an individual’s well-being (Dweck, 2006).

Strategies to Overcome Self-Sabotage

To overcome self-sabotage, it is important to identify the specific thoughts and behaviors that are holding one back and to develop strategies for addressing them (Dweck, 2006). This may involve seeking therapy to address underlying psychological issues, such as low self-esteem or fear of failure or success (Blascovich & Tomaka, 1991). It may also involve setting realistic goals and breaking them down into smaller, more manageable tasks (Dweck, 2006).

It is also important for individuals to be mindful of their self-talk and to challenge negative thought patterns when they arise (Dweck, 2006). This can involve practicing mindfulness or cognitive-behavioral techniques, such as reframing negative thoughts or engaging in positive self-affirmations (Blascovich & Tomaka, 1991).

There are also several strategies that individuals can use to overcome self-sabotage in the moment, including:

  1. Identifying triggers: By identifying the specific events or situations that trigger self-sabotaging behaviors, individuals can develop strategies for avoiding or managing those triggers (Schwinger, et. al., 2021).
  2. Setting achievable goals: By setting realistic and achievable goals, individuals can reduce the likelihood of self-sabotage (Dweck, 2006).
  3. Seeking support: Seeking support from friends, family, or a therapist can provide encouragement and accountability, which can help individuals stay motivated and on track (Ruderman, 2006).
  4. Practicing self-compassion: By treating oneself with kindness and understanding, individuals can reduce the negative self-talk that often drives self-sabotage (Mitchell, 2022).
  5. Engaging in self-care: Taking care of one’s physical and emotional well-being can help individuals feel more resilient and better able to overcome self-sabotage (Mitchell, 2022).

Self-sabotage is a common psychological phenomenon that can have significant negative impacts on an individual’s well-being and overall success. To overcome self-sabotage, it is important for individuals to identify the specific thoughts and behaviors that are holding them back and to develop strategies for addressing them. This may involve seeking therapy, setting realistic goals, challenging negative thought patterns, and building a supportive network of friends and colleagues. Mindfulness-based interventions may also be helpful in overcoming self-sabotage. By implementing these strategies and seeking support when needed, individuals can work towards overcoming self-sabotage and achieving their goals.


Blascovich, J., & Tomaka, J. (1991). Measures of self-esteem. In J. P. Robinson, P. R. Shaver, & L. S. Wrightsman (Eds.), Measures of personality and social psychological attitudes (pp. 115–160). Academic Press.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.

Marshall, K., Forbes, A., Kearns, H., & Gardiner, M. (2008). When a high distinction isn’t good enough: a review of perfectionism and self-handicapping. Australian Educational Researcher, 35(3), 21–36.

Mitchell, K. (2022). How Perfectionism, Procrastination and Parenting Styles Impact Students Mental Health and How Mindfulness and Self-Compassion May be the Antidote. In: Francis, A.P., Carter, M.A. (eds). Mental Health and Higher Education in Australia. Springer, Singapore.

Ruderman, E. G. (2006, June). Nurturance and self-sabotage: Psychoanalytic perspectives on women’s fear of success. In International Forum of Psychoanalysis (Vol. 15, №02, pp. 85–95). Taylor & Francis Group.

Schwinger, M., Trautner, M., Pütz, N., Fabianek, S., Lemmer, G., Lauermann, F., & Wirthwein, L. (2021, October 28). Why Do Students Use Strategies That Hurt Their Chances of Academic Success? A Meta-Analysis of Antecedents of Academic Self-Handicapping. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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