Passive Aggression Toward the Self

 “We all have a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” – Jane Austen

When you begin to move towards a desired direction in your life, there is often an accompanying sense of excitement, anxiety, and hesitancy.  Everything that is “new” is “unknown” in some way, even when the rational part of your mind knows this change is something positive.  Often times, the mind gets in the way of progress towards reaching goals and valued life directions.  When you try to fight against these self-sabotaging thoughts, the mind often rebels by sneaking in a snide, “You can’t do it anyway” or “You’re too tired right now.”  Why would you choose to get in the way of your own progress?

Consider how self-sabotaging behaviors and self-defeating thoughts may be a form of passive aggression against the self.  Maybe for you this is experienced as a sense of being paralyzed, unable to mobilize yourself to take those initial small steps towards reaching your goal(s).  Perhaps you experience this passive aggression as nagging and persistent thoughts that creep up, telling you that you can’t or won’t succeed, so “why bother.”  However your subconscious recruits you to act in passive aggressive ways towards yourself, the first step is to increase your conscious awareness of this process.

From a psychodynamic perspective, this form of passive aggression against the self is the result of messages received early on in life about your own competence, your right to have needs, and your fundamental worth. Whether we realize it consciously or not, we all have a tendency to internalize subtle and overt messages from important people in our lives about what we “can” and “can’t” do.  Even when our conscious minds know that we are competent, capable, and effective, there is often a nagging sense of self-doubt in the shadow of that confidence.

Passive aggression towards the self is, in many ways, a form of self-punishment.  If there was an early critical voice telling you (directly or indirectly) about what you were capable of and how you “are” in the eyes of others, it is difficult as an adult to extract this voice from the inner recesses of the mind.  Perhaps you have compensated for a quiet deep sense of self-doubt through constructing an adult personality that is confident, self-assured, or gregarious.  Begin to ask yourself what the purpose of this social mask is, and what feelings may be underneath that mask that are too difficult to consciously acknowledge.

When you are stuck in a pattern of engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors or self-defeating thinking, it is quite likely that you are painfully aware of this process.  In contrast, it may be particularly painful to acknowledge if those inner doubts have been shielded through multiple layers of social masks and self-protection.  Begin to identify what is at the root of those fears that keep you immobilized or stuck in a repetitive pattern of inaction or self-defeat.

Getting at the root of your persistent and repetitive pattern of inaction or self-directed passive aggression isn’t an easy process or a quick fix.  Consider how many years of your life you have been the way that you are.  You cannot realistically expect all of your hardwired patterns of thinking and feeling to magically change overnight. True change in this sense requires honest self-reflection, being willing to sit with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, and honestly asking yourself what you are gaining from your self-sabotaging behavior.

As humans, we tend to do very little in life that doesn’t receive some form of reward.  Sometimes it is hard to tell what this reward might be, especially when on the surface it appears that we are suffering.  Ask yourself what benefits you are getting from procrastination, self-defeating thoughts, and self-sabotage.  Does your pattern allow you to avoid possible failure?  Does it keep you in a place that is familiar, yet somehow unsatisfying?  Begin to embrace the fear that accompanies all change.  Recognize that it requires courage to take those first steps toward change and out of stagnation.

Overcome Self-Defeating Thoughts:

  • Notice thoughts that begin with “I should… I need to… I have to…”
  • Replace these thoughts with “I want to…”
  • Deep down, if you don’t truly want to make that change for yourself, ask yourself what your genuine motivation is
  • Utilize self-affirmations about what you know to be true about yourself and what you want to be true… “I am…”
  • Allow yourself space to have negative thoughts and feelings – invalidating your own experience will not relieve suffering

Access the inner wisdom that resides within each of us to determine whether or not your self-defeating thoughts and self-sabotaging behavior is dispositional or situational.  For example, if it is dispositional, you may notice that this is a lifelong pattern for you that requires you to examine more deeply what those unmet needs, core beliefs, and self-doubts truly are.  If it is situational, it is more likely that you usually are able to mobilize yourself into action, but you may be experiencing temporary stress or a sudden life-changing decision/choice.

Until you honestly examine and accept the source of your self-defeating thoughts and behaviors, they will persist. It does you no good to complain or make excuses about the negative impact they have on your life.  If they are causing you enough discomfort, you will start to do something differently.  As long as we choose to repeat mistakes or remain paralyzed by fear, the true lesson will be not learned.

We all struggle with fears of the unknown and doubts about our own abilities.  You are free to break out of this self-imposed prison at any moment.  How much longer are you willing to submit yourself to self-punishment?  How will you know when you no longer deserve to treat yourself in this way?  If you sense a deeper inner sense of unworthiness or pain, slowly begin to give yourself the love and support that your self-sabotaging behaviors are crying out to receive.  It is not easy, but most things that are worth it are difficult.

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Seltzer, L. F. (2011, February 2). Self-sabotage as passive aggression toward the self (pt 5 of the “logical illogic” of the psycho-logical) [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Featured image: Memoirs of A Flower by Pink Sherbet Photography / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Mary Ross on October 16, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Thank you for this one! “Self-sabotaging” is a complex subject that I hope you write about more. “Self-imposed prison” is a powerful image that one can take with them. Substituting that self-punishment with self-support isn’t easy as you say, but worth studying HOW and then applying. Great ideas here.

    • Laura on October 17, 2011 at 8:54 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed this post on passive aggression toward the self. People could easily spend their whole lives reflecting upon and writing about the many facets and aspects of self-sabotaging behavior. It is both beautifully simplistic and somehow tragic to awaken to the realization that almost all forms of suffering are self-imposed. Even when we believe ourselves to be the victims of misfortune, it is often the way that we think about and behave in response to that victimization that creates the true suffering.

      Viktor Frankl, who spent much time in concentration camps and was exposed to horrific suffering, found solace in the idea that within great suffering, there is freedom if one is able to create meaning out of the suffering and change one’s mindset and actions in response. As with much true growth, it is a “simple” idea that is not “easy” to practice.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. James on October 17, 2011 at 9:38 am

    I think you used it in a recent post, but this post reminds me of that famous Henry Ford quote, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t – you’re right.” Here’s to thinking you can!

    • Laura on October 17, 2011 at 9:02 pm

      Yes, I did use that quote recently! I think that simple quote says alot. It is far easier to blame circumstances outside of the self than to honestly look within and assess what needs to change and what is at the root of our suffering. I enjoy reflecting on Dr. Marsha Linehan’s idea: “You didn’t create all of the suffering in your life, but you have to deal with it nonetheless.” That being said, it is still crucial to make the truly informed distinction between suffering that we have created and suffering for which we never asked so that we can learn from mistakes. When we realize that we are stuck in a repetitive cycle of self-destructive behavior, there comes a time to stop looking for where to place the blame and simply start to take effective action. If our actions are causing us to suffer, that suffering is trying to teach us an important lesson. No matter how many mistakes have been made, there is no time like this present moment to turn things around. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Elise on October 19, 2011 at 12:56 am

    Thanks Laura for another truly inspiring article!! I am definitely going to try to apply this more in my life:)

  4. John on October 17, 2012 at 8:39 am

    I have only recently uncovered the dynamic of passive self-directed aggression in myself. For many years it has taken the form of stopping myself from singing or playing my guitar. I could/would not practice singing between lessons even though I love to sing and I have an beautiful voice. I had a breakthrough during a lesson when I asked my coach to tell me “Do not sing between lessons.” This paradoxical intervention has turned my life around. Every morning now I tell myself, “Don’t sing. Don’t do it.” My aggression is refocused by the intervention. Rather than aggressing against myself, the aggression is turned toward disobeying the paradoxical intervention. I am singing daily. I hope this helps others. I am free at last!

  5. Raphael on August 3, 2019 at 1:23 pm

    Wow, I realized how low selfconfidence and worse passive aggressive I became and I know how often I heard as a child „You are not going to make it / you can’t „…
    Could you please add some books or more helpful guides how to overcome this?

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