“Self-destruction is the effect of cowardice in the highest extreme.” – Daniel Defoe

Have you had the experience of shooting yourself in the foot?  How about stabbing yourself in the back?  Often times, the enemy that we least expect to do us harm lies within.  We have all had the experience of getting in our own way despite the best of intentions. We may “think” that we know what we are doing and that we know what we want, only for self-sabotaging behaviors to step in and wreck all of our hard work.

Types of Self-Sabotage

In the October 2011 issue of Psychology Today, author Edward A. Selby discusses four main types of self-sabotage:

(1) Dodging Emotions

Painful thoughts and emotions are… painful.  It makes sense upon first glance to want to avoid these uncomfortable internal experiences as much as possible.  The problem is that whatever caused the unpleasant thought or emotion is going to be right there waiting for you as soon as you take your head out of the sand.  The only way to be assured that your distressing thoughts and emotions “go away” is to deal with them.  It is easier said than done, but the truth is that a proactive problem-solving approach is the best way to alleviate the internal suffering that comes along with stressful thoughts and feelings.

Selby (2011) suggests keeping a record of how you handle stressful situations.  Each time that you find yourself in a stressful predicament, write down the:

  • Source of the stress
  • What behaviors you chose to engage in
  • Consequences of those behaviors

Many people choose to handle stressful emotions and situations in ways that alleviate suffering in the short-term, while only creating more suffering in the long-term.  Some common forms of self-sabotaging behavior used to deal with stress:

All of these behaviors have serious negative consequences.  While each one of these self-sabotaging behaviors may provide some short-term relief in the form of distraction through pleasure, you are likely to wind up feeling much worse later on.  Imagine the potential consequences of each of these self-sabotaging behaviors.  Use the tool of mindfulness to allow yourself some space before taking self-sabotaging action.  Ask yourself, “Will the consequences of this behavior really be worth it?”

Sometimes self-sabotage takes a much more insidious form and we aren’t even conscious that it is happening.  This is often the case when the negative consequences of self-sabotaging behaviors are long-term, making it difficult to pinpoint the interaction between the behavior and the consequence.  Selby suggests that “one way to know whether a behavior is self-defeating is to examine it in the context of your long-term goals or desires and determine whether it is consistent with them” (2011, p. 57).

While it is crucial that you take the time to investigate the connection between your behaviors and their consequences, simply knowing what the connection is may not be enough to disengage from the problematic behavior.  Consider how long it is taken you to create your own personal pattern of self-sabotage.  It didn’t develop overnight, nor will it disappear overnight.  You have the power to begin to look for small daily opportunities to act in ways that are inconsistent with your old, problematic behaviors.

(2) Procrastination

For many people, procrastination tops the list of self-sabotage.  Selby refers to procrastination as “the gap between intention and action, and it is in this gap that the self operates” (2011, p. 58).  Procrastination occurs when:

  • You have set your intention to engage in some kind of behavior
  • The time comes to take action
  • You get lost in your own process of deliberation
  • You make excuses to justify an unnecessary/harmful delay in action

If it was an easy task to decide you want to do something and then to simply do it, people would not struggle with the self-sabotage of procrastination as they do.  When you make the decision that you want “something” and then you set your intention to work towards that goal, what gets in the way of you reaching it?  Sometimes external forces do get in the way of reaching goals, but most of the time no one is standing in the way except yourself.

Perfectionists often get stuck in repetitive patterns of the self-sabotaging behavior of procrastination.  When you highly value doing a task “right” and to its completion, it is easy to find ways to delay taking definitive action.  For some perfectionists, there is always something left to accomplish or something else that is getting in the way of them reaching a personal goal.  While there are many positive qualities associated with perfectionism (e.g., doing quality work, ensuring that mistakes have not been made, being thoughtful before taking action), the negative qualities often manifest themselves as self-imposed roadblocks to action.  There comes a time when the perfectionist must examine his values and reflect upon how the value of perfectionism prevents him from reaching his goals.

Selby explains that “one of the simplest and most effective solutions is to just get started… anywhere on a task” (2011, p. 58).  The idea is that simply mobilizing yourself into action will provide you with the forward momentum needed to get your work done. Avoid the trap of getting lost into your thoughts about how you “can’t do it until later” or how you “need to do something else.”  Learn to distinguish between times when you really can’t do something and when you would just rather not do something.  Make the choice to give yourself the necessary kick to get into action rather than waiting for external negative consequences to arise.

There are three basic reasons we procrastinate:

Many people engage in self-deception because putting off tasks that we know we need to do creates a highly unpleasant internal state of cognitive dissonance.  This uncomfortable state of tension results because we inherently dislike inconsistencies between how we think/what we value and how we behave.  When we act in ways that go against things we think or believe, we experience internal discomfort until this dilemma is resolved.  We often resolve the dilemma brought on by procrastination through telling ourselves something soothing like, “I’ll feel like it tomorrow” or “It’s not really that important.”  Most of us know the truth of how to solve the discomfort brought on by self-sabotaging procrastination… take action on what you need to accomplish.

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I look forward to exploring the two other main types of self-sabotaging behaviors in my next post, “Stop Self-Sabotage for Good – Part Two.”

Selby, E.A. (2011, October). The enemy within. Psychology Today, 57-63.

Featured image: TNT by bigcityal / 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.

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