Stop Self-Sabotage for Good – Part Two

“But I do nothing upon myself, and yet I am my own executioner.” – John Donne

In my last post, “Stop Self-Sabotage for Good – Part One,” I explored two main types of self-sabotaging behaviors identified in the October 2011 issue of Psychology Today: dodging emotions and procrastination.  We all engage in various forms of self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors, and the first step towards letting go of these unwanted behaviors is to clearly identify our own personal patterns and tendencies.  Some people are more likely to self-medicate their stress with alcohol, drugs, or overeating, whereas others are more likely to handle stressful situations by procrastinating or avoiding uncomfortable emotions.

Whatever your tendencies are, they can be overcome through beginning the process of making connections between triggering events, interpretation/beliefs about those events, actions taken, and the resulting consequences.  It is important to take the time to identify this chain of events so that you are better equipped to intervene in this process and break the cycle.

Types of Self-Sabotage

Psychology Today author Edward A. Selby discusses more forms of self-sabotage:

(3) Extreme Modesty

In some cultures and for many people, modesty is a highly prized virtue.  However, there are times when modesty is accompanied by a feeling of guilt or shame over one’s successes and becomes self-defeating. Modesty can be used effectively as a tactic of impression management, as in times when you don’t want to appear haughty or arrogant in a group setting. One benefit of these self-effacing tactics is that it reduces the social risk of offending others.

There are times when modesty goes too far and begins to reflect low self-esteem.  It is important to understand the pros and cons of modesty.  Research indicates that “self-effacing individuals (in any culture) are generally better-liked – but they are also seen as less competent than self-enhancing folk.  Observers consistently evaluate their performance on tasks less favorably” (Selby, 2011, p. 61).

Many women fall into the trap of extreme/self-defeating modesty due to the socialization process of females in our society.  Selby (2011) explains that many girls are praised at young ages for being “so smart” which can actually backfire later on as they develop into adults.  These girls grow up feeling preoccupied with proving to themselves and everyone else that they really do have abilities. Additionally, “the more a woman’s ability is tied to her self-worth, the more behavior becomes self-sabotaging in the face of insecurity” (Selby, 2011, p. 61).

(4) Addiction

The process of addiction is often a long complex process whereby the individual learns through repeated experiences that self-medicating with drugs or alcohol is preferable to dealing with the source of the problem directly.  Substance abuse is almost always the symptom of a deeper underlying problem, rather than being the problem itself.  Addiction doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it happen from the occasional bout of overindulgence in substances.  It is a deeply ingrained habit that has been made manifest through repeated behavioral choices to use drugs or alcohol in an abusive way.

People who experience addiction are often living in a world wherein they tell themselves all sorts of things that only serve to feed the addiction.  In many ways, addiction is a form of self-delusion in which the addict tells himself that drugs/alcohol will make him feel better and that the consequences of the substance abuse aren’t really “that bad” (despite evidence to the contrary piling up).

Poor impulse control is associated with self-destructive addictive behaviors.  Fortunately, studies are emerging that point to proactive steps that people who struggle with impulse control can take to have a direct effect on their substance abuse.  In a recent post, “Control Impulses & Resist Temptation through ‘Brain Training,’” I discussed research that indicates strengthening working memory has been proven to help people control their impulses.

This is a promising step in the right direction for anyone who struggles with substance abuse, since there is something you can do to build up your defenses against future substance abuse.

Online Activities/Info to Strengthen Working Memory:

Keep in mind that all forms of self-sabotaging behavior harm the doer of the behavior – you!  It can be difficult and take time to identify your own patterns of self-defeating behavior and recognize the point in the behavioral chain where you can effectively intervene and create a different outcome.  Begin to ask yourself why you make the particular choice to engage in your own form of self-sabotaging behavior.  Try to identify the underlying causes behind these behavioral choices and think of better ways to get those underlying needs met.  Your life is no one’s responsibility but your own.  You can choose a new way of living it.

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

Featured image: Axe in wood by brittgow / 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. James on September 9, 2011 at 9:05 am

    Can you clarify the final “Extreme Modesty” paragraph? It may be because the idea you’re presenting goes counter to the way I would think about it, but I feel like I’m missing something.

    For example, would it be better to tell young girls, “Girls aren’t good at math,” so that they then don’t grow up being preoccupied with being good at math? It seems to me that this would result in young girls developing into women who are not good at math, whether they had the potential to be good at math or not.

    I guess I’m missing what is wrong about being preoccupied with proving to oneself and others that one has abilities. Does one not develop abilities as a result of this process?

    • Laura on September 19, 2011 at 2:35 pm

      James – I had the same thoughts as I believe you had upon reading about the potential adverse effects of praising girls for being “so smart.” My thoughts about the way that it was presented in the “Psychology Today” article made me wonder about why this type of “encouragement” could potentially backfire into girls being overly preoccupied with having to prove to others that they are talented or smart. Perhaps this strategy may be unhelpful to girls if it comes across as inauthentic in some way. When children, adolescents, (and adults!) receive praise that feels like it’s overboard in some way, then often the result is not being able to trust the validity of that praise. Maybe the idea is that when girls are overly encouraged for being “so smart,” this makes them question whether or not it’s really true, or if it’s just lip service. I do believe there are some gender differences involved in how praise in received and how it can be motivating or demotivating. I, too, am curious to understand in greater depth how this form of praise can have negative effects. Thank you for your comment!

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