Let’s Talk About… Self Sabotage

By Jeremy Godwin

How do you identify if you might be sabotaging your own progress in life? How do you tackle self sabotage in a healthy way? That’s what I’m talking about this week on… Let’s Talk About Mental Health — the weekly podcast about looking after your mental health, with simple ideas you can put into practice immediately.

So, get comfortable, and Let’s Talk About Mental Health…

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This podcast episode was originally released on 10 April, 2022.

Hello and welcome to Episode 126, and thanks so much for joining me!

If you’re new here, hi! I’m Jeremy Godwin. In 2011 I had a major breakdown which led me into a period of severe anxiety and depression, and I struggled to find resources for dealing with my condition that were straightforward and practical. That took me on a journey of learning more about mental health and I went back to university to study psychology and sociology, and now I focus on delivering what I couldn’t find — simple advice on how to look after and improve your mental wellbeing, from someone who actually understands what it’s like to go through mental health challenges.

So this week I’m talking about self sabotage and I’ll be covering what self sabotage is, why identifying and managing it matters, and how to manage self sabotage for the sake of your wellbeing. So, let’s talk!

Introduction

Far be it from me to be blunt and direct so early in an episode, but here we go… I have to ask you a tough question: are you sabotaging your own progress in life with the choices you’re making? I know, I know, I ask the hard questions, but it’s something we need to consider honestly, especially if you’re having difficulty making progress in the things that matter most to you. I have been guilty of thwarting my own progress on many occasions, mainly due to fear or doubt or insecurity (or a combination of all three), and I’ve had to learn how to identify the warning signs so that I can find ways to push through all of that in order to keep on moving — because, as that wise philosopher from the 1980’s, Yazz, once said, “the only way is up” (and a quick side note: I’m someone who has a strange love for the English language and I cannot tell you how much joy it has brought me to use the word ‘thwart’ so early in this episode… thank you for attending my TED Talk on why I’m a weirdo who enjoys funny-sounding words!).

Now, rather than sabotaging myself by going off on another tangent, how about I return my focus to the topic at hand? So, let’s start with some definitions and let’s talk about… 

What is self sabotage?

According to PsychCentral, “Self-sabotage can be seen as a pattern of thoughts and behaviors you engage in, often without even knowing it, that creates obstacles to achieving your goals” (and that is linked in the transcript at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes — find it here: https://psychcentral.com/blog/overcome-self-sabotage#whats-self-sabotage). 

Basically what we’re talking about here is the stuff that gets in the way of achieving the things you want to in life. For example, maybe you want to eat well but you wind up eating six cupcakes in one sitting (something I may have done once or twice before in my life); that’s self sabotage, where your actions aren’t aligned with your intentions or goals (and that can happen either consciously or subconsciously). It’s the thing that happens when you’re dealing with a deadline but you find yourself being drawn to take a quick peek at the news headlines or social media, and suddenly you find that it’s two hours later and you’ve achieved nothing.

The thing is that we rarely sabotage ourselves on purpose; often it’s subconscious and it can actually stem from a desire to protect ourselves; something might feel difficult or overwhelming, and so we might respond by doing the exact opposite of what we need to do or want to do. Self-sabotage can often be rooted in fear and insecurity, which is why identifying it and understanding it matters (and I’ll come back to that in a little while). 

To explain this topic a bit more, let me quote from an article by the Chelsea Psychology Clinic from the United Kingdom; the quote is…

“Sometimes we self-sabotage to escape uncomfortable feelings. Perhaps we haven’t been taught how to manage – and process – difficult thoughts and feelings, and so we do whatever we can to stuff them down in the moment. We might, for instance, turn to alcohol and drugs to find some relief – albeit a temporary one. Self-sabotaging behaviours can also be learnt (and outdated) coping mechanisms from the past. We may have had to adopt certain behaviours in order to survive when we were growing up. For example, if we grew up in an abusive household, we might have needed to fight our way out of it. But whilst this hardy exterior may have helped us back then, if we carry it through to adulthood, it’s likely to have a damaging effect on our relationships.”

Source: https://www.thechelseapsychologyclinic.com/blog/why-do-we-self-sabotage/

And you’ll find that article linked in the transcript.

I thought that was a good quote to share because it helps to reinforce two things: first, that self sabotage is often a form of self protection, and second, that it can be tied in to things that might have begun as simple coping mechanisms which, over time, have morphed into something much less helpful. For instance, I’ve talked very openly about my own struggles with alcohol in the past and for me it was something that initially helped me to cope with painful shyness and insecurity, yet over time it evolved into something much more harmful and insidious. Eventually it got to a point where I knew that I was drinking too much and too often, and that my drinking was making me behave like a proper idiot, and that’s why I finally quit in July 2018. I’m not saying that that’s a necessary choice for everyone, but for someone like me who isn’t the best with moderation it became a case of ‘all or nothing’ so that I could stop sabotaging myself. For me, it crossed a line and it became a case of doing harm to myself — and self harm is likely to mess your life up in ways you might not even imagine. Which actually sounds like a fairly nice way to move into the next part of this topic, so let’s talk about…

Why identifying and managing self sabotage matters

And it matters because it’s about identifying the stuff that holds you back from making progress towards your goals. For example, I had a lengthy chat with my coach this morning about the fact that I consider writing to be my primary focus and yet I’ve been barely scraping in an hour a week on it for the past few months. I’ve been making my day-to-day tasks my focus first thing in the morning, like emails and all the administrative stuff that goes on behind the scenes of running this show and my YouTube channel, but of course when you start your day by doing things like that it’s very (VERY!) easy to become distracted by all of the stuff that doesn’t actually matter that much in the big scheme of things — I mean, honestly, nobody cares if I email them back first thing in the morning or if I do it at lunchtime. So I’ve changed my focus to do some writing at the start of each day before I then move on to the tactical, administrative stuff that I need to do — that approach wouldn’t necessarily work for everyone (obviously I work for myself so I have flexibility around how I structure each day), but my point is that by identifying the self-sabotaging things I’ve been doing I can then adjust accordingly.

I’ll come back to the how-to stuff in a bit, but the bigger question here is why does self sabotage happen? And, quite frankly, that’s a huge question which has many possible answers. It could be for any number of reasons: patterns and behaviours that we learned in childhood, responses that we developed in past relationships to try and have our needs met, control issues, insecurity, fear of failure, self doubt, perfectionism, addiction… there are so many possible reasons that I could be here all day listing them. Getting to the heart of it matters (which I’ll come back to in a minute), but the main piece to be aware of here is this: are your behaviours in line with what you want to achieve in life, and are they in your own best interests? By that I mean are they healthy for you physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, socially and financially? Because if not, then you have some work to do. 

Generally speaking there are some common signs of self-sabotaging behaviour; to quote the PsychCentral article I used earlier, self sabotage can involve “avoiding responsibilities, even if it’s because you “forget”, breaking promises or not following through on commitments, lack of preparation, misalignment between your desires and actions, showing up late to important appointments or meetings, substance use, [and] giving up when things get more difficult…” — and, again, you’ll find that article linked in the transcript (and a quick reminder that the transcript is also available in Spanish). 

One way that self sabotage can show up is putting yourself down on a regular basis, and that goes back to the whole self belief thing that I talked about last week in Episode 125 — if you have low confidence in your abilities then it can lead you to doing and saying things that keep you small or where you might even apologise for yourself to others, which can in turn lead them to see you as being less confident and that changes how they treat you, so it becomes a negative spiral of a lack of self belief leading others to believe in you less which then reduces your self belief… and that is what we call a self-fulfilling prophecy, where you wind up creating the thing you fear. I believe the appropriate response here is “eek!” followed by “hell no!”, because that’s not something I’m going to let happen in my life and neither should you! 

The other thing I want to say here is that avoidance is also a form of self sabotage; it’s a topic I covered in Episode 99 and it’s something which has been a constant companion for me over the many years I’ve been figuring out how to live with my anxiety disorder. I don’t know about you but I have days where I just cannot bring myself to do even the smallest thing and it usually happens when my anxiety is at its highest (I’m currently in a much better headspace and so I’ve found it’s far less common when I’m doing well). Being aware of how those avoidant tendencies are causing harm to yourself can help you to begin to understand why it’s so important to do something about it. For example, when I was completing my degree I struggled a lot because I was dealing with very severe depression and anxiety at the time (and the medications I was taking made everything harder and I felt like a zombie, although I’m grateful I took them because they definitely saved my life). I left everything until the absolute last minute because I couldn’t bring myself to do the work that needed to be done; I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I did not submit a single assignment any earlier than the day it was due throughout the entire four years I was studying and I usually started working on it either on that day or the day before — for some reason, I’d just go into total avoidance mode until it was too late to delay any longer and then I’d have to pull an all-nighter to get it done and submitted on time (one time I submitted five minutes before the deadline, which wasn’t great because the Internet connection started playing up and I nearly had kittens, although at the last moment it finally cooperated — probably the universe trying to teach me a lesson)… my point is that my avoidance had a massive negative effect on me because it created way more stress and anxiety than was necessary. Unfortunately that wasn’t a lesson I learned until much more recently and I think that was because I still got good results in spite of leaving everything until the last minute, and I think the fact that I knew I’d be OK meant I wasn’t putting enough pressure on myself (in hindsight, if I had tackled the avoidance thing I could definitely have achieved better results — however I have no regrets and it’s helped me to learn by highlighting how not to sabotage myself!).

Another way self sabotage can show up is blaming others when something goes wrong rather than looking at the bigger picture and choosing to see your role in the situation, so that you can focus on what is within your direct control… it’s like when you have an argument with someone and you might say, “You made me angry!” — no, they did not make you anything… you chose to react to them, but they cannot make you do anything. That’s a form of self-sabotage because it deflects responsibility on to others rather than looking within to see how you can respond to challenges more thoughtfully in the future.

Another example is giving up too early: whether it’s at work or in a relationship or trying to achieve a personal goal or whatever, if we decide to pack it in at the first sign of trouble then we’re not giving ourselves an opportunity to work through the challenge (and overcoming problems can actually help to strengthen the situation or relationship)… let me just point out here that there is a big difference between something where things are a bit tough and need work versus something that is toxic or making you utterly miserable; anything that makes you feel miserable and devalued has to go, and I’m not suggesting you try to make a toxic situation work because I personally think it’s better to hit the road, Jack (and don’t you go back — and yes that’s an old song, in case anyone thought it sounded a bit familiar). The point I’m making is that if you walk away from things that make you feel a bit uncomfortable most or all of the time (you know, those situations and relationships that require some hard work which might feel awkward or difficult) then you’re actually sabotaging yourself in the long run because ALL relationships and situations require hard work! Sorry, but things are very rarely super-easy in life and I think we have to be careful about projecting unrealistic expectations onto ourselves and onto others. If I had a dollar for every time my partner had driven me up the wall over the many, many years we’ve been together I would be a billionaire by this point — but I do the work, because it’s the healthier way to approach things and, for me, it’s also part of my desire to break the pattern of behaviour I witnessed with my parents and their toxic life choices. 

So how do you deal with self sabotage? Well, that sounds almost like a tailor-made excuse to get into the how-to part of today’s episode! So, let’s talk about… 

How to manage self sabotage for the sake of your wellbeing

And you’ll notice that I said ‘manage’ self sabotage rather than ‘stop’ — and that was a deliberate choice because you need to know it takes time, effort and perseverance to work through self sabotage rather than just being able to magically stop it overnight. Don’t get me wrong, I wish there were an easy option but there’s not (and it would have been helpful because then I could have quoted the Spice Girls by saying “stop right now, thank you very much” but, alas, it’s not to be). OK, so I’m going to suggest that you begin at the beginning and that means…

Start with self awareness — and by this I mean confronting the reality of your current situation. Are you doing or saying things that go against what you want to achieve or the type of life you want to live? Are your choices healthy (in other words, are they in your best long-term interests physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, socially and financially)? Are you making life harder for yourself than it needs to be? I know these are tough questions but you need to be completely honest with yourself if you want to manage self-sabotaging behaviours. I talked about self awareness in Episode 62, so check that out for more advice. And then it also relates to my next point, which is…

Identify how self-sabotage is showing up for you — and this is some more of that brutal-honesty-with-yourself stuff that I just encouraged you to do, and I know it’s uncomfortable but it’s necessary… you need to be really clear with yourself about what you are doing (or not doing) and how it’s impacting on what you want to achieve. OK, next… 

Identify ‘why’ — and I want to point something out here before I go any further; you might have noticed that the ‘why’ part of today’s episode was much, much longer than usual (in fact it was three times as long as normal!) and that was a deliberate choice because it’s necessary to spend the bulk of your time in understanding why you might be sabotaging yourself. I do this a lot with both my coach and my therapist, where I’ll explore something and we’ll spend ages unpacking it and digging in to the deeper reason behind whatever it is, and the reason for that is that when you dig deeper you will usually find that the cause is a very different beast to whatever the behaviour is… in order to address the behaviour, you have to deal with the root cause. For example, I have talked very openly in past episodes about my tendency to eat my feelings when I’m struggling emotionally; just trying to slap the cupcake (or chips) out of my hand won’t do anything because it isn’t dealing with the reasons behind why I default to emotional eating (which I’ve touched on in the past so I won’t go into that again). My point is that you need to understand your own why (or why’s) so that you can deal with them. And, funnily enough, that leads to my next point…

Deal with the root cause (or causes) — and this point is probably going to feel a bit vague and generalised because, like I said earlier, there are so many possible causes that I just cannot possibly list them all here (otherwise this podcast would turn into an 84-episode series!). What I will say is that once you know your why, find tools and resources to help you work through it. For example, I’ve covered topics like perfectionism in Episode 98 and self doubt in Episode 104 so they might be helpful, or you can take a look through my entire back catalogue at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes where they’re all listed (and where transcripts are available for free). And, on a related note, I know self sabotage and procrastination often go hand-in-hand so I’m doing an episode on procrastination in a few weeks. OK, my next point is… 

Be accountable for your actions — and by this I mean that it can be easy for us to blame circumstances or other people for the things that we might do to sabotage ourselves (consciously or unconsciously), but the reality is that you — and only you — are responsible for the choices that you make in life. I know, that’s a bit of a jagged little pill to swallow (and yes I did just name-check Alanis Morrisette’s album on purpose there) but the reason why I’m saying that so bluntly is that taking personal responsibility for our lives is absolutely necessary if we have any hope of working through the stuff that isn’t serving our best interests so that we can do better and be better. I mean, let’s just be honest here: the call is coming from inside the house — nobody else can make you do something! You can do this whole accountability thing in a way that is kind to yourself (please don’t go beating yourself up mentally or physically), and I talked about how to do that all the way back in Episode 16 about accountability. OK, next…

Identify your triggers — and this simply means to be aware of particular situations (or people!) that can lead you to find it more challenging to make choices that are in your best interests. For example, I’ve shared in the past about my difficult relationship with my mother and I know that I find dealing with her to be quite triggering emotionally. Since I am the one in control of what I do or don’t do with my emotions, that means I need to identify healthy ways to manage myself and my part of the situation. Think of this as a bit of that ‘prevention is better cure’ thing I talk about on this show a lot; if you know that a situation could potentially trigger you to make self-sabotaging choices, then you need to change how you approach the situation. I talked about how to do that in Episode 91, about triggers, so check that out. Moving on, my next point is…

Take a little action — and this one is especially for my fellow avoidance-mode people (and I mentioned earlier that avoidance is a topic I discussed back in Episode 99); I have found that pushing myself to spend just five minutes doing a task I don’t want to do will usually be all the momentum I need to get the thing done (and if not, then at least I’ve done a small bit of it). Small steps still add up to big results, so even doing just a few minutes will be better than doing nothing. OK, my next point is… 

Remove temptations — and this is a general one, although the temptations will vary depending on what form your self sabotage takes. For example, with my emotional eating I make sure I only have healthy food in the house so I’m not tempted if I’m having a tough day (and I also do my grocery shopping online, so that I’m not tempted by seeing things on display in the store… oh, and I also won’t allow myself to do the grocery order online unless I’m in a good headspace to prevent me from adding junk to my cart. The fact is that some of us (myself included) need to do this kind of thing because we’re no good with moderation or willpower, and there is nothing to be ashamed of if you’re anything like me in that regard. Instead of judging yourself (which will probably lead you to self sabotage!), instead choose to treat yourself with kindness and work with your default tendencies rather than fighting against them, because that’s how you make progress. Just make it easier for yourself by removing temptations! OK, next… 

Work with a professional — and that could be a coach, a counsellor, a therapist [psychologist] or a psychiatrist depending on your needs and your situation. If you’re especially prone to self sabotage and it’s causing a lot of harm to yourself, therapy might be a wise choice because there are lots of more advanced techniques that a therapist can use with you, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which helps you to replace negative thought patterns, or Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, which addresses intense emotions and helps you to better regulate your emotions. Obviously it takes time to do that type of work, and it costs, but it’s a solid investment in your future happiness and life satisfaction.

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to self sabotage and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Sometimes the things we do and say hold us back from being the best version of ourselves, or they keep us from achieving the things that matter most to us. There are plenty of reasons why it happens, but regardless of the cause the result is almost-always the same: we do harm to ourselves. Whether it’s happening consciously or unconsciously, self sabotage can make your life far more difficult than it needs to be… so it’s up to you to choose to confront it, work through it and then, most importantly, find ways to manage it.

The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today? 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:

“Make sure your worst enemy is not living between your own two ears.”

Unknown

Alright… that’s nearly it for this week.

Next week I’ll be talking about love. As human beings, there is nothing quite like the sensation of being fully seen and valued by another human being — regardless of whether that’s a romantic partner, a friend, a family member or whatever. But what is love and how does it relate to good mental health? Well, next time I’ll be talking about what love is, why understanding love matters, and how to approach love (in all of its forms) in a healthy way.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 17th of April, 2022. 

I hope you found today’s episode helpful; if you did then I’d love it if you left a five-star review on the platform you’re listening to me on or you can head over to my Instagram @ltamentalhealth and let me know. And if you’d like to support me and my work then I have a Patreon where I offer exclusive benefits for my supporters; you’ll find the link in the episode description and it’s also linked on my website at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au where you can also join my mailing list for my free weekly newsletter (and that’s linked in the episode description as well).

And, finally, a quick reminder that I also have a YouTube channel where I publish new videos every Wednesday so if you’d like even more content about looking after your mental health then join me over there!

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time!

Jeremy 🙂

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Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2022 Jeremy Godwin.

The information provided in this episode is for general awareness on the topic and does not constitute advice. You should consult a doctor and/or a mental health professional if you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing. You’ll find additional information on the Resources page of this website.

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