Regardless of whether or not you have a mental health diagnosis, making meaningful changes in our lives can feel extremely daunting. Sometimes big changes require us to step outside of our safety zones and into challenge zones that feel unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and even unsafe. This can be especially true for those of us with experiences of betrayal, judgment, stigma, humiliation, or letdown. It’s often under these kinds of circumstances that people describe their responses as “self-sabotaging”.
The term “self-sabotage” refers to actions that undermine a person’s ability to achieve their own objectives or goals. However, in light of some important (but often overlooked) qualities of “self-sabotaging” behaviours, I’m of the opinion that it is a somewhat ill-fitting term. In my clinical experience, what people call “self-sabotage” often has much more to do with resistance to adversity than an intention to truly undermine one’s own success.
What We Assume About “Self-Sabotage”
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “sabotage” as “the act of destroying or damaging something deliberately so that it does not work correctly”.
With this in mind, the idea of “self-sabotage” is often portrayed in two notable ways:
- As an indicator of low self-esteem.
- As a subconscious psychological defence mechanism.
“Self-Sabotage” and Self-Esteem
In the absence of context, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that “self-sabotage” is a function of low self-esteem. Without knowing all about the nuances and complexities of a given situation, we might see someone’s responses as counter-productive and deleterious to their well-being. It’s not a big stretch from there to assume that the problem lies in their lack of regard for themselves. However, I find that when we take a close-up look at actions that some might call “self-sabotage”, this portrayal rarely holds much water.
More often than not, when I’ve spoken with folks about what they’ve called “self-sabotage”, an interesting common thread has come to light: their “self-sabotaging” actions were actually intended to be in their best interests, they just came with some unfortunate downsides. When people act in ways that are meant to be beneficial, the idea that they lack self-esteem doesn’t quite fit.
Here’s an example of what I mean: 9 times out of 10, Kris chooses to play video games rather than studying for an exam. Although she knows that studying will benefit her more in the long term, video games often end up winning out because of the immediate gratification they bring. When asked to explain her rationale around why she so consistently makes this choice, she explains that she is motivated by a desire to maximize her experience of pleasure, and avoid the stress associated with studying. Despite the downsides of her approach (lower grades and more distress in the long run), the choice of instant gratification over the discomfort and challenge of studying shows that Kris has a preference for positive experiences. It would therefore be hasty for us to label Kris as having low self-esteem for “sabotaging” her academic success by engaging in more immediately gratifying activities.
Part of the theory behind the notion of low self-esteem is that folks with low self-esteem feel undeserving of good things happening. They therefore undermine the possibility of having positive experiences. This perspective assumes that people’s “self-sabotaging” behaviours function almost like self-harm, when they’re more often seeking to avoid distress and prolong experiences of feeling good.
Actions that often get described as “self-sabotaging” generally fit better with esteeming oneself highly, rather than poorly. After all, just like Kris, if we like feeling good and avoid feeling bad, we must, in some way, see ourselves as worthy of feeling good – otherwise we wouldn’t seek out good feelings. This ties into my posts on misconceptions about resistance and rethinking how we evaluate self-esteem.
“Self-Sabotage” as Self-Defence
The idea that “self-sabotage” is a means of defense assumes that it is a way of protecting ourselves from suffering. Based on conversations I’ve had in the counselling room, this perspective isn’t too far off – actions that get called “self-sabotage” do generally serve folks in resisting adversity and upholding safety. However, this take on “self-sabotage” could be tweaked in a couple key ways.
I’m of the opinion that if “self-sabotaging” behaviours serve the interest of defence, then “sabotage” isn’t really the right word for them. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that they don’t set us back in some ways. These kinds of actions might work against us achieving certain goals and experiencing success in some ways, but they also help us create safety. So “self-sabotage” can work both for us and against us simultaneously, making the word “sabotage” somewhat ill-fitting in these contexts. At the end of the day, it’s more like self-protection with some kinks to work out.
For example, Robyn spends a lot of his time at home alone. He feels isolated, with a strong longing to connect with others in meaningful ways. However, he knows that venturing out could be risky, and his attempts to connect could be met with rejection. He responds by continuing to stay home, watching TV, and gaming – all of which help to keep his mind off the sadness he feels when he’s lonely. These are the things that Robyn is most comfortable and familiar with, but they also feel mundane and unsatisfying.
Some might look at Robyn’s choice to stay home and avoid going out as “self-sabotage” – actions that get in the way of achieving the meaningful connections he’s been longing for. However, for Robyn, these actions serve the important purpose of protection against rejection – which would actually make his sense of alienation worse. By acknowledging the importance of both Robyn’s longing for change and his need for safety, he might explore other options that could satisfy both of these aspects in preferable ways.
We can see here that “sabotage” does not accurately account for Robyn’s actions. Sure, staying home rather than making efforts to connect with others might not satisfy his longing for interaction, but his behaviour is not geared toward doing deliberate damage so that his longing for connection will never come true. Staying home is a way of staying safe, as opposed to a way of shooting himself in the foot.
“Self-Sabotage” as Resistance
The examples of “self-sabotage” above share one thing in common: resistance. They all serve to create safety in the face of danger, discomfort, and other experiences of adversity. Regardless of the advantages and drawbacks of those behaviours, they speak to our concern for our well-being.
One other kind of “self-sabotage” that I’ve explored with clients involves resisting expectations imposed on us by others. When people are expected to follow a particular path in life, and those expectations don’t fit with our interests, identities, and desires, they might “self-sabotage” as a way of affirming their input one way or another.
As I outlined in my post on boundaries, it’s not always safe for us to assert our desires in explicit and clear ways 100% of the time. We might have a sense that doing things our way will likely be met with judgment, stigma, misunderstanding, scorn, or even violence. In these circumstances, “self-sabotaging” behaviours allow us to resist those expectations in less obvious ways.
As acts of resistance, the term “self-sabotage” isn’t really fitting. If we’re striving to have our say and resisting outside impositions, we are not sabotaging ourselves – we’re sabotaging the plans and expectations imposed on us by others.
The term “self-sabotage” generally contains a negative bias, and assumes that we are acting against our own well-being. However, when we take a careful look at behaviours that are labeled “self-sabotaging”, they rarely actually serve that purpose. Every decision we make opens doors to some possibilities, while closing the doors on others, regardless if they’re seen as “good” or “bad” choices. The notion of “self-sabotage” can often be better understood as resistance to adversity, even if the associated actions don’t quite align with improvements in the big picture. Nothing is perfect, and there are always kinks to work out of every move we make.
About Will Bratt
Will Bratt is a counsellor in Victoria, BC, specializing in therapy for trauma and interpersonal violence. He is passionate about addressing stigma through depathologizing human suffering. In addition to writing for Healthy Minds Canada, he runs his own blog on his website, Will Bratt Counselling. You can connect with Will through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.