As you may know if you’ve been following along these past few weeks, I’m writing a book this summer. Shortly after signing the contract, I started noticing old self-sabotaging behaviors that I haven’t seen in a decade. Suddenly, the house was clean, old files were organized. I was even starting to sleuth through a random drawer of mysterious keys! Thankfully, I noticed what was happening and could lead myself through it. But, it was a good reminder that any new challenge can stir up old self-sabotaging messages.
At the time, it was too painful to face the possibility of giving my all to a relationship, an activity, or a passion—only to wind up falling short. Some part of me quietly decided that it’s better to sit on the sidelines and play small than to risk putting myself out there and facing the pain of perceived failure or rejection.
Over time, I learned to heal these self-sabotaging messages. But, that doesn’t mean they don’t still show up from time to time. It’s important to pay attention, especially if you’re entering into a season of growth, change or a new challenge.
What Does it Mean to Self-Sabotage?
Behavior is thought of as “self-sabotaging” when it keeps you from something you actually want, need, or desire in your life. For example, you might:
- want a romantic relationship, but systematically refuse to date.
- need to break up with a toxic boyfriend, but find yourself constantly going back to him.
- be capable of more challenges at work, but consistently under-perform.
- circle around a person you’d love to get to know, but talk yourself out of asking her to coffee.
To be clear: self-sabotage is not the same as looking at something you thought you could do and consciously deciding, “I am not up for that challenge. It’s not wise for me to pursue that.” Instead, self-sabotage tends to operate subconsciously. It’s driven by messages deep inside we often do not even realize we’ve picked up.
Self-sabotaging messages are rooted in fear that typically has roots back in old wounds. When you are hurt as a young child, you develop core messages to make sense of what happened. You rely on these messages to keep you safe, but typically they don’t serve you very well as you become an adult.
Here are some of the most common self-sabotaging messages you may have picked up deep inside:
- It’s better to stay small.
- If it’s not perfect, it’s bad.
- I am not good enough.
- It’s safer not try.
- Failure would hurt too much.
- I can’t stand the thought of rejection.
Sometimes other people’s voices sneak into self-sabotaging messages. For example, you may have been told things like:
- Don’t get too big for your britches.
- Who do you think you are?
- We don’t do that.
- You’re embarrassing yourself.
- You don’t have what it takes.
These kinds of messages—whether they were said overtly or picked up through modeled actions—create burdens of shame deep within. You might not even realize that you still carry these messages. Instead, you just notice that it is extremely hard for you to take a thoughtful risk, try a new challenge, or attempt to improve an aspect of your own life.
We can also bring God into our self-sabotaging messages. If you were raised in faith communities, you might have picked up teaching about God that is not consistent with his true character. For example, you might have picked up messages deep inside that go something like this:
- God wants me to play small.
- It’s better to stay quiet than to speak up.
- You’re selfish to want more for yourself.
- You should always die to your own wants.
- It’s your job to suffer. Isn’t that what Jesus did?
Sure, sometimes it is better to stay quiet and sometimes our ambitions are not in line with what God wants or what is best for us. But, if that is the case, you need to arrive at those decisions through healthy, honest dialogue with God and with those who know and love you.
Self-sabotaging messages, on the other hand, linger in the dark, next to shame. If they are not brought out into the light, they will drive your behaviors without you even realizing it. And, you will be at risk for a backlash of resentment and regret.
Self-Sabotaging Behaviors: A Signal to Pay Attention
If you’re self-sabotaging, you may not be aware of what you’re doing. You might have started a new relationship or job that you are excited about, and suddenly you find yourself engaging in some familiar but odd behaviors. Here are some examples of self-sabotaging behaviors to watch for:
- Missing deadlines.
- Numbing through food or alcohol.
- Putting roadblocks up to “test” the new person or situation.
- Rationalizing why you “didn’t really want it anyway”.
If you start to notice yourself doing any of these things, pay attention. Ask yourself the following questions:
1. How do I really feel about this new relationship or challenge?
Take a moment and check in with yourself. If you notice that you’re reaching for old self-sabotaging tactics, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, try to notice what you’re feeling inside. Take a few deep breaths and get curious about what’s going on. For example, notice if any of the following resonate:
- I’m scared.
- I’m anxious.
- I don’t want to fail.
- I am afraid I won’t get it right.
- It feels like more than I can handle.
- I’m going to let everyone down.
2. What core message might be driving this feeling?
Once you’ve become aware of the fearful parts of you driving the sabotaging behavior, get curious about them. These are parts of you that need your love and understanding. They have a history with you, and the fact that they’ve shown up can help you heal. Ask yourself some of the following questions:
- Do you have a history of jettisoning new relationships before giving them a chance?
- Have you struggled with perfectionism?
- How have you dealt with failure in the past?
- What have you been taught about failure or rejection by formative people in your life?
- How have you tended to cope when you’ve been fearful in the past?
Again, don’t beat yourself up. This is an opportunity to learn about yourself, to gain understanding. You’re trying to stay present to the feeling of fear or self-doubt, while simultaneously seeking to understand where it came from.
3. What is true?
For this step, it’s helpful to check in with God and with people who you trust. It’s possible you are in over your head, or that you are in a relationship that isn’t good for you. But, don’t jump to that conclusion without examining the data. Stay open and curious and ask people who know you and have seen you in different situations for feedback:
- Are you, in fact, equipped for this challenge?
- Is what’s happening in your life something you have wanted for yourself?
- Is the relationship or project actually showing signs of un-health? Or, are you experiencing typical bumps that come with any new challenge?
- Does the new challenge fit into your larger goals for yourself?
In this step of what psychologists call “reality testing,” it’s important to get really honest about what’s actually going on.
Are you in a situation that you need to get out of?
Or, are you in a situation that feels uncomfortable and challenging?
If it’s the latter, you can honor the parts of you that feel scared and are tempted to take you out of it. But, don’t let them lead.
Instead, move forward with a plan to care for your fear, even as you commit to the growth in front of you.
4. What is my plan?
If you are going to commit to this new endeavor, you’ll need to care for the parts of you that are expressing fear through self-sabotage. Start by facing these parts of you with compassion, as if you were parenting a young child. You might ask yourself:
What do you fear will happen if I truly give this a try?
After honoring the parts of you who are harboring fear, gently reframe those fears. For example:
- What if God wants me to work out this part of my gifting?
- I may not do this perfectly, but I’d like to give it my best.
- I am still learning, but I have lots of potential.
- I’d rather give it a try and then care for myself if it doesn’t go how I wish.
- I’m stronger than I think.
In my experience, facing the worst case scenarios can bring a form of relief. If you can face those possibilities and know, “I’ll still be OK,” then you’ll be free to give it your best. You’ll have counted the cost and discovered that you are more resilient than parts of you think.
I ask—ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory—to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers, oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him—endless energy, boundless strength! Ephesians 1:17-19 (The Message)