I always believed that ‘something’ must have happened that caused me to miss my goal, that it couldn’t be something that I had done. Well, what I have come to learn is that I was probably the ‘thing that happened’ without realising it. For example, at res at The University of Pretoria, you can apply to become a member of the House Committee for your third year, which is a very prestigious achievement. I was very involved in res and knew I stood a good chance to be chosen as a HC member. I had my poster up on the wall showing who I was and what I stood for to enhance the chances of having the ladies vote for me. I did everything that was required, except one thing, the speech and Q&A evening.
On the night of the elections, every applicant had to answer questions from the ladies of the house regarding your vision and plans for the specific position you applied for (be it for Culture, Rag, Social, Head of House etc). On the evening of the elections, I was not there to give my speech and to answer the questions. I can’t even remember why I was in Durban at my parents’ house and not at the university. I think I was on break and didn’t want to go back earlier for the speech, because I thought I stood a good enough chance to become a member even if I was not there. But it turns out, the weight of how you presented yourself, the speech you gave, and the answers given at the election evening was all the girls of the house were really interested in. A poster wasn’t enough. They needed to hear you and see you to be able to choose you. Needless to say, I was not elected as a HC member and I was devastated.
My therapist and I recently discovered that I have a self-sabotaging habit. For example, in this scenario, which is one of many that led us to the self-sabotage conclusion, I made the choice not to be at the election evening for the HC position. I think I did it because at least if I didn’t get the position, then I’d have something to blame. Now that I look back on my life, I can recall numerous situations like this one where I sabotaged myself and my own success. I can’t believe I didn’t know something like self-sabotage existed. If I’d known earlier in my life, I’m pretty sure I would have achieved so much more. So, I needed to find out more about this and how to fix it.
What is self-sabotage?
Self-sabotage is when we do things knowingly or unknowingly that prevent us from reaching our goals. It can be active or passive behaviour that can affect nearly every aspect of your life, be it at work, in your relationships or a personal goal that you want to achieve. There are many people that struggle with it, which is probably why we don’t have many people in our lives who can help or correct us because they are also struggling with self-sabotaging habits. This behaviour can become a vicious cycle that lowers our self-confidence and can leave us feeling stuck in a situation we know we are capable of getting out of. It can be very frustrating.
One of the many reasons why people choose to self-sabotage is from a lack of self-belief. They don’t believe they are capable of reaching their goal (even if they have reached it before). Self-sabotage comes in many different forms, anything from procrastination, substance abuse, emotional eating, perfectionism, obsessions and being hooked on social media or entertainment.
Why do we self-sabotage?
We lack self-worth.
The lack of self-worth has an incredible impact on our self-confidence. If we don’t believe in ourselves, we probably won’t achieve our goals. We act accordingly to what we tell ourselves. Sometimes we constantly tell ourselves, “I don’t think I can do this today”, or “I’m not good enough”, “Other people are so much better than I am so why even try”. It’s the small sentences we say to ourselves in our heads that impacts our behaviour and ultimately whether we reach our goals or not. When we are not confident in our potential, we start doing things that can block our success.
Procrastination is one of the biggest ways we self-sabotage. It is so easy to find a reason as to why you can’t start working on the thing you need to or even want to work on now. Be it to start your work day, reply to a message or email, clean the kitchen, continue reading a book, play with your children or even call a loved one. Procrastination feels good but at the same time provokes fear and anxiety. Start paying attention to how often you procrastinate. I was surprised at how many times a day I procrastinated and realised it has become a horrible habit. The best thing to do is to start paying attention. When you can recognise your behaviour and patterns, you can fix it. Bad habits are ruining your life and it usually comes in small ways.
We fear success.
Sometimes when we work hard toward a goal and we are almost at the top, but our low self-esteem might make us think that we won’t be able to cope with the success. Low self-esteem can make us worry that we don’t truly deserve the promotion or are not qualified enough or prepared for the success we have worked hard for and earned, so we self-sabotage to not achieve the success. No one wants to be called a fraud or hear that it was just beginner’s luck. We want it fair and square. We can also self-sabotage achieving our goal when we know we would have to keep our performance up to this new level and the ‘pressure’ to attain becomes too much. We then backtrack, even just one step so that we don’t reach the goal and spare ourselves the ‘pressure’. This all stems from low self-confidence. Sometimes we are too afraid of success that we never get to enjoy it, even though we deserve it. This is exactly what I’ve encountered this year.
We want to place the fault on something or someone else.
When we believe the thoughts in our heads that we will fail or potentially not do well in something we start behaving in ways that cause us to fail. When we think things like, “I won’t get that position anyway” we shift our responsibility in achieving our goals. Because we have already been telling ourselves and even made up our minds that we won’t succeed, we then shift the blame to something else, some situation that happened or even to someone else. “I didn’t get that position because I didn’t do a good enough speech”, but, you chose not to prepare well enough for that speech. We often procrastinate to avoid disappointment, give up too soon or even prepare less than we know we should just to have something to shift the blame on when we fail.
We want control
When we feel like we have control, we can accept a negative outcome more easily if we’ve made up our minds beforehand that we will get a negative outcome. The negative thought patterns, even though we don’t want the negative outcome, controls the outcome, so we need to correct our self-sabotaging thought patterns.
We fear failure
We are afraid to give everything we’ve got to achieve a goal and still not be good enough and then fail. It is easier to give reasons or even create reasons why you failed than to truly give absolutely everything you’ve got and fail. The fear of failure is probably one of the most common and overwhelming reasons why we self-sabotage. Although, we should follow Robert. T. Kiyosaki’s quote: “Successful people don’t fear failure but understand that it is necessary to learn and grow from”.
How to change self-sabotage behaviour
You need to be honest with yourself and ask if you think you deserve better and pinpoint where your self-doubt stems from. I must say, this part has been quite tricky for me. I am working on fixing my self-sabotaging habits by trying to figure out why I don’t believe I deserve better than just surviving. I am also working on recognising my patterns of self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviour. When I recognise it, I then think of the negative impact it has on my life and that I am the one that can change the outcome by changing my thoughts and behaviour. Truth be told, the sooner I can fix it, the sooner I can have a better and even happier future.
Make a list of everything that is preventing you from achieving your goals or from the things that you want. Take time to properly determine why you want this and why those goals are important to you. Then look at what is holding you back. Which thoughts? Are you procrastinating? Always complaining? Never excited to give it your best? Lazy? Uninspired?
If you are afraid to fail (again), list all the times you have succeeded in your life. Somewhere in our lives we have succeeded at something, if not many things, but often we only look at all the times we failed, which is why we then have continuous self-doubt and negative thoughts. Think of the obstacles you had to overcome for you to have reached that goal. Most goals we want to reach will have some trials and tribulations, it usually tests you to see how badly you want to succeed. Reflecting on how you have succeeded previously should inspire you and boost your confidence to try again.
There will be times in our lives where we will fail, and that is perfectly normal, but we must accept it and move on. The world is still yours to take it if you want it. We shouldn’t let failure stop us from trying again. The acronym for fear, according to Steve Patterson, stands for False Expectations Appearing Real. You can only give factual feedback once you have taken on the false expectations and determined whether they were real or not. A lot of the time they were not real, but if we stayed afraid we never would have reached any goal.
Write down positive affirmations that you believe about yourself. Put it where you can see it or where you will have access to it quickly so that when those destructive thoughts come you can replace them with positive affirmations and the truth about yourself. We have all been made with a purpose, we have gifts and talents and if we don’t use them the world will be a sombre place. We must colour it in with who we are and start to enjoy life again. Self-sabotaging behaviour can be fixed. If you need help, see a counsellor, therapist or a life coach. It was much easier for me to work on my thoughts and behaviour with someone who could guide me. I am still a work in progress, but if I didn’t see a therapist I probably would have continued down a path of destruction and unhappiness for the rest of my life.
The encouragement I want to leave you with is that in that moment when fear and doubt creeps in, remember that it is only your false expectation that is holding you back. Fight against the urge to quit or the thoughts that tell you “You don’t deserve to succeed” and tell yourself that you do deserve it. Those negative thoughts must be taken captive and be replaced with positive affirmations of yourself and your capabilities. Everyone else can believe in you, but if you don’t believe in yourself, nothing will change.