Self-sabotage - Why We Do It & How To Deal With It. Top tips!

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Today, as part of our positive mental wellbeing series with Wellbee, we wanted to explore the idea of self-sabotage, which is all too common in both a work and a personal setting.

A couple of classic examples:

Do you have an important presentation at work? You want to do your best, of course, but your friend happens to be having a house party. So you decide to just ‘drop by’ and you end up staying for a few hours. You end up coming home at midnight. The next day you are lethargic and find it hard to concentrate.

Have a growing to-do list with fast-approaching deadlines? You panic a bit, but still leave everything to the last minute. You’ll still have time, you tell yourself.

Most of us have been there. For some inexplicable reason, we make it difficult for ourselves to complete a task or achieve a goal. We do everything to lower our effectiveness. Is it really so that at the last moment we give up on achieving the goal we have chosen for ourselves? Why do we sabotage our actions and reduce the chance of success? Let’s explore.

What is self-sabotage?

In short, self-sabotage can be defined as any activity that allows for a credible justification of failure, and in the event of success - for its intensification. By using this strategy, we can avoid personal responsibility in the event of failure and interpret the results we have achieved in a good way. It’s essentially a paradoxical protection of our self-esteem.

The first researchers of this phenomenon were Steven Berglas and Edward Jones. They recognized that the world we live in places more emphasis on potential opportunities than on actual achievement. During important events, such as an exam for college, participation in sports or promotion at work, it is often more important for us to protect the ego from failure and face our skills than the actual chance of success.

Self-sabotage and self-esteem

Self-saboteurs are more sensitive to situations that may threaten their self-esteem. When they are unsure of their competences, they can shape situations in such a way as to minimize the chances of success. This gives them the opportunity to justify their failures by the occurrence of various kinds of obstacles, and such actions are closely related to the aforementioned self-esteem.

By using this strategy, we want to convince ourselves and others that we are capable, competent and valuable, and we also explain ourselves against possible failures. By making it difficult for ourselves to achieve success, we provide ourselves with excuses for possible failure. By justifying failure, we protect our self-esteem.

Protecting your self-esteem

Self-esteem does not exist without self-knowledge. We evaluate ourselves based on it - it’s essentially all the information we have about ourselves. We can evaluate ourselves both over time and in specific situations. Insufficient self-knowledge is associated with lower self-esteem, feeling negative emotions, lack of motivation to act, and with too high expectations of oneself.

However, the frequent use of self-sabotage strategies is disadvantageous. Our focus shifts from behavior focused on achieving success to activities that protect our self-esteem. Thus, it can be said that self-sabotage aims to protect our self-esteem, first of all, in our own eyes.

Is this a good way to deal with task situations? Not necessarily. By focusing on self-sabotage, we stop focusing on the task, so we make it difficult or impossible for ourselves to properly perform it.

Why do we self-sabotage?

The main goals of self-sabotage are:

  • protection of our self-esteem - by admitting weaknesses, we maintain a positive view of ourselves in areas important for our self-esteem;
  • strengthening our self-esteem - when we manage to achieve success despite self-obstruction, we have more value in our own eyes;
  • beneficial self-presentation - when we want to show our best side and convince the environment that we are valuable;

Types of self-sabotage:

Doliński and Szmajke (1994) distinguish three types of self-employment strategies:

  • behavioral strategies - when we make it difficult for ourselves to achieve success by taking specific actions, e.g. drinking alcohol before an important task or giving up preparations for this task;
  • non-behavioral strategies - when we show anxiety symptoms, pain ailments or general deterioration of mood before starting a given action;
  • symbolic strategies - involving negative perception of a given task. In such situations, we perceive the conditions as less favorable than they are in reality, e.g. the exam seems very difficult to us, and the friend with whom we present the classes - less able.

Each of these three forms of action allows us to justify a possible failure and protect our beliefs about our own talents despite the lack of success. The reasons for the failure in the exam may be, in turn: improper preparation (behavioral strategy), malaise (non-behavioral strategy) or a high level of difficulty (symbolic strategy).

Fear of success

Fear of success stands in opposition to the fear of failure, but is closely related to it. This phenomenon is difficult to identify because it often resembles and is sometimes confused with procrastination or a lack of self-confidence.

Fear of success can be related to the fear of excess work and new challenges, but also of the changes that may occur once we achieve it. Will we then have to reorganize our reality? What will we have to face and how will we manage it all? People with a fear of success use self-sabotage more than others.

When does self-sabotage become a problem?

Applying self-sabotage from time to time is natural and good for our mental well-being. It contributes to the protection of our self-esteem, and also helps in situations of strong tension.

However, if we start engaging in it whenever we feel our self-esteem is at stake, we are actually sabotaging our actions and limiting our chances of achieving our goals. In the long term, this can lead to lower motivation and fewer attempts to succeed (McCrea, 2008).

Look for support!

If you've noticed that self-obstruction negatively affects your actions and motivation, hindering your daily functioning, and that the previous attempts to deal with it are not enough, this is the first step on the way to change. You can try to deal with it yourself, but when it seems too difficult, it is worth considering seeking help from a psychologist or psychotherapist. You don't have to be alone with this.

10Clouds is working with Wellbee

At 10Clouds, we're working with Wellbee to provide mental health support for all our staff. We want to make sure that we all have access to a trusted person with whom we can discuss our thoughts, feelings and worries.

Wellbee provides us with:

  • A range of trained and certified therapists with many different specializations
  • In-person or online therapy sessions
  • The ability to hold therapy sessions in a range of different languages.

Looking for emotional support for yourself, your employees or your colleagues?

Visit Wellbee.pl today


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