Why do we sabotage our relationships, careers, and chances to succeed?

If you are a low esteemer, you probably have been down this rabbit hole way too many times—sabotaging your way to happiness, to good relationships, to promotions, recognition, a well-deserved moment in the limelight.

In retrospect, your behaviour may often leave you wrestle your own mind—it may seem so illogical, bizarre, and counter-intuitive to everything you stand for or are striving for.

Does it truly make sense that someone will purposely set themselves to fail— buy comfort food when on a diet, call your drinking buddy when trying to become clean, or binge-watch movies when you have to prepare for an important presentation?

We all generally want the best for ourselves—so then why try to sabotage our chances of getting what we want, have worked so hard for and rightfully deserve?

Why do we do it?

What is Self-Sabotaging?

It’s self-explanatory, really. It’s the actions we take to thwart our own best intentions and goals. We do it because we want something and then we fear that we may actually get it, won’t be able to handle it and will ruin everything—be it getting a promotion, finding the perfect relationship, or starting your own business.

And if you are to end up messing things up, why not save yourself from hosting your own pity party—from the pain, the embarrassment, the disappointment—and kill all the chances in their infancy, before you can get hurt.

Simply put, self-sabotaging is a fear of failure and a fear of success, all at the same time.

Reasons for self-sabotaging

Let’s unpack what may be causing such self-destructing behaviours.

1. Negative self-image

Low esteemers are especially prone to self-sabotaging. Because they are not fond of themselves, they often behave in ways that reaffirm these beliefs and may purposely seek out self-embarrassing situations and failure. The inner dialogue goes along the lines of: I knew it, you are a loser; You don’t deserve this; You are not good enough; You are a fake; No one would ever like you…and so on.  

It sounds like very self-destructive way of living but there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for it. It’s called a Cognitive Dissonance Theory and it states that we want to maintain consistency between our beliefs and values on one hand, and our actions on other. Therefore, when something happens that clashes with our core, we most often change our actions to alight them with what we regard to be true about our personalities.

Therefore, if you feel worthless, you may go out of your way to validate your own self-beliefs and elicit similar reactions from others, just so that you can prove to yourself that you were right all along. “I-told-you-so” is often what you hear on repeat by your inner critic.

2. The Jonah complex

The idea was first introduced by Abraham Maslow in his book The Farther Reaches of Human Nature in 1971, where he talks about the dread of self-actualisation and of becoming who we are destined to become.

Maslow also coined the concept The Jonah complex, which is the fear of one’s own greatness, the evasion of one’s destiny, or the avoidance of exercising one’s talents.” It comes from the Biblical prophet of Jonah, who tried to escape his fate of warning the citizens of a city of the God’s divine wrath.

Maslow nicely captured these feelings:

“We fear our highest possibilities. We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments, under the most perfect conditions, under conditions of great courage. We enjoy and even thrill to the godlike possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities. So often, we run away from the responsibilities dictated, or rather suggested by nature, by fate, even sometimes by accident, just as Jonah tried in vain to run away from his fate.”

We often talk about fear of failure but feeling unworthy can also come from being scared of success and that we may be unfit to handle it.

3. Sabotaging as a way of self-preservation

Low esteemers often live in fear—fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of not meeting their own and others’ expectations. So, self-sabotaging becomes a way to self-preserve yourself from the pain and the disappointment.

Makes perfect sense—you don’t want the people you love to hurt you, therefore, you hurt or leave them first; you don’t want to face rejection, therefore you never apply for the job you really want; you don’t want to be ‘found out’ as a fraud later on, therefore you act in ways to undermine your chances to get the promotion and have more responsibilities, and so on.

Ultimately, it’s the fear of actually getting what you want—and that you may be dissatisfied that it’s not what you expected, or that you may disappoint others once they see the ‘real you.’

Either way, the outcome is the same—you undermine yourself, even hurt and disappoint others, driven by fear of being hurt or disappointed first.


A way out of the gloom

Overcoming self-destructive behaviours is possible, but not easy.

It requires a certain level of introspection—to understand the source of your self-incriminating actions and to try and actively confront them.

1. Improve your self-image

Self-sabotaging often comes down to negative self-opinions, to the core of who we believe we are. And these self-views are generally challenging to mend.

One way to successfully change what you think of you is to view yourself more broadly.

In 1985, the then-Yale University professor of psychology Patricia Linville proposed a model of self-esteem, which she called Self-Complexity Theory” (SCT). It focuses on self-knowledge and specifically—on how we choose to define ourselves.

2. Make small, incremental changes

We all have different aspects or roles we play—such as mother/ father, sister/brother, friend, wife/husband, professional, etc. The more of these self-aspects we use to describe ourselves, the greater our self-complexity. So, seeing yourself as more than one thing helps with your self-esteem, as your self-image is not contingent on your successes and failures only in one domain.

We often self-sabotage because we feel intimidated by a big goal, a public recognition, a sudden success. You have to be aware of these possible triggers and be prepared. For instance, if you fear public speaking, start small and speak in smaller groups first or aim to ask one question at every meeting you attend. If you want to lose weight, again—similar logic, make tiny gradual changes.

Enter Kaizen—the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement that states that you only need to improve by 1% today, compared to yesterday. Do one extra push-up, read one additional page, write one more paragraph, walk for five minutes further, and so on.

Over the course of a year, this compounds to 37% better than in the beginning. Pretty impressive.

The idea is to reduce the unease that comes from shooting for stars, feeling overwhelmed by the big goal and by what you may do once you actually get there.

3. Set goals and make detailed plans

The fear of the unknown is one of the greatest influencers of low confidence. Low esteemers function better in their comfort zone. Anything out of their ‘normal’ may throw them in high-anxiety and panic attacks, because they fear how they will handle the unfamiliar. And to self-preserve and save themselves from being in such situations, they self-sabotage. It’s often their go-to behaviour to manage their worries about the Big Unknown.

So, next time you are faced with a situation that is new and scares you, make a detailed plan in the format of action/ outcome/ reaction scenarios, if possible. It will help subdue the anxiety by giving you a sense of control over the situation.

~ ~ ~

In the end, the take-home message is this: self-sabotaging doesn’t have to be here to stay.

I know all too well that we sometimes may put too much pressure on ourselves, driven by ambition, desire to succeed, perfectionism, or simply because we want to be happy, rich, fulfilled—as soon as possible. This often exacerbates our anxieties and spins our fears out of control—What if I fail; What if I’m not good enough; If I’m found out; If everyone sees my flaws…

Being in the limelight requires courage, which may not come easy to the shy and more introverted, the low esteemers.

When you think that the pendulum has swung way too far from your comfort zone or that you must be crazy to dream your big dreams, remember this.

When Abraham Maslow asked his students which among them would write a great novel, be a great composer, or a great leader…

“Generally, everybody starts giggling, blushing, and squirming until I ask, if not you, then who else?” Which of course is the truth…If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities.”

And is a life full of regrets of dreams unmet really worth living?

~ Evelyn

*This article appeared in Fast Company.

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