Self Sabotage

Self Sabotage is something that everyone I’ve known experiences at some point, but few understand why they do it, or even recognize it for what it is.  While self sabotage is often destructive, when you have a mental illness, it can become dangerous. Some of the more common forms of self sabotage include procrastination, self medicating with unhealthy foods (chocolate), and staying up late the day before a big presentation.  More dangerous form of self sabotage includes self medicating with drugs or alcohol, self harming as soon as things start to look better, and spending all of your money just before bills are due.

Why do we self sabotage?  Dr. Ellen Hendriksen of The Savvy Psychologist lists 6 reasons in her article on Psychology Today.

In summary:

  1. Self worth – feeling unworthy of success or happiness.
  2. Control – by self sabotaging you are taking control of your imagined inevitable failure.
  3. Perceived fraudulence – this one makes me think of imposter syndrome, feeling like a fraud and as though your successes have been more due to luck than your own skills.  It can also present by feeling like you are tricking people into believing you deserve a job or can successfully complete a task.
  4. For a handy scapegoat – if you do things to ruin your success then you can blame the action, not yourself.
  5. Familiarity – the same self sabotaging behaviors are often familiar to a person.  People who procrastinate typically do so throughout their lives rather than only once or twice.
  6. Boredom – a bit of self sabotage can bring some desired drama into your life.

I have spoken with many people who experience some sort of mental illness, and a lot of them state that as they begin to feel well, they do things that can damage this feeling.  They may stop taking medication, stop doing self care that they know works, or start using drugs or alcohol. People don’t do this because they want to be unwell, but rather for one of the reasons listed above.

Someone with depression, for example, may become so used to the life they live when they are depressed that they want the familiarity of it back, even if they had been working to get their depression under control.

Someone with a mental illness may also self sabotage for control over their illness.  While our illnesses may ebb and flow, they are often something we will deal with for life.  Starting to feel healthy can be scary, because you know that there will likely be another drop into active illness eventually.  Not knowing when or how severe it may be can make someone to decide it is easier to control the illness by self sabotaging in some way.

I am not saying that any of these actions are done on purpose.  While they may be for some, for the vast majority of people I have spoken with, it wasn’t until after it started happening that they noticed it.  Often it’s not until someone has descended back into active illness and talk with a therapist do they realize what happened.

It can often be difficult to determine if something is self sabotage or a resurgence of symptoms.  For example, if someone is sleeping too much, it can be tough to parse out if they were sleeping too much due to their mental illness, or if their mental illness became active again because they were sleeping too much.  Because it can be so difficult to figure out, it is best to talk to a professional as quickly as possible if you notice anything like that happening.

Self sabotage is often a part of life for students and workers alike.  It is important that we learn to recognize when it is happening so we can beat it before it beats us.


  1. Speechless … Exceptionally moving, your words effect me deeply and with such a longing for such acceptance of myself, yet I find myself saddened, for I could not dare to believe I might be as lucky to find this connection. I am falling, yet today seem to be stumbling across blog after blog that has been touching some deep place long ago deadened. Thank you

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  2. As I read over the list of reasons why people self sabotage, I found myself nodding at some of the behaviors. I have spoken with various therapists about my tendency to self-sabotage–especially in regards to social settings, which is an area of continued struggle for me–but none of them offered as concise and accessible an explanation as you did in this post. Thanks for sharing!

    P.S. In case you were wondering, my motivations of choice are control, for sure; perceived fraudulence, though that has lessened; and familiarity–which I suppose was inevitable given my history. Hopefully having a name to call these triggers will help disrupt the process.

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