7 Signs of Self-Sabotage

7 Signs of Self-Sabotage


By Amy

Have you ever had one of those days when you just cannot make anything work?  You wake up late and this sets you up to miss half of your morning routine.  This leaves you feeling a bit irritated and spacy, which casts a negative light on the rest of your day.  You might give in to this feeling and quit trying to be productive, or feel helpless as everything you try to do comes out wrong.

Everyone has days like that.  But what if you can not get out of your own way, no matter how hard you try?  If you find that most of your days are one of those days, you are probably sabotaging yourself.  Wrecking your own potential successes is not just a harmless byproduct of low self-esteem.  Self-sabotage can take a huge toll on your relationships, health, finances, and career.  

This article explores some of the ways self-sabotage can hurt not only your life but your mental health.  We are taking this from a psychology-oriented perspective to help you understand the thoughts and emotions that create self-sabotage so you can get to the root of the issue.  If you can relate to any of these signs, please do not take this feedback as an attack on your character.  This article was meant to be a self-improvement guide for those of you who have been feeling a little stuck.  

Let’s take a look at 7 major signs of self-sabotage.

  1. You’re too hard on yourself.  

Are you constantly putting yourself down or picking apart everything you do?  Are you able to let your mistakes go, or do you replay everything you did wrong?  Do you focus more on your failures than your successes?  If any of this sounds familiar, you could be sabotaging yourself by being too perfectionistic.

Self-oriented perfectionism—or the belief that you need to be perfect no matter what—often leaves the person who needs to be perfect feeling like they will never be good enough.  This is because the end goal of perfection is often unrealistic.  Not surprisingly, constantly feeling as though who and what you are never measure up leads to lower self-esteem and higher feelings of failure (Duarte et al, 2017).  Being overly self-critical or perfectionistic can also hurt your mental health, resulting in:

  • Fear of making mistakes.  One of the features of self-oriented perfectionism is being overly critical of your mistakes.  This can easily get out of hand, resulting in you not wanting to make a move for fear of doing something wrong.
  • Unrealistic expectations.  Part of perfectionism is raising the bar, expecting more and more of yourself.  You might be thinking, “But if goal-setting is good, then what’s the problem?” These expectations become problematic for your mental health when they stop being based on your real strengths and limitations.
  • Feeling lonely and less satisfied in your relationships.  Warren (2016) reported people who self-identified as having perfectionist traits are less likely to participate in activities (Warren et al, 2016).  Self-oriented perfectionists are also less likely to feel fully connected in relationships (Warren et al, 2016).
  • Feeling less than others or hopeless.  Just like having unrealistic expectations, feelings of hopelessness or inferiority tend to be byproducts of self-oriented perfectionism (Lessin and Pardo, 2017).  The negative self-talk, rigid thinking, and unrealistic expectations that come with perfectionism often result in feeling defeated and less capable than others.  
  • More depression.  Anyone who has ever struggled with depression can relate to feelings of inferiority or hopelessness, self-blame, and negative self-talk.  Research has shown high levels of perfectionism make someone more vulnerable to developing depression, as well as make the symptoms of depression worse (Ferrari et al, 2018).
  • More anxiety.  If some of the signs of perfectionism sound like anxiety, that is because there is a strong link between the two (Lessin and Pardo, 2017).  Having high levels of self-oriented perfectionism often makes individuals more likely to develop:
    • Social anxiety disorder (Lessin and Pardo, 2017)
    • Panic disorder (Lessin and Pardo, 2017)
    • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) (Lessin and Pardo, 2017) 

If you can relate to any of these signs of perfectionism or how it can hold you back, perhaps it is time for you to think about whether these high expectations are worth your mental health.  The good news is research has shown mindfulness and self-compassion can help counteract the negative effects of self-oriented perfectionism (Warren et al, 2016).  Here are a few simple ways you can practice mindfulness and self-compassion every day:

  • Talk to yourself the same way you would speak to a good friend.  If being your own worst critic sounds like something you do, try this journal activity for a month:  
  • Think about what you say to yourself, about yourself.  Write down everything you remember saying to yourself, about yourself.  Do you judge yourself harshly, or call yourself names?  How does it feel when you look at this list?
  • Now think about what you would say to a friend in the same situation.  Write down what you would say to a friend next to or underneath what you said to yourself.  How are these statements similar?  How are they different?
    • Now rewrite the positive statements on your list, using your name instead of your friend’s.  Take a minute to think about how that felt.
  • Use an unsent letter ritual.  A huge part of perfectionism is not being able to forgive yourself for making mistakes.  Writing a forgiveness letter to yourself will allow you to explore your mistakes objectively, yet compassionately.  You can burn the letters to let go of any negative feelings you have, or you can keep them as a reminder that you deserve compassion.  No matter what you do with the final product, make sure the letter includes:
    • Something you like or respect about yourself.
    • How you should have shown respect for yourself and your boundaries in that situation.
    • How you would like to show respect for yourself in the future.
    • What you are willing to forgive yourself for in that particular situation.
    • At least one lesson you learned from that situation.
  • Be kind to your body.  Unfortunately, emphasizing flaws gives a lot of perfectionists a negative body image.  Having a little compassion and gratitude for your body can go a long way towards developing a healthier body image.  Here are a couple of ways to be kind to your body on a daily basis:
    • Practice mindful eating for at least one meal per day.
    • Use a short gratitude meditation as you practice your normal hygiene routine.
    • Keep a gratitude list of things you like about your body and how it works.  Try to find at least one positive thing each day.
  • Observe your breathing.  There are several mindfulness meditation videos on YouTube.  You can use one of those videos, or download a free meditation app.
  • Make time to connect with your senses.  We take how hard our senses work for granted.  Reconnecting with your senses is a quick way to practice mindfulness and self-compassion on a daily basis.  All you need to do is take note of one thing you smell, taste, hear, see, and feel each day.  You can even write this in a journal as a daily prompt.

Would you like a video on how perfectionism affects your mental health?  Are you a perfectionist?  Leave a comment below and tell us about it.

  1. You’re quick to point out the negative.  

We all know a pessimist.  They are the sibling or friend who seems so surprised when their plans work out well.  They might be the coworker who always seems to point out the worst-case scenario for any new system.  Or the pessimist in your life might be that super cute person you went on a few dates with, that refuses to believe you are into them.  

No matter who the pessimist is in your life, it can be a little challenging to be around them at times.  But what if you are the pessimist in your life?  If you are not sure, consider these signs that maybe you tend to see the glass as half empty:

  • You don’t go after your dreams.  Rejection hurts.  Not getting your heart’s desire can be crushing.  However, you are only holding yourself back when you no longer see the point in trying.
  • You are the first one to see the negative in a good situation.  Seeing both sides of a situation is healthy.  So is taking the bad with the good.  However, going out of your way to pick a situation apart until you find the flaws is a surefire way to stay stuck.
  • You automatically assume a relationship will not work.  Do you get into relationships, but often find yourself wondering when or how it will end?  Or maybe many of your exes have said they never feel like they knew you.  If this sounds familiar, you could be sabotaging your relationships with your pessimistic outlook.

Pessimism doesn’t just sabotage your goals and your relationships, but it can also be bad for your health (Pankalainen et al, 2016).  Researchers followed 2815 people over the span of 11 years to see if there is a link between your outlook and your health (Pankalainen et al, 2016).  They found that people who described themselves as “pessimistic” or “more pessimistic” at the start of the study were 2.2 times more likely to die of coronary heart disease than the more neutral or optimistic participants (Pankalainen et al, 2016).  

  1. You wait until the last minute.

Of all the things on this list, procrastination may be the most relatable.  Who hasn’t waited until the night before to write a paper?  Can anyone relate to waiting until the week before a holiday to make preparations?  Procrastination—or putting off a task until the eleventh hour, even though waiting might make things a bit complicated—is easy to do if you are feeling overwhelmed, tired, mentally drained, or just plain lazy.  Avoiding a task because you just do not feel into it is normal from time to time.  However, giving in to that meh feeling on a regular basis can hold you back in many areas of your life (Beutel et al, 2016).  Researchers have noticed people who describe themselves as regular procrastinators report:

  • Higher stress levels (Mohammad, 2017).
  • Being less likely to seek medical treatment when they experience distressing symptoms (Mohammad, 2017).
  • High levels of depression and anxiety (Beutel et al, 2016).
  • They are less likely to be in a relationship (Beutel et al, 2016).
  • Low energy (Beutel et al, 2016).
  • Being dissatisfied with how they do at work and school (Beutel et al, 2016).

If procrastination is so bad, why do so many people do it?  Mental health professionals have noticed people tend to procrastinate for a few of the same reasons:

  • They tend to come from a strict household and see procrastination as the only way to rebel (Mohammad, 2017).
  • They tend to be impulsive (Mohammad, 2017).
  • They have a hard time with self-regulation and managing their time (Mohammad, 2017).
  • They have underlying issues with depression, anxiety, or ADHD (Mohammad, 2017).
  • They feel waiting until the last minute makes them more creative and productive (Mohammad, 2017).

If you can relate to serial procrastination, it may be time to think about how this might be affecting your life.  An effective way to do this is to incorporate a SWOT analysis into your daily journaling routine.  SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.  This type of analysis helps business and financial professionals figure out whether a decision will benefit them.  In order to figure out whether it is worth it for you to keep procrastinating, think about the last couple of times you procrastinated and write the following in your journal:

  • Strengths: What are the strengths of procrastination?  What does it do for you?  How did it help you in those situations?
  • Weaknesses: What are the weaknesses of procrastination?  How does procrastination hurt you?  How did it mess up those situations?
  • Opportunities: What are opportunities that were created by you procrastinating?  How did procrastinating make future opportunities for you in those situations?
  • Threats: What areas of your life does procrastination threaten?  How did procrastination threaten your goals in those situations?

Do any of you Psych2Go-ers procrastinate?  Why do you think you do it?  Tell us more about your experiences with procrastination—and any tips you have to overcome it—in the comments.

  1. You’re disorganized.

Have you ever had one of those mornings?  Your alarm didn’t go off and now you have to brush your teeth in the shower to save time.  Great.  Now you cannot find your keys.  That’s another five minutes of your life behind the eight ball.  Not having your stuff together can create a negative domino effect on the rest of your day.

What happens when this sort of chaos is your normal?  If you constantly feel like your life is all over the place, you might be sabotaging yourself in several ways.  The most obvious ways being a little scattered can mess you up include:

  • Constantly being late or missing deadlines.
  • Not being taken as seriously as you might want.
  • Lower self-esteem.
  • You lose things that you actually want and need.
  • You waste a lot of time catching up when you’re always running late.
  • You waste money on replacing things and not knowing what you actually have.
  • More stress and anxiety.
  • Being passed over for opportunities.

Although perfectionism and complete organization are associated with disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and autism, research shows clutter and disorganization also affect your mental health.  Research shows too much disorganization and clutter can make people feel stressed and uncomfortable (Langeslag, 2018).  Saxbe and Repetti (2010) found that people who describe their homes as “cluttered” tended to have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Saxbe and Repetti, 2010).  High levels of cortisol over time have been linked to health conditions, such as inflammation and high blood pressure (Saxbe and Repetti, 2010). Here are some other ways being in a constant state of disarray can hurt you:

  • The out-of-control feeling that comes with being disorganized can lead to eating more in a sitting or emotional eating (Vartanian et al, 2016).
  • Increased feelings of depression and hopelessness (Saxbe and Repetti, 2010).
  • Difficulty relaxing during downtime (Saxbe and Repetti, 2010).
  • Increased symptoms in people diagnosed with anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Saxbe and Repetti, 2010).

Have you ever wondered if disorganized people are born or made?  It turns out that being disorganized might be just as much nature as it is nurture.  Part of getting and staying organized boils down to your capacity for visual memory (Gaspar et al, 2016).  Researchers believe the amount of working memory your brain can handle can predict how much fluid intelligence you have and how well you will do at some cognitive functions (Gaspar et al, 2016).  Although the exact part of the brain responsible is unknown, research has shown the ability to block out distraction explains differences in visual memory (Gaspar et al, 2016).  This research may partially explain why individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often have difficulty keeping themselves organized.

The good news is you can learn to be more organized, regardless of your brain’s capacity for working memory.  All it takes is a few simple tricks you can do any time.  Here are some tips to get organized:

  • Keep only what you need.  Experts believe people keep two types of clutter: the stuff they think they will use someday and the stuff that brings back memories (Doheny, 2020).  Make a list of your “someday stuff” and the things you hold onto for sentimental value. Then rate the importance of each item from zero to 10, with 10 representing “most important.”  If an item is below a “6”, you don’t need it.
  • Make yourself a daily chart.  Remember those sticker charts when you first started school?  Since being organized is partially a function of visual memory, having a chart could help.  You can even give yourself the opportunity to earn small rewards—such as extra self-care, movies, or a coffee—which may help give you the motivation to stay on track.
  • Know when to ask for help.  Taking on too much makes it difficult to stay organized.  Not asking for help is one way that we keep too much on our plates.
  • Fight clutter daily.  Set your timer for five or ten minutes every day, then use this time to deal with clutter in some area of your living or work space.

But what about you, Psych2Go-ers?  How does being disorganized affect your life?  Do you think there’s a link between being disorganized and your mental health?  

  1. You feel like a phony.

How many of you checked out our article on impostor syndrome?  If you have, then you already know the main symptoms (Leonard, 2018):

  • Constantly feeling not good enough.
  • Not feeling comfortable doing extra.
  • Doubting yourself and your abilities.
  • Not taking credit for your successes.
  • Self-sabotage.
  • Not feeling satisfied in your job or school program.
  • Not asking for raises or rewards you have earned.
  • Setting unrealistic goals.

Although many people use it as motivation to work harder, feeling like a phony can lead to some serious self-sabotage.  Here are some examples of how the symptoms of impostor syndrome might be holding you back:

  • You do not try for jobs, promotions, roles, or relationships you want.
  • You do not reach out to others because you often feel as if nobody wants to hear what you have to say.
  • You do not honor your own boundaries or speak up for yourself when others treat you badly.
  • You often “play it small” because you feel like others are just putting up with you during meetings, conversations, parties, or family functions.
  • Others might miss your good points because you always downplay them.
  • You tend not to finish what you start because your goals are too lofty.

Impostor syndrome is more common than you think and involves more than just low self-esteem.  Mental health professionals believe approximately 70 percent of all people will have at least one bout of impostor syndrome in their lives (Leonard, 2018).  

  1. You overdo it.

Have you ever seen the Jim Carrey movie The Yes Man?  Here is a quick synopsis: The main character is a bit of a grouchy hermit.  His pessimism pushes his wife away, pushes his friends away, and poisons him at work.  A well-meaning friend takes him to a Tony Robbins seminar, where he is pressured into saying ‘yes’ to everything that comes his way.  Zany hijinks and feel-good lessons ensue.

A smoother work life, better friendships, and being happier overall sound great.  If all you have to do is accept every last opportunity and obligation thrown at you, what could go wrong?  It turns out, constantly doing—and being—extra can take a toll on your mental health.

German researcher Silja Bellingrath studied the tendency to do way too much in otherwise healthy school teachers over the course of a few years.  Much of this research centered around the coping pattern of overcommitment, or taking on more activities and responsibilities than you can reasonably handle.  Here are a few key findings:

  • Most of these teachers felt the reward they got was way smaller than the amount of time and energy they spent on their obligations (Bellingrath et al, 2008).
  • Guilt and feeling unable to walk away are often at the heart of overcommitment (Bellingrath et al, 2008).
  • The participants who most felt like the rewards were not worth their efforts had the highest levels of inflammation and the most weakened immune systems (Bellingrath et al, 2008).
  • Feeling like the reward is not worth the effort is directly related to the way participants’ hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axes responded to mental and emotional stress (Bellingrath and Kudielka, 2008).

The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is a big deal when it comes to your mental and physical health because it produces the main stress hormone, cortisol (Zorn et al, 2017).  There are a ton of studies that show how too much cortisol affects your body, but having too much of the stress hormone in your system for too long is also bad for your mental health.  Prolonged cortisol exposure has been linked to major depressive disorder (MDD) and social anxiety disorder (SAD) (Zorn et al, 2017).

Overcommitment leads to self-sabotage in a variety of ways.  For example:

  • Taking on too much leads to not being able to finish everything you start.
  • The feelings of guilt and obligation associated with overcommitment make it difficult to speak up for yourself or set healthy boundaries.
  • Overcommitment sets you up to constantly put yourself last, which just makes stress worse.
  • Overcommitment leaves you open to constantly being asked to do just one more thing, give just a little more, or help out just one more time.  It doesn’t matter what else you have going in your life because you helped out before.  Why not now?

Can you relate to always feeling like you have to do a little more?  If you believe this might be you, it could help you to understand why you over-commit.  A quick way to get to the bottom of it is to try the Five Whys activity from the think tank at Toyota and Marie Kondo’s bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up:

  • Think about the last time you did something out of guilt or obligation, regardless of whether you had enough time or energy to do it.  Write down the situation in your journal in one or two sentences.
  • Ask yourself why you did this.  Write down the reason in one or two sentences.  
  • Again, ask yourself why.  Repeat this process five times without judging any of your responses.
  • Now look at your responses and notice any patterns.  Do you see a pattern of trying to appear a certain way to others?  Or do you see a pattern of insecurity?  Perhaps you don’t feel like you have the right to say no.
  • Now list at least one thing you can do differently and commit to an amount of time you are willing to do this.  For example, you can commit to only picking up three shifts for your coworkers per month.  Or you can make a deal with yourself to only volunteer to help others if you perform at least two acts of self-care that day.

No matter why you find yourself doing too much, only you can say whether you want to stop over-committing.  How many Psych2Go-ers can relate to over-committing?  Do you want to know more about this and how it can affect you?  Tell us about your story in the comments.

  1. You are burned out.  

Think about all of the roles you play in your life.  You are a son or daughter, a friend, a student, a coworker, a partner, a pet owner, and maybe even a parent.  Sometimes these roles can make you happy, like when you snuggle with your dog while watching a movie.  Sometimes these roles can be challenging, like when you are under a lot of pressure at work. 

Now think about how much work you put into each role you play in your life.  How does this make you feel?  If some area of your life makes you feel constantly tired or like there is always one more obstacle or complication, this can get frustrating.  Living in a constant state of stress and exhaustion can lead to what psychiatrists call burnout (Scott, 2020).  Here are a couple of signs that you have hit the burnout stage (Scott, 2020):

  • Dealing with that part of your life makes you feel isolated.  This can mean you don’t speak up at meetings, or that you find reasons to leave family dinners early.  As uncomfortable as these feelings of alienation are, there may be an important message in them.
  • The dread gets physical.  Do you get headaches on the way to physics class or your job?  Maybe you get a little nauseous when a certain friend or family member calls.  Do not ignore the headaches, stomachaches, indigestion, or weird physical symptoms you are feeling.  They might be telling you to pump the brakes and think about how much effort you are putting into this.
  • You feel drained or wacky.  If you constantly get panic attacks or anxiety when your alarm is about to go off, you may have hit the burnout stage.  Other emotional states associated with burnout include exhaustion, anger or annoyance, and feeling completely out of control.
  • You might start messing up.  Have you been a little forgetful lately?  Maybe you have been making more mistakes than usual at work.  It makes total sense that the physical, mental, and emotional signs of burnout would make you less sharp than you’d like.  If you or the people around you have noticed you have been less together lately, it might be time to think about what is making you so stressed.  

Living with burnout feels like constantly trudging through wet concrete or trying to drive a car with no oil.  The constant stress and exhaustion from burnout can lead to some serious self-sabotage on a few levels.  Salvagiano (2017) identified the following ways not dealing with burnout can hurt you (Salvagiano et al, 2017):

  • Physical illnesses.  Unchecked burnout has been known to make physical ailments—including Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, respiratory illnesses, and gastrointestinal problems—worse.  Research also shows that the inflammation associated with chronic stress can weaken the immune system and make chronic pain even more pronounced (Salvagiano et al, 2017).
  • Mental illnesses.  Allowing burnout to go untreated has been shown to make symptoms of depression, anxiety, and trauma disorders more overwhelming.  Also, burnout can make you more vulnerable to developing these issues (Salvagiano et al, 2017).  
  • Damaging your relationships.  The mental and emotional symptoms of burnout often manifest in some unpleasant ways, such as cynicism, not connecting with others, making self-deprecating statements, less satisfaction with relationships
  • Hurts your finances.  The emotional and relational symptoms of burnout often wind up messing with your ability to do your best.  Here’s how:
    • You might call off more due to illness or exhaustion.
    • You might make more mistakes.
    • The constant feeling of detachment might make you switch jobs more often.
    • Your low energy or cynical comments might give others the wrong idea about you. 
    • Making mistakes at work might lead to being written up or put on probation.

As you can see, burnout is no joke!  The good news is that you can change this.  All you need to do is commit to a few daily changes.  Here are a few things you can do on a daily basis to combat burnout:

  • Get at least a few minutes of exercise daily, even if it’s a 10-minute walk.
  • Take five minutes a day to check in with yourself.  You can use a quick feelings check-in or start writing in a journal.
  • Commit to putting your phone away at least 15 minutes before you go to bed.
  • Limit your time on social media.
  • Try guided meditation.  There are several great phone apps or YouTube videos to help you get started.
  • Think about setting better boundaries.  Let us know in the comments if you want an article or video on setting boundaries.
  • Consider making changes to your diet.
  • Talk to a professional, if you feel like your burnout is taking over your life.
  • Make sure you connect with a positive person daily, even if this means exchanging random emojis with a friend.
  • Spend some time outside daily.  This could mean hiking or eating your lunch in the park when the weather permits.

But we want to hear from you.  Can you relate to anything on this list?  How do you deal with burnout?  Tell us about your experiences—or any part of burnout that you want to know more about—in the comments.

So Where Do You Go From Here?

Most of you can probably relate to most things on this list from time to time.  These are all normal thoughts, feelings and behaviors.  However, if you think anything on this list describes you most of the time, you owe it to yourself to think about what might be contributing to you getting in your own way.  This article contains a few quick tips to combat self-sabotage, but here are a couple of other hints:

  • Identify how you are sabotaging yourself.  You cannot fix what you don’t recognize.  A little mindfulness and a daily check-in can help you see where you might be holding yourself back.  Grab a journal or journaling app and write down:
    • At least one thing you said or thought about yourself that day (your self-talk).
    • What your schedule was like.  Were you bored out of your mind, or was there barely any time to breathe?
    • At least one success or something that went smoothly that day.  How did you react to this?  Were you proud of yourself or did you pass it off as a fluke?
    • At least one thing that was challenging or did not go as planned.  How did you react to this?
    • Rate your stress level from 1 to 10, with 10 meaning “most stressful”.  What made you give this rating?  What happened?  How did you handle your stress that day?
  • Find time for at least one self-care act daily.  Although it is not always practical to get a massage or go to a movie, even doing a guided meditation or a 10 minute yoga session can help you hit the Reset button.  Browse the Psych2Go site for easily doable self-care tips.
  • Work on how you talk to yourself.  If you have ever lived with any sort of depression or anxiety, you know how negative the things you say to yourself, about yourself can get.  Self-sabotage is often a reaction to taking on your negative self-talk as truth.  If you’re nodding your head at this, consider doing affirmations or a self-care mantra.  You can learn more about how this works in this 2018 Psych2Go article.
  • Don’t be afraid to change things up.  Even small, daily changes will add up to healthier habits.  You just have to commit to making at least one positive change daily.  This can look like picking up the clutter in your house for five minutes a day or setting a boundary and sticking to it.  Don’t worry about doing it perfectly from the start.  Like all habits, healthy patterns get stronger with practice.
  • Talk to someone.  If you feel like a mental health issue—such as depression, trauma, anxiety, or bipolar disorder—is at the root of your self-sabotage, reach out to a professional.  Most areas have low-cost or sliding scale options.  Check with your insurance company, county crisis line, university counseling clinic, or referral line for more information.

Just know that no matter how you choose to deal with self-sabotage, you are worth the effort.  

But what are your thoughts?  Is there anything here you could relate to, or want to see in a video?  Please ask your questions—or tell us your experience with self-sabotage—in the comments.

Please don’t be afraid to reach out to an online community, other Psych2go-ers, a friend, or a qualified professional if it becomes too much.  Remember, there is help out there!


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