What Causes Self-sabotaging Behavior and How You Can Stop It

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Self-sabotage is hard to identify

Self-sabotage is a common theme for even the most astute and self-controlled person, let alone the rest of us. I speak for myself when I say I know how easy it is to push aside the importance of my thoughts and actions. I often don’t realise, until afterwards, the expense of my sabotaging habits. 

Self-sabotage can be a dangerous, invisible, and controlling force that seems to steer our lives into a direction we aren’t comfortable with.  Sometimes we don’t even notice where we are going until we wake up one day and say to ourselves, “How did I get here?” 

When we try to identify what our sabotaging habits are, it’s difficult. Where do we start? We have trouble pinning any one idea or thought into a cohesive action plan. The root of the issues hide from us. Getting to the root of ourselves feels impossible, intrusive, and sometimes even destructive, especially if we are dealing with an identity (ego) issue. 

What exactly is self-sabotage? What causes self-sabotaging behavior?

In this article I’ll do my best to address this uncomfortable topic, and hopefully unravel the mystery surrounding our all-too-familiar enemy. I also hope to give some practical tips for dealing with self-sabotage and reducing its presence in your life. 

the cause of self-sabotage

Recognising the enemy

We can recognise self-sabotage many times in hindsight.  

Looking back, we can see times where we hesitated and missed out on something, or when we realised if we had stuck with something for a few more weeks or months, we would have seen the results we so greatly desired. 

Self-sabotage is when we undermine ourselves, often unknowingly. It’s when we make achieving something more difficult than it should be. It’s when we undo the good we have previously done. It’s when we set ourselves up for failure from the very beginning. 

It’s the invisible eraser in life. All our efforts, thoughts, hard work, energy, direction – gone! Blown up in smoke because something in us decided, Nope, not this time. I’m stopping this now. Self-sabotage is a subconscious reaction that’s in place because it thinks it’s protecting us. 

Self-sabotage demands a very high price on a person’s life – on their relationships, on their fulfillment, and on their joy. 

The consequences of self-sabotage appear uniquely for everyone, but there are some similar manifestations. Sometimes it is a small consequence, sometimes it is a massive consequence. Maybe you can sense some of the following scenarios in your own life… 

Self-sabotage can manifest as stress, anxiety, and negative self-talk. It can be apathetic procrastination, obstinate laziness, or having a million excuses for why you do or do not do something. It can also look like blaming others, pointing at what they should have done without looking at what you could have done. There are many other ways we can self-sabotage in our relationships, our careers and other areas of our lives. 

Why on earth would we stop ourselves from achieving something good, succeeding in life, or being happy? Who in their right mind would do this to themselves? 

The truth is, when we self-sabotage we are subconsciously relieving a pressure we feel; we are trying to protect ourselves from a perceived danger. How and what we perceive as a danger comes from our worldview, our experiences and the way we interpret the world around us, so these dangers are incredibly unique to the individual. 

Self-sabotaging is something that happens whether we are aware of it or not, and too many times we simply do not understand that sabotage is at play, and that we are the saboteur. It boils down to our true motivations, and what we need most. 

Understanding our needs

Inalienable is a word I’ve really only ever heard in the American Constitution. I discovered that what it means is a truly beautiful concept. Inalienable describes something that is non-transferable and that can never be taken away from its possessor. 

Our human needs are inalienable. They are non-transferable, irreplaceable and innate. We have physical needs such as eating, sleeping and exercise. When these needs are not met we risk, in the best case scenario, a physically painful existence, and in the worst case scenario, no existence at all. 

I won’t pretend to fully understand the psyche of humans, as I am not a qualified therapist or expert in any sense of the word. But I will endeavour to speak about the mind and how we think with as much authority as I speak on exercise, eating healthy and other needs of the body, backed up by studies and theories that I reference. 

As far as I can see, our mind has an equality of needs with our physical body. Psychology has explored this topic extensively and I am impressed with the articulation of human needs by three theories, namely Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Alderfer’s ERG Theory (which builds upon Maslow’s hierarchy), and Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory.

In my research, I found five other theories (and I am sure there are others) on self-determination, motivation and human needs. So we can understand a little more about the why’swhy we do certain things and why we do not do certain things – I’ve spent some time delving into the three most pertinent theories for understanding self-sabotage. 

Although these theories disagree with each other on minor issues, the bottom line remains that human beings have physical and psychological needs that must be met in order to exist healthy and happily

The differences in these three theories are mainly in the acquisition of each need. Maslow states that the lower levels of physical need must be met before a person can meet their needs at the higher levels of the hierarchy. The Existence, Relatedness, and Growth (ERG) theory builds upon Maslow’s pyramid and condenses the hierarchy into three needs, which still have an order of acquisition. 

Maslow’s Needs

Alderfer’s ERG Theory





Social Needs

Safety Needs


Physiological Needs

The last theory is the Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory which presents the argument that psychological needs are as innate to humans as are our physiological needs. 

The focus I’m taking from these studies is that our psychological needs are as powerful and innate and insatiable as our needs for sex, food, sleep, and breath. 

Meeting our needs 

The needs of Maslow’s Hierarchy are:

Physiological, Safety, Love and Belonging, Esteem, and Self-actualization.

The ERG model condenses those needs into just three, labelled:

Existence, Relatedness, and Growth.

The needs presented in the Self-determination theory, not presented in any particular order, are:

Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness 

Our needs may appear identical to other people’s needs, but it’s not one shoe fits all. What makes individuals 100% unique is why certain needs are not being met properly and how you need them to be met. No one else has the same why or how’s as you. 

If these inherent and unique needs of ours aren’t met properly, we go about trying to meet them. Our needs change and vary over time and the way we try to fulfill our needs also changes over time. Sometimes we can fulfill our needs in functional healthy ways, and sometimes we fulfill our needs with dysfunctional and unhealthy ways. 

The different theories explain the effects of certain needs not being sufficiently met slightly differently. For instance the Maslow theory says that when a person does meet the lower hierarchy needs, he is unable to achieve or successfully meet the higher up needs, such as personal growth and/or interdependence. 

The Reci self-determination theory postulates that when one need isn’t met, then another need is more likely to be lacking, and similarly when one need is met, then another is more likely to be satisfied. This in turn determines whether someone is more likely to be motivated into action. 

An example of self-sabotage

Let’s look at an example. Meet Bill, who has all of his physiological and safety needs met. He finds himself longing to meet his need for Relatedness and Love and belonging.  

He could do this a few ways, but the most natural way for him is for him to fit in and belong at his new workplace. He wants to belong and to matter.  In an effort to fulfill that innate need, Bill begins putting more and more time into work, overtime and time spent with colleagues out-of-hours. 

This may be fine for some other people, but for Bill, it is impacting his home life with his family. And it ultimately may not be the healthiest way for him to meet that need of Relatedness and Belonging

In this instance, Bill may receive healthier and more joy-giving Love and Belonging from his family or his friends. For some reason though, his brain reasons that focusing on one area of his life and possibly neglecting another area of his life is not sabotage, but instead the right thing to do. 

Our needs will always remain with us. (Remember, inalienable.) The thing we need to  be responsible for – as much as possible – is our response to our needs. If we want to stop self-sabotaging, we need to begin understanding why we view the world around us and why we make certain decisions which go on to impact our lives.


Demystifying WHY we do things

We tend to self-sabotage when our perception of the world around us is a little more skewed than it should be. It comes down to how we interpret our environment, people around us, and even our own thoughts. All of this leads back to how the mind develops, how beliefs are formed, and how our subconscious handles events and emotions. 

Our minds take information in through a series of filters, or lenses, that build up over time.  Through them we interpret our reality. These filters are often first put in place by events and experiences that are keyed in with emotion. Often our filters distort or construe reality, or even add or remove things from our perception. 

If we see the world around us through all these filters that do not reflect the truth or objectivity of the matter, then how easy would self-sabotage be? How easy would it be to confirm the story in our minds, to confirm our biases more throughout time?  Our brain gets stuck in a deep rut and we suffer the consequences. 

Meet the subconscious mind

The subconscious mind has a series of specific tasks which are completed methodically, reliably, and perfectly every time. One of those tasks is accepting the information gathered through your conscious mind. Once it receives that data, the subconscious mind writes programs based on that information and then executes them.

The subconscious is the part of you that decides habitually and without conscious thought  – it’s the silent computer that executes programs in the background. 

Imagine your whole mind as a vehicle. Your conscious mind is the front windshield. It’s the aware part of you – your experiences, your conscience, your inner voice, everything you take in. 

Your subconscious is the driver at the wheel, taking cues from the conscious mind and making decisions based on that information. Unfortunately, the information your driver (subconscious) receives from the windshield (conscious mind filled with filters) is often unreliable and flawed. 

Emotions are key

Putting an end to self-sabotage is the same as having your needs met in a way that is healthy for you, and in order to do that, the old filters that interpret reality for you need to be updated or removed. 

The cause of these filters and lenses that cloud our worldview are usually always rooted in emotions

The subconscious uses emotions to trigger the act of writing programs that will run habitually, silently, in the background. If you consciously experience trauma, deep grief or loss, terror, or any other kind of emotional event, the subconscious reads those emotions and begins writing your code. 

This is why after emotional events people often change. People get stuck. It’s what the body and mind does for every single one of us. A feeble reptilian-brained attempt at self-protection.

By reverse-engineering this process of having filters in our conscious mind, we can remove or change the way the subconscious responds, which in turn, enables our conscious mind to be refreshed. 

Hypnotherapy is the medical term for this practice, where a facilitator creates a deeply relaxed state in a person, and then skillfully bridges the gap between the subconscious and the conscious mind, enabling effective communication. 

Working with the conscious mind 

Working with the conscious mind is challenging, slow, and often very emotionally-taxing, since it is the subconscious that is executing all the behavioural and habitual actions.  

The usual steps the conscious work takes is recommending a series of conscious decisions and actions that they hope will filter down deeper. There is also a reliance on many hours, weeks and years of therapy. 

In contrast, working with the subconscious is fast, gentle, and unassuming.

Using emotions to connect effectively, hypnotherapists can access and rewrite the subconscious mind’s programs. The old lenses fall away.  Ancient values, beliefs, and self-sabotaging scripts are deleted. 

In their place new associations (emotions) are expressed which enable a new worldview to be written. The manifestation of this change in subconscious beliefs about yourself  are powerful new thoughts and behaviors.

When your subconscious is updated with new values and new beliefs your inner tug-of-war will be over. 

What Causes self-sabotaging behavior

The conflict between what you want to do and what you actually do is resolved. You are on the same page as yourself. And most importantly, you begin seeing things more objectively and the interpretation of what is healthy for you is actually healthier for you. You become happier because you are meeting your needs in a much more functional way. 

The power that you get from this is unfathomable. 

Where to from here? 

You can find a hypnotherapist to work with, or you can work with yourself. 

Find a hypnotherapist

There are many hypnotherapists who can assist you. They usually all have their own methodologies and differing techniques. Many also combine a few effective techniques to make the process faster, gentler or more effective. 

The work can be done on smaller surface issues, however I believe that the true effectiveness of subconscious work is in the power of getting at the root of the problem. Dealing with superficial issues  will never reap the full benefits or bring about the potential that getting to the cause of self-sabotage will. 

When looking for a hypnotherapist for the purpose of dealing with self-sabotaging habits or thoughts, I’d recommend searching online and doing your research. Do your due diligence.

The few things I would strongly suggest you make a priority when looking for practitioner are the following: 

1) They have a follow-up system for you. Whether it’s a few sessions or just a chat on the phone, I believe it’s important to have them check-in with you in the days and weeks following. It can be a strange feeling settling into a new way of thinking, and review/support is important.

2) They realise their role is to facilitate and not to speak on your behalf. It’s important that you are the one speaking to your subconscious, and you alone. You want to find a hypnotherapist who will prompt you to speak to your subconscious in a relaxed state, as this allows you to speak openly to yourself and tell yourself what only you know you need.

3) They can answer your questions honestly. Don’t be afraid asking them how, or why, if that’s what you need. A good practitioner should always be able to back up what they do with something more than just a story and a “Coz I say so…” 

Ask for credentials, qualifications, and any other forms of peer-review that would make you feel comfortable. Although hypnotherapy and subconscious work is not as widely studied as other parts of health, there are still good resources and studies that enable hypnotherapists to be confident in their practice.  And you deserve that confidence too.

Work with yourself

The essential keys to hypnotherapy are quite debated and complex but for simplicity I will say they are:

1) Trance, or a very relaxed state, and

2) emotional suggestion (something you connect with emotionally). 

There are many times and ways we can enter a relaxed state which allows our conscious mind to essentially be bypassed by some suggestion. 

Although it may be a little difficult identifying exactly where particular needs are lacking, or where you are self-sabotaging, with some self-reflection you may be able to identify how you are feeling, where you are going in life, and whether you think that direction is healthy or unhealthy for you. 

The formula is simple. 1) Be mentally relaxed, and 2) gently allow new thoughts or suggestions into your mind. 

The idea is that your subconscious mind uses the emotional connection to change how you think/see/feel about something, thus changing your behavior and worldview. 

Some practical ways you can enter a relaxed mental state: 

  • Repetitive exercise 
  • Just waking up from sleep
  • As you fall asleep
  • Listening to music
  • Meditation (although this is harder)
  • And many other ways. The key here is to not be engaging your conscious mind and to be able to relax. 

Some practical ways you allow new emotional suggestions in:

  • Firstly, make sure it means something to you, whatever it is. Don’t just pull some random guy’s affirmations off the web and start listening. 
  • After some reflection, you can identify goals and values that mean something to you and verbalise or write them in statements.
  • Speaking in your own voice to yourself is much better than listening in someone’s voice.
  • For example, I identified some values I want to see in my own life in regards to relationships. I care deeply about these values, so I connect emotionally with them. I’ve written down sentences that I feel encapsulate that belief/value and recorded myself saying it calmly. I also put some meaningful and relaxing music in the background of the recording to make it nicer to listen to. I then listened to it as I woke up in the mornings before I got out of bed. 
  • A lot of self-sabotage is how we see ourselves. Self-doubt, self-hatred, low self-worth… . Many times these are the reasons we opt for unhealthy ways of life. We don’t see ourselves as we should, or even as others see us. Telling yourself in a moment of peace and relaxation that you are strong, valuable, resilient, worthwhile, or any other meaningful thing will impact how you see yourself. 

Self talk is incredibly powerful, and increasing the objectivity and effect of empowering and healthy self-talk is always worth it!



Henshaw, S. (2018). How to Change Self-Destructive Behavior: Stages of Change. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-change-self-destructive-behavior-stages-of-change/

Flint, Garry. (2015). The subconscious defined – based on clinical experience. 

Flint, Garry. (2016). Chapters 1 to 3 of A Theory and Treatment of Your Personality. 

Maslow Hierarchy of Basic Life Needs: https://www.worldstudybible.com/pdf/Survival_Lists/Maslows_Hierarchy_of_Needs-2016.pdf





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