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Self-sabotage or seeking perfection... why we do it and can we stop?

Updated: Apr 17, 2022

By Karen Delk

Published Saturday, April 27, 2013

Self-sabotage - what is it? Self-sabotage is when we say we want something then we make sure it doesn't happen. It is the thing we do that holds us back and keeps us from being our best selves.

What are the reasons we self-sabotage? It is a defense mechanism that we trigger to protect ourselves. When it is overplayed, self-sabotage is the enemy within.

The reason I bring it up is in work situations it can be a distraction in moderate doses but if it is overplayed, it can derail your career plans if you are not mindful of it. Self-sabotage happens when we get in our own way. There are some of us who self sabotage repeatedly with behaviors that overindulge in eating, drinking, spending, shopping, being too humble, or procrastinating. We do it in a misguided attempt to resolve our own negative feelings.

Have you slowed down your progress in the name of perfection? Do you realize you may be self-sabotaging?

Five common self-sabotaging behaviors:

  1. Focusing on what is not working in your life. Constant focus on what is not working right, means you focus on dissatisfaction. This is not balanced and causes you to see the glass as empty and not working. You may make harsh judgments about yourself and not notice some of the good things happening in your life. There are times when focusing on what is not working help you make improvements but to do that constantly can stifle your sense of purpose and ambition.

  2. Avoiding your feelings by putting obstacles in the way because you fear what may happen if you engage with others. Many people fear being rejected. To avoid addressing your fear, you may create situations to cause drama and chaos to instigate new problems or unsettle relationships. As you look for comfort, you estrange yourself from others to avoid conflict.

  3. Procrastination is another common form of self-sabotage. Procrastination is the space between your intention and your action. You may want something but fail to take action to make it happen. You procrastinate by being distracted, indecisive, or making excuses when the delay can be harmful. There are many reasons you procrastinate, generally to delay making a decision.

  4. Appearing humble by apologizing or worse talking negatively about yourself in hopes that others will speak up on your behalf. Self-sabotage can be in the form of negative self-talk or speaking to others and putting yourself down. Behaviors include customarily putting yourself down, apologizing, or undervaluing your skills when none of these behaviors are necessary. Whether you participate in negative self-talk or put yourself down and identify that as being humble, both have harmful effects.

  5. Resisting change or being indecisive. Change involves doing something new. Taking a risk to do it a different way. If you revert back to what you normally do, that can be self-sabotage. You continue doing the behavior you say you want to stop. You look for comfort by indulging in over-eating, drinking, spending, or shopping. Declare you want to do something new. Change is how you grow.

Five ways to recognize self-sabotage and ways to stop it

Have awareness of self-judgment. It is a major form of self-sabotage. Learn to temper your voice of self-criticism. It is important to assess how your presentation, meeting, or networking went. It is healthy to do that and to ask others their thoughts. Learn to have a balance and identify three positive actions for two negative actions.

Make effort as important as the outcomes. Review how you prepared, who you enlisted to support you, how you collaborated, and if you are sharing the success with others. Perfection is not always possible but you can still enjoy the process to get something done.

Understand that mistakes and failures do not define you but give you information you can use the next time you prepare for your work. Instead of avoiding getting started, adopt a do-it-now attitude and break tasks into small chunks. Begin seeing failure as a setback, it is not permanent unless you quit trying. Sooner and in smaller doses you will accomplish your goals.

Find ways to assess your feelings and be honest with yourself. It is important to acknowledge and embrace feelings that may be painful. Acknowledgment is the first step to healing. Concealing those feelings and avoiding them, will not help you. You develop more resilience when you can discuss the situation and not be afraid of being honest with yourself.

Decide that you want to develop strength and resilience rather than self-sabotage. When you feel a self-sabotaging behavior is about to occur, take time to assess the Pros and Cons of doing and not doing the self-sabotaging behavior. Create a Self Sabotage grid similar to the one below to fill in the benefits or Pros or the negatives or Cons as you can. Assess what triggers cause you to self-sabotage. Look at the situations, emotions, thoughts, people, and feelings that occur. Take your time creating the list, review it after a day and add more items to it. This will help to guide your decision to continue the self-sabotage or to change direction for the long-term payoff. For example, you have to create a presentation and deliver it in a week. What are the pros and cons long term of doing it?

Pros and Cons of Self Sabotaging Behavior



  • ​Not rushed in writing the presentation

  • Have time to research the subject

  • ​Under time constraints to write

  • Research may not be as thorough or accurate

  • Have time to edit

  • Have time to practice the presentation

  • ​Panic with too many deadlines

  • Easily distracted with little accomplished

The more you recognize self-sabotage, and understand how it is holding you back, the more you can overcome it. Reducing the frequency of self-sabotaging behavior is the best way to get you where you want to go.

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