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Self-sabotage: there’s a psychological reason why we get in the way of our own success

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Lauren Geall
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Self-sabotage

There’s an innate reason why we’re primed to get in the way of our success and self-sabotage, according to psychology. 

On the outside, self-sabotage doesn’t make sense. It’s the manifestation of that common phrase “you’re your own worst enemy”: whether we have a tendency to procrastinate, become extremely self-critical or turn to destructive coping mechanisms such as drugs and alcohol, acts of self-sabotage can stand in the way of success.

Often the result of imposter syndrome – an inaccurate feeling of inadequacy or fraudulence experienced disproportionately by women – people who self-sabotage often hold dysfunctional or distorted beliefs about their own abilities, leading them to undermine their own skills and work.

Just recently, singer Ellie Goulding opened up about how imposter syndrome and self-sabotage has impacted her career.

“I know I chose this job but nothing could have prepared me for the ups and downs that come with it,” she wrote in an Instagram post for World Mental Health Day. “I know for sure that a lot of my anxiety has come from what they call ‘imposter syndrome’ not believing in myself enough and thinking that I don’t deserve happiness, which results in wanting to sabotage my own success.”

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While, as we’ve previously pointed out, self-sabotage can seem rather non-sensical – even to the person experiencing the feelings – it’s actually a natural reaction spurred by our instinct to avoid threats. 

“The source of self-sabotage is part of a common ancestral and evolutionary adaptation that has allowed us to persevere as a species in the first place,” writes Judy Ho in Psychology Today.

“We are essentially programmed to strive for goals because achieving them makes us feel good. That dopamine rush is an incentive to repeat those behaviors. The trick, especially when it comes to self-sabotage, is that our biochemistry doesn’t necessarily discriminate between the kind of feel-good sensations we experience when we are going toward our goals and the ‘good’ feelings we get when we avoid something that seems threatening,” she continues.  

Self-sabotage: Why do we stand in the way of achieving success?

Our drive to achieve goals and our innate instinct to avoid threats aren’t actually separate – in fact, there is a constant interplay between the two. However, when the pair become unbalanced – that is, when our drive to avoid threats is higher than our need to achieve – we become likely to self-sabotage.

Why? According to Ho, there are four elements that fuel the likelihood of self-sabotage: a shaky “self-concept” or lack of belief in our identity, internalised negative beliefs about our own talents or abilities, a fear of change or the unknown, and a need for control. 

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“It is very helpful to focus on [these elements], so you can more easily see how they inform your decisions, your ideas about yourself, how you behave, how you feel in certain circumstances, and particularly how they can be a driver of self-sabotage,” she adds. 

When it comes to self-sabotage, then, the best thing we can do is understand where exactly the feelings are coming from – and fight back against our tendency to downplay our achievements and listen to the critical voice inside our heads. 

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Lauren Geall

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