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Self-sabotaging behaviors like substance abuse can limit the goals a person can achieve in life. They may have personal or professional aspirations that cannot be realized until they identify and remove the barriers that have been holding them back. These issues often have roots in negative childhood experiences that warped their self-perception and led them to feel powerless over their lives. Clinical approaches in combination with daily practices can aid in tearing down these mental walls. 

What Does It Mean to Self-Sabotage? 

To self-sabotage means getting in the way of one’s achievements and progress. This is closely related to behavioral dysregulation or harmful behavioral emotional regulation strategies. Self-sabotage comes in diverse forms and can be performed intentionally or unintentionally. 

Examples of Self-Sabotaging Behavior

Some ways a person can sabotage their well-being include:

  • Injuring oneself in non-suicidal ways
  • Seeking constant reassurance from others
  • Denying oneself time to relax and then crashing 
  • Taking on more responsibilities than one can handle 
  • Wasting time on routines that could easily be modified 
  • Being a perfectionist and ignoring small improvements
  • Using substances or binge eating to avoid painful emotions
  • Neglecting needs that support physical and emotional wellness

Conditions associated with these behaviors include: 

  • Anxiety
  • Impulsivity 
  • Depression
  • Binge eating
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Personality disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Why Do People Do This to Themselves?

There are various reasons an individual might purposefully flunk out of college or give up a professional opportunity that could change their life.

At their core, they may harbor insecurities about their own abilities and self-worth. Forgoing change and progress can serve as a protective mechanism against disappointment or failure. 

These types of experiences can be accompanied by significant life transitions that can be scary and filled with uncertainty. It can be easy to stay where one is familiar rather than leap into the unknown. Sabotaging one’s growth can serve as an unhealthy coping strategy to maintain a level of comfort and security. 

The Emotional Cascade Model

The emotional cascade model (ECM) theorizes that these behaviors stem from aversive emotional states that are provoked by a self-perpetuating cycle of:  

  • Rumination
  • Negative thoughts
  • Negative affect

Negative affectivity is a personality trait that refers to the likelihood a person will experience emotions like disgust, guilt, or fear regardless of the situation.

Behaviors are practiced to shift the focus away from uncomfortable emotional states like rumination to something that is pleasurable or familiar but still unproductive, such as consuming alcohol. When the consequences of these corrective behaviors set in, a person may realize they’ve made a mistake and harmful practices can escalate.

Root Causes

Reasons people sabotage themselves can stem from experiences from long ago. Examples include: 

  • Behaviors were modeled by parents 
  • Being neglected, rejected, or experiencing trauma 
  • Behaviors that were once adaptive are now maladaptive

Connection to Pure OCD 

Pure OCD is a mental health condition rooted in deep shame. People with pure OCD may become obsessed with any situation involving uncertainty. Even if one aspect of the situation is resolved, intrusive thoughts invade the mind with new uncertainties that become even more complex and impossible to address, producing feelings of self-doubt. It’s as if the brain is trying to fulfill the fears a person has. 

Sabotaging Relationships

In relationships, this can be particularly difficult. A person with pure OCD may need constant reassurance that everything is going well and that their partner is happy. Internally, they may feel like they don’t deserve happiness and will find flaws in their partner to prove the relationship is doomed. 

Stunting Their Progress

Second-guessing every decision they make, a person with pure OCD may avoid even small risks and stay within their comfort zone. They are preoccupied with all the things that could possibly go wrong in an attempt to avert them. However, this actually ends up stunting their growth and success, fulfilling the very thing they were trying to avoid in the first place.

How Can This Be Addressed?

Self-sabotaging behavior can be stopped by identifying a person’s unique patterns through mindfulness practices and therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help clients by teaching them how their thoughts and behaviors influence how they feel. 

CBT works to alter how individuals think about and respond to difficult situations to improve their health. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is derived from CBT but focuses more on learning how to regulate extreme emotions and form healthy interpersonal relationships. 

Learning to Help Oneself 

Self-help strategies can be used in tandem with therapy. Professional guidance may be critical to truly heal, especially if behaviors are extremely risky — such as substance abuse and self-harming — or stem from trauma. 

Some practices that may reduce self-sabotaging behaviors include: 

Cultivating Self-Awareness and Management

Self-awareness and management are two of the four key elements of emotional intelligence. This involves being conscious of one’s emotions and knowing how to be flexible and goal-oriented. 

Disputing Negative Self-Narratives

This method is used in the treatment of OCD. Individuals confront thoughts that hinder personal growth in order to prove their irrationality.

Having Self-Compassion

Learning to forgive oneself for any shortcomings and love themselves regardless is called having self-compassion. Self-compassion is freedom from the mental box a person can trap themselves in.

Self-sabotaging behaviors are diverse. They can be different for every person, but the purpose of these behaviors is generally the same. They work to distract from the discomfort and pain a person may be feeling. This maladaptive coping mechanism may require therapy like CBT or DBT. West Coast Recovery Centers is accredited by the Joint Commission for the treatment of behavioral addictions and mental health conditions. We have been in operation since 2012, empowering clients to find their own path to recovery through innovative, traditional, and non-traditional methods of treatment. We recognize that a common method of self-sabotage is the abuse of drugs and alcohol. Substance use disorders and underlying conditions like trauma can be treated in our outpatient programs for those who need flexibility due to work and family responsibilities. Our goal is to help our clients build and maintain a life of purpose and fulfillment. Call (760) 492-6509.