Ever felt that niggling sense of inertia? Uncertainty? Or a profound and constant feeling of hesitation? You could be self-sabotaging.

Are you waltzing the paradoxical dance of self-sabotage, stepping on your own feet, being a clumsy obstacle to your grand potential?

Still not sure what this means? Let’s meet Jen.


After putting her two young kids to bed, Jen binged on Netflix until 1 am. She had fed the kids dinner but hadn’t really eaten anything herself. So while watching her favourite series, she picked at some pizza, a bag of chips and finished off with two bowls of ice-cream.

She had fallen asleep on the couch, unshowered and dressed in her work clothes. Her husband Peter had gone to bed earlier because he had a big morning in the office the following day. Jen had felt upset that they don’t hang out as much as they used to. With the kids being born, Peter working long hours and her return to employment, they don’t seem to have much fun together anymore.

Not long after Jen finally went to sleep, one of her kids had woken up from a bad dream. It took 45 minutes to settle him. By the time her alarm went off at 6.30 am, Peter had already left for work. She jumped up, realising she only had one hour to wake up the kids, get them fed and dressed, and pack school lunches.

She was furious with herself for waking up late, beyond exhausted, and she hadn’t ironed the kids’ school uniform or her own clothes.

How self-sabotaging keeps you stuck

The kids’ breakfast was a few rushed mouthfuls of cereal. School lunch was a hastily slapped together cheese sandwich and an apple. She didn’t get time to brush their teeth or hair, and one of them was wearing odd socks.

As they were rushing out the door, she realised she didn’t have the keys. She rushed around the house screeching and getting increasingly furious about the missing keys. Jen rang Peter to ask if he’d seen them, but he didn’t answer, which made her even more mad. She finally found them in her work uniform pocket, in the pile of laundry on the bathroom floor.

The kids were tired and hungry, and teased each other on the way to school. By the time they arrived—15 minutes late—neither of them were in a good frame of mind for class. She quickly dropped them off, without a kiss or encouragement for the day.

On her commute to work, she turned the radio on louder than normal, in an attempt to silence her mind. It only worked for a few minutes. Thoughts were creeping in that haunted her day after day.

The self-sabotaging cycle of shame

You’re such a bad mother. You’re repeating your own messed up childhood with your kids. Did you see their faces? They’re struggling this morning all because you couldn’t get to bed at a decent time and have some order in your life. This is happening over and over again because you can’t get your head together at 35 years old.

Jen’s eyes filled with tears from all the emotional frustration, guilt and anger.

I’ve done it again! I’m the worst mum. I’m so stupid. My kids don’t even love me. They went to school without even giving me a hug. It’s because I’m so lame.

When she eventually got to work, 30 minutes late herself, she felt sick to her stomach. Looking in the rear-view mirror, she wiped her face and pulled her unbrushed hair back, trying to get some kind of professional appearance. 

The inner critic practically yelled in her face, You’re getting older, fatter and more behind. You’ll never succeed. Nobody is even interested in your presentation today. You know that career you thought you’d have by now? Well, you don’t have it. Life hasn’t worked out for you.

When it was time for her presentation, she wasn’t in the right frame of mind. She came off very unconvincing, shaky and appeared to everyone she was uninterested in what she was talking about. Nobody gave her an enthusiastic compliment on her speech or probed her further about her recommendations. There were a few throat-clearing murmurs and a cold “thank you” before the meeting was adjourned.

From inner turmoil to outer pain

When she got home, Peter had already fed the kids and they were on the couch watching TV.

“Peter, why are you letting them watch TV on a school night before they’ve done their homework?” she asked with a big sigh before even saying hello to anyone.

“Hello to you too,” he retorted. “The kids had a shocking day at school so I thought they should have a little bit of relaxation.”

Jen didn’t even answer. Instead she asked the kids about what happened. Stories of bullies, stolen lunches, the teacher being mean and the big kids on the bus playing catch with their school bags came hurling out.

Jen gave them each a hug and tried to soothe their pain, but inside was a turmoil of cognitive dissonance sending her into a tailspin. She went to her room and shut the door. Falling onto her unmade bed, she burst into tears.

“I’m ruining their lives,” she sobbed. “I can’t take care of myself or them. I’m such a bad wife, I can’t even talk nicely to my own husband. He does so much for me and I don’t show him any appreciation.”

She sincerely believed in the importance of a quiet, stable and loving home, with structure and routine. But her actions always failed to show it.

She had a shower and made her way out to the living room. The kids were asleep on the couch. Peter helped her carry them to bed.

She went to the kitchen to do some guilt cleaning. Peter came in and put a hand on her shoulder.

“Everyone had a hard day. They’ll get through it,” he said, trying to pull her in for a hug. She tensed up. “I’m so glad we had kids. Couldn’t imagine life without those two.”

“Oh yeah? All I can see right now are the issues and how bad of a parent I am,” she replied while holding back her tears, and pulling away from his embrace.

“Leave that and come to bed. You’ve had a big day yourself,” he said, trying to get her to calm down.

“This kitchen is such a mess and I’m so disgusted with myself. Just go to bed and leave me alone.”

Peter sighed and wandered off to bed, leaving her in the kitchen.

Before going to bed, Jen cried into another tub of ice-cream, telling herself it wasn’t a good thing they had kids. Peter needed a more stable wife and the kids needed a better mum. She fell into bed at midnight and for the third time this week, cried herself to sleep.

A path to destruction

As you can see, Jen’s daily life is full of self-loathing, constantly defeating herself, removing possibilities for employment promotion, romance or even just an enjoyable existence. These are all very common self-sabotaging behaviours. She uses food to comfort herself, leading to emotional eating, weight gain and poor health—another self-destructive behaviour.

What is self-sabotage?

Self-sabotage, also known as imposter syndrome, is a complex phenomenon that affects everyone at some point or another in life. It involves engaging in behaviours or thought patterns that undermine one’s own goals, success and wellbeing, often while not realising it is happening.

Self-sabotage often stems from deep-rooted beliefs, fears, and unresolved emotions and traumas. For some, it is only a mild hindrance. These people can override it with logic, confidence in their abilities or encouragement from family or friends. But for others, self-sabotage is an ever-present default mode, with all the intensity of a “civil war” raging in their mind.

Self-sabotaging behaviour manifests in various forms, ranging from procrastination and perfectionism to self-doubt and negative self-talk.

Are you your biggest critic? Are you the one constantly putting yourself down, either aloud or in the inner confines of your mind?

Rate your self-talk

Below are some statements that people who self-sabotage will tell themselves or share with others to downgrade their abilities or potential.

  • “I’m not good enough.”
  • “I don’t know enough.”
  • “I’m not (fast, slim, smart, young) enough.”
  • “I’ll never succeed.”
  • “I always mess things up.”
  • “I’m too (shy, old, young).”
  • “Nobody cares about what I have to say.”
  • “I’ll never be as good as her.”
  • “I’m not that talented.”
  • “I should have done better.”
  • “I’ll do it later.”
  • “I’m so stupid.”
  • “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to change.”
  • “I can’t.”

Take notice of your inner dialogue. When you make a mistake, what do you find yourself saying? This will be a good indicator to see if you are self-sabotaging. As a general rule, if you wouldn’t say it to your best friend or someone you dearly love, you shouldn’t say it to yourself.

Self-talk is a self-fulfilling prophecy. What you think and say about your life tends to happen. If you say you’ll never succeed, you won’t succeed. That’s because you won’t allow yourself the opportunities or work hard to get where you want to go. You make yourself the victim of your story and you stay the victim.

Self-sabotaging behaviour never helps get you motivated.

How to stop self-sabotaging

You need to be intentional about demolishing the invisible barriers crafted from your own fears, insecurities and limiting beliefs. Your new way of life is very much about mindset and behaviour change.

You don’t notice self-sabotaging behaviours because they are automatic and you’ve practised them for years. Listen attentively to your inner dialogue, work to identify your negative behaviours and counteract your messages with positive self-talk.

It will feel weird. You’ll have uncomfortable feelings, maybe even think you’re prideful. All those negative emotions need to be processed. The childhood trauma, heartbreak, loss and pain causing low self-esteem need to be addressed. Emotional pain will affect every area of your life, but once you work through it, it can be the biggest catalyst for your growth.

Over time, you will begin to realise you deserve better. See a clinical psychologist who can help you identify and counteract distorted core beliefs. Working through pain from past experiences can be an excellent way of reducing the possibility of future negative outcomes.

You are more

In the words of author Charlie Mackesy, “Always remember you matter, you’re important and you are loved, and you bring to this world things no-one else can.” Or as the Bible puts it plainly, “You are worth more than many sparrows.”

God loves you. You are a precious, valued, immensely powerful, intrinsically worthy human being and completely irreplaceable. If you choose to work through the difficult emotions, change your behaviour and let go of unrealistic expectations, you will find you are free. 

Your hesitations will decrease. Your sense of direction will be clearer. Mistakes will still happen, but you learn from them, instead of letting them become failures. Your joy will become familiar instead of being rare.

Finally, you will have accepted yourself. Instead of being an enemy, you’re now a friend.

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