Why Do We Self Sabotage?

I am sitting in class confused and frustrated. I am not picking up the material covered in this business statistics course quickly and the semester has just begun. I know the class will get harder and the problems more difficult. I let my mind wander from the professor’s lecture to my doubtful thoughts that spiral into a negative rabbit hole.


“I am already doing bad. 

How will I do in the rest of the class? 

It is just going to get worse. 

If I can’t handle it now I’m destined to fail. 

I am not smart. 

I can’t do this. 

I am just bad at math.”


It is the last thought that makes me shut down. If I am bad at math, then what is the point of even trying? For the rest of class I’m zoned out, the information is a blur, the board and professor’s voice are hazy, not able to filter through my decided mind. My mind that won’t let my try to learn because I am just bad at math.


This statement is not true. I am not bad at math. I have always done very well in math classes. I actually enjoy math and have even succeeded in statistics classes. So why do I shut down and not let myself learn the material? Why do I actively try to fulfill my own prophecy of failing? 


I and many other people I know consistently prevent our own success. We put up obstacle after obstacle and then struggle to knock them down. What drives us to sabotage our chances when we are only hurting ourselves?


My friend Caroline is trying to become a professional dancer and has to deal with her self sabotage tendencies at auditions. She is a talented dancer, but also extremely self aware about her abilities which leads her to be her harshest critic. Before auditions she will start obsessing over every little detail that could be improved. This puts her is a frantic state unable to clearly focus. Recently she had one move she needed to execute perfectly in an audition, it was a turn she could do flawlessly even when blindfolded. However, because she knew it had to be perfect she focused in on it intensely, causing her to break down crying the day before because she could not do it. Instead of believing in herself and her talent she obsessed over this, creating a mental block that affected her ability to perform the turn. She knows auditions are mental game that require you to break down those blocks but still always allows herself to engage in negative self talk, even though it throws her off.


Another friend of mine specializes in self sabotage without even realizing it. She doesn’t let herself achieve her potential. She is smart and talented and driven, but cannot accept these things and therefore sabotages herself before others can see them. She will put off responsibilities so she has an excuse to back out of plans or commitments that could reveal any flaws. During her freshman year, she wanted to try out for our school’s choir and she has a lovely voice but was so terrified of not making it, of not being good enough, that she had to sabotage herself. She put off homework she could have done any other night for the night of auditions so she had to miss them. I do not think she cognitively knew what she was doing but as an outside perspective I see her consistently repeating this behavior. Her self sabotaging instincts affect her friendships, relationships, and school life. She pushes people away before they can reject her, she eliminates opportunities that require her to move past her comfort zone, she limits her happiness by plotting against herself.  


What in our personalities makes us determined to make life more difficult? Are we self sadists that feel the need to torture ourselves with negative mindsets? 


I am a type A individual terrified of failing. Not a casual fear of doing bad on a test or letting someone down. But a paralyzing fear of failing at every aspect of life that constantly eats at me and doesn’t let me sleep at night. I lay in bed and all the ways I can fail at my perfect version of life play in a loop. This fear of failing brings on a constant anxiety over anything I do. If I try and do poorly that is evidence of me being inadequate, evidence of me being a failure. But if I get in the way of myself, create all these mental blocks and obstacles then I have something to blame, I still blame myself but that blame does not feel as heavy as the word failure. To some this sounds ridiculous if I set myself up to fail I am eliminating the possibility of success. I know it isn’t logical, but those who self sabotage resonate with being so afraid of finding out they are not up to par that they don’t allow themselves to fully try. It is better to avoid success on your own accord than to fail while trying your hardest. If I avoid success on my own terms I also avoid those looped thoughts of every way I can fail from becoming true.


So how do we remedy this mental block? How do I stop judging myself for not being perfect and allow myself just to be?


It starts by going to class and accepting I might not understand everything right away. That I might have to really push myself and even when I give it all I have I still might not get an A on an exam. But I will not get an A knowing I did everything I could instead of not getting an A because I stayed up crying about being worthless the night before. It takes a lot of work to accept the fact that you’ll never be perfect, a 91% could have been a 95% and that could have been a 98%. Nothing will ever be enough when you have the unrealistic expectation of perfection, and then you will in turn never feel like enough. I have to learn to be okay with failing, be okay with not reaching the overly high standards I set for myself. That will take time. For now I am going to go to class and fully listen, fully try to learn without the cop out of telling myself that I can’t. This might seem like a small step, but it is the beginning of learning to fail with grace.