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How to Overcome Self-Sabotaging Behaviour

Updated: Jan 29

Self-sabotaging behaviour provides a short-term distraction, reward or safety-net but at the expense of our long-term goals, growth and achievement. Although we might be aware of the fact that this behaviour is destructive, we nevertheless continue to engage in it for reasons that are often beyond us.

In this article we’re going to bring some clarity to why we engage in self-sabotaging behaviour and will attempt to unearth how these limiting behavioural patterns came about in the first place, before providing an antidote to overcome them.


‘Sabotage’ is the act of undermining or annihilating something, often in a hidden manner. ‘Self-sabotage’ is when this destructive behaviour is either consciously or unconsciously directed at ourselves.

The behaviour becomes habitual and a pattern of self-destruction emerges because it consistently undermines our efforts to better ourselves. For this reason, self-sabotage is considered a form of psychological self-harm.

Common self-sabotaging behaviour includes procrastination, over-eating, avoiding responsibilities, substance abuse and putting instant gratification before our life commitments, relationships and long-term goals.


We self-sabotage for a variety of reasons, that at the core relate to either a previous trauma or negative experience. This previous experience resulted in such tremendous pain or negative emotion, that we learned to engage in the specific self-sabotaging behaviour to protect us from experiencing that negative emotion again.

It becomes a defence mechanism for us before we learn the hard way that it only works to mask the pain in the short term and isn’t helping us to address the core issue or fear, and so has the opposite effect in the long term.

This often derives from having experienced failure before, with that experience having such a profound negative emotional impact on us, that we don’t ever want to sub/consciously experience it again. Accordingly, we put things off to avoid that fear of failure.

It’s also easier to give ourselves an excuse in the event we fail, for example; I didn’t have the time to do the work and that’s why I failed, being a whole lot easier to concede to as opposed to, I gave it my all and still failed.


Over time self-sabotaging behaviour erodes our self-esteem, confidence and relationships, so what can we do to overcome it?

The first step is to acknowledge that this pattern is reinforced and justified in parts of the brain to protect us from feeling the same negative emotional impact we previously experienced. So, it’s a normal defence or survival mechanism.

Secondly, identify all the triggers that have to occur in order for you to cave into the behaviour (it’s important that you write these down and identify as many as you can).

After you’ve identified your triggers, look within to identify your reward for the self-sabotaging behaviour by asking yourself: -

  • What am I really gaining or getting out of this?

  • How long does the pleasure or distraction last?

  • What’s the opportunity cost?

  • Is it really worth it in the long run?

  • What’s at stake if I don’t get on top of this?

Upon gaining this insight, you’re now primed to execute this unique and powerful exercise called 'Urge-Surfing'. Urge Surfing is used in acceptance commitment therapy (ACT) and was created by a pair of psychologists in the 1980’s[1] who successfully used it to help people with substance abuse addiction.

It can also be used to overcome any self-sabotaging behaviour and here are the steps to follow that come in the acronym form of 'WAVES': -

1. Witness – Watch the urge unfold just like a wave; witness it getting stronger and acknowledge that your urge to act on your self-sabotaging behaviour is a conditioned response to your trigger/s. Become the observer behind it by internalising: This is me having the urge to overeat. Bring your awareness to your body and assess where you're feeling this urge. Make room for it and breathe into it.

2. Assess – Now assess and rate its intensity level out of ten. For example, I’m having the urge to overeat right now and it’s a "9".

3. Values –Check in with your values and what drives you and then ask: If I cave into this behaviour right now will I be taking my life in the direction that I really want? Is this something that my higher-self (who's in alignment with your values) would do in this moment?

4. Execute – Immerse yourself in a productive activity or another behaviour (it’s a good idea to identify a handful of alternative positive activities prior to urge surfing) and execute the necessary action to see it through, while staying present in the moment.

5. Score – Finally, check in again with yourself ( and every 5 minutes or so) by asking : Am I still having this urge, and if so, what's the intensity score now? It will eventually dissipate and subside just like a wave.

In summary, self-sabotaging behaviours exist as protection mechanisms or to keep us within our comfort zones but we don't grow or evolve in this space. It forms part of a conditioned program that is sabotaging our true potential from flourishing.

To overcome it, you need to identify it and practice self-awareness, acceptance, self-appreciation and perseverance with methods like Urge Surfing. By doing so, you'll be creating new neurological pathways in the brain that will eventually hardwire new patterns of behaviour, and in turn, lead to the liberation from your self-sabotage.

If you would like further information and support on how to overcome your self-sabotage, please contact us here at The Open Mind Institute, we are here to help.

Paul Pitsaras LL.B B.Int.Bus.

Managing Director, Speaker, Executive Coach


[1] Alan Marlatt and Judith Gordon

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