The heart of tech is coming to the heart of the Mediterranean. Join TNW in València this March 🇪🇸

This article was published on November 3, 2014

Why you self-sabotage and what you can do about it

Why you self-sabotage and what you can do about it
Andrea Ayres-Deets
Story by

Andrea Ayres-Deets

Andrea Ayres-Deets is the Lead Writer at Crew, an invite-only network connecting short-term software projects with handpicked developers and Andrea Ayres-Deets is the Lead Writer at Crew, an invite-only network connecting short-term software projects with handpicked developers and designers. Andrea writes about psychology, creativity, and business over on the Crew blog.

This post originally appeared on the Crew blog.

Are things going relatively well for you? Have people told you, you are doing a good job?

Do you want to ruin all of that?

Come with me on a journey of self-sabotage…

Step 1: Diminish your success

Take a success you’ve had in the past, any success large or small. Now tell yourself it doesn’t matter. Make up reasons for why it doesn’t count as a real success.

Use your keen eye for detail to describe how others did it better than you and how your success was the result of some sort of freak accident. For bonus points, when someone brings up a success you’ve had, start an argument with them about it.

If possible, spend all of your free time on Twitter and Facebook ruthlessly comparing yourself to everyone else. This is also a great time to highlight your personal flaws! #multitasking


Step 2: Dwell on the past

Remember when you first set off on your own? Take the mistakes you inevitably made during that time and comb over them.

Better yet, imagine how great your life would have been had you not made those mistakes. Yep, you’d probably have everything you’ve ever wanted by now had it not been for those horrifying mistakes you can’t do anything about.

Don’t forget, when a new opportunity comes your way TAKE IT and then immediately tell yourself you did not deserve it and will fail.

Step 3: Tell yourself ‘It’s too late’

Breaking News Alert: You are getting older! Is that a wrinkle? Probably.

When you venture outside take note of how put-together everyone looks. They all have it figured out, everyone except you. View each person as a competitor—a mortal enemy.

I mean just look at them, sitting there, drinking their coffee like they are better than you.

You just know they are all getting exactly what they want out of life, everyone but you. How do you compete with that? You don’t! It’s better to just give up.

(modified from
(modified from

How to stop sabotaging yourself in three somewhat less easy steps

If anyone ever needs a TED talk done about self-sabotage, I’m your person. I’ve been self-sabotaging myself for a very long time. I create my own self-fulfilling prophecies of failure. But there are only so many times you can set yourself up for disaster before you realize something has to change.

So here are some ways I plan on changing it, hopefully there are some valuable lessons for you too.

Step 1: Perspective, do you have it?

I believe that because I have failed in the past I will always fail in the future. This is probably due to what is known as the availability heuristic. The availability heuristic says you base assumptions and generalizations off of the data that is the most available to you.

There’s a great study that looks at how the availability heuristic alters perspective. The study asked individuals to rate themselves as either more assertive or less assertive through the use of examples. One group had to recall 6 assertive, while the other group had to recall 12 assertive traits.

It’s much easier to recall six assertive traits then it is to recall 12 and that ease of recall impacted how assertive people felt. The individuals who struggled to come up with assertive traits rated themselves as less assertive overall. It was a ‘Well, I am having trouble thinking of examples so I must be less assertive.’

What’s happening here? It’s not only that we make assumptions based on ease of recall, it’s that the ease or difficulty of that recall also affects the content we are recalling.

If you find it difficult to recall positive attributes about yourself, you will not only assume that there are more negative attributes but you will locate evidence to support this.

How do you overcome this? As with many things in life, knowing is half the battle. The following steps come from a list of recommendations to medical professionals to help them overcome the availability heuristic but these are some great tips we can all learn from:

  1. Vocalize the reasons you may be wrong out loud
  2. Ask questions that disprove your current theory
  3. Remember you are wrong more often than you think

These steps do a few important things, first it brings awareness to your thoughts. Instead of relying on your default thought processes you force yourself to go through the reasoning behind your thoughts. This is really powerful and can snap you out of believing your own biases.

Step 2: Stop limiting yourself

I am (usually) the one that puts barriers in my way. No one else is telling me this and even if someone had, would I really allow another person to control my life in that way?

When we limit ourselves we do so because we are driven by fear and false presumption. Perhaps you are afraid of failing or you just assume you aren’t good enough. It’s not like everyone out there isn’t fully cognizant of their own limitations because most of us are. The difference is that some people know their limitations and they seek to rise above them anyway.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. — Annie Dillard

All of this has to do (in some way or another) with uncertainty. We construct ridged confines in order to rid ourselves of the awful feeling that is ‘not knowing.’ Think about how you go about your day, you follow the same schedule every day because it is familiar.

Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future — not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present. — Oliver Burkeman

This preferred vision of the future limits our ability to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities that may come our way. Flexibility and openness should not be forsaken in the pursuit of a singular goal. These qualities are what allow you to take risks and grow. What happens, however, if you are truly afraid to take risks?

If you are risk averse, chances are your brain is wired up to reward NON-risk taking behavior. When a failure or something negative happens our brain says, “Hey, let’s not do that ever, ever again.”


Your reward system (aided by the neurotransmitter dopamine) wires itself to protect you from making what it considers to be mistakes. The brain can engage either your reward center or your risk management center. When our brain engages the risk management center we are less motivated and far less likely to take risks.

Of course if you aren’t willing to make mistakes you will never grow. So you have to find a way to adapt. You’ve got to retrain your brain into seeing the reward of taking chances.

Take a class, read a book about a subject you have always wanted to learn about. Start off with low-risk behaviors and reward yourself for making progress on them. Involve close friends to help you, progress rarely happens in isolation. When it comes to the brain, remember that actions breeds action.

Step 3: Don’t wait for permission

I’ve been waiting my entire life for someone to appear alongside me and say, “YEAH ANDREA, THAT’S A GOOD IDEA YOU SHOULD DO IT.” But no one does that because this is real life.

In general, society applauds those who take action. They have less interest in those who play it safe and sit on the sidelines. If you find yourself hesitating on taking action, ask yourself this question:

Whose permission do I need?

We tell ourselves we need permission because it is a great excuse for putting off taking action. Ira Glass (host of This American Life) spoke to Lifehacker about this.

“Don’t wait till you’re older, or in some better job than you have now. Don’t wait for anything.” — Ira Glass

What is stopping you? What is your barrier to entry? Do you believe you are not deserving enough or that you are not qualified enough? You can’t improve if you never begin. You don’t need anyone’s permission to live the life you want to live, you only need yourself.

Make note of the common excuses you make everyday. Watch for trigger phrases like, ‘I’ve been meaning to or I have to ask about that.’ Always follow up an excuse with the question, ‘Okay, but what am I waiting for?’ Each time I do this I find that I don’t have a good enough answer to warrant further inaction.

You can’t wait for that magic moment, hell you can’t even wait for the motivation to strike. If you want something you need to go out there and get it. If it doesn’t yet exist, create it.

Self-sabotage has predictable outcomes, very few of them desirable. But it is not beyond our ability to control. All you have to do, is do something. Inaction, procrastination, isolation—these are your mortal enemies. They don’t deserve your time, much less the power to determine the course of your life.

There’s no such thing as the right time or perfect opportunity. Don’t wait for someone (or something) to rescue you. You are perfectly capable of rescuing yourself.

Read next: Fear doesn’t have to paralyze you

Featured image: Shutterstock