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Self-Sabotage, Part I: Why Do I Do It?

By Andrew McNaughton LCSW CADC

Self-sabotage is as common for people as it is a mystery. Why would anyone do this to themselves? The short answer is that it assures an outcome, even if it is unfavorable, and this spares us of short-term anxiety even if we cause ourselves long-term self-loathing. 

This is the pattern of Self-Sabotage:

  1. Demanding absolute assurances of comfort, success, or acceptance. 
  2. Experiencing discomfort and disappointment in absence of assurances.
  3. Catastrophizing the discomfort experienced since our demand will never be met, no matter how much we prefer it. 
  4. Creating anxiety through demands and catastrophizing, as well as self-condemnation, meaning we damn ourselves as totally inadequate and bad if we are not successful or accepted.
  5. Further demanding assurance of outcome, and in giving in to our anxiety, we will always choose the quick fix to make ourselves comfortable and give ourselves a (false) sense of control over our destiny, since there is never a guarantee of success, though we can always find a way to guarantee our failure.
  6. By choosing to sabotage our efforts in order to guarantee an outcome, we play directly into our self-condemnation, conveniently fulfilling the narrative that “we are bad, inadequate, and total failures as human beings because we failed.” 

Let’s apply this to some common life examples.


Let’s say I want to ask out a woman on a date, but I am making myself feel anxious about it because she could reject me and I am awfulizing this potential outcome, telling myself that my total self-worth is based on whether she accepts or rejects me. I cannot guarantee that she will accept me if I ask her out since I have no control over anyone or anything other than my thoughts, my feelings, my words, and my actions. However, because I am making myself feel anxious, I am desperate for relief from my discomfort, and I will do anything I can to make myself feel comfortable as soon as possible. In this case, it would be to not ask her out, since if I do not ask her out, she cannot reject me, and I can guarantee that I will not feel the shame of rejection. I am likely going to damn myself as too inadequate to even ask her out, so therefore nobody would ever accept me. What a conveniently screwball way to look at me, and yet people do this ALL THE TIME. 

  1. Activating Event: I could be rejected if I ask her out.
  2. Irrational Beliefs: I could not bear the rejection, it would be awful, and I need to not feel that discomfort the way I need oxygen. Being rejected would mean I am totally inadequate. 
  3. Consequence (Emotional): I make myself feel anxiety and shame.

Consequence (Behavioral): I choose not to ask her out because rejection would be unbearable.

SCENARIO #2 change to being accepted

Perhaps I mustered up the courage to ask her out. Not only does she agree to go out with me, but we have a nice first date. Now comes Date #2, and I’m a nervous, anxious wreck. This could be because I am inferring it goes really well but I am unsure of how a third date or a relationship with this woman might go in the future. This is how this could play out:

  1. Activating Event: The second date could go really really well and I cannot fathom the possibility of a third date and/or relationship. 
  2. Irrational Beliefs: If I am accepted, the future is unknown, and I cannot bear the discomfort of not knowing how it will turn out,
  3. Consequence (Emotional): I make myself feel anxious. 

Consequence (Behavioral): In order to guarantee that I will not feel uncomfortable by Date #2, I cancel on her, or I stand her up, or I show up late, or I show up drunk, or any number of off-putting behaviors.

I cannot assure I will be accepted or successful, but I can assure failing on my terms, which in my irrational thought process seems far more bearable. See how this pattern works? Would you like to learn how to overcome this? I will explain how in the next blog.

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