What if Self-Sabotage Doesn’t Actually Exist?


Self-sabotage. We’ve all heard the term. We get an opportunity and then we blow it. Or we do something we don’t like and so we beat ourselves. And then we feel like c**p, so we beat ourselves for beating ourselves. “I’m self-sabotaging myself again!” we yell. “As always! I’m such an idiot!” And then we beat ourselves for that too. It feels hellish, like a vicious cycle we can never escape from, that part of us doesn’t even want to escape from because we are so sure we deserve to feel this way, and that nothing we can do will ever make anything better, nothing will ever work.

But what if self-sabotage doesn’t really exist? What if all the thoughts and behaviours that appear to be self-sabotage are just ways the mind is trying to protect you?

This is such a radical shift in thinking for most people that it seems absurd. Recently in response to a blog post I wrote this comment:

All self-loathing beliefs are actually our minds’ ways of trying to help us, though they usually aren’t very helpful.

Lizzi, on whose blog post I commented, replied:

And are they really? How on earth does that work? Cos it feels a lot more like self-sabotage, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how that could happen in a protective manner!
I started to reply and then realised this needs a post, not a comment.

First, to answer Lizzi’s question, it’s not so much that it happens in a protective manner, but that the intent is to protect. We develop most of these beliefs as very young children, having only half-understood what’s going on (and half is probably way more than we understood in most cases.) And then we never question the assumptions we made.

So I might have insomnia because as a young kid I stayed awake when my mum was ill to try to somehow keep her safe, and when she was there the next morning I then concluded I have to stay awake to keep everyone safe. As an adult I might try a thousand techniques to try to sleep better, but underneath it all is this fear I’ve long since forgotten about, so nothing actually works. I feel like a failure, and beat myself up, which only makes things worse. Until I realise what’s going on underneath, and feel love and acceptance for the part of me that formed that first mistaken belief. This last bit is crucial: if I realise what’s underneath and beat myself up for that, it changes nothing.

Communicate like a Giraffe

Another way of looking at this is to think about the way parents often talk to children. Say your teenage daughter is about to go out and she’s got on an extremely short skirt and tights (pantyhose for American readers) with holes in them. You might scream at her, “You are not going out dressed like that!” A huge battle ensues, during which both of you feel misunderstood and angry. She storms off saying, “You are always criticising my clothes! It’s not fair. I can wear what I like!”

What she doesn’t understand, because you haven’t said it, is that you are worried that if she goes out dressed like that some teenage boys or grown men will see her as fair game, will harass her or worse. You might not even realise this is what is behind your anger, especially if you also hold the view that women should be able to wear whatever they want without being harassed by men.

You don’t need to have teenagers to get this sort of misunderstanding with your kids, and you don’t even need to have kids to get misunderstanding in communication. Although I have some reservations about its more pedantic aspects (and its name) Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life
by Marshall Rosenberg is an incredibly illuminating book for revealing how our language creates barriers to communication and compassion. That applies just as much to the language we use towards ourselves as it does to the language we use to others. NVC uses the term jackal language to describe what passes for communication in most of our interactions, and giraffe language for a more compassionate way of connecting. Jackal language typically displays moralistic judgement, makes comparisons and demands, and avoids responsibility. Giraffe language typically expresses feelings and recognises unmet needs (instead of judgements.) We take responsibility for our feelings, and our primary aims are communication and understanding, rather than the need for self-protection that generally drives jackal language. (Jackal language is not wrong, it’s just not very effective at meeting our needs.)

To explain this further, let’s return to that  scenario with your teenage daughter. Using giraffe language you would say: “I feel anxious when I see you dressed in tights with holes because I remember stories about men attacking young women and using how they were dressed as an excuse, and I don’t want that to happen to you.” (Here the feeling expressed is: anxiety, and the need: to keep family safe.)

Your daughter might well retort, “Don’t be stupid. Everybody dresses like this.” This kind of reaction is precisely why most of us avoid expressing feelings and needs. It feels vulnerable. Yet, real communication requires us to be vulnerable, even when that communication is only with ourselves.

Now, instead of calling her a liar, or expressing your own needs, you recognise hers. This for me, was by far the hardest thing to learn in NVC, and it helps me enormously to think: “If it was me, why would I be doing it and how would I be feeling?” So here: I’d be feeling resentful because I want to look like my friends do, or even like the “cool” kids who I feel sure make fun of how I dress. (At least that’s how I felt as a teenager.) How you would feel might not be exactly how your teenager feels, but it opens the way for understanding dialogue. Your daughter now knows that your comments were not a criticism of her clothes, but an expression of your need to keep her safe.

And, likewise, every self-critical thought you’ve ever had is an expression of your need to keep you safe. It’s an attempt to protect you, most likely expressed in a very similar way to that  your parents would have used.

Identifying with Limiting Beliefs

More than this, when we deeply identify with a particular belief it feels as if it is us, so if we even consider letting it go it feels as if we will disintegrate. Even with deeply unhelpful beliefs it can feel dangerous to let go. Your conscious mind might be able to see that it’s not helpful to believe: I am ugly and stupid. Or: I am a total failure. But your unconscious mind, your primitive, child-like mind, still hangs on for dear life because – well because it wants to live!

Mostly, when people recognise that they have a limiting belief, they try to overcome it, get rid of it or attack it in some other way. Yes, I’ve been there, done that. What happens then is we just get another internal fight, more feeling like c**p. Back where we started. We go on trying to force ourselves to let go of all this self-sabotage, to control our behaviour, to get on top of things. Sometimes it works for a while, and then the old behaviours come up again, along with all the old self-loathing.

When we start to recognise that the behaviours and thoughts are trying to meet our unmet needs, our self-loathing begins to dissolve, we begin to feel safer, we begin to believe that real change might just be possible. For most of us, this doesn’t happen overnight, but is a gradual process, and we might slip back into old habits for a while – but that doesn’t last. At least that’s my experience, and those of my friends.


  1. What a thoughtful and generous post.

    I had learned years ago as a daughter, not to get annoyed at my mother’s many suggestions, and that if she sounded angry, it was out of concern and love. And of course, I’ve been in her position, where I care to a point my loved-ones might find annoying. But it never occurred to me to articulate where the concern may come from, as you illustrated in the short skirt scenario. It makes perfect sense that doing so may put us in a vulnerable position and set us up for rejection, which we fear, which we may thus avoid by behavior that can be construed as self-sabotage. So interesting.

    I would love to receive your thoughts on the letting go process at the above email.

  2. Author

    Gunmetal Geisha, I am impressed that you learned long ago not to get annoyed at your mother’s suggestions, and that her anger was out of concern. That’s such an important thing to realise and it took me a LONG time. As a mother, I’ve seen myself in the same position so of course now I understand! And yes expressing our genuine feelings does make us vulnerable but as far as I can see, risking vulnerability is the only way we truly connect.
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment and I’ll email you the process.

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