How to recognize the signs of self-sabotage

There are numerous reasons why people self-sabotage. When someone engages in self-sabotaging behaviours, they are practically standing in their way of success (whatever ”success” might mean to them).

Examples of self-sabotaging include:

  • Being a perfectionist
  • Procrastination
  • Self-medicating with alcohol and drugs
  • Comfort eating
  • A person not reaching their goals.

How do you know if you sabotage yourself?

Self-sabotage comes in many forms. The person who self-sabotages might be considered their own worst enemy.

Examples of self-sabotage

An excellent example of self-sabotage is that person who is hellbent on finding the right partner.

A person might date for months on end, until one day, the right person comes along – and just when things are going well in the relationship, they find a way to ruin it by cheating or adopting other risky behaviours such as substance abuse.

Other examples

Other examples of self-sabotage include:

  • Procrastinating when it comes to completing (or starting) important tasks
  • Developing imposter syndrome, e.g. feeling inadequate or not good enough
  • Adopting self-destructive behaviours and masking your feelings through drug or alcohol abuse.

What causes self-sabotaging behaviour?

Psychology offers plenty of reasons for why people might engage in self-sabotaging behaviours.

Low self-esteem is likely to play a part as does negative self-talk, and the way people make you feel in general.

However, there are several reasons why people indulge in self-sabotage, such as the ones’ below:

Parts Psychology

Why people self-sabotage is something that is covered by the part’s psychology theory.

The theory suggests that humans get split into several psychological dimensions or psychological parts. These parts operate entirely on both a conscious and unconscious level.

With the parts paradigm, a person might hold strong beliefs about themselves, such as how they like to behave or what career goal they want to achieve – but there may be another part of the person that goes against those beliefs and goals – hence the self-sabotage.

Emotional masochism

It is ludicrous to think that some people have a twisted enjoyment of emotional pain.

Emotional masochism hypothesizes that we sabotage ourselves because we derive some pleasure from failure and emotional pain.

Some people giggle when they feel like things are going wrong or when faced with adversity, this, of course, could be a sign of nerves, but according to experts, it could also be a sign of masochism.

Fear of failure

Fear of failure is inherent in human life, but often, people self-sabotage to avoid success, which gets expressed through secretly enjoying the misery, stigma, and feelings attached to failure (emotional masochism).

Self-fulfilling prophecy

Low self-worth is an attribute to what we believe to be true about ourselves.

If we feel like we are not good enough, our thoughts, emotions and behaviours are likely to mirror that self-belief.

Thought patterns

Thought patterns that get created in childhood, for example, may be associated with the self-fulfilling prophecies we build during our early development, something which we carry through to adulthood and into our relationships.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is something that we expect to happen, and on some level, we play a part in how that manifests. Self-sabotage is the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Since we expect things to go wrong, we will make decisions (consciously or unconsciously) that cloud our perspective and fulfil the negative beliefs that we hold.

What causes self-sabotaging behaviour in relationships?

self sabotage and relationships

When someone engages in self-sabotaging behaviours in a relationship – it is likely to be something that the person is unaware of.  Self-sabotage is when one partner’s actions or behaviours get in the way of sustaining a healthy relationship with another.

A person may become emotionally distant, abuse drugs or alcohol, cheat, or cause unnecessary arguments.

Signs of self-sabotaging behaviours

Signs of self-sabotaging behaviours in a relationship include:

  • Gaslighting
  • Controlling behaviour
  • Violating your (or the other person’s) boundaries
  • Unrealistic expectations or goals for you and your partner
  • Not being your authentic self (e.g. wearing a mask)
  • You, not prioritizing your relationship.

Emotional memory

Psychotherapist Mercedes Coffman, explains why some people may adopt self-sabotaging behaviours in their relationships.

Coffman refers to the concept of emotional memory to understand why self-sabotage occurs for some people.

She explains that our emotional memory (particularly if the memories are painful) is what triggers a profound sense of hurt in our romantic relationships.

All this can seem like an overreaction to others. 

Although we may not recall our early life experiences, these patterns (or emotional memories) can make us self-sabotage our relationships before they have the chance to grow into something beautiful and long-lasting.

Relationship self-sabotage

Relationship self-sabotage is no fun for anyone and is the basis for our needs (and indeed our partner’s needs) not being met in the relationship.

Therefore the goal for individuals who engage in self-sabotaging behaviours should be to recognize the patterns within themselves and find ways to change the situation by reversing the cycle.

How do you help someone who is self-sabotaging?

The need to engage in self-sabotaging behaviours stems from a feeling of low self-worth.

When someone is self-destructive or engages in self-sabotaging behaviours, it’s because they feel they are not worthy of genuine love and respect.


There is the saying that ”everything starts with self-care”, and this couldn’t be any truer.

However, much like anything in life, happiness and self-esteem begin with loving the self.

When people make you feel ”less than”, it’s likely because of a false self-belief that says: ” I’m not good enough”.

Self-love involves:

  • Positive self talk
  • Developing your life purpose, e.g. achieving goals and aspirations that mean something to you
  • Having long term goals for self-development and self-care
  • Understanding that no one is perfect
  • Helping someone else who might be feeling the same as you
  • Understanding the signs of self-sabotage and what you can do about it – e.g. attend therapy.
  • You, taking the time to take a look at your patterns and how they might have led you to self-sabotage in the first place.

Sticking to your boundaries

Those who find success in life, whether that be in relationships, career or both often have clear boundaries.

Boundaries are a way of protecting yourself and your beliefs, e.g. how you like to be treated by others, and how you can treat others yourself.

Having boundaries is the first step to understanding your deepest wishes; for instance, you may wish that your partner had more respect for you.

All this doesn’t have to be just a wish.

Writing down your boundaries and understanding the things you need from people is the first step to getting those things.

Allowing yourself to be loved

relationships and addiction hiking

This one might sound obvious, and yet so many of us struggle with allowing love into our lives. Again, this comes down to (mostly unconscious) patterns.

We find ways to resist that which we want the most. 

This self-sabotaging is not a purposeful act, but people must recognize when they are engaging in self-sabotaging behaviours and make room for love.

Receiving persistent care and support

When someone is prone to self-sabotage, they need to engage in a process of constant care and support from others.

Support comes in many forms, such as:

  • Therapy – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is especially helpful in challenging any self-destructive and limiting thoughts and beliefs
  • Talking to close family members and friends
  • Attending support groups
  • Getting involved in charity work
  • Mindfulness

People must stay connected to their authentic selves and reach out for support whenever they need it.

Developing a purpose and creating the kind of life you want, rather than sabotaging your chances of happiness is something that can be worked on and is possible.

Eliminating self-sabotaging behaviours by taking a step back and assessing the problem is the equivalent to getting out of your own way and living the life you were supposed to live to the fullest.

Contact us

Contact the team at Camino Recovery today to find out how we can help you to recognize any self-defeating patterns and create the life you’ve always wanted.

David Scourfield

David Scourfield is a Camino Recovery team member since 2017, focused on facilitating communication with Clinical and other professionals to ensure a comprehensive understanding of Camino's program.

Combining his marketing skills and lived experiences, he joined Camino in 2017, contributing to external publications and the Camino website. With a strong belief in solidarity during the recovery process, David helps clients build support networks by connecting them with others in recovery.

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