Self-sabotage at work: Why we hold ourselves back

How to stop self-sabotage at work

Arriving an hour late for a job interview, writing your speech 20 minutes before delivery, or scarfing down a bottle of wine right before a high-profile client meeting…

When face-to-face with defining moments, rather than doing everything possible to succeed, you shoot yourself in the foot. This unconscious behavior plays tricks on us and prevents us from professional fulfillment. So what can we do to put an end to self-sabotage? Clinical Psychologist Johanna Rozenblum sheds light on the subject.

An unconscious mechanism

Picture this: it’s 4 a.m. and in a few hours you’ll take the stage to present a project you’ve been working on for the last three months. This event could change your career, and yet here you are, slouching over the bar counter, reviewing the state of world affairs with someone you met an hour ago. Of course, we all need to let go sometimes, but was an all-nighter before the big day really necessary?

Psychologist Johanna Rozenblum describes self-sabotage as an “unconscious mechanism of self-defeat. For example, showing up late looking like a sack of potatoes for a major meeting when you’re usually on time and dressed to the nines.”

Rozenblum points out that this type of behavior typically manifests itself in high-stake situations or amidst pivotal turning points in our lives, both professionally and personally. “A typical example is a student who has worked hard all year but sleeps in on exam day and doesn’t show up for midterms,” she says. Obviously, by sabotaging critical moments like these, we stand in the way of accomplishing our goals. So why do we stand in the way of accomplishing our own goals?

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Causes linked to childhood

Self-sabotage is based on our fears and doubts, but these don’t develop overnight but are often ingrained since childhood: fears of not meeting social, professional, or family expectations. “Everything stems from negative beliefs such as not deserving success, not being loved enough, not feeling legitimate, etc., and because these beliefs have been strongly anchored since childhood, it’s even harder to break the cycle,” Rozenblum says. “Moreover, people who self-sabotage defend themselves by blaming external circumstances: ‘Yes, but I wasn’t given enough time to complete my business proposal,’ or ‘Yes, but if you organize a goodbye party the day before my speaking engagement…’ There’s always a good reason that prevents us from realizing that we’re the ones making a mistake.”

Anxiety disorders, phobias, fear of change, and fear of leaving our comfort zones are often connected to situations that have led to unexamined failures. “These failures were not understood during childhood through discussions with parents or through reassurance and motivation — so they become the rule rather than the exception,” Rozenblum says. “These are deep wounds that resurface in adult life.”

Let’s say a teacher sent us to the blackboard and humiliated us in front of the class; we may experience difficulty in expressing ourselves in front of a group, even fifteen years after the fact. To avoid reopening the wound, we activate this unconscious mechanism of self-sabotage and evade confronting the pain for fear of failure, and at the same time, we undermine our own success.

Cousin of impostor syndrome

Along with self-sabotage, there’s also the idea that we don’t deserve success, which is reminiscent of another well-known condition known as impostor syndrome. However, Rozenblum says there’s an important difference between the two. “Self-sabotage is a barrier to achievement: ‘I don’t feel up for the event so I’ll make sure I’m not,’ while impostor syndrome won’t prevent you from doing things.” Suffering from impostor syndrome could, for example, include the feeling that you don’t deserve your job — that the person who recruited made a mistake by attributing you abilities you don’t possess. In other words, you feel like a fraud, which can be heavy to bear but doesn’t prevent you from actually doing your job.

Identifying self-sabotage

Rozenblum identifies four major self-sabotaging behaviors to watch out for:

  • Procrastination: difficulty managing time and taking action, sometimes a lack of momentum or motivation. Procrastination includes starting to work on a project the day before it’s due, considering a task unimportant when in fact it’s vital, and being systematically late when deadlines are in place.

  • Perfectionism: giving a report, presenting a project, handing in a thesis…in short, perfectionism leads to failing at something because you think you can’t do it perfectly. People in this category consider their work as never being good enough to show, and as a result, they refuse to submit papers, finish projects, or deliver presentations which prevent them from being evaluated or facing criticism.

  • Creating a false excuse: “It’s not me, it’s…” or “yes, but…” – the tendency to always blame external factors (other people, the environment, work conditions) rather than taking responsibility for the failure.

  • Never finishing anything: not following through on things even though you’ve come a long way, such as grinding through each step of a recruitment process but not showing up for the last interview.

Of course, these things can happen to anyone. Many of us will make an excuse here or there or we’ll procrastinate once in a while without needing to sound an alarm. “An isolated event may reveal to us that we’ve chosen the wrong path or made a bad decision. It’s beneficial to listen to yourself a bit and learn from a misstep,” Rozenblum says.

Rather, self-sabotage is a recurring mechanism that becomes chronic. “I really want this job, but I’ve been late for several job interviews in the past.” It’s the repetition that should be a warning.

How to overcome self-sabotage

Once the behavioral pattern is identified, it’s possible to develop coping strategies:

  • Ask your family/friends for help: Talk to them about your struggles and ask for help. Together, you can come up with solutions like sleeping at a friend’s house the night before a big meeting. If you do this, you’ll be on time because your friend will hold you accountable, plus it helps a lot that she lives close to the office and you’ll avoid a traffic jam!

  • Discipline yourself: Have rules and enforce them to maintain a good state of mind and to be better prepared when facing situations that tempt you to self-sabotage. For instance, don’t go out on certain evenings of the week, always prepare for job interviews two days before the date and not 15 minutes before, schedule appointments for the late afternoon if you’re not a morning person, and so on.

  • Anticipate: Given that self-sabotage manifests itself during important events in our lives, it’s up to each of us to prepare before this mechanism has a chance to activate. When changing jobs, for example, it’s advisable to consult a therapist to help you set a framework that will prevent you from repeating certain harmful behaviors.

Even though the methods listed above will help us manage behavioral aspects of self-sabotage, Rozenblum recommends therapy with a professional. “We must not neglect the cognitive dimension of this syndrome – the understanding of these well-established patterns — this is what will ultimately stop our self-sabotage.”

Translated by Lorraine Posthuma

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