Self-Sabotage to Self-Love-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Understanding Self-Sabotage


Have you ever started a new exercise routine, a new diet, or tried to change your spending habits only to have your good intentions backfire? It is painful when we know what we want for ourselves but can’t make or sustain the changes that would create a healthier or more successful life.

“Read on to learn 7 common roots of self-sabotage and 8 tools everyone should know to enhance your health, relationships, and work success…”
-Dr. Schwartz

What can self-sabotage look like?

  • You are in a relationship with a kind and caring person but remain distrustful recalling memories of your ex who had cheated on you. As a result you unintentionally push your partner away.
  • You try to cut back on eating sugar and refined foods but your family doesn’t share the same eating habits. It takes energy to eat healthy and sometimes it’s easier to grab what they are eating rather than take the time to make something else.
  • You have good intentions to stay ahead of your workload but end up procrastinating and waiting until the last minute to complete the unwanted tasks. You sometimes have to work overtime or stay up all night to catch up. Each time you vow not to repeat the pattern again but you are losing faith in yourself.
  • You are invited to give a speech at a prominent meeting to promote your business. You are fearful about public speaking and despite knowing that this is a great opportunity you turn it down saying that you have a conflict that prevents you from attending the event.
  • You tell yourself that you will stop yelling at your children. You will walk away, take those deep breaths, and calm down. But the next time your children are acting up you find yourself screaming once again.

When self-sabotage interferes with your health or success, take some time to explore the roots of the why you are holding yourself back.

Why We Self-Sabotage

  • Self-Limiting Beliefs: Beliefs such as “I’m not good enough” “or “I’m a failure” are just some of the inner voices that hold us back. We can be our own worst critics. Where do these negative beliefs come from? As creatures of habit, we generally treat ourselves the way we were treated. The messages we received about ourselves from our parents become internalized and we develop expectations about how we should be treated.

learned helplessness

  • Learned helplessness: Imagine a bird that has been in a cage for many years. Having grown accustomed to her surroundings she does not notice the opportunity for freedom when the cage door is opened and as a result her behavior does not change. Learned helplessness is a concept identified by Martin Seligman that involves repeated experiences of having little to no control over the outcome of situations in your life. As a result we conclude, “why try” or “what’s the point”. Ultimately we will feel apathetic and hopeless towards the situation.
  • Lack of support: It is common to fear losing the people that we know and care about if we change. If we change our behavior or routine who will be there with us? If we don’t have support or similar behaviors around us it is harder to maintain our goals. If we don’t have a partner helping us moving towards our goals change can feel lonely.
  • Competing needs: As humans, we are complex beings and we have multiple needs. For example, we want to change and grow but also need to feel safe and to feel in control. Growth can be scary because we are confronted with unknown possibilities. Therefore we often resort to old patterns, even if they are unsatisfying or unhealthy, because they feel safe and familiar.
  • Immediate gratification: We live in a culture where we expect results fast. Advertisements for the next best diet pill bombard our media as do fad fitness trends. True health and fitness requires an ongoing commitment to a routine that works with your lifestyle and achievement of your goals involves patience and hard work.


  • Decision fatigue: As you start your day you walk by the donuts at work and grab an apple, at lunch you breeze by the birthday cupcakes shared by a colleague, however, at the end of the day you are defenseless against the candy bar that your friend offers. Decision fatigue explains that the more choices that you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes until you eventually are more prone to act impulsively instead of thinking through the consequences. Read more here.
  • When life trumps good intention: There are times when even the best of intentions are interrupted by element of your life that you have no control over. For example, stressful life events such as the loss of a loved one or a job are real life setbacks that can exhaust your resources. In addition, psychological disorders that have biological underpinnings such as anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and depression can interfere with your ability to make changes.  It is important to accept that there are things that we don’t always have control over.

Self-Support vs. Self-Sabotage

Now that we have identified possible causes of self-sabotage let’s explore what you can do to enhance your health, relationships, and work success.

phone stack

  • Partner up: We can often accomplish more together than we can on our own. Sometimes this means having a work-out buddy or that you and your family create a shared goal. One example of a community supported intention is the concept of the “phone stack” that was developed to avoid social situations in which friends are caught up on their phones. Stick your phones at the center of the table and the first one to look pays! See the phone stack article here.
  • Know your vulnerabilities:  Be aware of the times and places where you are most likely to fall into negative habits. What are your triggers? What times of day are you most likely to be susceptible to letting yourself down? If decision fatigue is at play build in buffers or think of the kind of supports you might need during your more vulnerable times. When my resources are lowest is when I have been most likely to yell at my children. I learned that calling a friend and getting out of the house gave me the buffer I needed to manage the challenges of parenting.  Make a list of the types of supports you can call upon when you are at your low spots.

burger vs. apple

  • Precommitment: Nobel Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling offers a unique and effective approach to coping with unwanted behaviors. He suggests that everyone suffers from a split personality. For example, one part of you wants to eat healthy and get up early to exercise and another part wants to sleep in and hates that kale smoothie! Precommitment works by assigning rules and consequences to reinforce your own behaviors. See full article here.This might be as simple as turning off the WIFI in your house to avoid internet distractions when writing a paper or committing to donate money to a cause you detest if you do not follow through with your intentions. It helps to tell someone of your consequence so they can hold you accountable. In fact, there are precomittment websites developed to help you lose weight or control gambling. More on precommitment here.
  • Identify your needs: Despite your goals for healthy eating, you make the grab for the ice cream. Afterwards you feel angry at yourself; toward the part of you that wanted something sweet. We often reject the parts of ourselves that “act out” or interfere with our intentions. This can start a vicious cycle in which the marginalized part (often a young part) becomes increasingly frantic and is more prone to sabotaging our goals. Rather than punishing yourself, try exploring what this part really needs. As we make space for these needs we are more likely to channel them into healthy, conscious choices.
  • Keep your critic in check: Recognize that your inner judge is an internalized critic and develop the capacity to talk back. That voice in your mind originated from someone, somewhere. What do you wish that you could have said to them? Rick Hanson’s work suggests the human tendency to focus on the negative (more here). A positive approach is a practice that needs to be developed. Question the validity of the negative beliefs and tune into the truth about yourself and what you are capable in the world.
  • Grieve the past and live in the present: Growth involves feeling the unexpressed emotions of the past so that we are freed up to live in the present. However, there are times that we need to actively differentiate the past from the present. Make a list that distinguishes what was and what is. For example, as a child I was not listened to and could not stand up to my parents but as an adult I have choices now that I didn’t have then and I can choose people who are caring or advocate for my needs.

pull back curtain

  • Pull the curtain back on shame: It is beneficial to reflect upon and learn from our mistakes, however, self-sabotage is often connected to the emotion of shame. Shame is sneaky and can hide inside of perfectionism. Notice when your inner critic doesn’t let you off the hook. When possible, turn towards your imperfections with kindness and compassion.
  • Get therapeutic support: You do not have to suffer alone. There are times when the structure and knowledge of psychotherapy holds the depth of container for the process needed to unpack self-sabotage. I am deeply appreciative of the insights and “a-ha” moments I have achieved in the presence of my therapist and am honored when I can support my clients. Self-sabotage is not a curse. It is a symptom that you can work with and change.

Further reading:

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Meet Dr. Arielle Schwartz


Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.


Self-Sabotage to Self-Love-Dr. Arielle Schwartz — 1 Comment

  1. Wow! This is a fabulous and exhaustive list!! It makes me do a little happy dance, because it all feels sooo doable! Thanks!

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