The Myth Of Self-sabatoge: Why We Do What We Do

Published on January 27, 2011 by

We've all heard the term "self-sabotage." Therapists and coaches use it a lot when they're talking about someones "self-defeating" behavior. Take procrastination for example. I know someone who finished all his college requirements except for one writing assignment. Ten years later and he still hasn't finished his assignment. Let's call this person "Bob."

How do you explain Bob's behavior?

Most people would say Bob has some subconscious motivation to sabotage his success. Maybe they would say he has a fear of success, so he has to sabotage himself. I don't buy that. I can see why some think Bob's behavior was a subconscious attempt to sabotage himself. But perhaps there is another explanation.

I think we do what we do because we think it's the best thing for us at the time. We don't set out to sabotage ourselves-ever. I'm not saying all of our decisions are in our best interest; I'm saying we think they are at the time. I'm saying that all of our behavior has a positive intent.

We have the best of intentions at the time we do something, even if it brings pain to us later. The pain is an unintended consequence. When I was a therapist, I sometimes worked with clients who "cut" themselves physically. (I know this is an extreme and unpleasant example and that's why I'm using it.) Why did they do that? Because (according to my clients) it made them feel better in some way. Feeling better was the intended consequence. Pain was the unintended consequence.

In Bob's case, not finishing his assignment might have sabotaged his graduation, but I don't think that was what he set out to do. Bob hated writing papers and every time he thought about writing his final paper, he'd say to himself "I'll do it tomorrow." Each time Bob procrastinated, he felt a sigh relief. He didn't have to think about it...at least not for another day. Bad decision? Sure. Self-defeating? Sure.

I just don't think Bob's motivation was to defeat himself. Just the opposite; his motivation was to make himself feel better. Isn't that the purpose of procrastination-to try to avoid something uncomfortable or painful?

The bottom line: I think everything you and I do is motivated by a desire to help ourselves in some way; not to hurt or sabotage ourselves. Everything we do, every decision we make has a positive intent behind it.

The next time you do something, look back on it and judge your decision and behavior as "stupid" or an act of "self-sabotage," remember one thing: at the time it seemed to be the best thing to do. After all, you're not stupid. And neither is anyone else. We don't do what we do to sabotage ourselves. We do what we do because we think it's in our best interest...every time.

Maybe it's time we quit being so hard on ourselves and start being more understanding of ourselves. That doesn't mean we have to minimize or excuse behavior that is hurtful or damaging in some way. It simply means it's a good idea to not confuse the behavior with the person. The behavior isn't "good;" but the person is. Making a distinction between the person and the behavior allows us to focus on solutions and amends while avoiding the guilt trap.

What do you think? Is self-sabotage real or is it a myth?

7 Comments

  1. Interesting. I've never thought of it that way. It is true, most "cutters" cut themselve to find relief, not to hurt themselves. Hind sight is 20/20...but understanding that past decisions weren't "stupid" or self-sabotaging is a great place to start.

  2. Alan Allard

    Dana, thanks for your comments, I like what you said: understanding that past decisions weren't "stupid" or self-sabotaging is a great place to start.

    P.S. I love your blog

  3. Rob

    Took me awhile to process this, but I agree -- Bob's believes procrastination is in his best interest and he's rewarded for that behavior on different levels. May appear that Bob directly intends to sabotage his academic pursuits, but his motivation is actually to “succeed” in putting off whatever discomfort he’d rather not face.

    • Alan Allard

      Rob, thanks for stopping by and commenting. You're right, this isn't the easiest thing to grasp because we have to look far below the surface of behavior to see it.

      Regarding "Bob: you said it well: "his motivation is actually to “succeed” in putting off whatever discomfort he’d rather not face" Great way to make the point.

  4. carlyd

    Having been trained in a psychodynamic counseling program many years ago, I find your perspective on this to be very refreshing. I think that in many cases telling someone they are sabotaging themselves does nothing but help the person feel worse and less motivated to change their behavior. I have read many, many things related to psychology, counseling and coaching over the years and I have to say that I found this blog post to be one of the most enlightening and helpful.

    • Alan Allard

      Hi carlyd, I agree with your statement "in many cases telling someone they are sabotaging themselves does nothing but help the person feel worse and less motivated to change their behavior."

      How did you arrive at your current thinking about people, motivation and behavior?

      Thanks for stopping by and for your comments, I really appreciate them.

  5. growingup

    Agreed. Because the idea is persieved as deviant it somehow justifies some behavior because the initial idea is a reward. i.e. a night of expensive food/drinks instead of saving for something planned or something practical in general. I've been guilty of this, getting better.

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