Self-Sabotaging: Why We Get in Our Own Way

self sabotagingThe expression “you are your own worst enemy” rings true for most of us. How many times have we acted against our self-interest, then asked ourselves why did we self-destruct? Why did we say that to a loved one? Why did we procrastinate on that project? Why have we stopped doing that one thing that makes us feel great? Self sabotaging thoughts and behaviors are perpetuated by an inner critic we all possess, which psychologist and author Robert Firestone, calls the “critical inner voice.”

The critical inner voice doesn’t represent a positive sense of self that you can entrust in. Rather, it epitomizes a cruel “anti-self,” a part inside us that is turned against us. It casts doubt on our abilities, undermines our desires, and convinces us to be paranoid and suspicious toward ourselves and those close to us. This anti-self fills our mind with critical self-analysis and self-sabotaging thoughts that lead us to hold back or steer away from our true goals.

Watch a Whiteboard Video on The Critical Inner Voice

Where Self Sabotaging Thoughts Come From

Our critical inner voice is formed from our early life experiences. Without realizing it, we tend to internalize attitudes that were directed toward us by parents or influential caretakers throughout our development. For example, if our parent saw us as lazy, we may grow up feeling useless or ineffective. We may then engage in a self sabotaging thoughts that tell us not to try, i.e.“Why bother? You’ll never succeed anyway. You just don’t have the energy to get anything done”

In a similar manner, children can internalize negative thoughts that their parents or early caretakers have toward themselves.  If we grew up with a self-hating parent, who often viewed themselves as weak or a failure, we may grow up with similar self sabotaging attitudes toward ourselves. For instance, if our parent felt critical of their appearance, we may take on similar insecurities without realizing it. We may feel easily self-conscious and less sure of ourselves in social or public situations.

We can’t change the past. Yet, as adults, we can identify the self sabotaging thoughts that we’ve internalized and consciously choose to act against them. When we fall victim to our critical inner voice and listen to its directives, we often engage in self limiting or self sabotaging behaviors that hurt us in our daily lives. As author Elizabeth Gilbert put it, “You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day. This is a power you can cultivate. If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind. That’s the only thing you should be trying to control.”

How to Stop Engaging in Self Sabotaging Behaviorinner critic ecourse CIV

Once we know where our self sabotaging thoughts come from, we can start to differentiate from the negative identity we have cast upon ourselves. We can familiarize ourselves with our critical inner voice and notice when it starts to seep in to our thought process. As we do this, we can start to recognize ways we act that we don’t like or respect. For example, if we often feel embarrassed or ashamed and, as a consequence, hold ourselves back socially, we can start to push ourselves to be more outward and open.

Changing these self sabotaging behaviors will make us anxious, because it means challenging deeply engrained, old and familiar attitudes that we’ve long held about ourselves. Differentiating from these behaviors is essential to leading happy lives. In their book The Self under Siege: A Therapeutic Model for Differentiation, co-authored by Dr. Robert Firestone, Dr. Lisa Firestone and Joyce Catlett, we describe the four steps involved in differentiation.

Step one involves separating from the destructive attitudes (critical inner voices) we internalized based on painful early life experiences. The second step requires us to separate from the negative traits in our parents or influential caretakers that we’ve taken on as our own. The third step involves challenging the destructive defenses or adaptations we made to the pain we experienced growing up. These adaptations may have helped us in childhood but, very often, hurt us as adults. For instance, if we were used to being let down or rejected as children, we may have formed a defense that shuts us off from wanting or expecting much from others. Though this lowering our expectations may seemed to help cushion us from getting hurt as kids, this same defense can keep us from trusting or getting close to someone as adults.

The fourth and final step of differentiation asks us to develop our very own sense of our unique values, ideals and beliefs. Once we have separated from the negative overlays from our past, we can uncover who we really are. We can stop self sabotaging behaviors and choose the person we want to be.

How We Wind Up in Self Sabotaging Relationships

The defenses and critical inner voices that we carry over time often lead us to recreate dynamics from our early life in our adult life. We tend to play out negative, old behavior patterns with the people we get close to. We often form self sabotaging relationships by indulging in our critical inner voices and failing to challenge our core defenses.

For example, if we felt abandoned as a child, we may have the tendency to become insecure in our adult relationships. We may hear “voices” toward ourselves like, “How can you trust her? She is just going to leave you. Be careful and don’t let yourself get close to her.” If we had a parent who acted overbearing or intrusive, we may feel easily suffocated by our romantic partner. We may hear voices like, “He is too needy. Can’t he just leave you alone? You’re better off on your own. You just can’t handle being close.”

Our critical inner voices encourage us to act out our defenses in all areas of our lives, but most often in our closest relationships. They often hold us back from getting what we really want, instilling fears in us that we will be hurt in the same ways we were hurt as children. We may even choose partners who play into these old dynamics, recreating past scenarios that help us maintain a negative identity we’ve long held.

Getting to know our patterns can help us to avoid self sabotaging relationships. We can start to act against our inner critic and break from defenses that no longer serve us well today. Facing our past is an important part of this process. Once we familiarize ourselves with our defenses, we can differentiate from self sabotaging behaviors and live a more liberated life, in which we are more powerful and much more in control of our destiny.

Read More About Self-Sabotaging

Stop Self-Sabotage by Conquering Your Inner Critic

Are You Tricking Yourself Out of Love?

self sabotage

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Just because we can’t control our feelings and fears, Jim, doesn’t mean that there aren’t many positive emotions that can coexist with them.


because we think we kinda deserve it and also the pain and frustration which we feel become more and more comfortable to deal with, if we are used to something and know how to react and live with it, everything becomes comfortable and usual as like our daily lives starting from the thoughts and habits right after waking up..


I have serious issues with self-sabotaging relationships. I am the cool girlfriend, age 30, bouncy blonde who loves to have fun. Yep, that’s about as deep as it gets. In every relationship, I craved novelty–the exciting phase at the beginning. And then once reality set in because the novelty began to fade, especially when it started to get serious, I began picking apart the relationship. Why I was not worth staying in the relationship long-term. Because my value was centered around being fun and interesting. So, I bailed. Over and over. The fitness guru pro-ball player. The CPA from my hometown. The friend who was a therapist. All of them, I bailed on. All of them guys that had staying power. Except for me. And then I would leave. And now, I am with an incredible guy. He’s emotionally, cognitively, and physically the absolute best guy I have ever had the privy to meet. And now I am doing the same thing. Beginning to pick apart the relationship. Because I am not perfect, I am not worthy of being in this relationship. That’s the negative thought process. And he has the insight to point this out to me, even after I had figured it out. By the way, he is an incredible doctor. He’s insightful, intuitive, sexy, handsome, intellectual, and faithful. I would and could not ask for more. But here I go again–sabotaging this. I need to conquer my fears of intimacy and the need for perfection. OR I will lose the best relationship I have ever been in. And my work starts on the inside.

Meghan Cross

Rose, I hear your pattern, as I have been there myself many times for different reasons. Our biggest challenge and frankly the only challenge worth transforming… Is to truly love ourselves. It is cliche, absolutely. And cliche for a reason, because it is real.

What have you associated with a fun girl that knows only about having a good time? Who in your past reminds you of what you don’t think you want to be? What about you do you think is “necessary” in order to be a worthwhile partner? And what do you believe is necessary that your partner be in order for him to be worthwhile? When we truly love ourselves, we don’t even think twice about what we are doing that is right or wrong. We only know that if it feels like we are in the flow, if it feels like our genuine light is shining (not a perceived object considered as fun), then we are doing what we need to be doing.

I am working on this myself, trust me. And I’ve had some loving-myself experiences lately that I never believed were possible. And it is amazing. I wish you the very best in your transformation! 🙂


Rose, just wondering how you are doing. I just read this article and I hope what I learned can help me. I’m going to do more work on this and see if I can improve the happiness in my life. I hope all if well with you. I am open to any tips/insight you might have that you’ve learned. I’m not sure I even hear a little voice talking to me so that’s my first step.

D scott Munroe

Why do I see exactly where you’re going with that I have done it over and over I have just done it I don’t know how to get past all this crap you need to figure this out so I can live a decent life


That was a good read. Growing up my father was not present, mum did her best. She did say some horrible things when stressed and under pressure the one that I clearly remember is “if your own father left you what makes you think any man would want you?” This was after she found out a boy From school had walked me home. I have also been cheated on in past relationships. I’m always paranoid something is going on I can not bear the thought of a guy having close female friends or being in touch with exes. Late last year a long time friend asked me out and we started going out but I was going through highs and lows. I made the decision to end it as it was not a pleasant thing having to feel the way I did and it was not fair on his part. I’m seeing a professional now and do believe it will get better.

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Interesting read I think I may have this pattern I was in a situation at work got a new job about two years ago probably a really good one, one that I wanted they were a bit behind in terms of development I had issues with how I felt like I couldn’t go to the toilet. To how I was spoken to I did try to address this which was denied I informed management who answer was to have it out with coworker, which was attempted before with old management. Anyway I became a walking depressive and went back to management we tried to sort it I ended up contacting the union going off with stress and have been moved. On top of all that was going on I was asking myself if I needed a change in careers I was successful in getting a new job but never took the path which is probably me self sabotaging again as I have now moved locations and still feel unhappy as I didn’t resolve the issue/conflict properly and now need to start from scratch. Feel I reacted so badly and could have enjoyed me work if I didn’t look at things so negatively I feel like I blamed my coworker when it does take two and I reacted badly back too badly. I feel I could have seen things for her point of view more and not let things get to me. Looked after myself mentally too as I wasn’t exercising to lift my mood and didn’t realise how bad I had become. Anyway I have lost my confidence and feel like I am in a new place and don’t know my job, also wishing I had taken a new path. Also feel as though I am in a midlife crisis and acted so irrationally and literally run away from my last post. I went off with stress and never returned but as I am in the same sector of work it makes things harder. Getting out would have been the most sensible thing or recognising and having gratitude for everything would have left me feeling better in general. My behaviour has been detrimental to myself so not sure why I was continuing to act the way I did even though the voice in my head was probably saying what are you doing? Am I crazy?


Great read! Despite being in therapy, I have this issue with self-sabotaging myself. I constantly second-guess what I do, why I am doing it, whom I am doing it for. It’s maddening, truly.
As you wrote in one of the comments, unfortunately, the only way to put an end to this maddening thought process is loving yourself. There’s nothing more trivial, and more difficult than that.
I’m still working on it, to be honest. Therapy has helped me a great deal (honestly, EVERYONE should do therapy. There are very, very few people who love themselves), but I’m still struggling, sometimes.
Let’s hope we all achieve our inner light!


I find this very helpful but I have a question, what can I do if I don’t remember things at all? I just remember my feelings rather than the event. Also there were a lot of people that shaped my “Self-Sabotaging” inner voice and I don’t know where to start. Right now I am at a stage where my anxiety isn’t out of nowhere, I embrass myself a lot which proves my anxiety that it is right.

Goofy Goober

When I gave Juliane, a girl I like, chocolate, she was delighted. She offered ‘I will get you a gift too!’. ‘You don’t have to..’ I blurted. This response seems to be a subtle self sabotage. I should have welcomed the offer, with an ‘Oow, that’s sweet.. ‘ or ‘that’s sweet’ or ‘feel free’ with a smile. I am afraid to open up to intimacy.
I failed to conceive her gratitude. I should have responded ‘I am happy you like it..’.I did not acknowledge her thankfulness and delight because I did not expect it, and I had no planned response to her response. In a few words, I was not mindful. I should have kept in mind that when someone says thank you, respond by ‘you are welcome’ and ‘i am glad you like it’. Or at the very least, I should have asked her whether she liked it or not.


The most important things here, is you. The thing that absolutely does NOT work is the blame game. Cliches are not facts, although they can be, they’re simple analogies aka excuses at times. You, being the most important thing, are worth love, loving, and to be loved. And yes, you need to love yourself ~ simply because no matter who you are ~ you are ‘good enough’ just the way you are. …and you are loved!

Allen Taylor

Wow, this hit me. I don’t know where to start, I am a singer/performer who is afraid to release music yet alone ask my peers to play for me or form a band around my material. I feel like I have “imposter syndrome” and that no one REALLY wants to collaborate with me even though they tell me they WANT to play, it’s absolutely depressing, If I get a compliment on my singing I always deflect with “Eh it was ok” or “Im not that great” some deflection that always picks apart at myself, but I don’t REALLY believe that I’m that bad at singing, but my inner voice doesn’t let me have small victories. I feel like I’m crazy or something, like I’m wasting my time and talent. I feel massive amounts of guilt for not really going for it as hard as my friends who play their original material and that I’m just a parody, a guy who has the “talent” but is afraid to move, a failure to launch of sorts. I’ve written songs 5 years ago that I endlessly pore over and rewrite but do nothing with it, well that’s not true, I’m working on my first EP right now, but I still have fear that no one will want to play or even worst, no one shows up to the show. I know I sound manic in this but here I am, typing “Self Sabotage” into google. The funny thing is when I do sing I get nothing but love and support and praise etc, but it doesn’t matter. I feel hollow. I don’t know where it came from, it’s like the older I got the less I believe in my abilities and still I play in a great cover band right in Times Square every weekend. I don’t know how to get out of my head and live vibrantly and abundantly with my own music. I used to do it in my early twenties, me and my best friend played all the time had bands and recorded with some of our favorite artists, but that friendship ended and now it’s like I was never prepared to be a solo artist. I know I’m rambling but I had to get it out.

chris m

i love this . i came from an abuse child hood and with all my relationships i look for some one to love me and when i do think i found some i have a hard time because part of me says i am going to get hurt when they say i love you and i care about you. my mom use to say to me every morning after abuse me . so when i hear the words i love you i remember what my mom said to me the next morning. this really help me look at my self and saying love should be abuse and i have a lot of work to do thank you

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