An interesting fact about habits is that it’s a negative art. Commonly, you have a better chance of correcting your overall behavior by getting rid of self-sabotaging habits vs. focusing on good habits.
Intuitively, when it’s the new year, and we’re about to make a grand commitment for the upcoming 12 months. Or if we simply want to impress the online crowd by posting something outrageous – for the sake of getting attention. We say to ourselves:
“How can I get better? What habits I should adopt to fix my life and crawl from the misery I self-created?”
Not that these are wrong questions per se. But in the field of behavior change, asking questions like, “How can I be less worse? What habits I should expel from my life to make it better”?” can be a lot more effective.
The negative habits of a person influence the overall behavior far more than any positive ones.
Meaning, that instead of focusing on, “How can I become healthier?” Trying to be less unhealthy will serve you better.
What Are Self-Sabotaging Habits?
Self-sabotaging habits are repetitive behavior patterns that stall your progress and prevent you from reaching your goals. They crush your dreams and disallow you from living a life as per your personal core values.
According to scientific studies, self-sabotaging behavior can be classified into two major categories:1
- Self-sabotaging habits related to impulsivity;
- Self-sabotaging habits related to neuroticism.
And before I tell you which ones are the worst negative habits a person can have, let’s look at what causes self-destructiveness.
What Causes Self-Sabotaging Behavior?
Environmental and social factors play a major role in our life.
Do you have a good relationship with your parents? Were you cared for and encouraged to experiment as a child?
Not that much?
Well, then don’t get surprised when you can’t fall asleep because you are ruminating about something you said 4 years ago.
Self-doubt, worry, and impulsivity are the main factors that lead us to the doorstep of destructive behavior. But we don’t just stand up in front of the door. No! We happily enter inside and demolish our current progress.
Commonly, we act in such a dumb way because of negative past experiences. And in our attempt to forget about what bad happened. We engage in more and more things that can make us feel good right now.
This leads to major pitfalls.
You want good reading habits, but having more likes on social media is far more engaging and instant.
You want to save money, but spending money is far more exciting and important for your online image.
When your actions are solely based on the latest trends. When the desire to experience pleasure is all that guides you. You might be the first one to sign up for a gym membership when everyone in your online group is doing it. But you will also be the first one to quit when things get hard.
Common Self-Sabotaging Habits
Why on earth will someone with his right mind engage in destructive behavior? Why would you self-sabotage?
The answer is simple: Self-sabotage behaviors might sound like they are instantly bad. But in reality, they are instantly good.
Here are a few examples:
- Procrastination: Our tendency to procrastinate is based on avoidance. Procrastination is not laziness. We simply make excuses not to do certain tasks simply because they are harder. As a person who writes. The pleasure usually comes once I’m finished. Once I have a well-polished article ready to be published. And as you can imagine, this takes a lot of time. To get to the good stuff and still do something related to the topic, I can watch videos about writing – i.e., procrastinate.
- Perfectionism: Setting high expectations for yourself is an elegant way to not do anything. “Oh, there is no point in trying to draw. I still haven’t finished my books and courses on drawing. Once I’m done, I can then get a pencil and try the exercises I’m learning now.” When you label yourself as a perfectionist. You get instant pleasure by working on your craft without ever crafting anything.
- Defensiveness: The protection of your most precious asset – i.e., your ego. Is an ongoing battle. Nobody wants to feel inadequate. Thus, instead of exposing ourselves to new opportunities and learning by failing. We stand still in the same average place avoiding failure while we are also avoiding success.
Understanding The Psychology Behind Self-Sabotage
The basic premise behind self-sabotage is that a person engages in behaviors that undermine their own success and prevent them from reaching their goals.
And while it may seem like a simple issue to overcome. The truth is that self-sabotage is often rooted in deep-seated psychological patterns that are difficult to recognize and change.
To others, we tell that we want that new job. That we want to start a business. That we want to run that marathon. To ourselves, and often without conscious desire, we prefer to choose what’s comfortingly familiar.
Even if escaping a job is perfectly logical if the pay is low and the conditions resemble a nuclear winter. Staying where you are is far less difficult than trying to get to something fulfilling.
After all, getting what we want feels unbearably risky. It puts us at the mercy of fate. Outside what we know. Outside our comfort zone.
Even if we try. As we get closer to what we say we want. We get further away from what feels comfortable and known.
Thus, we begin to slip – both externally and internally. Quite commonly without even realizing it.
Externally, you pull off a show. You make it appear like you are working hard. As if you are doing your best. Internally, though, self-doubt takes over. Probably because as a child, you were often told that you are not good enough. That you can’t do this or that you can’t do that. But what happens is that you talk yourself out of trying harder. Or, you find an external source that you can blame to protect your self-esteem – e.g., explain that you will not start a business because the economy is unstable now.
Eventually, when we fail. Or when we quit somewhere in the middle. We can at least tell ourselves that we tried.
Self-sabotage may leave us sad but at least safely, blessedly, in control.
Strategies For Overcoming Self-Sabotaging Habits
When you are engaging in destructive behavior, it’s either the reckless FOMO or the defensive atychiphobia.
FOMO forces you to invest your time in activities without considering the consequences. You see someone getting a promotion and you start to crave the same type of change. But instead of taking a rational approach – i.e., thinking about it. You make an emotional one by spending the entire weekend looking at job offers instead of first figuring out what you need to learn in order to change your career.
A useful strategy for defeating self-sabotaging habits is organizing your environment to get timely feedback.
Typically, you don’t get feedback about your actions – a.k.a. bad habits. Or at least it’s never immediately obvious. At the same time, you also don’t instantly get the gains from the good habits.
For example, eating a couple of chocolate donuts powdered with sugar on top doesn’t feel immediately bad. You gain weight only after some time if you keep eating these sweet round devils regularly.
At the same time, exercising today doesn’t lead to immediate changes. You get stronger and fitter only after some time if you keep exercising.
But from the two above, which one feels better now? Yes, exactly, the eating-the-donut behavior.
And since your bad actions don’t feel like they are bad and the good ones also don’t feel they are good. Quite normally, the brain focuses on what is easy and pleasant now. And what is easy and pleasant now is always a negative habit of some sort. Slowly leading your life to a disaster.
The boiling frog syndrome is a beautiful way to portray this.2
The story is the following:
“A frog put suddenly in hot water will jump right out to save itself. But if it is put into cold water that is gradually heated up, the frog will stay there happily until it boils to death.”
In the first scenario, the frog can immediately detect the problem and escape while thinking something along the lines of: “This water is deadly hot! I need to escape!”
In the second scenario – the cold water slowly getting hotter. The frog is probably thinking: “Seems to be getting a little warm in here. Well, but then it’s not so much warmer than it was a while ago.”
We can relate the above to fit the eating donuts example. “Seems that I’m gaining weight. Well, yeah, but not so much compared to a while ago.”
To stop digging a deeper moat around yourself. You need to structure your surroundings so you can immediately recognize that a negative habit is indeed a negative habit.
A lot of companies producing goods are already doing this.
- Cigarette manufacturers are obliged to put a number you can call to help you quit smoking. Plus, there are photos on the package of the potential consequences of this behavior.
- Companies that sell cookies and other fat-intensive goods need to state the calories of their product.
Sadly, these rarely help. And they don’t help because these messages are too generic.
We are perfectly aware that cigarettes are not vitamin D. Yet again, we don’t quit because we created a narrative in our head explaining how unharmful these little chimneys are for us. You protect your habit with a story of some sort. For example, “My uncle is 90 years old. He smokes and he is fine. Why quit?”
To rewrite these narratives. You need to be more exclusive about how harmful these actions are to your goals. To get instant feedback about your self-sabotaging habits.
On a micro level, this can happen by adjusting your environment. For example, putting labels on products that lead to nasty behavior. Say, if you can’t throw out your chips. Put a label on it, “Did you exercise today?”
On a macro level, it can be thinking long term. Pausing every time you are about to do something stupid and asking yourself: “What would my older version think about this behavior?”
Smoking cigarettes right now probably won’t choke you to death. But if you are 40, what would the 50-year-old version of you think of this behavior? Probably he/she won’t quite enjoy it.
Some Closing Thoughts
Focusing on removing the negative behavior. Removing the self-sabotaging habits. Instead of first trying to create a totally new lifestyle, is the most important first step if you want to make a lasting change and form good new habits.
Too often – mostly because of FOMO – we engage in activities that are out of our league or such that lead only to temporary change.
We want to experience the instant pleasure of getting fitter. Thus, we buy a gym membership and a bag of pills that promise to speed up the process. But this is rarely a good long-term strategy.
Yes, you can see some improvements. But real change will happen only when the self-sabotaging behavior is no longer part of your daily routine.
This is the very reason weight loss pills and “magical” weight loss programs still sell like hot bread. People, nowadays, want to skip the process and jump straight to the outcome.
But as we all eventually learn. There is no magic formula for lasting change. There is no trick. It’s always the process.
After all, even if you do buy a gym membership and if you do read magazines about healthy living. If you continue to stuff your body with fat packaged into nice-looking products. And if you only bought the gym membership – not really used it. You won’t get far in your get-fit program.
Remove the impulsive behavior and the fear of failure, and what’s left?
You start to see the bigger picture.
You start to think differently.
And you start to avoid the good you can have now, so you can have better later.
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- Valero S, Daigre C, Rodríguez-Cintas L, Barral C, Gomà-I-Freixanet M, Ferrer M, Casas M, Roncero C. Neuroticism and impulsivity: their hierarchical organization in the personality characterization of drug-dependent patients from a decision tree learning perspective. Compr Psychiatry. 2014. On the web: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24799261/
- I found out about this concept in the great book Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows. The concept was further discussed in my post on: Can One Wrong Decision Ruin Your Life?