We all do it. I did it last week. I’ll probably do it again before the week is over. On Monday I didn’t send an email I was supposed to send, even though it could have led to interesting opportunities in the future. Last week I was supposed to commit a day to developing a new project for my business, which could lead to lots of lovely passive income, and instead I farted around with minor admin tasks that filled up my entire day.
I had every intention of shooting for the moon. Instead, I shot myself in the foot. That’s self-sabotage.
Self-sabotage is any action that gets in the way of your intentions. It can manifest in behaviour that’s self-defeating, or any choice you make (consciously or not) that gets in the way of you achieving your own goals or plans.
In our personal lives we might sabotage our diet by telling ourselves that cookies don’t count, or put off that argument with a loved one by focussing on the housework instead, or pop a pill instead of choosing a healthier option.
In our creative professional lives, self-sabotage is just as problematic, but sometimes extremely hard to spot. Clever creative people can develop some extremely sophisticated and inventive methods of self-sabotage that don’t even seem to be creating blockages – until the deadline has passed, or the goal is unmet, or the dream is destroyed.
The occasional moment of self-sabotage is mostly harmless, but the habit of destructive actions can eventually lead to a downward spiral of self-defeat that’s very hard to break.
I asked some of my colleagues and clients to recognise their most common self-sabotage methods when working in their creative practice or business. In no particular order, I was told:
- “I procrastinate with stupid little activities until it’s too late to do the big work.”
- “I tell myself I’ll be ready to get going after another episode on Netflix – and then the day is gone.”
- “I have to do the dishes/washing/housework before I can sit down to write.”
- “It has to be perfect. If it’s not perfect I’ll just keep working on it and it’s never finished and I can never move to the next thing.”
- “I get halfway through a project/task/business and then I find it boring, and want to try something new, so I don’t finish anything.”
- “I exhaust myself on other work and don’t give my creative life my full attention.”
- “I write 50 things on my daily to-do list, even though in reality I can probably only manage to complete 5 tasks, and then I hate myself for being so hopeless.”
- “I take on too much work, and then do a half-arsed job of everything, and then feel terrible about myself and the quality of my work.”
- “I avoid the hard things, focus on the easy thing, and then just go round in circles.”
- “I put my kids/partner/friends first, and then there’s nothing left for me and my work.”
Any of those sound familiar?
There are many views on why we sabotage ourselves, and it does seem to be a natural part of the human condition. However, self-sabotage in its extreme form is a psychological issue that needs the support of a mental health professional.
The most common reasons for self-sabotage at work are:
Low Self-Worth: You don’t think you deserve happiness or success. If you achieve either state, ironically, you might start to undermine the situation because it doesn’t match how you think you should feel. Cognitive dissonance is a common feeling for most people, but in its extreme can be a real issue.
Control: Staying where you are in your career or creative progression is easier to control than an unknown future. If you don’t try to reach your goals, then your life will stay as it is, and you’ll be in the comfortable familiar rather than the scary unknown. If you have made rules for how your life should be, perhaps based on defences and walls that you built long ago, breaking those rules could lead to creative bedlam. Those walls were once protecting you from chaos, now perhaps they’re holding you back from creative bliss.
Imposter Syndrome: The feeling that you’re a fraud, and that your triumphs are undeserved, can lead people to feel like a fake. Imposter Syndrome is terribly common, but at its worst can lead to cycles of procrastination and diversion to alleviate the feeling that you haven’t earned the right to your success or happiness.
A Reason for Failure: If you don’t try, you’ll never know. If a goal is not resolved, then you can easily blame the lack of action instead of yourself. Of course you missed that deadline, you had so much else to do! Of course you didn’t finish that work, you didn’t have time! Of course you can’t make your creative career a priority, there’s so much housework! If you can blame housework for your failures, you’ll never have to acknowledge that maybe you just couldn’t cut it. Or maybe you could – with all that other stuff to do, you’ll never know.
Fear: New is scary. Risk is uncertain. Reaching for a goal or working toward a plan can lead us to somewhere new, and that can be very frightening. Fear of failure, of our inner critic, of danger, of rejection – what if… what if? The anxiety of new, regardless of success or failure, can sometimes lead us to stay with what we know, even though we really want to try something different.
The first step to correcting self-sabotage is to recognise it happening. Noticing it at the time makes it easier to stop, but even recognising the habits or actions of self-sabotage after they’ve occurred is a good start. Once you start to notice the patterns and habits, you can start working on changing them.
Understanding the roots of your self-sabotage helps as well, but that might require a more focussed approach toward a positive outlook; and the support of a loved one, a good friend, or a mental health professional.
Self-sabotage is extremely personal, so a one-size solution does not fit all. How you derail yourself in your creative career or business could be totally different from your personal life, too. Solutions could range from practicing mindfulness, getting more rest, slowing down or refocussing on your goals. It could be as simple as a walk or as complex as sessions with a therapist.
One strategy that can help, however, is to foster self-compassion. Self-compassion is the process of giving ourselves the same kindness that we would give to a good friend. Learning how to befriend ourselves can lead to greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-conceptions, and better strategies for coping with fear and anxiety.
Now, I’m off to send that email and work on that project. I hope you can find the courage and compassion to do the same.
Some opinions to help:
“There is stability in self-destruction, in prolonging sadness as a means of escaping abstractions like happiness. Rock bottom is a surprisingly comfortable place to lay your head. Looking up from the depths of another low often seems a lot safer than wondering when you’ll fall again. Falling feels awful.
I’d rather fucking fly.”
“You can fail at what you don’t what – so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love”.
Jim Carrey, commencement ceremony for Maharishi University of Management
Insight Timer App: A meditation and wellbeing mobile phone app, https://insighttimer.com/
How To Be Yourself – Why Do We Self-Sabotage
Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion