There’s No such Thing as “Self-Sabotage”

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A quick look around the web will find a plethora of articles, blog posts and helpful tips all about self-sabotage, but I want to suggest that there really is no such thing.

This is a new idea for me, and I want to thank one of my clients for it. We were discussing something & the client characterized a series of unfortunate events as “self-sabotage” and then went on. The problem at that point was that the expression self-sabotage was a glib label and didn’t provide any insight. There is, of course, an entire approach to psychotherapy which is extremely behaviorist in nature and doesn’t worry about insight. But even for a behaviorist, a little insight now and again can be helpful. And the problem with using the expression self-sabotage as a label is that it doesn’t explain or describe anything.

There’s another angle: our image of a saboteur is someone who sneaks around and secretly messes things up. So if I’m self-sabotaging, I’m secretly screwing things up and can look forward to a long, painful process of ferreting out the secrets while continuing to hurt myself. Yuck.

There are a couple of additional things that are unhelpful about the label. First, it’s a form of name-calling on yourself. “I self-sabotage” is a way of saying that you’re a trouble-maker for yourself, that you deliberately hurt yourself or are somehow a bad person. In the framework of cognitive therapy, it is the cognitive distortion of labeling, in which  you dismiss something by giving it a name. A more blatant version of this might be if you make a mistake, and instead of saying to yourself (or others) “I made a mistake,” you say “I’m an idiot.” An even more pernicious view is that I secretly am harming myself, and I will have to take a long time to find out this secret that I am hiding from myself.

The corollary problem with using the label is that it’s too vague. So I tried to do something and it went wrong. Did I undertake a task without enough planning? Without enough resources? Did I need to enlist the aid of friends and tried to do it alone? Did I shoot from the hip when a more measured response to something would have been more appropriate? Here’s a little list that includes a variety of forms of self-sabotage (but is far from exhaustive):

If you peruse the list, you will see that some of the things that are on the list have wildly different solutions. So my suggestion is this: when you catch yourself using the label self-sabotage, check your assumptions. 

This is a moment where the classic nonjudgmental stance, combined with some self-compassion, can really get you started on a helpful change process.

Not to be too paradoxical about it, but dismissing your behavior with the label self-sabotage when you’re unhappy with yourself is a form of self-sabotage. But which form?

P.S. I’m assuming folks know the origin of the word sabotage. If not, look here:


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in change, cognitive therapy, mental health, Recovery, spirituality, Therapy processes, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to There’s No such Thing as “Self-Sabotage”

  1. How about self harmers?

    • jamesmatter says:

      It’s a tough one, I’ll admit. And yet, something like cutting (for example) can be a tool for getting lots of attention, making psychic pain visible through people SEEING the cuts, for feeling in control– a lot of stuff that is very positive when you look at it that way. The trick is for the person to learn how to get attention, feel seen, and feel in control without cutting. There’s a huge literature in this (self harm) area.

  2. jamesmatter says:

    In psychotherapy there’s the concept of what’s known as secondary gain. The example I was taught in school was the case of naval aviator school candidates who developed blurred vision when they were on the brink of washing out. The problem was psychosomatic: but it was more acceptable to exit the program for failing eyesight than for academic or other performance failures.

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