Me: ‘If you really cared about your degree, you wouldn’t be spending over five hours on Youtube every other day.’

Also Me: ‘I’ll just watch one more video, and then I’ll get started on my essay plan.’

That’s a glimpse into the inner dialogue I have with myself during the procrastination cycle that conveniently comes up whenever I need to get ‘big things’ done. I could swap out Youtube for anything else other than my work, and the essence is the same: ‘I’d rather do this easy, unnecessary thing than the more important and time-bound task that I should have started yesterday. Or the day before that.’ 

At its worst, procrastination makes me feel like I physically can’t stop. Like doing the task I was procrastinating on would be viscerally more painful. The secondary feelings that would arise when I missed a deadline or failed to complete a chore I’d put off would be shame and self-directed anger. In the case of an essay, I would have to pull an inevitable all-nighter to get it done. I would then tell myself that I’d start earlier next time (a false promise made when you’re buzzed on caffeine and the end is in sight), and then the cycle repeats itself when another imminent deadline approaches.

The first statement of my 2-sentence monologue makes a lot of sense. Why is it that we sometimes do things that negatively impact us? Healthy relationships, good grades, fulfilling careers – everyone has a list of big and small goals that they want to achieve. It seems so counterintuitive that we can default into doing things that actively or passively ruin our path to achieving these. You know an event is important to your friend, but you don’t show up despite you caring deeply for them. You’re in the middle of a huge project that needs your full attention, but you think it’s a great time to start something new. These are all examples of self-sabotage.

If you’re questioning why every time things are going well, you take a step back, a step that seemed rational at the time, but now in hindsight, you know it wasn’t – this is an awareness of your self-sabotaging behaviour. Yet even when we know these things to be self-destructive, pushing through them doesn’t help. Ignoring self-sabotaging behaviour raises even more negative feelings.

Am I self-sabotaging?

Self-sabotage. It’s a familiar and contradictory thing that most people do. It can be mild or devastatingly perverse, with consequences ranging from minor to immediate or even life-threatening. It can be devastating, but it’s also something which we can make sense of. 

When I googled examples of self-sabotage, I found many websites with long lists of behaviours. Some of them were obviously negative, while others were more normalised, and challenging to recognise as destructive things to do. The first article that came up was one by Psychology Today. It describes self-sabotaging behaviours as those that begin to interfere with your daily life and the long-standing goals that you have for yourself. The article lists self-sabotaging behaviours as “procrastination, self-medication with drugs or alcohol, comfort eating, and forms of self-injury such as cutting”. I also found more subtle behaviours that are easier to rationalise, showing up in more personal areas of life. These include letting others “monopolise your time”, allowing yourself to become paralysed by choice, and being a perfectionist with everything you do. It can be challenging to know when we are self-sabotaging. Still, common feelings  associated with these actions involve seeking instant gratification at the expense of goals and relationships, avoidance, and neglecting wellbeing and health.

The websites that I found also described the reasons for self-sabotage as a lack of self-worth, fearing success or failure, and wanting to exert control over a situation. I’ve found that these are often the surface reasons for self-sabotage – that we need to dig deeper because a lot of our actions extend farther back than the self-destructive behaviour itself. We can find many of the answers in our childhoods, and they inform a lot of our destructive behaviours that we normalise in our lives.

Our core beliefs: a framework for understanding self-destructive tendencies

It’s terrifying how a lot of the beliefs we learn as children can continue to inform the way we view the world as adults. These are called core beliefs, and as Dr Nicole LePera describes them, they are the ideas “created in the subconscious mind between birth-age 7 that a person has internalised as ‘truth’ or ‘reality’” and include beliefs about money and notions of success, relationships and sex, health and wellness, and productivity. We can modify these beliefs as we grow up, and they can be healthy or dysfunctional. The dysfunctional core beliefs tend to formalise the patterns of behaviours we enact when we self-sabotage.

As Randy Gage describes it, we develop these self-beliefs “before [we’ve] had the abilities of critical thinking, self-awareness, and discernment”. As children, we learn them from our parents and the institutions around us, and from how we’ve been treated by those around us. Everyone has beliefs that are individual to them, but as Dr LePere highlights, there are some common damaging core beliefs that a lot of people can resonate with:

  • Core belief #1 – ‘I am not worthy, good enough, something is “wrong” with me.’
    • Adult behaviours: self-betrayal, negative self-talk, and denying your own needs and boundaries
  • Core belief # 2 – ‘I must betray myself (or parts of myself) in order to be loved and chosen.’
    • Adult behaviours: codependency patterns, a lack of boundaries, and an inability to be vulnerable
  • Core belief # 3 – ‘I must compete, smear, or tear down others in order to “win” or get what I want.’
    • Adult behaviours: fear-based decision making, assuming people are out to get you, and an inability to collaborate
  • Core belief # 4 – ‘People will never stay + will always abandon me.’
    • Adult behaviours: insecure attachment in relationships, controlling behaviours, and impulsive behaviours like changing jobs, ending relationships, or binge-shopping
  • Core belief # 5 – ‘I am unlucky, good things do not happen to me.’
    • Adult behaviours include: sarcasm as a coping mechanism, chronic complaining, fear over revealing your dreams and goals
  • Core belief # 6 – ‘I am not safe, and the world is not safe.’
    • Adult behaviours: defensiveness, over-independence, and a lack of resilience

When we adopt these beliefs, we often don’t question, challenge or test them against new truths until a traumatic event forces us to do so. Dr LePere explains that our Reticular Activating System (RAS), which is a “bundle of nerves in the brain stem that filters out information”, is what confirms our core beliefs. This is confirmation bias, meaning that our brain tries to prove these core beliefs as truths because when these beliefs are challenged, an uncomfortable conflict arises in our image of ourselves and who we actually are or what we are capable of.

Let’s go back to my own story of procrastination: I procrastinated on big tasks because I grew up with a core belief that anything I did needed to be perfect. Up until last year, I was petrified of failure and found it easier to put off the possibility of failing, even if this meant that I wouldn’t be able to produce something that I was proud of. It was about  controlling whether I failed or not. I had to ask myself why I needed to create perfect things, why I tied this compulsion to my self-worth, and how I could become comfortable with the idea of failure.

How do I stop? 

When you’ve self-sabotaged for a long time or perhaps, your entire life, ending this cycle may seem impossible. An awareness of your self-sabotaging behaviours is the first step. By documenting and analysing those behaviours, particularly what feelings happen before and after you’ve self-sabotaged, you can become aware of a pattern. This also means recognising that these harmful thought patterns can happen “automatically without conscious processing.” By bringing conscious awareness and acceptance towards these actions, you’ve achieved a vital first step.

But that’s only the first step. What needs to happen next is questioning your core beliefs. Where did you learn the feelings that cause you to self-sabotage? How have these beliefs protected or harmed you? What evidence do you have to believe that these core beliefs are true? You must challenge yourself to find the positive counterpoints to your negative self-beliefs and question if there is any truth to the claims that your mind makes. Recognise that it is complicated, traumatic, and necessary to challenge the core beliefs that you’ve subconsciously reinforced throughout your life. That’s why being kind to yourself throughout the process is extremely important. 

Finally, it’s essential to know that this is an ongoing process and that healing from self-destructive behaviours and thoughts is not linear. It’s about challenging old beliefs and creating new, healthier ones in their place. It’s about asking for help when things feel overwhelming, even when this is something you’ve conditioned yourself not to do. 

Artwork by Alessia Daniel

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