GuidesEmployee experienceHow to overcome self-sabotaging behavior at work

How to overcome self-sabotaging behavior at work

Last updated

16 November 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Warren Jonas ACC

Self-sabotage is when you work against your best interests. It’s usually the result of unconscious thoughts and behaviors rather than intentional acts. Because of this, recognizing and correcting self-sabotaging behaviors can be difficult.

Self-sabotaging at work could significantly harm your future, so recognizing these behaviors can have profound benefits. The first step to recognizing self-sabotaging behavior is knowing how to identify it.

What causes self-sabotaging behavior?

Understanding the underlying cause is a key step toward stopping self-sabotaging behavior. Let’s start by examining the reasons why you might inadvertently sabotage your own chances of success.

Low self-esteem and self-worth

If you don’t feel you’re worth much to your employer, you might not make much effort at work. You might will yourself into becoming the lackluster employee you perceive yourself to be.

In contrast, you’d likely make far more effort if you had confidence in your abilities. 

Fear of success or failure

Some people fear the greater responsibility that comes with being more successful in their jobs. Others are afraid of failing.

If you fear success or failure, you’re unlikely to progress much further beyond what your job description requires of you. Doing the bare minimum keeps you in a perceived safe space where you’re unlikely to succeed or fail.

The need for control or perfectionism

Voltaire said, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Perfectionism as self-sabotage is a good example of that.

Spending too much time trying to do a job perfectly means you’re reducing the time you could spend more productively. When your quest for perfection routinely causes your work to suffer, it may even snowball into other self-sabotaging thoughts, such as a lack of self-esteem.

Past traumatic experiences or unresolved issues

Past issues can impact how you perform at work. A common example is being so afraid of repeating a past mistake that you can’t step outside of your comfort zone. You might also avoid some aspects of your job because they trigger negative memories or emotions.

Cognitive causes

Cognitive causes of self-sabotage are an extension of some of the psychological causes above. They are listed separately because they are tricks your mind plays on you that prevent you from achieving your goals.

Cognitive distortions or negative self-talk

Cognitive distortions can prevent you from seeing the world accurately. For example, life has natural ups and downs, but if you convince yourself that every setback is the result of a personal failure, you’ll quickly develop the types of self-esteem issues that can cause self-sabotage.

Over-generalization and magnification of mistakes

Sometimes, the setback is of your own doing. We all make mistakes. But the worst mistake you can make in terms of self-sabotage is to assume you can’t do your job correctly just because you messed up once.

A single mistake is not a pattern of behavior, but it can become one if you allow cognitive distortions to set in.

Mind-reading or assuming the worst

There could be any number of reasons a coworker is less than friendly on a given day. A mind-reader will assume the worst and put thoughts into their coworker’s head that probably don’t exist. This creates tension between you and your coworkers. While it may be entirely unfounded, the tension will still impact your job performance.

Environmental causes

Work conditions can also cause self-sabotage. An ideal work environment is friendly and supportive, although not everyone works in conditions that are beneficial to performance.

Workplace culture and dynamics

To perform at your best, you need to feel confident in your performance and have the ambition to try. A toxic work environment can deprive you of confidence and ambition.

When coworkers or other workplace conditions make you feel negative about yourself, it’s easy to get stuck in the trap of inertia—just floating to survive instead of swimming to safety.

Negative feedback or lack of acknowledgment

Have you ever done a great job only to have your manager barely acknowledge it or focus on what you didn’t do so well? This can be even worse than when toxicity comes from your peers. It can make you think making an effort is pointless.

Unhealthy competition or comparison with peers

Everyone performs at different levels. If you have a rockstar coworker who you think is much better at the job, you may find yourself trying too hard to compete or giving up completely. In both scenarios, you’re preventing yourself from living up to your potential in an attempt to match someone else’s.

Examples of self-sabotaging behaviors at work

Now that you know what causes self-sabotaging behaviors, take a look at some of the behaviors themselves. If you notice yourself engaging in any of these behaviors, there’s a good chance you’re sabotaging your own success without realizing it.

Procrastinating instead of tackling a challenging task

Many of the causes of self-sabotage result in feelings of inadequacy that prevent you from trying your best. When you feel defeated before you’ve even started, you might procrastinate by prioritizing other, simpler tasks. You might find yourself making excuses to delay the thing you’re intimidated by, whether it’s coming up with a solution to a complex problem, applying for a promotion, or even having a challenging conversation with a colleague.

Some people find themselves making endless to-do lists, ticking off lots of easy tasks while the challenging tasks remain. Remember, quality is sometimes better than quantity. Ultimately, your procrastination is harming your productivity and contributing to an endless cycle of self-sabotage.

Thinking you’re a failure and acting like one

Imagine you’ve got an important company presentation scheduled for 9am on Friday. You’ll be presenting the new project you’ve been working on to investors. The trouble is that you’re dreading the presentation. You have no confidence in your abilities and are facing a major case of imposter syndrome.

In reality, there’s no reason why the presentation should go badly. You’ve put endless hours of hard work into this project and know it like the back of your hand.

Still, your self-sabotaging behaviors come to the fore, and you start acting like you’ve failed before you’ve even started. On Thursday night, you go to a bar until the early hours, wake up feeling worse for wear, and, in a rush, pull on a crumpled outfit with a coffee stain. You arrive late and forget your notes. The presentation is a disaster.

Ultimately, your self-criticism influences how you behave, which can have negative consequences, just like in the example above.

Avoidance and escapism

People have a tendency to avoid things that make them uncomfortable. Do you find yourself avoiding things at work that don’t come naturally or easily to you? Faced with a choice between taking a course of action you know will be challenging but will have incredible results or the easy option that won’t be as good but will be easy to see through, which would you choose?

Always choosing the latter option—the easy option—is a self-sabotaging behavior. If you want to make a difference and excel in your role, you’ll need to step out of your comfort zone. Doing so can help you challenge yourself, learn new things, and boost your self-confidence.

Seeking external validation

Do you find it hard to make decisions and stick to them? Do you find yourself asking others for their opinion instead of voicing and acting on your own? Do you feel ashamed of yourself if others don’t agree with your thoughts and beliefs? These are self-sabotaging behaviors.

Performing at your best requires you to be able to think on your feet and be decisive. Of course, in some situations, it’s best to ask others for their input, especially if they have the relevant knowledge or experience. But constantly seeking validation from others prevents you from taking the kind of initiative you need to succeed and be noticed at work.

How to prevent self-sabotaging behavior

If you’re guilty of any of the self-sabotaging behaviors listed above, the next step is to find a way to work past them so you can get out of your own way and realize your potential.

Here are some methods for working past the issues that can cause you to self-sabotage:

Self-awareness and reflection

Self-awareness is the cornerstone of personal and professional development. Being self-aware means understanding your weaknesses so you can work on them. It also means understanding your strengths. Knowing what you’re good at can help counteract negative self-talk if it emerges. Self-awareness comes through reflection.

Practice reflection by periodically looking back on your past actions, decisions, and behaviors. The goal is to identify patterns—both the good and the bad. In particular, look for those that lead to self-sabotage and those that lead to positive performances and experiences. Once you notice the patterns, it’s easier to develop strategies that prevent self-sabotaging behaviors.

The Johari Window model

You can use the Johari Window model to improve your self-awareness. The model, created by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955, has four quadrants: open area, blind area, hidden area, and unknown area.

First, list the adjectives that you believe describe yourself. Then, ask your colleagues to write the adjectives they think describe you. In the open area, write the adjectives both you and your colleagues listed. In the blind area, write only those your colleagues listed. In the hidden area, write the adjectives that only you chose. Use the unknown area to write adjectives chosen by neither of you that you discover throughout your self-awareness journey.

Over time, as you and your colleagues become more aware of your characteristics, the open area will get larger, and the hidden area will get smaller. The goal is to get more comfortable with seeking and receiving feedback, expanding your self-awareness.

Setting clear goals and priorities

Self-sabotage often comes from a lack of direction and purpose, but setting clear goals can help you solve this. The key to setting goals is to use the SMART system. This acronym is a way to remember that your goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. This helps ensure you can complete the goals and track your progress.

As you determine your goals, prioritize those that matter most. This way, the bulk of your energy is spent on something that will provide you with the most benefit. Remember: goals and priorities can change, so revisit them regularly.

Building resilience and positive self-talk

Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. There will always be setbacks at work, but only you decide how you respond to them. When you learn to view challenges as opportunities to learn and grow, they become less of a liability and more of an asset. Nobody wants setbacks, but if you can use them to grow as a person, they become a net positive. This also helps you avoid them in the future.

Just as setbacks are inevitable, so are victories. Often, we don’t take enough time to celebrate the victories. We dwell endlessly on the bad but never take time to appreciate the good. This can create the illusion that the bad outweighs the good. Counteract this by taking the time to appreciate when something good happens and turn that appreciation into positive self-talk.

Seeking feedback and building support systems

Although relying on feedback too much can be a sign of self-sabotage, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek feedback at all. Constructive criticism helps you to find areas where you need improvement, and positive feedback helps you learn what works so you can repeat it. The important part is knowing who to seek feedback from and when to seek it.

A reliable support system of colleagues, mentors, coaches, and supervisors will provide a safety net to help you through hard times and provide trustworthy feedback when needed. If you have noticed self-sabotaging behaviors, this support group can also help remind you when you’re engaging in them.

Establishing a rewards system

A rewards system can help you reinforce positive habits and overcome self-sabotaging behaviors.

Give yourself a treat whenever you don’t exhibit self-sabotaging behaviors. This might look like going to the cinema, having a drink with friends, or enjoying your favorite candy bar every time you step outside of your comfort zone, tick off a challenging task, or make a tough call.

Your rewards system could even be as simple as writing yourself a positive note explaining what you did well and what it meant. Next time you’re having a moment of self-doubt, re-read the notes to remind yourself of your full potential.

Resources available to help overcome self-sabotaging behaviors

If your underlying reasons for self-sabotage are deeply ingrained, the limited discussion in this article might not be enough to get you past them. Thankfully, there are several resources available that will help you explore the topic in more depth.

Professional counseling and therapy

Sometimes, the best way to work out your problems is with someone who is trained to help. Professional counseling can provide you with a structured environment to help you understand any underlying issues that may be leading to self-sabotage. Mental health professionals can give you the tools you need to overcome those issues.

A common type of therapy for self-sabotage is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you understand and minimize cognitive distortions. Another is acceptance and commitment therapy, which can help you accept your emotions without letting them control you.

Coaching and training programs

A coach who has expertise in career development can help you set goals, identify challenges, and develop a strategy to get you on track to a more fulfilling career.

If the cause of your self-sabotage comes from self-esteem issues or issues with dealing with other people, the coach may be able to help you realize that you have more worth than you think.

If you have a genuine deficiency in some aspect of your job, a training program can help you fill in the gaps. Once you improve your skills, you’ll have the confidence to move forward and perform at your best.

Self-help books and resources

If you need a more in-depth understanding of how to get over obstacles that you create for yourself, you may find many of the answers you need in self-help books. There are plenty of good books out there written by knowledgeable people about how to confront life’s challenges and avoid the cognitive distortions that can get in the way.

There’s also a lot of fluff in this genre. As you evaluate the many books available, be sure to read reviews to find one that provides meaningful insights rather than empty cliches or unproven tactics. Books by people in the mental health profession or from authors who back up their claims with scientific evidence are your best options.


How long does it typically take to see progress in overcoming self-sabotage?

How long it takes to overcome self-sabotage depends on the steps you take to recognize it, prevent it, and stamp out the underlying causes.

To make real, long-term change, you need to recognize the emotions behind your self-sabotaging behaviors. Changing them will help you prevent self-sabotage and excel in the long run.

What’s the difference between self-sabotage and constructive self-critique?

Constructive self-critique involves looking at yourself honestly, identifying your weaknesses, establishing what you could do better, and setting achievable goals. You’ll need to focus on specific changeable behaviors, not fixed characteristics.

Self-sabotage is the action you take as a result of the negativity you feel about yourself. Too much unconstructive self-criticism could lead to self-sabotaging behaviors.

What mindfulness techniques can be used during a busy work day to reduce self-sabotage triggers?

Practicing mindfulness techniques can help you reduce self-sabotage triggers and behaviors. These practices can help you handle triggers and overcome them.

You might decide to practice meditation at work. Find a quiet spot and take a few minutes to sit with your thoughts. Doing so could help you recognize, understand, and release them. Breathwork is another helpful tool. Taking intentional breaths can help calm you when facing self-critical thoughts, align your mind, and enable you to emerge more capable of tackling the task at hand.

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