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    5 MIN READ

    The science of self-sabotage

    Why do we like to fuck everything up?

    I’ve given up boycotting myself.

    As someone who used to gravitate towards trouble, addicted to chaos, I now clutch at the sanctity of life a little too tightly.

    I would thank a dedicated self-improvement journey for this seismic shift, but it feels more authentic to simply acknowledge the maturity principle of adult personal development.

    I’m cautious to reflect too obsessively over those tumultuous years although that’s not to say I haven’t tried.

    Aided by therapy, I dabbled in introspection with ferocity and frequency.

    But every time I tried to uncover the ‘why’ behind my self-sabotage ways, I was flooded with emotional motion sickness and a Pandora’s Box of behavioural conundrums. For all the standard textbooks explanations of self-sabotage – childhood trauma, low self-esteem, fear of failure – felt like, well… a bit of a scapegoat.



    Stanford Prison provocateur, Philip G. Zimbardo once assumed that ‘‘If you put good apples into a bad situation, you’ll get bad apples’’. It’s a nihilistic assumption of human agency, but one that forms the psychological underpinnings of self-sabotage.

    Self-sabotage is rarely considered an isolated act. According to time-honoured psychology, the reasons are usually apparent. There’s a cause and effect. Conduct a Boolean search of ‘self-sabotage’ alongside ‘why we do it’ or ‘the roots of’ and you’ll be flooded with theories prioritising ‘nurture’ over ‘nature’ or generational trauma.

    It was my need to uphold a chaotic, ‘wild child’ image, that had held me prisoner to my own self-sabotage. I thought being the proud owner of a ‘bad’ reputation made me interesting.




    My personal unravelling of the ‘why’ behind certain problematic behaviours led me down an emotional path of casting blame and sensationalising experiences. I magnified hardships customary to the human experience with the same over-the-top fervour of a DailyMail report breaking an ‘exclusive story’. Ah, ha!

    I was the spin doctor of my own life. In therapy, old wounds rose to the surface and I rehashed memories in a theatrical way as if scared to waste my therapist’s time with the true mundanity of their impact. I became both a victimiser and a victim. I mixed and matched scenarios – breakups, family conflict, friendship fallouts – until I settled on causality for my wayward ways.

    It was my need to uphold a chaotic, ‘wild child’ image, that had held me prisoner to my own self-sabotage.

    In order to protect a dominant identity, I tripped myself up. I thought being the proud owner of a ‘bad’ reputation made me interesting. Despite cleaning up my behaviour, I would continue to self-sabotage my character by way of ‘back in the day’ storytelling. Each recount made me appear a little dumber, a little more reckless, a little more neurotic.




    Perhaps we self-sabotage with certain behaviours because we perceive them in a way that is complementary to our identity. A perfectionist may beat themselves up with fierce self-critique because it’s harmonious with reliability and consistency. The ‘class clown’ or ‘office jokester’ may fumble through serious commitments or dumb themselves down, because the pleasure they derive from being everyone’s go-to laugh outweighs all. The bohemian friend may half-heartedly go after their goals to continue a facade of carefreeness and nonconformism.

    As humans, we’re moulded by expectations. In the ‘self-verification theory,’ social psychologist Bill Swan explains that we want to be perceived by others, according to how we see ourselves. When our self-views are validated, we feel stable. As someone prone to self sabotaging-by-reputation, I thought my traits of independence, vivaciousness and fun were more compatible with an outward enactment of rebellion. It’s a classic case of cognitive dissonance, this need for consistency between our attitudes and actions, and is embedded in human nature.



    Procrastination – perhaps the most common self-sabatory behaviour – can be traced back to Ancient Greece. In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates questions why “If one judges action A to be the best course of action, one would do anything other than A.” The Greek’s call this ‘akrasia’ which translates to ‘weakness of the will’.

    According to Aristotle, acting against one’s better judgement is caused by passion or weakness. This take is hotly debated by critics, with some convinced that humans accidentally misconstrue wrong actions as being right.

    So what if we’re weak as humans though? The odds are stacked up against us. If you look at how we’ve been primed over decades to fall for instant gratification, or hyperbolic discounting, are we really to blame for wanting immediate pleasure over delayed goodness? It’s in our biology. It’s in our psyche.



    I’m also not convinced of the ‘fear of failure’ justification of self-sabotage.

    Perhaps I’m biased. I try new things for the sake of a good story to tell. The thrill of new experiences will always outweigh probable failure. Fear of failure is a legitimate handicap for many, but it’s also a universal truth of life: elections, tests, house bidding. Surely, we’re immune by now?

    A stronger hypothesis is that a fear of failure is rather a fear of shame. Shame is constructed socially and results in that god-awful feeling that something is wrong with you. Perhaps we self-sabotage because it is easier to externalise our shortcomings. First theorised by Edward E. Jones and Steven Berglas, we create (and claim) hardships in anticipation of failure because we’re not ready to expose our weaknesses. Anyone who has ever been called ‘gifted’ or in possession of ‘potential’ knows there’s nothing so shameful as failing; when scaling to great heights is the only forecast for such aptitude. Failure to reach these heights is dramatised as witnesses scramble to understand what went wrong. They had it so easy.

    We try to hide the shame of our inadequacies by adding causal factors to the mix. Years of undiagnosed ADHD made holding down long-term, stable relationships – platonic and romantic – difficult. I no longer have untreated manic idiosyncrasies to fall back on as a protective buffer between failure and shame.

    And so, to protect myself, I take longevity off the cards. I only date when there’s an implied end in sight. An expiry date calms me down. I used to pick fights to fast-track the inevitable so that when the end nears, I’m cushioned by the obvious understanding of why success was never an option. Or that my personality, values and character had nothing to do with that. It was circumstantial after all.

    We self-sabotage because, after all, what is an easier pill to swallow? That you were dumped for purposefully being difficult, or because you just weren’t enough? That you weren’t promoted because you’re a bare minimum kinda worker or because you’re actually somewhat untalented? It’s always easier to fail as a make-pretend.

    self-sabotage allows us to gain control of our narrative. Control is a deep-rooted biological and psychological necessity and having choice allows us to capture it. We can ‘choose’ our paths, and predict our destiny.

    Self-sabotage is rooted in human nature, mutates through introspection and flowers in a culture of constant peer assessment. The reasons why we self-sabotage aren’t always hiding in childhood trauma or self-esteem levels. There’s a mystery in what we can not understand and frankly, we’re only being slowed down by introspection illusion. To part with the wisdom of Hermann Hesse, “I will no longer mutilate and destroy myself in order to find a secret behind the ruins.”