Are you your own worst enemy?

Martha is afraid of rejection, so she withdraws from other people and adopts a scornful attitude. As a result, people avoid her and she spends most of her time alone.
Todd is afraid of not being able to live up to his boss’ standards. It takes him weeks to get a simple report done because he agonizes over every word. His anxiety often causes him to miss deadlines or to turn in substandard work because he had to rush to complete it.
Taylor wants a relationship badly. She goes out several nights a week to parties and bars and constantly asks friends to set her up with dates, but nothing ever seems to work out. Her air of desperation turns off most men.
While their situations are very different Martha, Todd and Taylor have one thing in common – they are sabotaging themselves.
Self-defeating behaviors are actions designed to ward off emotional threats such as rejection, failure or loneliness.
Ironically, however, such actions often backfire, bringing about the very thing you fear. In Martha’s case, her attempts to protect herself from rejection instead guaranteed that it would happen. No one intended to reject her, but her withdrawal pushed people away, saying nonverbally “Don’t bother me”.
Once it is developed and integrated into your personality, self-defeating behavior becomes difficult to identify. You’re unaware of what you’re doing, so you don’t make the connection between your behavior and the things that are wrong in your life. Instead, you blame other people or circumstances, or just attribute your unhappiness to bad luck.
Self-defeating behavior is costly to both mind and body. Repeatedly sabotaging your personal and/or career goals can result in:
· Buried anger
· Frustration/bitterness
· A sense of worthlessness
· Loneliness and isolation
· Hopelessness and depression
· Feelings of guilt or shame
· Health problems
And you don’t pay the price alone. Your family, friends and even strangers pay as well. They are the victims of your rage or depression; they must watch you smoke yourself to death; or they are the “other driver” in your drunk-driving accident.


Self-defeating behavior can be very difficult to recognize in yourself. Therapy can help you identify the ways in which you defeat yourself, and understand the reasons why you use self-sabotage.

Many self-defeating behaviors are developed to cope with fears. For example, if you fear rejection, you may push others away with criticism or indifference, rejecting them before they can reject you. If you are afraid of success, you may repeatedly set yourself up to fail at work. Because fears and self-defeating behaviors are so closely linked, therapy often focuses on uncovering the fears underneath self-sabotage.

If fears are the source of your self-sabotage, therapy can help you overcome them by confronting them while learning new coping behaviors that are constructive.

Self-defeating behavior can also be caused by a negative image. Because its consequences are negative, self-defeating behavior confirms or reinforces a faulty self-image. Therapy can help you replace your poor self-image with a more positive one, so that you believe you deserve better treatment and stop sabotaging yourself.

This process proceeds much more quickly with the help of a good therapist.


There are many bright, capable people who never reach their career goals or live up to their full potential. Perfectionists and other people who fear failure (or success sabotage their careers by …Procrastinating. By not giving themselves enough time to do a job, procrastinators guarantee substandard work (and eventual career failure). They avoid taking responsibility for their failure by telling themselves they could have done better if they had more time.

Ignoring criticism/feedback. Following constructive criticism from a superior can be the way out of trouble spots in your career. Self-saboteurs, however, stubbornly refuse to accept advice or heed warnings from their bosses. They continue doing things their way, and are often genuinely surprised and even indignant when they are eventually fired.

Refusing to work as a part of a team. The tem concept is an integral part of most businesses. One of the quickest ways to sabotage success is the failure to work as part of a tem. Refusing to delegate work, not sharing important information, and going outside the usual chain of command to get things done will make you standout – as an uncooperative loner who can’t get along with others.

A good mentor may be able to help you by pointing out the ways you’re hurting your career. If you can’t find someone at work you trust, or if you keep bouncing from job to job without knowing why, you may want to consult a therapist to learn why and how you’re sabotaging your career.


“It’s happened again”, your best friend wails to you. “I thought s/he was really different, but s/he wasn’t. I guess all men (or women) are alike-bad news.”

In relationships, self-defeating behavior often takes the form of….
Idealizing Your Partner. Some people doom their relationships before they even start by choosing partners that are unsuitable or even dangerous. Propelled by loneliness that they think a relationship will cure, they look at their mate through rose-colored glasses that block out or minimize negative traits such as need for control, whining jealousy or even aggressiveness.

Eventually, the glasses come off, and they see the person as s/he really is. At that point, they pity themselves for yet another relationship gone bad, and ask “Why does this keep happening to me?”, oblivious to the fact that they set themselves up to fail with their unrealistic view of their partner.

Looking for Perfection. Some people do choose good partners. However, their fear of the dependency that intimacy brings causes them to sabotage good relationships. Focusing on the normal faults and foibles of their partner, they blow them out of proportion until they can no longer stand their partner (or their partner can no longer stand them!).

They then wonder why they have such bad luck choosing partners, and why they didn’t see these flaws before.

Both idealizers and perfection-seekers can have successful relationships if they learn to recognize and break their self-defeating patterns.

Idealizers need to develop supportive and nurturing friendships so that they are not so desperate for a relationship and can look at the prospective partners more realistically. Perfectionists need to overcome their fear of dependency and realize that their partners’ flaws are not a reflection of their self-worth.


The roots of self-defeating behavior are often found in childhood. Because they’re inexperienced, children are especially prone to coping with fears or bad experiences by using behavior that ‘ s harmful in the long run.

Some of the things that can trigger self-defeating behavior in children are: Constant criticism. If a child is told that she “can never do anything right” she may begin to think of herself as incompetent, and to engage in self-defeating behavior that reinforces her poor self-image. Fear off disappointing parents. Parents are the most important people in a child’s world, and if he thinks he can’t meet their standards, he may never attempt a task at all. Excessive competition. No one likes to lose. If children are exposed to repeated, intense competition (especially if they are not skilled at the task) they may freeze up or sabotage themselves when under pressure later in life.

To protect your child… Build his self-esteem: Strong self-esteem increases a child’s confidence and wards off negative self-perceptions. Be Realistic: Know your child’s capabilities. Praise her efforts, not just the results, and make it difficult for her to disappoint you. De-emphasize competition: Encourage cooperative or non-competitive activities, fostering competition only in activities your child has mastered.

A role model with good coping skills is also important. Having a positive attitude toward challenges and failures yourself can help your child to do the same.


Self-defeating behaviors can be changed. To break your negative patterns of behavior and replace them with winning ways, you must: Admit that there’s a problem. A strong component of self-defeating behavior is denial that it exists. Because you’ve been practicing the patterns for so long, it’s easy to rationalize self-sabotage as “normal responses” that are not related to your problems. Stop blaming others. It’s easy to be helpless and play the victim. Even if your mother was a relentless perfectionist whose criticism made you afraid to try anything new because you might fail, it’s your behavior that’s the problem now, and it’s up to you to change it.
Define the problem. Once you admit there’s a problem and accept responsibility for correcting it, you need to focus on what your specific self-defeating behaviors are and what people or situations trigger them. For example, you may use procrastination to sabotage your career success, but do not do so in your personal relationships. Keeping a diary or journal may help you identify just how you sabotage yourself.
Identify and implement replacement strategies. Find positive alternatives to your self-defeating behaviors and use them! It may help to make a list of your self-defeating behaviors, and next to each one, write a healthy alternate choice. If you usually respond to a co-worker’s morning greeting with silence, for example, your healthy option might be to say a simple “Good morning” in return.
Anticipate setbacks. Like any other habits, self-defeating patterns can be hard to break, especially if you’ve been practicing them for many years. Recognize that you may return to old behavior patterns when you’re under pressure, and don’t let it discourage you or become an excuse for giving up.
Get feedback from others. Friends, family, and trusted coworkers can all be sources of support as well as constructive feedback on your new behaviors. It may be hard at first to ask for help, but many people will respond if given the opportunity. If it’s impossible to confide in friends or coworkers, or they don’t seem to be helping, you may need professional help to eliminate your self-defeating behavior.


Self-defeating behaviors can carry a physical as well as an emotional price tag.
Smokers pay the price in lung and respiratory disease; excessive drinkers, through cirrhosis or drunk driving injuries. Self-saboteurs who use eating behaviors to defeat themselves suffer from obesity, malnutrition, or a host of other physical problems generated by bulimia or anorexia.
In addition, self-defeatists may also suffer from migraines or stomach ailments caused by chronic anxiety; heart disease, physical exhaustion, hypertension or stroke from chronic stress; or sexually transmitted diseases/physical injuries from promiscuity, that only temporarily boosts low self-esteem.

Don’t victimize yourself

Most self-defeatists see themselves as victims because it frees them from taking responsibility for their behavior, .The Helpless Victim denies her self-sabotage and waits for others to rescue her from its consequences. She really believes that others are causing her problems. By continuing to deny the contribution that her own behavior makes, she also denies herself any chance of breaking out of her self-defeating patterns. Until a Helpless Victim assumes responsibility for her actions, nothing can change.

The Angry Victim acknowledges his self-defeating patterns, but still blames others for “making” him behave the way he does. Instead of trying to change, he may spend his time blaming his father for being overly critical and causing his paralyzing fear of failure. To break free, Angry Victims must realize that regardless of how they developed their self-defeating behavior, they’re the only ones who can now change it and must take responsibility for doing so.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t real victims who suffer the consequences of others’ actions, which they are powerless to control. However, self-defeatists avoid personal responsibility by staying in the victim role even when they do have control over the situation.

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About Kim K. Shirin, Ph.D

Dr. Shirin’s treatment approach is eclectic, incorporating elements of Gestalt, cognitive, hypnosis, psychoanalytic, and behavioral therapy. He holds a Ph.D. from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology, along with M.S. and B.S. degrees from the University of Southern California. His additional training includes Neuropsychology, Hypnotherapy, and certification as a Child Custody Evaluator.

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