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Self Sabotage

Self sabotage

The subject of self-sabotage is truly a fascinating one to me. I do not believe I know a single person who has not fallen victim to this at some point.

We all struggle with personal problems in our lives from stress, anxiety and depression to self-doubt, addiction, and worries. Our relationships are often riddled with conflict. Our partners, children, and other family members can at times be challenging. Relationships with our friends, our neighbours, bosses, and co-workers can also bring elements of chaos to our lives.

And then there are the additional concerns dumped upon us by society such as politics, crime, economic problems as well as the continuing and ever-growing societal changes.

No wonder so many of us are screwed up and struggling to navigate the minefield that is life.

All these problems we face are extremely complex, and their solutions elusive and not always immediately visible. Yet when examined and reflected upon we can see that there is a common link within the nature of these issues, in that for the most part, they are largely caused by us!  

Most of the problems that we face in our daily lives, within ourselves, relationships with other people, and in society, in general, are mostly caused by people. 

Human behaviour is by far the single largest cause of the difficulties that we experience in life as we interact with one another. 

Most problems we face are caused or linked to interactions with other people. Often, the very people who cause these problems are in fact staring right back at us in the mirror, that is right, ourselves! Without even realising it we can be the core of the issue or at the very least exacerbate it.

Therein lies one of the basic but fundamental paradoxes about our human nature. The many complexities that make us brilliant also make us destructive.

On the one hand, human beings have an enormous ability to use their gifts of intelligence, creativity and more to work together, collaborating to improve the world through such things as science, technology, education, health care, and the arts.

While, on the other hand, they can have the tendency to behave in highly manipulative and pernicious ways which create a slew of social, relational, and personal problems both for themselves and for others.

The question is how someone can be intelligent, effective, and seemingly rational yet at the same time have dysfunctional tendencies that can cause such problematic issues in their lives? What causes this in people? 

I would like to share a story of a friend of mine, Wendy. 

Over lunch one day, we were enjoying a conversation in which she confided in me that a job, she had truly wanted for some time, had become available.  It was a director’s position and was perfect for her. To get this job would have been “a dream come true” an aspiration of hers. However, as the conversation went on, Wendy began to recite a litany of reasons why she had not applied for the job. She was not good in interviews, she was overweight, she felt sure she would make a bad impression. Despite believing that she would be great at the job she simply could not see herself making it past the interview. So, all things considered, she “knew” she didn’t stand a chance (or so her mind told her).

“I decided not to apply,” she told me. “Instead, I sent the advertisement to a friend of mine and encouraged him to go for it.” She paused, sighed, and then said, “He got the job.”

I was baffled at how this bright, hardworking person who certainly was more than capable had such an aptitude for self-sabotage. Having an opportunity present itself that was, in fact, ideal and extremely desirable, one that perhaps could have been the making of her, yet almost doing everything possible to make sure it didn’t happen. Moreover, passing it on to someone else as though they were more deserving.

 To the other extreme, there is the story of Amy Purdy.

Amy has had an incredible life. Unfortunately, at age 19, her life took an unexpected detour.  After experiencing flu-like symptoms, she was rushed to the hospital where she was given a less than 2% chance of survival. Amy was put on life support and placed into a medically induced coma.

After multiple blood transfusions and the removal of her ruptured spleen, doctors diagnosed Amy with a very rare form of Meningitis. This led to both her legs having to be amputated below the knee as well as having a kidney transplant, donated by her father who fortunately was a match.

After going through this life-altering experience, Amy challenged herself to move on with life and attain goals that even those who have both legs struggle to achieve. She is a top-class snowboarder and Paralympic bronze medallist and is currently the only double-leg amputee competing in snowboarding at a world-class level.

Amy’s creativity, positive outlook and never-give-up attitude have opened doors to many other opportunities. Her self-belief and conviction to overcome the card she was dealt were instrumental in her success.

The world is filled with smart and gifted, people like Wendy and Amy. Many of whom may be reading this now. Some, however, are bonded by a common behaviour called “self-handicapping,” which involves anticipating a real or imagined obstacle that might get in the way of success, then using it as an excuse to fail. While others have a remarkable outlook, which enables them to overcome any obstacle. They have a belief that no matter the difficulty they face, they can still achieve their goals. You could say their mantra is “I can do this”.

So why do some people choose “Self-handicapping”? Well, it allows us to protect ourselves from the pain of assuming responsibility for our failures, people do it all the time. Yet those like Amy show that it does not have to be this way, even with the severest of disabilities you can still achieve!

Addiction, self-sabotage, procrastination, laziness – these are all ways in which we withhold our full potential and participation in the various opportunities life frequently offers us. When the conscious mind cannot find a reason to say no, the unconscious mind will do it for us.

Here are some ideas to think about, which I believe will help you in your life.

  1. Watch out for the warning signs. When you start generating lists of excuses or distract yourself from a task through social media grazing, other activities unrelated or perhaps even alcohol, etc. These are signs that you are engaging in “self-handicapping”.  Everyone needs to take breaks and manage energy during the workday, of course, but these activities can be clues that you may be on a trail to self-sabotage.
  2. Recognize and manage your negative emotions. Withholding love from oneself is a form of self-sabotage. That which we withhold from ourselves we cannot give to others. It is important to challenge negative ideas we may have that prevent us from moving forward towards our goals. 
  3. Talk yourself off the ledge. Use comforting and encouraging self-talk to prevent yourself from jumping into the abyss. Realise that setbacks will happen, but these are not the result, just part of the journey to success. Remind yourself again and again that you have got this. You can handle whatever is in front of you. Say “I’ve got this”!
  4. Remember this: Failure is part of success. If your road is zigzagging and is spiralling in an upward direction, then you’re stepping your way to success.  The road to your goals is never straight up, there will always be twists and turns.

Going for what you really want in life takes considerable courage and determination. 

 “People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them”. 

By taking a risk you open yourself not only to the possibility of failure, but also the unbelievable possibility of learning, growing, and real success. It is up to you to decide which is more perilous: the risk of disappointment, or the risk of never reaching your potential. 

Believing that you deserve success and happiness will drive you to overcome those obstacles in your way.


I can take you to success. I coach ordinary people every day to do extra-ordinary things. I coach extra-ordinary people to do extra-ordinary things. The difference is those who have a dream, and are prepared to follow said dream, are extraordinary, and just need a structure and support system to kick off that journey, which will finish with them sliding in fast sideways to the grave, totally worn out from the relentless living of their dreams, screaming out loudly “Wow holy sh*t, what a ride!”

If that is you – start today! If you are looking for coaching on change for yourself or your organisation, or would like more information on the work we do on Personal, Professional, or Organisational Change, please contact us on

About Dr Maurice Duffy

Irish. Author, Professor, Coach and Business strategist. The person Australian Captain Steve Smith credited with helping him back from his cricket ban. Coach to two Ashes wins. Coach to CEOs, Politicians and some of the best know international sports starts including Olympians. BBC ‘Thought for the Week’. Coached business leaders and organizations in 80 countries. Works with charities to do with Mental Health. Lives in North East England with his wife and 11-year-old son.