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Child Psychiatrist /Adult Psychiatrist

Reassessing Self Sabotage

A metal ball destroy pile of rocks.


The term self-sabotage enjoys wide usage in psychological, spiritual, and self-help circles. It is often used to explain a variety of behaviors such as addiction, compulsion, perfectionism, procrastination, and bad financial management. In this article I’ll contend that there are several problems with the notion of self-sabotage:

  1. It does not accurately describe what it’s attempting to describe.

  2. It carries with it an aura of blame and shame.

  3. It provides no explanation for why a person is behaving in a particular way and is therefore essentially useless as a concept.

I’ll also lay out what I consider a more helpful way of looking at behaviors that are often described as self-sabotage, using the lens of Internal Family Systems (IFS) as a guide.

A Question of Intent

The first and most glaring problem with the idea of self-sabotage is that it’s not actually “sabotage.”

Sabotage implies conscious intent. The Oxford Dictionary, for example, defines sabotage as follows:to deliberately destroy, damage, or obstruct something. Self-sabotage, then, would involve intentionally destroying or obstructing oneself, one’s relationships, one’s career, or what have you. As an example, consider someone who tries to get a new job. They apply for it, get an interview, and then proceed to botch the interview in an explicit way – perhaps by behaving bizarrely or showing up late. The theory of self-sabotage would say that this person initially thought to themselves something along the lines of “I want this job, so I’m going to apply for it and hopefully get an interview”, but then before the interview, they changed their thought to “I’m going to intentionally ruin the interview by behaving in a way that the interviewer finds unacceptable.” Needless to say, this isn’t how things usually happen.

Other examples may seem to be more intentional at first glance. For example, a person commits to a diet and then a week later binge-eats ice cream and ruins all of his or her progress. It may be tempting here to conclude that the person intentionally ruined the diet, but this viewpoint conflates the intentionality of the action (eating ice cream) with the intentionality of the effect (ruining the diet). While the eating was intentional – insofar as the physical movements required to do it were under the person’s conscious control – ascribing intentionality to the effect assumes that the person ate the ice cream in order to ruin the diet. One would be hard-pressed to find a situation where this scenario was the case.

This matter of intent is extremely important when determining how to treat a given behavioral pattern.

Blame & Shame

As a result of the fact that it implies intentionality, the term self-sabotage carries with it a connotation of blame, shame, and guilt. If people are intentionally engaging in maladaptive behaviors, it must be their own fault. Can’t he simply stop doing this? Can’t she control herself? What’s the matter with him or her? Whether or not these types of questions are communicated explicitly, they’re inherent in the very name of the diagnosis.

Muddying the Waters

Much like mental health diagnoses, while the term self-sabotage may appear on the surface to be helpful, it doesn’t actually explain anything. In fact, the logic of it turns out to be completely circular. For example, consider a person who is trying to get a new business off the ground, but keeps herself perpetually distracted by spending inordinate amounts of time on social media. One might say she is self-sabotaging as if this view somehow clarifies the issue, but consider the circular logic of such a claim.

“Why does Helen spend hours a day on social media instead of working on her new business?”

“Because she is self-sabotaging.”

“How do we know she is self-sabotaging?”

“Because she spends hours a day on social media instead of working on her new business.”

“Why does Helen spend hours a day on social media instead of working on her new business?”

What becomes clear is that the term self-sabotage is nothing more than a label that describes behavior (or behaviors). This label offers no insight into why the behaviors are occurring and is therefore unhelpful as any kind of explanation or diagnosis.

Getting at Why

With any kind of repetitive, maladaptive behavior, it’s critical to get to the root cause – rather than offering a surface-level description – if treatment is to succeed. The behaviors that often fall into the realm of self-sabotage are, in my view, virtually always the result of unconscious emotional processes. As such, a bottom-up therapeutic modality that works with the unconscious – such as Internal Family Systems (IFS) – offers a far more comprehensive approach to healing relative to cognitive (top-down) techniques.

IFS recognizes that our minds consist of parts, rather than being a single entity. Each person’s parts interact and function in different ways depending on his or her history. We are particularly susceptible to trauma (both overt and covert) early in life, and this susceptibility causes our parts to take on two basic roles:

  • Burdened Parts carry pain and toxic self-beliefs.

  • Protector Parts take on protective roles aimed at preventing more pain from being inflicted on burdened parts.

different types of metal / gear equipment.

A practitioner of IFS takes a systems-level view of the parts to understand what the parts are doing, why they’re doing it, and how they’re interacting with each other. Only through the IFS lens can we truly get an understanding of the dynamics underlying one’s behavioral patterns. We then can work with our parts rather than against them – in a compassionate and non-confrontational way – to effect change.

As parts largely operate in the unconscious, ascribing intentionality (which implies conscious awareness) to the effects of one’s actions is often inappropriate when parts are in the lead. The parts themselves are acting in intentional ways, but the person’s consciousness has no awareness of this scenario. This type of distinction is a good example of what a parts-aware approach brings to the table: a deeper understanding of the internal dynamics at play, which leads to a more informed and holistic plan of action in therapy.

Going back now to the example of the person who did poorly in the job interview: If there are indications that a part (or parts) caused this to happen, in an IFS context we guide the client to form relationships with these parts and find out what their fears were about the prospect of getting the new job. This information-gathering will likely lead to other areas in the person’s life that these parts have been influencing. Once the relevant parts in the system have been identified, the process of unloading the trauma that the burdened ones are carrying can begin, at which point the protective parts won’t need to engage in defensive behaviors anymore.

While this post is necessarily a brief overview of how the IFS process works, hopefully, it is helpful in providing a baseline understanding of how the IFS approach can be used to dig deeper into symptoms that might appear as self-sabotaging.


Thus, the term self-sabotage is inaccurate, unhelpful, and full of negative connotations. A deeper look into the behavioral patterns which typically fall under the self-sabotage label reveals a far more complex and subtle picture, an understanding of which is critical in order for healing to occur. Furthermore, the Internal Family Systems approach provides a far more comprehensive method for healing than cognitive (top-down) techniques.

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