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Q & A Today: Avoiding Self-Sabotage

By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC

Posted on July 18, 2021

Welcome to Q&A Today, a column designed to answer your questions regarding challenges and concerns in everyday life, from family to coping with current events. A popular topic today revolves around the coronavirus. All questions are fair game. Just send me an email with your questions or concerns, and watch for the answer in upcoming editions of the Tasmanian Times. Q&A Today is published on the first and third Sundays of the month. If your question is printed, only your first name will appear in this column.

Q: I remember being in grade school, struggling academically because I doodled or daydreamed instead of studying and completing my homework. Teachers told my parents that I didn’t apply myself. I recall overhearing my 4th grade teacher tell another teacher that I wasn’t that smart.

Now as an adult I have my to-do lists but I continue to get too easily distracted, not finishing projects that I’ve started. I intended to use the downtime from the pandemic to start an exercise program but never got around to it. Well intended, I bought exercise equipment, but it is sitting in the corner of the bedroom, staring at me and collecting dust. I instead used my spare time to watch a lot of Netflix instead of working out.

When I mention to others that I have good intentions but have trouble with follow-through some tell me I’m lazy while others tell me that I’m self-sabotaging. Am I lazy? Am I self-sabotaging? How to I stop this lifelong pattern? – Ann

A: You’re not alone, Ann. We all fall victim to self-sabotage in the form of procrastination at some point in our lives. It’s only when such behaviour chronically undermines what we want in life that it becomes a problem. At such times it warrants taking a pause and looking at what might be going on.

Procrastination is keeping you from reaching some of your goals, and it isn’t always a simple fix, but that behaviour can be interrupted. Think of procrastination as an onion. Now imagine what you’d find if you peeled back one of the onions’ thin top layers? You’d see many, many more layers. Similarly, procrastination has many layers, each potentially representing a roadblock in your ability to keep moving in the direction you wish.

One of the layers of this ‘procrastination onion’ may be self-esteem. Oftentimes it is how we feel about ourselves that influences our ability to either push forward and succeed or avoid a task. If we struggle with a low self-esteem then we’re less likely to believe that we are capable of successfully reaching goals we establish for ourselves. If we think that a particular goal is hopeless, we’ll likely not do well in our attempt to succeed because we’re not “all in” and your hopelessness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And, we will thereby be less invested in trying. Then, when we fail, our negative view of ourselves will be validated. We end up feeling worse about ourselves and less likely to try again, creating a vicious cycle of defeat.

When we attempt to achieve a goal but fail, it can be frustrating and hurt. It is natural to want to protect ourselves from hurting again. Sometimes the fear of failure can result in our learning to be risk avoidant. As you’ve noted in your question to me, you realise that not carrying through on your goals to complete tasks hurts you, yet you repeat this behaviour over and over again. Why? Because putting off a decision may serve the purpose of not having to risk failing and subsequently suffering the shame of not being good enough, or as you overheard your teacher say, ‘not too smart.’

It is ironic, but this avoidance is bringing you a reward. Binging on Netflix was gratifying and made you temporarily happy, even though you weren’t accomplishing what you wanted to do. You’re certainly not alone here. There’s even a term for this behaviour called ‘paradoxical procrastination reward’, meaning a short-term fix that leads to a long-term hurt.

Ironically, sometimes procrastination occurs because of our fear of success. We realise that changes often result when goals are met, which can result in additional responsibilities. We may worry we won’t be able to live up to the new task and will fail in satisfying the expectations of others.

Sometimes people feel undeserving of the goal. Taken to an extreme is when a person feels that they were just lucky to have achieved their goal, or acquired it because of connections and that one day they’ll be discovered as a fraud. This belief can evolve into a pervasive self-doubt in the legitimacy of their skills, accomplishments or knowledge and is known as imposter syndrome.

You may never have heard of imposter syndrome but over half of us have experienced at least one episode in our lifetime. Sheryl Sandberg, Tina Fey and Amy Schumer have publicly shared being challenged by imposter syndrome. They’ve successfully pushed onward through the self-doubt. But unaddressed, people can become overwhelmed by anxiety and have a tendency to self-sabotage by avoiding new challenges.

Another example of fearing success can be seen in those who worry about the impact on their social relationships. Some people fear that others will view their success negatively, either because of jealousy or being resentful of their accomplishments. And there are a few who just don’t want to succeed because of the recognition that accompanies success, preferring to fly unnoticed, under the radar.

While it is absolutely possible to change your procrastination habit, to do so requires a change in mindset, some fortitude and advance planning because we are creatures of habit.

One of the first things you will want to do is practice self-kindness by challenging the self-defeating thoughts that have taken up residency in your head. It is important to stop labelling yourself in a negative manner. Name-calling and shaming never helps to motivate us. This includes not only the hurtful and judgmental labels of ‘lazy’ or ‘not too smart’ but also that of ‘procrastinator’.

This is important because we undermine ourselves when we allow critical, self-defeating thoughts to play like repeating tapes in our head to tell us discouraging things. Your thoughts might be that you don’t deserve better. Or it’s too much work. Or you assume why try when others don’t expect any better of you and your attempts in the past haven’t been successful? If you can learn to challenge this negative self-talk that plays over and over in your head you’ll be better able to avoid self-sabotage.

Spend less time ruminating about the negatives and more time focusing on the positives. Think about how unfair or unrealistic a comment might be.

How could a teacher’s comment from your youth become so prevalent and weighted in your life today, many years later? Is this reasonable? Not at all. This will help you reject future comments made about you.

The bad news is that removing the limiting labels won’t be enough to rid yourself of goal-inhibiting, self-esteem destroying behaviour. And saying you’re not going to procrastinate any more isn’t good enough, either.

Go into this knowing that you’ll experience some stress. That’s normal. You’re stepping outside your comfort zone, which is scary. Instead of avoiding those ‘not so good’ feelings, change your thoughts about them and decide to befriend them. Doing so enables you to control them and make them work for you, instead of folding in to them. Recognise that they’re just negative thoughts, not necessarily reality. You can regulate your emotions and find some balance rather than have them overwhelm you to the point you need a Netflix ‘fix’ to repress them. Check in with yourself when your feelings escalate and ask yourself why these feelings make you feel this way, and what alternative thoughts exist to take care of them. This reframing of your thoughts will help you better control your feelings.

Reframing is the single most recommended coping skill I encourage my clients to use in reprogramming negative self-talk. It helps turn a maladaptive thought pattern into a more positive and productive way of viewing a situation. It can help you view an event or thought that previously led to self-sabotaging behaviour as a challenge, opportunity, lesson or even as a gift.

For example, let’s assume you are passed over for a promotion at work. You’re told that sometimes you failed to meet deadlines on time sensitive projects. Of course you’re hurt, and perhaps even feeling angry. Perhaps negative, self-defeating thoughts such as ‘why bother working hard at my job if I’m not appreciated’, or ‘my boss will never promote me’, start percolating in your mind.

Two steps can change things around for you. First, honestly examine your role in not getting the promotion and determine what lessons you can learn from this and corrective action you can take in the future, i.e., maybe you can plan better and pay greater attention to deadlines. Second, you can transform your negative view of your boss to having the positive trait of wanting to run an organised and efficient office and rewarding those who share her work ethic.

You still may not like your bosses’ decision. But this reframing can help you view your situation in a broader perspective so that you don’t just see the negative. These thoughts allow you to create new pathways for your thoughts and feelings, experience a more helpful narrative of what is occurring and reduce the inclination to procrastinate in the future.

There are many other things you can do to interrupt your self-sabotaging behaviour. Another suggestion is to identify and make a list of the activities you engage in when procrastinating. This is important because up to now those were your maladaptive go-to coping skills when avoiding an activity needing to be addressed. This list symbolises the roadblocks you will likely encounter. To name them is to start depowering them. After each avoidance activity on the list write down what you will substitute in its place. It may be a thought, feeling or behaviour. This will empower you to interrupt a nearly lifelong habit of procrastination and self-sabotage.

With time you will learn new skills to help you muscle your way past procrastination. Your tendency to sabotage your success and happiness will gradually reduce. In its place you’ll find yourself being able to take on difficult tasks with greater efficacy.

Wishing you my best,


Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC is author of Overcoming Adversity: Conquering Life’s Challenges, by Australian Academic Press. Eileen is a life and business coach and public speaker residing in the United States. She has spent her professional career working in medical and psychiatric hospitals and in her private practice, counselling people experiencing emotionally traumatic events.

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