Subconscious Self-Sabotage: What It Is and How to Avoid It

“Those who say life is knocking them down and giving them a tough time are usually the first to beat themselves up. Be on your own side.” — Rasheed Ogunlaru, British life coach and speaker.

rp_150120_SelfSabotage300-298x300.jpgHave you ever figuratively shot yourself in the foot, by doing something so stupid it compromised your job or career? Do you ever feel like you’re really two people, one driven to achieve, while the other holds you back, like an anchor buried in rock? Do you sometimes think you don’t really deserve what you’ve accomplished in life—you’re really a fraud who’s always faking it—and people just can’t tell?

If you can honestly say no, then you’re one of those rare people so confident in yourself, in where you’re going, and your way of doing things—that you never have to worry this topic of self-sabotage. Unfortunately, however, self-sabotage is all too common a human failing, and many of us have fallen for it at least occasionally.

Oddly enough, it doesn’t even have to be your own actions that bring it on.

You may have heard of survivor guilt, where those who survive a terrible catastrophe feel guilty for surviving when so many others didn’t. Self-sabotage can arise from the corporate equivalent of survival guilt. If you’ve managed to keep your job while the layoff notices are flying, and even managed to stay calm the whole time, you may find—to your surprise, and your manager’s—that your performance plunges after you’re safe. I know a fellow who survived a mass lay-off, only to practically dare his VP to fire him by spending too much time on the Internet. He couldn’t seem to control himself, but he realized his problem in time and forced himself to straighten up and fly right. I’ve read about similar cases. When this happens, your mind seems to be trying to tell you you’re not worthy of having survived a downsizing.

Other people start down the path of self-sabotage when they stop enjoying their work, even if they don’t realize it consciously. Their subconscious mind steps in and starts making them late for meetings, causing mistakes they fail to fix in time, or “accidentally” breaking or destroying important, expensive things. Their subconscious wants them to get fired, maybe so they can try again. Unfortunately, getting fired and starting over is rarely conducive to a successful career.

Why is self-sabotage so pervasive? Some self-sabotage may arise because we believe we deserve whatever we’re doing, whether it’s good or bad: eating all those donuts, slacking off, missing meetings, or whatever. On the other hand, maybe self-sabotage is written in our DNA. We humans aren’t that far removed from the caveman days, and the many, many generations of our predecessors learned the lesson that in order to survive, we have to stay safe. Taking chances, facing change, or trying new things can be dangerous—so even when we’re eager to go ahead with it on one level, on another we want to stay safe. It’s safest never to stick your neck out, after all.

The thing is, we no longer have to worry about most of our prehistoric dangers, having defeated them long ago. But perhaps our biology hasn’t yet caught up with that yet.

Avoiding Self-Sabotage

If you find yourself on the pathway to self-destruction, prove to yourself that you’re worthy of the good things you’ve accomplished, you deserve where you are today, and you don’t deserve negative, hurtful behaviors. Try these tips.

1. Stop waiting for the axe to fall. Some forms of self-sabotage emerge not from survivor guilt, but from anticipating that something bad will happen to you—especially if such things are happening to others all around you. Because you fear it so much, your subconscious may be implementing what it thinks is a quick, easy way out. Get that possibility out into the open, so you can deal with it. Even better, have plans for what you’ll do if the axe really does fall: whether that’s to find a better job, become a full-time father, start a business, or write that book you’ve putting side for so long. Having a fallback position can ease your subconscious mind, and get it to stop sabotaging you “for your own good.”

2. Take a close look at your subconscious beliefs. Just because something is subconscious doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible or unpredictable. Examine the patterns of your life. What kinds of negative actions predominate? Do you play on the Internet when you should be working, like the guy I mentioned? Do you socialize too much? Maybe you think you deserve it because the person next to you slacks off. Or maybe you’re stressed out and find it comforting, the way some of us find overeating or binge-watching movies comforting. Whatever the self-destructive beliefs are, find them and confront them.

3. Replace bad beliefs with better ones. As they say in most 12-step programs, the first step is admitting you have a problem. Once you’ve identified a bad belief, examine it, detach it from whatever emotion it seems to be associated with, and work to develop a better one. Instead of playing computer games when you’re uneasy or bored, you might start working on a Someday task you need to get done eventually but not urgently. After getting back in the groove, you may be able to move on to more pressing tasks. It’s kind of like replacing donuts with carrot sticks when you get hungry. Find something that’s beneficial and form a habit that’s stronger than the unhealthy habit.

4. Seek professional care. I’m a big fan of self-help, but if nothing else works, seek professional help. Start with your primary care physician. Sometimes self-sabotage results from biological causes beyond the abovementioned “caveman” response. For example, if you suffer from sleep apnea and fail to get restful sleep, you’ll never feel your best, and that makes it easy for doubt and negative self-talk to worm their way into your subconscious. Maybe you need to undergo a sleep study. If that doesn’t work, see a counselor, who might be able to help with identifying underlying problems you never really dig into otherwise. If medication will be helpful, take it. Don’t just think of yourself as broken and give up. You’re not broken, just a bit off the track—and you can get back on the rails in time.

Outsmart Self-Sabotage

You’re not only descended from tens of thousands of generations of survivors, you have access to the knowledge and technology we’ve built up over the millennia—not to mention your own stubborn willpower. Use it to outsmart self-sabotage when it rears its ugly head, before it kills your career. It’s a real pain to start over just because the outdated caveman in your head wants you to, and you weren’t strong enough or well-enough informed to stop him from blocking your full potential. Get out there and fight!

Have you ever experienced self-sabotage? How did you handle it? Let us know below.

© 2015 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, is America’s Premier Expert in Productivity™. For over 20 years, Laura has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. Laura is the bestselling author of six books, with over 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, Execution IS the Strategy (March 2014). Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.



  1. Barbara Griggs says:

    Thank you Laura for an on-time article. I am in the grip of self-sabotage. Expecting the worse secretly..and waiting for it to bear out. I will live the quote, “be on your own side.”

    Thanks again…


    • Laura Stack says:

      The person we have to love the most is ourselves! Surround yourself with uplifting, encouraging people who remind you how talented and capable you are! Hugs!

  2. Great article! We were just discussing this in a work session last week. I passed this along to the group. Thanks!

    • Laura Stack says:

      Super—so glad you found value in the ideas—and hope it adds to the discussion! Thanks for writing Kelly!

  3. Fantastic post! Full of value and something which, all wanted to understand. Thank you so much my friend! Your post is pure value. Simple instructions! Awesome job!

  4. In the middle of this myself. Have not been spending enough time with my children due to work pressures. I’m pretty sure I’m finding ways to not meet deadlines, without noticing I’m doing it!