The Root Causes of Self-Sabotage: Stop Doing These Things

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Mountain Is You" by Brianna Wiest. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the root cause of self-sabotage? What is the first step in overcoming self-sabotage?

In The Mountain Is You, Brianna Wiest clarifies that there is not one universal root cause of self-sabotage. Rather, it’s everything you want to change in your life.

Below you’ll learn how to find the root causes of self-sabotage so you can live your best life.

Identify Your Self-Sabotaging Behaviors and Their Root Causes

Wiest explains that you can determine the root cause of self-sabotage by identifying everything in your life that you’re unhappy about and want to change. Then, create a list of the behaviors that are preventing you from making those changes—these behaviors are self-sabotage.

For example, imagine you’re unhappy at your current job and want to become a writer instead. However, you aren’t making progress because you haven’t started looking for a writing job—your self-sabotaging behavior is procrastination. Write this down.

(Shortform note: While Wiest recommends uncovering self-sabotaging behaviors by identifying the things you don’t want and the barriers preventing you from changing, Tony Robbins advocates focusing on what you do want instead. In Awaken The Giant Within, Robbins says that having a clear idea of what you want will positively frame your efforts to overcome obstacles (such as self-sabotage), provide you with intrinsic motivation, and consequently make you more likely to succeed.) 

This exercise may not uncover all of your self-sabotaging behaviors, so Wiest suggests that you also consider whether any of the following situations are recurring themes in your life. If so, the behaviors that perpetuate them are probably forms of self-sabotage. 

  1. You lack the commitment necessary to achieve goals or nurture relationships.
  2. You engage in relationships that negatively influence you.
  3. You rely on others or society to guide your actions and goals.
  4. You rarely engage with people, information, or situations that feel “new.”

Add the self-sabotaging behaviors that contribute to these themes to your list. Then, take accountability for your self-sabotage by acknowledging that you have the power to change your situation—even if that means leaving relationships, jobs, or security, or changing the way you think or act.

Overcome Self-Sabotage by Identifying and Owning Your Unhealthy Behaviors

Experts agree that comparing your behavioral patterns to common forms of self-sabotage, as Wiest recommends, is a great way to identify your self-sabotaging behaviors. They add a few related, but more specific symptoms of self-sabotage:

  1. You tend to be controlling or a micromanager.
  2. You pick fights or start conflicts with colleagues or loved ones.
  3. Your goals are either too high or too low.
  4. You tend to “overdo it” by engaging in activities like substance abuse or overspending.
  5. You never stand up for yourself or speak your mind.

Once you identify your self-sabotaging behaviors, experts agree with Wiest that the next step is to acknowledge your agency in the issue. They add to Wiest’s advice, noting a few techniques to help you take ownership of your self-sabotage. First, write down your bad behaviors in a journal and keep track of when you engage in them so that you can recognize your patterns. Second, make a plan of action pinpointing the specific changes you can make to stop your self-sabotaging behaviors. These activities will force you to acknowledge that your bad behaviors are patterns that you can stop.

Addiction and Self-Sabotage

While Wiest very briefly mentions addiction and substance abuse in The Mountain Is You, she doesn’t include it as a primary symptom of self-sabotage. On the other hand, psychologists and mental health experts emphasize that addiction is an extremely prevalent and serious form of self-sabotage because addicts are often blind to the downsides of their addictions. This is because addiction is a chemical reaction—getting a “fix” of the preferred substance releases endorphins and directly stimulates or mimics neurotransmitters that trigger a dopamine release in our brains. This makes us feel happy and allows us to escape negative thoughts, feelings, and situations. 

When determining whether or not you may be struggling with addiction, note that addiction pertains to more than just substances like drugs or alcohol. In The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal explains that you can become addicted to anything that gives you a dopamine rush—technology, gambling, sex, or even other people.

To recognize signs of addiction, consider whether you identify with any of the following statements:

  • The substance or activity has become important to your life and daily routines—without it, you feel out of control, anxious, sad, or uncomfortable.
  • You’re progressively spending more time engaging with the substance or activity.
  • The substance or activity has taken time away from other areas of your life.

If you identify with any of the statements above, you might be struggling with addiction: Add it to the list of self-sabotaging behaviors you’ve compiled in this section. To get help, get in touch with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline.

How to Identify Your Mental-Emotional Deficiencies

Once you’ve identified your self-sabotaging behaviors, Wiest explains that the next step in overcoming them is to identify the ME deficiencies they stem from. As we discussed previously, every self-sabotaging behavior is designed to protect you from a certain fear, and these fears develop because we lack the ME skills to effectively face them. Once we pinpoint which skills we lack, we can learn them and lessen the need to self-sabotage.

First, analyze each of the self-sabotaging behaviors on your list (from Step #1) and think about why you do them. Each why will be one of your fears. For example, if you procrastinate taking action toward your goals, it may be because you fear failure. If you spend time with people who make you feel bad, it may be because you fear being alone. If you have trouble committing to things, it may be because you’re afraid to trust your decisions.

(Shortform note: In The Success Principles, Jack Canfield adds another level to Wiest’s advice, explaining that when recording your fears, you should specifically record what you’re afraid of doing rather than just what you’re afraid of. For example, rather than recording that you’re afraid of being alone, be more specific by including what you’re afraid of doing alone. Maybe you’re afraid of living alone, or maybe you’re afraid of managing your emotions alone. Adding these details when recording your fears will give you more context to identify the ME deficiencies that underlie them, which Wiest recommends doing in the next step.)

Next, identify your ME deficiencies by connecting each of your fears to a mental or emotional skill that you would need to overcome it. For example, to overcome a fear of failure, you need to improve your self-confidence. To overcome a fear of being alone, you need to improve your ability to be independent—that might mean working on self-confidence, self-love, and other skills to fulfill your emotional needs independently. To overcome a fear of commitment, you need to work on self-trust and self-confidence.

(Shortform note: In The Magic of Thinking Big, David J. Schwartz cites four skills that allow you to face your fears. First is the ability to maintain a positive mindset and let go of negative past experiences. Second is the ability to understand other people. Third is the ability to understand and act according to your conscience. And fourth is the ability to think and act confidently, even if you don’t feel confident—essentially, fake it ‘til you make it. If you let your fears control your behavior and engage in self-sabotage, it’s likely that you’re missing one or more of these skills.)

The Root Causes of Self-Sabotage: Stop Doing These Things

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Mountain Is You summary:

  • Why the only thing standing in your way of achieving your goals is you
  • How to achieve your life purpose and become your ideal self
  • How to identify your self-sabotaging behaviors and stop them

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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