Why Do We Self-Sabotage? Gay Hendricks Explains

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Big Leap" by Gay Hendricks. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do we self-sabotage? In other words, why do we make decisions that prevent us from living our best life?

According to Gay Hendricks, the author of The Big Leap, self-sabotage ensues when we reach what he calls the “Upper Limit Problem”—the maximum amount of success and happiness we are comfortable with experiencing. Once we reach that threshold, we will self-sabotage by making unwise decisions in order to return to the comfortable baseline.

Here’s why we self-sabotage and how to stop doing it once and for all.

The Psychology of Self-Sabotage

We all know on a deep subconscious level that we’re meant to live in a state of fulfillment, and when we don’t heed the call toward that, we’re affected by depression, illness, and injury. However, as we experience greater success and joy, and come closer to fulfillment, this triggers fear in us. We feel undeserving and will begin to self-sabotage, to bring ourselves back down to a comfortable level of happiness. Hendricks claims that this creates a constant tension and that as we get older, we’ll learn to gradually tune out the call to fulfillment, in order to reconcile the tension. 

Self-sabotaging constitutes making decisions that we know, if perhaps unconsciously, have the capacity to reduce our happiness and success. These might include making poor financial choices, creating conflicts that ruin our relationships, and engaging in risky behavior that might result in scandal or even legal trouble. As one example, Hendricks discusses the prevalence of stories about lottery winners who squander their winnings or otherwise engage in behaviors that result in their financial and social ruin.

Why Do We Self-Sabotage?

Self-sabotage is a well-documented behavior that psychologists say stems from negative mindsets. The underlying causes may include low self-esteem and the resulting lack of confidence and feeling of unworthiness; fear of failure, and by extension, of success; and self-protection from uncomfortable feelings. Positive psychology research indicates that people may self-sabotage when they get close to achieving something they want, due to the fear of failure that triggers

However, self-destruction may not be as common in lottery winners as we tend to think. It’s more a cultural myth, sometimes referred to as the “curse of the lottery.” A study of 576 lottery winners in the US found that overall they were “well-adjusted, secure, and generally happy.” A larger study in Sweden had similar findings: “Large-prize winners experience sustained increases in overall life satisfaction that persist for over a decade and show no evidence of dissipating over time.” 
Why Do We Self-Sabotage? Gay Hendricks Explains

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  • How to overcome the psychological barriers to success and fulfillment
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  • How to identify your own false beliefs and stop self-sabotaging

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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