• Understand the meaning of self-sabotage
  • See real-life examples of situations that can trigger self-sabotage
  • Identify seven signs of self-sabotage and how to stop them.

What is self-sabotage?

I want (x) but I keep doing (y).

Self-sabotage is an action (or nonaction) that gets in the way of our goals, dreams, and desires. In essence, it makes us commit to behaviour that is misaligned with our sense of what is right, or what matters to us.

At a conference recently, we asked a group of Early Career Researchers to anonymously share the situations that triggered self-sabotage, here are some of the responses:

“Seminars: these events are attended by academics, lecturers, and others far smarter than me. They dress better, they have more interesting viewpoints, and they simply appear more comfortable.

“I feel it continuously, I question if I am cut out for this.”

As these responses show, self-doubt and self-sabotage can be influenced by our perception of the environment: how other people behave towards us and what this communicates. For example, beliefs about how success or worth is evaluated.

“I had a paper accepted and promised to post the code I used in the paper. But now I have a sinking feeling, that when I post it, everybody will pick it apart and tear me apart for not-great/bad coding practices.

“I work with people much smarter than I am. At the same time that I’m inspired to rise to their level, I feel like I don’t even deserve to be where I'm at. A couple of weeks ago I had a paper declined and harshly reviewed. I know that's the beauty of science and peer review, yet I can’t help but feel worthless.

If any of these examples are similar to things you have said to yourself, there is a good chance you have experienced self-sabotage. We rarely talk about this with our peers, or friends or advisors, so we don’t often have a chance to evaluate these feelings around performance, competence and self-worth.

The seven signs of self-sabotage and how to stop them:

It takes self-reflection to identify and overcome self-sabotage. Read the common signs of self-sabotage below to identify patterns that you may be experiencing, consider the reflection questions, and start to build new habits.


Do you find yourself replaying everything you did wrong? Or procrastinate at the start of difficult tasks because you are afraid that the task will reveal your inadequacy?

Perfectionism can feel like an intense need to perform perfectly in all ways. This leads to inauthenticity: you behave in ways that you think you are ‘supposed to’, rather than in ways that you want.

For example, you apply for jobs because they align with your previous career trajectory and professional identity, but they are not what you want.

If you think career perfectionism might be affecting you, consider these questions:
  • What judgements am I making about myself?
  • What concerns do I have about the judgements of others around me?
  • What would I say to a friend who was in the same situation?
  • What is the worst that could happen?

Focusing on the negatives

Research has shown that humans tend to focus more on negative outcomes or difficult situations and forget about or ignore good ones. This may have served us well in the past when we needed to be wary of life-threatening situations – ‘I won’t go into those bushes because there might be a tiger in there’ - but it’s not always constructive when it comes to our career decisions.

For example, we may find ourselves exaggerating the risk of disaster, and therefore refrain from taking any action.

If you think that negativity bias is affecting your planning or decision making, it is important to clearly calculate the true riskiness of the situation.

Making life changes always incurs some risk, but you can be smart about which risks you take, making sure that the gamble is justified by the reward.

To work around the negativity bias, and get an accurate sense of risk, consider these questions:
  • What risks are preventing you from deciding or moving forward?
  • Are any of these risks exaggerated or heightened?
  • What is the worst-case scenario if the risks came true? Could you survive it?
  • In a year or five from now, will these risks potentially put you at an advantage?

Fake it till you make it

‘Faking-it’ is not necessarily a bad strategy, mimicry and social imitation can help you to overcome specific personal barriers that you have identified within yourself, such as low confidence in presentation or networking situations. The idea is that behaving ‘as if’ you have confidence in these situations will change the way you think and feel about your own competence, overtime.

However, if you use a fake-it strategy to try to change the perceptions of others, to appear more knowledgeable for example, or to misrepresent your competency or experience level, it often backfires.

An example is not volunteering a question you are curious about because you fear that it will make you ‘look stupid’. Limiting your learning and the potential connection and conversation that you may have engaged in.

A study found that people who try to ‘project success’ often dwell more on their failures and feel more anxiety about personal weaknesses.

If you think fake-it-till-you-make-it might be affecting you, consider these questions:
  • Which of your beliefs about success are holding you back?
  • How has ‘faking-it’ been serving you?
  • What will you lose by being authentic?
  • How can you replace that loss with a more productive mode of thinking?

Lack of control

If you feel like your life is out of control and find yourself blaming someone, or something else, for troubling events and problems then you may be experiencing victim mentality.

Victimhood gives people the view that they are not responsible for the negative things that happen to them. Believing that they have no control and complaining that life is unfair.

A way that this shows up in career transition is blaming your current reality - ‘there is no time! I am too exhausted and busy to even begin searching’ - when there is a solution within your control. Even 10 minutes of career research a day will make a difference over a month.

If you think you have slipped into a victim mentality, consider these questions:
  • What beliefs are preventing you from taking personal responsibility?
  • What would an alternative view that incorporates your personal responsibility be?
  • What can you do in the future to uncreate these beliefs and increase your personal responsibility?

Lack of self-belief

The uncertain nature of a postdoc career can damage your self-confidence, especially if you have experienced rejections or setbacks that leave you feeling anxious and confused.

When you do not believe in yourself you are afraid to make a commitment to a goal. You do not have the confidence to put all your effort into making the change you want to see in your life.

You can fall into the trap of comparing yourself with others, getting tangled up in beliefs about what you are not, and should-ing:

‘I should be better at this than I am…’

If you want to work on your self-confidence, ask yourself these questions:
  • What do you really want and need in order to thrive?
  • What stories are you telling yourself that are getting in the way?
  • What “shoulds” keep you from a happier more confident view or yourself?
  • What do you need to do or tell yourself so you can shift?
Further resources:

Building self-confidence

Staying in the comfort zone

Comfort can lull you into career inactivity because of the illusory stability of your current position. There can be a temptation to relax and play it safe because in the short term it is less effort, fear or uncertainty than pursuing career development or change.

If you think you are hesitating because you are comfortable, consider:
  • Am I hesitating because it is "wrong" or because I am afraid?
  • When I look back on this decision in ten years' time, will it seem as significant?
  • What is important about doing this?
  • How will you feel, and what are the potential gains, when you have done this?


Do you ever feel like the things that you are doing to try and cope with your busyness are compromising your health or wellbeing?

Your mind is whirring all day; you drink a little too much in the evening to try and relax, you wake in the night worrying about feeling dreadful in the morning, and your heavy workload. This can become an ever-decreasing circle that hurts your health and can lead to burnout.

You rely too much on caffeine, which combines with the adrenaline that you feel because you are busy and stressed, and this puts you permanently in alert mode.

If you feel that your coping mechanisms are not supporting your health or wellbeing, it is important to consider:
  • Which of your behaviours are out of balance?
  • How is this affecting your energy?
  • What are the small practical things that could bring you back into balance?
It’s a good idea to try and do one small thing that will help you get more of a sense of balance; you may wish to focus on:
  • Getting a good night’s sleep
  • Drinking enough water
  • Taking a proper lunch break
  • Connecting with someone socially
  • Doing something healthy you enjoy just for fun like listening to music, reading for pleasure or dancing.

There are more suggestions for simple strategies to restore balance in the further resources section of this page.

Final thoughts

It is possible for us to influence our own patterns of thinking and improve our health by doing so, but unfortunately it’s not as simple as flipping a switch.

Learning to notice and challenge self-sabotage, replacing it with new healthier behaviours and doing so consistently, over time can help you succeed in forming positive habits that support your mental health.

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