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  • Writer's pictureGabby Pavlovic

Why we engage in self-sabotaging behaviours

Updated: Jun 5

This blog post is a great companion to Episode 45 of the Revitalising Health Podcast where I talk about getting in our own way.

So, what do I mean by this? Let’s flesh it out a bit more…

Do you ever feel like no matter how much motivation, enthusiasm, or willpower you have when you embark on something new, you just don’t seem to stick it out?

Or perhaps you are consciously aware of the changes you would like to make in your life because you know they will be beneficial for you, but there seems to be some kind of invisible barrier preventing you from making those changes.

Here are some examples of what this might look like:

  • Skipping your daily physical activity, even though you know you’ll feel better after moving

  • Picking up some Macca’s on the drive home, again

  • Cracking another beer or wine after dinner, even though you’re aware you’ve had enough for today

  • Forgetting to take your supplements, even though you’ve placed them somewhere easily accessible

  • Going from one task to the next without any breaks, even though you know you’ll be more productive and calmer when you take breaks

  • Turning on the television before bed, even though you know you sleep better when you don’t have screens on at the end of the day

It can be immensely frustrating when scenarios like this happen, especially when we have the intention to do the thing (whatever that thing is).

We can then often engage in a lot of negative self-talk, internally telling ourselves off for not trying harder or sticking to our plan.

This can often lead to feeling despondent, and even like we are a failure, which then spirals into feeling discouragement around trying again, because hey, what’s the point? We figure that if we can’t change, and we feel powerless to make the changes we want to make in our lives, then why bother in the first place?

This cycle of emotions and behaviours is often referred to as self-sabotage.

self-sabotaging behaviours

What is self-sabotage?

In previous podcasts and blogs we have explored self-sabotage as being a self-protective mechanism where our nervous system is simply doing its best to keep you out of harm’s way.

It's essentially your body saying, “What you're doing here is different. We don’t like different, because different is not predictable, it’s not familiar, and so it is therefore not safe.

That same nervous system will do what it can to get us back to a point of safety (or what it considers to be safe based on past experience and conditioning). Safety looks like what we know, what we are familiar with, and of course, what makes us feel a sense of comfort.

This system works really well in the face of genuine threats to our survival, but not so well when we are actively trying to make changes which might temporarily pull us out of our comfort zone so we can improve and grow.

By now you may be thinking about the various ways you may be getting in your own way. Perhaps there are also ways you are limiting yourself and your progress which you are not consciously aware of. Either way, constantly feeling unaccomplished and feeling like you won’t ever achieve what you want to, is not helpful – these thoughts and feelings are not supportive for us.

So, what do we do then?

A good first step is to practice self-compassion; to appreciate where you are, as you are right now.

You can’t move forward, grow, expand, and evolve as a person if you’re constantly telling yourself that you’re not capable of doing so.

Second, it can help to understand why we behave in these ways which are counterintuitive to what we want to be doing. Let’s unpack this.

With these kinds of self-sabotaging behaviours, we are not often doing these consciously (although we definitely can). A lot of the time these behaviours are unconscious and they seem to just happen almost automatically. This is our autonomic nervous system in action, “helping” us by not allowing us to venture into the unknown of a new behaviour, a new habit, or a new change we’d like to make.

Why would our own nervous system actively prevent us from making the necessary changes which will benefit us in the long term?

The short answer – because it has no evidence that such changes will benefit us, or, it has evidence of the contrary – that making a change could potentially harm us, so it will not take that risk.

I appreciate that. I appreciate that my nervous system is doing its best to look out for me, because that’s what it’s designed to do!

However, I know I want to make certain changes in my life to improve my health, my mindset, my relationships, my sense of self, etc. so what do I do now? What can we actually do to help reassure the nervous system that even if we change things, we will be okay?

How to change self-sabotaging behaviours

There are many ways we can help re-condition our bodies and nervous systems to be okay with changes we’d like to make, such as somatic experiencing, accessing theta brainwave states with things like hypnosis, and so on, but the most efficient tool I have used to date is Emotion Release Technique (ERT).

In a nutshell, ERT assesses the body’s nervous system response to a stimulus (via muscle testing) and then efficiently locates the relevant emotion/s associated with that stimulus and then processes them.

As an example, in an ERT session we could go through a visualisation of a typical situation, assessing if there are emotional components at each stage and then helping the body to process these. We can then go back using the same stimulus and assess how the body responds. If it doesn’t experience a stress response, we have cleared what emotional component was attached to that stimulus, and the body should subsequently modify its behavioural response if this stimulus occurs in everyday life.

That is a very brief snapshot of how the ERT process works to clear unhelpful patterns, beliefs, or emotions which govern the way we behave – it’s much easier to understand when you experience it for yourself.

What’s really cool about ERT for helping clear self-sabotaging behaviours is that whether you know what the self-sabotaging pattern is or not, it doesn't matter because ERT is able to detect the relevant emotion within the body where it's stuck and then transmute it out. So it can be really useful for helping to shift those deeper underlying patterns which we may not even know exist.


Even though helping the autonomic nervous system to recondition itself through methods like ERT are extremely supportive in removing unhelpful self-sabotaging behaviours, it can still help to engage our conscious mind so we can gain more insights about ourselves and how we function.

With this in mind I’d like to leave you with some reflective questions for times when you either recognise you are engaging in self-sabotaging behaviours, or afterwards when you realise that is what’s happened. You may want to write these down in a journal. You may not know the answer to these questions, and that’s okay – we are just seeing what insights we could possibly glean from engaging our conscious mind. Not really knowing how to respond to these prompts may also indicate something like ERT could be really useful in processing whatever emotion/s drive the behaviour:

  • What emotions do I feel when I act or behave this way? Name them.

  • Do I feel these emotions anywhere in my body? Where? Can I sense what they feel like (e.g. anxiety, feels like a heaviness in the chest or anger might feel like a dull throbbing in the ribcage)

  • When embarking on making changes in my life, do I feel safe when trying to make this new change? If not, on quiet reflection, do I notice what I feel in my body when I think about making this change? Journal on what comes up for you.

Hopefully these are useful for you, and hopefully this brief discussion on self-sabotaging behaviours has been insightful. There is so much to unpack on this topic, and I already have so many different perspectives and talking points to address for future content exploring this, so stay tuned.

If you’d like to learn more about self-sabotaging behaviours and what they can teach us about ourselves, follow me on Instagram or listen to the Revitalising Health Podcast.

If you would like to shift some of your own self-sabotaging behaviours so you can start seeing meaningful changes in your life rather than falling off the bandwagon time and time again, consider booking in for an ERT session.


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