Stop the self-sabotage cycle

content self sabotage down spiral

Most of us, at some point in our career, have sabotaged our own success: you are not alone.

Also, because you won’t be the only person in your team susceptible to procrastination or perfectionistic tendencies, try reflecting on your colleagues’ experience and how you can support them.

Sabotaging behaviours

'Sabotage' is a strong word; it means to deliberately destroy or obstruct something. 'But I don’t enjoy feeling afraid to speak up in meetings'; 'I don’t procrastinate because I like the last-minute panic and sleepless nights'; 'I don’t mean to get overlooked for promotions even though I would really like a pay rise. It just happens.'

And there it is. In that last sentence lies the very nub of the problem: 'It just happens'. In these moments, we are a victim of our unconscious mind.

Self-sabotaging behaviours are very common among high-achievers – and those who would like to be. It’s a natural result of automatic negative thinking, which impacts your behaviour. I call this the self-sabotaging cycle.

How the cycle works

The first place on the cycle represents a situational trigger: a stretching target that you have set for yourself, a high-profile project, a promotion opportunity or something you’ve been tasked to do by someone else.

The second place on the cycle represents your positive emotional reaction to the situational trigger. This is perhaps excitement or enthusiasm; you're glad to have a chance to prove yourself. These positive feelings come with thoughts such as 'This is a chance to prove myself', 'This is going to be a rewarding project' or 'I’ll be able to learn a lot doing this stretching task'.

Then, right here, just as soon as you feel energised and ready take on your new challenge, you automatically move to the third place on the cycle. This is where all of the wide-ranging sabotaging emotions and thoughts reside. This is the home to your self-doubt and your inner critic.

Your negative thoughts and feelings might sound something like this: 'This is an opportunity for me to humiliate myself!', 'This is going to be too challenging and I’ll fail' or 'I’m not the best person for the job. They’ll realise I’m stupid and then they’ll fire me. Why didn’t they choose Ali? She’s much more competent than I am!'.


Search hundreds of roles from all over the world on ACCA Careers

Sign up for a job alert tailored to your desired location and role


Your brain is wired to protect you – to keep you safe and away from harm. At the first sign of ‘danger’, you will experience the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ phenomenon: a form of panic triggered by the brain that has the potential to save your life.

The fact is that your brain is overloaded with information and everyday stress; it misreads perceived life-threatening situations – for example, taking on a high-profile project – as actual life-threatening situations.

Going backwards

Your thoughts are not always rational: 'if I make a mistake on this project it will be the end of the world!'. And because our thoughts and feelings affect our behaviour, we fall into the fourth place of the sabotaging cycle: instead of taking proactive action that moves us towards achieving our goal, we do the opposite.

Here’s a list of the most common self-sabotaging behaviours:

  • procrastination (tidying your desk or office space, scrolling social media aimlessly)
  • displacement activities (deleting your old emails, writing lists of things to do)
  • perfectionism
  • over-preparing
  • avoidance
  • not giving yourself enough time to prepare
  • waiting for permission
  • double-checking with others before making decisions
  • involving yourself in other people’s projects or dramas
  • using emotional excuses (you just don’t feel like it, you’re too tired to focus)
  • being late for meetings or important events.

Which ones do you recognise in yourself or your colleagues?

Steps to freedom

There are lots of reasons why we find ourselves on this self-sabotaging cycle, and just as many proven methods to help us break away from it.

Below are three steps you can take right now that will help you notice when you’re on it and, hopefully, gently encourage you to step off:

Raise your awareness. Become more aware of your situational triggers. When are you more likely to slip into self-sabotaging habits? Consider the specific tasks, people or situations that reduce your capacity for self-belief. What one thing are you avoiding or delaying at the moment?

Reframe the inner critic. When you catch yourself having self-critical or self-doubtful thoughts, write them down. Being able to read your thoughts on paper helps you to recognise that they are irrational and unhelpful. It is then easier to rewrite these thoughts so that they are more encouraging and useful. As an example, replace the thought 'This is going to be too challenging and I’ll fail' with 'Everyone learns through experience; I will ask for support when I need it'.

Reward incremental achievements. To help manage the feeling of overwhelm, try breaking down your task into small steps, then break down that first step into a series of smaller ones. Research shows that incremental achievements are useful as they help to motivate you and maintain your momentum. Offer yourself lots of reassuring encouragement, as you would a colleague, and celebrate each of these incremental achievements as you accomplish them.

Author: Jess Baker is a business psychologist and leadership coach

This article was first published in Accounting and Business magazine May 2021​

Back to listing