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Why We Self-Sabotage And What We CAN Do About It

This article was based on episode 81 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get free access to David Neagle’s course The Art of Success when you become a member at

My family hosted a brisket cook-off. We were to each make our brisket and bring it to a family dinner during which we’d have a blind taste test. Spoiler alert: I lost. According to my husband, it’s because I self sabotaged. I usually prepare my brisket 24 hours in advance so it can cook on low overnight, but this time, I forgot to make it until the morning of.

That morning I rushed to get the ingredients into the slow cooker before heading out with the kids to an appointment. At least it would have close to 10 hours to cook. But when I returned home at lunch time and checked on the brisket, the slow cooker was cold. I’d forgotten to plug it in.

Six hours. It could now cook for six hours. It would have to do.

Wait, it gets worse. We show up for tasting and when my recipe is up, I take a bit expecting the flavors to be decent even if the mean wasn’t as tender as usual. Nope. I’d forgotten to add salt. How could I have missed that?!

According to David Neagle, we are often caught living in the gap between present thoughts, wishes and desires and dis-empowering subconscious messaging. In the case of the brisket, I absolutely wanted to win, but, upon reflection, was scared of what it would mean if I did (I’d be on brisket duty for all future family events), and what it would mean if I didn’t (I’m not as good a cook as I thought).

So rather than risk winning or losing, my subconscious brain took over and protected me. By making these “mistakes” I now had an excuse (or three) that allowed me to stay safely in my current zone. I don’t have to make all the family briskets in the future and I’m still confident that my regular brisket-making is delicious.

While brisket is a low stakes situation, the reality of self-sabotaging is not. That’s why

David has helped thousands of entrepreneurs, experts and self-employed professionals shift their mindset, grow in confidence, and design a life that they really want. As the founder of the multimillion-dollar global coaching company, Life Is Now, Inc., he helps them bridge the gap between current reality and their desires by getting control of self-sabotaging behaviors.


Our conscious and subconscious brain processes continuously work together and in opposition to one another. The subconscious mind has two main functions: to keep us alive and safe, and to keep us reproducing. It will resist any intention that might subvert either of these two goals which are vital to our survival. The subconscious mind therefore generates resistance to activities perceived as a threatening change or challenge. It does so in one of two ways:

  1. It will create a need for urgency or hyperfocus concerning an element of our environment. Example: you may find yourself attending to an incessant need to upgrade your website rather than seizing the challenge of creating new products or working to find new clients.

  2. It will cause us to manufacture problems that draw our attention away from initiating desired change and growth. Examples: initiating arguments with a spouse, friend or employer; becoming sick or ‘forgetting’ to secure the dog inside the fence.

We become caught up in self-sabotage the moment that we agree with the subconscious messaging. It is this moment when we find ourselves consciously or emotionally justifying diversion and stopping forward progress. Reversing the process of self-sabotage is twofold. First, it requires gaining conscious awareness of the undermining behaviors and patterns. Second, it demands developing strategies to keep thoughts and action in alignment with the desires for growth and change.


The biggest obstacle to breaking habits of self-sabotage is the failure to recognize that you are doing it in the first place. We often don’t notice these habits until the optimal time for addressing them has passed. Step one is to become aware of your unique self-sabotaging techniques. Here are a few suggested approaches.

Observe how your self-sabotaging works. Once you’ve realized that you are doing something other than your main objective, take a pause. Step back and reflect objectively at your thoughts, behaviors and emotions from the moment you decided to sabotage yourself through the moment you became aware.

Question your motivation. Ask the following questions to identify self-sabotaging patterns and behaviors as they emerge:

  • Is something drawing my attention when I am supposed to be focused on something else?

  • Is this an actual emergency or not? Does it really require my immediate attention?

  • Am I doing what I should be doing? What am I avoiding?

  • Why might I be self-sabotaging?

Eliminate the option to self-sabotage. If you know you’re likely to avoid a certain task or behavior, eliminate or reduce your chances by bundling that activity with another and scheduling it on your calendar. For example, if you don’t want to make sales calls, commit to doing three every day at 2pm. Then, once they’re completed, reward yourself with a more enjoyable behavior.


While the emotions and circumstances may be different for everyone, self-sabotage as a survival mechanism works the same within each person. Managers can use similar approaches for reversing self-sabotage to offer assistance to team members. For example, help your team member become aware of their potential drive to self-sabotage by speaking with them prior to what might be a problematic event or experience. Proactively discuss the individual’s concerns and together develop strategies to overcome them.

In addition, it’s critical to create a caring and safe space for transparent sharing of personal feelings and perspectives. It’s not unusual for problems at work to arise due to personal challenges outside the office. A conversation about what may be going on in your colleague’s personal life can help surface any root causes. This greater awareness can facilitate more helpful individualized strategies for addressing issues occurring at work.


Working on self-sabotaging behaviors uncovers what is under the surface that causes people to hold back. Understanding motivation uncovers what is under the surface that entices and excites people to push forward. Intrinsic motivation, when tapped properly, is more powerful than even our subconscious fears. When you connect the work to the vision of what is deeply desired, you can finally move forward with confidence.


Get free access to David Neagle’s course The Art of Success when you become a member at

This article was based on episode 81 The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.


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