Many life experiences and failures to reach our goals may quickly be labeled self-sabotage. However, to truly understand the roots of such patterns, we must dig deep into what motivates them.

Research into the unconscious underpinnings of our behaviors suggests that all mental life has an unconscious component. What we call self-sabotage in the present moment – things like eating foods we know disagree with us – could very well be motivated by unconscious goals and adaptations that, in the past, preserved our psychological health. The things we term ‘maladaptive’ behaviors may have been, at one time, a survival strategy.

Your desires and aspirations, and the behaviors that deter you from achieving them, most likely have conflicting components from both within and outside of your awareness.

Perhaps you want to stop falling for unavailable partners, yet always end up with someone who cannot fulfill your needs. Or maybe, like millions of others, you are struggling to start exercising and find yourself watching TV  every evening. To help overcome these obstacles, you must first bring the unconscious to the forefront. Here’s how you can start:

1. Learn the function of your self-sabotaging behaviors.

When we term a behavior ‘self-sabotaging,’ we are not only oversimplifying but also precluding ourselves from truly understanding its function. The patterns of acting that led you here are not just useless barriers to your success. They often serve an unconscious purpose, which was adaptive at an earlier life stage.

Whether or not we call it self-sabotage, remaining stuck professionally or personally can serve an unconscious psychological purpose. It is a psychological compromise that was made earlier in life when, perhaps, fewer resources were available and emotional literacy was lower.

2. Identify the underlying needs and bring them to consciousness.

Recognize the patterns that may at first glance appear self-sabotaging but have a purpose and function deeply rooted in early experiences. This helps us approach them with less judgment and more self-compassion. In turn, the next step is to identify the needs that underlie them.

3. Search your belief system for trauma-related negative beliefs.

This is a process that can run parallel to the first two: search for core beliefs related to yourself, others, and the world that may be rooted in adverse experiences, rather than in objective reality.

For instance, notice statements that recur. For example, thoughts such as “I don’t deserve this,” “Anything I achieve will be taken away from me,” or “Nobody ever cares about me or my achievements anyway” constitute such thoughts.

Identifying  trauma-related thoughts is not easy. Unlike emotions, which tend to be more readily identifiable (it is easier for us to say “I am sad” or “I am nervous”), thoughts feel intrinsic to us that we usually find it hard to recognize that they may be just as impacted by adversity as emotions. It is more obvious that “I get sad when no one attends my parties” than “Because I was left alone many times as a child when I really needed to talk.”

Beliefs just are beliefs; we do not question where they came from or how we learned to think that way. Yet to change behaviors that prevent you from accomplishing your goals, you have to ask not only why you feel what you feel, but also how you learned to think the way you think and if it serves you any longer.

In certain situations, former adaptations may be especially difficult to change. For example, if you grew up in an abusive environment where becoming invisible and agreeable saved you from psychological and physical harm, being assertive to voice your needs and thoughts may be difficult.  A good coach or therapist can help you see these patterns and also assist you in creating a roadmap to achieving sustained and meaningful change.


I work with mid-life men and women who want to feel younger through improving their relationship to food, movement and mindfulness.

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