Psychologists Share The Two Words That Turn Self-Sabotage into Success

Whether it's procrastination, a fear of rejection, perfectionism or feelings of unworthiness, we all have ingrained — and often subconscious — ways that we may sabotage our self-interests. So you may ask, how do I get out of my own way? Fortunately, getting to the root of this impulse will help us defuse it and embrace greater confidence and happiness.

“Self-sabotage says, ‘I want something, but for some reason, I'm engaging in behavior that makes me move further away from it,’” explains clinical psychologist Candice Seti, PsyD, author of The Self-Sabotage Behavior Workbook: A Step-by-Step Program to Conquer Negative Thoughts, Boost Confidence, and Learn to Believe in Yourself. “For example, you might tell yourself that you want to be in a relationship, yet you never go on a dating site; or you’d like to lose weight, but you constantly put it off, saying, ‘I’ll start tomorrow.’ We all do it in some way!”

This self-defense mechanism gone haywire seemingly protects us from disappointment — if we never try, we can’t fail­ — but it also blinds us to our true potential. “It’s not a question of whether we get in our own way, but a question of degree, because we all engage in it, just in different forms,” says Seti, adding that such “symptoms” include self-criticism, perfectionism and procrastination.

Despite its many iterations, one common denominator links all self-sabotage, she reveals. “Underlying all of it is fear — fear of change, of the unknown, of failure, and even of success.” Simply knowing why we do it can help us outsmart these self-limiting beliefs. Just read on for four common “traps” that trip us up and the easy strategies proven to let you reclaim joy and confidence.

Self-sabotage trap # 1: procrastination

We've all found ourselves putting something off that is important to us — and it's often because if we don’t begin, we can’t fail, says Seti. You may think, I need the stress of a last-minute deadline to do my best work. But this belief only ratchets up your anxiety. “Procrastination is a type of sabotage that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Seti. “You start to believe that putting things off is the only way you can function because you’ve talked yourself into that belief — it’s a vicious cycle making you even more stressed.”

Rather than give in to a case of the delays, challenge your belief that procrastination is serving you, advises Seti. “Your self-sabotaging voice says that you work better under pressure — but what if that’s not true? What if you actually work better without that last-minute strain and you've never given yourself a chance to discover this because you haven’t tried a different approach?” She encourages experimenting with small, manageable chunks of time.

For example, you might start by focusing on a task for just five minutes or in half-hour increments every day to build momentum. Treating your new approach as an experiment that you can tweak based on what works best for you helps take the pressure off your shoulders. Seti adds, “You may discover that attacking a task in a planned and focused way leads to a better outcome — it all starts with awareness and collecting the evidence about what really works for you, as opposed to what is just a distortion or a self-belief that isn’t serving you.”

Self-sabotage trap # 2: fear of rejection

While study after study shows the best thing we can do for our mental and physical health is make connections, our fear of rejection can keep us stuck. When your sabotaging instinct convinces you that it’s “safer” to remain in your comfort zone, tap the power of a proven strategy called “opposite action,” advises Seti. “The best way to change a pattern of behavior is to do the exact opposite of what self-sabotage tells you.”

The effectiveness of this technique lies in its simplicity because it requires just one step, preventing you from overthinking and falling further into a hole of inaction. “For example, if you’re telling yourself not to pick up the phone and call someone, do the opposite and dial.”

While this may sound easier said than done, Seti promises you can start with baby steps. “Say you’re invited to a party and self-sabotage says, ‘Don’t go,’ do the opposite by attending but make it less overwhelming by taking a friend. Or, if you’re avoiding reaching out to someone out of fear they won’t get back to you, do the opposite by contacting them — and consider texting instead of calling so it's less scary.” The power behind this strategy, she says, comes from not giving in to your initial thought. Simply pushing back a little changes your perspective, helping you grow and evolve.

Two women laughing How do I get out of my own way
MoMo Productions/Getty

Self-sabotage trap # 3: perfectionism

The problem with perfectionism is that, by its nature, it's unattainable, and the more you take on all by yourself, the more your stress skyrockets. “Perfectionism sabotages our success because it tells us that we can’t let ourselves ask for help — that that would somehow make us weak,” says neuropsychologist Judy Ho, PhD, author of Stop Self-Sabotage: Six Steps to Unlock Your True Motivation, Harness Your Willpower, and Get Out of Your Own Way. This mindset can also lead us to give up on important goals. “Eventually, we tell ourselves, ‘If I can’t do it perfectly, I might as well not do it at all.’”

To outsmart this counterproductive perfectionist mindset, reframe your thoughts so they’re more self-compassionate, encourages Ho. “When you think, ‘If I make one small mistake, the whole project will be blown,’” ask yourself what’s a more realistic and balanced way to see this? You might instead say, ‘What’s one small step I can take to solve this problem?’” The key to doing just that is allowing yourself to ask for help, she urges.

Perfectionists want to take on everything themselves, but letting yourself be a little vulnerable by reminding yourself that you can ask for assistance will not only allay stress, it’ll also bring you closer to others.

Also smart? Acknowledge your progress. “Perfectionism is ultimately rooted in poor self-esteem,” adds Seti. That’s because if you felt good about yourself, your effort would be enough, and you wouldn’t need to hold yourself to an impossible standard. To foster a more self-compassionate mindset she suggests telling yourself, “'If I achieve even close to 80% of my goal, I'm doing better than most people.' Remind yourself that perfect isn’t real, effort is. Are you trying your best? Improving? Then you’re growing — just recognizing this will help defuse self-sabotaging perfectionism.”

Self-sabotage trap # 4: generalization

Often when we’re struggling in one aspect of our lives, we start to generalize and falsely believe we’re failing in everything we do. This negative self-image not only sabotages our goals, it poisons our most important relationship: the one we have with ourselves.

If you’re reeling from a setback or blaming yourself for not accomplishing a goal and wondering how do I get out of my own way, step back and say two words, advises Ho. “One of my favorite techniques is simply to say, ‘Yes, but,” she reveals. “If you haven’t met a weight loss goal, for instance, instead of telling yourself that you’re a failure, say: ‘Yes, I haven’t lost the pounds yet, but I’m working hard, and I’ve already been able to make healthy changes like taking more walks.’”

Coming up with a new, specific thought that reflects both sides of the situation helps you tap a growth mindset and get out of your own way, so that you can keep marching toward your goal. This also negates “toxic positivity,” the over-the-top idealism that our brain just won’t buy into and that only makes us more apt to sabotage ourselves. To that point, Ho recommends repeating affirmations that are both positive and down-to-earth in front of the mirror.

“Gaze at yourself for one minute and say something like, ‘You’re fine just the way you are­ — I care about you.’” You may feel silly at first, she acknowledges, and that’s okay. In the end, speaking to yourself as kindly as you would to a friend, is the key to getting out of your own way, and embracing the bright, hope-filled future you deserve.

Woman gazing into mirror How do I get out of my own way

For more expert advice on how to slash stress and boost happiness, keep reading!

Are You in a Shame Spiral? These 4 Tips Will Help You Stop Beating Yourself Up

4 Secrets to Experiencing Self-Compassion and Genuine Joy

4 Ways To Curb Negative Self-Talk and Be Kinder to Yourself