On Writing: Self-Sabotage

Tell me if this has happened to you before.

You’re minutes away from the deadline of your short piece or whatever you happen to be writing.  You want to do a really good job.  You read your piece aloud.  You check for errors.  And then you realize, you forget something in the middle, and in your heart-pounding anxiety, type in that extra thing.  You race off to submit it, and you think, Awesome.  I’m finally done.

Only to realize, after you’ve submitted your piece, it has typos that you didn’t catch.  In your rush to make things perfect, you’ve gone and made things completely imperfect.

You loathe yourself.  You think, Why—why of all things did I do that? Why have I done this yet again? If only I had been more vigilant.  Now I look like a total fool.  Why do I keep shooting myself in the foot? I don’t mean to shoot myself in the foot, so why do I keep doing it anyway? 

If you’re thinking these things, you are not alone.

I repeat: you are not alone.

What’s Wrong Going On With Me?

This phenomenon goes by many names: self-destruction, self-sabotage, etc.

It’s normal.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you as a person or a writer.  You are not trying to harm another person or do something immoral.  You just want to get better at being who you are, but along the way, you’re finding that you are getting in your own way.  So instead of perpetuating the practices that keep you where you are and have you repeating the same, self-sabotaging habits like procrastinating on your story or not catching typos while editing due to unconscious unawareness, insist on positive, healthy practices, and nothing less.

Finding the Cause

Talking to a Therapist/Friend/Family Member/Pastor/Fellow Writer

Talk to someone.  I can’t emphasize this enough, even for just five minutes.

You do not have to face this problem alone.  You’ll think you’re weak for admitting your problems to another person, but if you trust and respect that person, and they trust and respect you, you have no reason to be afraid of them.  They will want to help you.  Good, morally sound therapists, while not friends or family members, are qualified to give you help and strategies regarding things like this.  It’s their job, and their calling.

The moment you acknowledge that you have a problem and verbalize it, you’re already on your way to solving it.  And talking to other people might give you ideas as to what could be its underlying cause, or create possible practices to eliminate the self-destructive behavior.

Asking the Tough Questions to Yourself

The good thing about self-sabotaging behavior is that it occurs in a pattern—with similar triggers and similar thoughts that you’ll be able to spot with enough practice.

If you’re like me, and you find writing therapeutic, I recommend this method if you’ve had previous experience with therapy, keep a journal, or are comfortable looking at yourself from an objective, analytic perspective.  For those who’ve never done anything like this before, do it at your own risk.  You may open wounds, and they may hurt quite a bit.  Don’t be busy when doing this.  Give your full attention to it.

Take an event where you recently committed a self-sabotaging act (procrastinated, didn’t catch your edits on a submission, etc.), and work backwards from it.  With a journal and writing utensil/tape recorder, start writing/speaking in the following sentence structure: “I did A, because B.”  After that, keep following the string: “I did B, because C.  I did C, because D.” You can be casual with it, having thoughts rise from what comes up so that things aren’t super repetitive: “And I think I did D because of E or F.  F is probably the more likely reason, because G.”  Be honest with yourself when giving reasons.  If you have trouble answering the questions, give it your best guess.  Do this exercise for about 5-10 minutes or more, and afterward, go over what you said or wrote.  With a highlighter, or while taking notes, if you recorded yourself, record recurring words and themes.  See which reasons keep coming up over and over again for your behavior.

Then, congratulate yourself.  You’ve just given yourself a map of how your brain works in said situation where the self-sabotaging act occurred as well as a possible source for the problem.  If you take another event and find that, working backwards, it leads to the same place as the previous event, even better.  Keep studying; keep learning.

You might not win every battle, but you can win a war.

Eliminating the Behavior


Pretend that you are two halves of one whole.  One half is a good spy, self-aware, dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s, and ensuring that you’re not having any heart attacks.  The other spy also wants you to succeed.  They do incredibly well in intense, adrenaline-inducing situations, but on occasion, they give you bad intel.  They tell you it’s okay to procrastinate a bit longer, to not double-triple check, because the clock is ticking, and finishing is way more important than having a polished product, when it’s just not true.

This other spy is the part of you that sabotages you.  They shut off the communication channel between the you that wouldn’t have let those kinds of mistakes slip past your radar had you been cool, calm and collected.  Both spies have their strengths, and their weaknesses, but in order for you to feel balanced, they must work together.

If your unconscious fears and doubts work against your conscious desires, they will manifest as real, self-destructive behaviors.


This is why discipline is important.

When you keep make the same mistake, you wonder about it.

But wondering alone doesn’t do much.  Sometimes, it generates ideas, and that’s good.  But when you do nothing but wonder, you are chewing the same piece of grass over and over again instead of letting it be digested, dissolved, and sorted.  You become a cow chewing cud, ruminating and ruminating in negative thoughts and misery and depression.

Wondering about what happens is useful when we take the next steps to correct it the behavior.

Become your greatest ally instead of your greatest enemy by learning from your mistakes.  If you’ve found that your self-sabotage stems from lack of self-confidence, take steps toward building your self-confidence.  If you have negative thoughts about your writing ability, create positive thoughts instead.  If you find that you don’t edit well under pressure and time crunches, give yourself plenty of time for the next writing assignment.

However, be careful not to associate discipline with external, conditional goals:  “If I do X, then I’ll be happy, and all my problems will be solved, and I’ll never lack confidence again”.  Change starts from the inside, and it is an ongoing process.  There will always be things that are unforeseeable in the world, and if you believe that the future will be exactly like you think it should be, you’ll only cause yourself more trouble.

The only thing you can be sure of is what you did in the past and what you are doing in the present.  What you will do in the future is always uncertain.  Take comfort in that.  It means that there is room for failure and success, and that those failures will show you that while success isn’t there, it’s closer than you think.


IQ Matrix cites protection from disappointment/discomfort as reasons for self-sabotaging behavior.  In other words, your body, in its weird way, is trying to protect you from the possibility of getting hurt by something in the future.  It is keeping you from stepping out of your comfort zone, which to your current mind, maybe be constant failure, procrastination, or depression.  The changes in your life might be so staggering that your body wants to keep things as level as possible, even at the cost of your own self-confidence, and thus, creating disappointment, frustration, and sadness.

I find that as beautiful and as fascinating as a tragic play.

So, to say it again, nothing is wrong with you.  You just want the best for you.  And that’s a good thing.  But don’t let yourself get in the way of your own happiness.  Be mindful of yourself.  Be aware of your consciousness and unconsciousness. Of course, don’t ignore your flaws, and pretend they are gone.  Let them shape you and guide you throughout life.  Turn every moment into a learning experience.

You are so close to greatness.  Don’t give up.

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