self sabotage

Never let the fear of striking out get in your way. ~ George Herman “Babe” Ruth

In my experience as an executive coach, I’ve heard countless client stories of triumphs and setbacks. A common thread running through these narratives is the destructive behavior of self sabotage. Many of us are oblivious to how often self-sabotaging beliefs infiltrate our choices, sometimes daily.

The primary culprit is often deeply ingrained habits. Consider the case of Marty, an innovative and sharp professional ascending his organization’s hierarchy. Marty expressed frustration about being bypassed for promotion despite feeling he had stronger qualifications than the selected candidate. The role was his ideal position, promising increased remuneration, flexibility, and a platform to spotlight his unique strengths. When probed about why he thought this transpired, it became clear that self-sabotage was at play.

“So, why do you think this happened?” I asked.

As we talked, Marty admitted he’d never let anyone know how badly he wanted the job. He assumed his bosses would consider him, but he never actively talked to them about his qualifications or desires.

Marty revealed numerous reasons for his inaction, most of them self-sabotaging. Like many gifted professionals, he exhibited behavior that psychologists call self-handicapping: anticipating a real or imagined obstacle that might get in the way of success and using it as an excuse to do nothing.

Self-handicapping allows us to protect ourselves from the pain of assuming responsibility for our failures—and we do it all the time.

This behavior is often so subtle that we don’t notice we’re doing it. Consider the manager who has to give a big presentation and fails to practice beforehand. How about the people who procrastinate on projects and “don’t have enough time” to do a good job?

In a July 2010 Harvard Business Review article, Stanford University business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer identified self-handicapping as one of three major barriers to building professional power. As he explains, people avoid the pain of failure by refusing to build power in the first place.

10 Ways to Self Sabotage

Self-sabotage can take many forms, often appearing in our professional lives without us realizing it. Here are 10 errors in thinking that lead to self-sabotaging decisions and actions:

  1. Resting on laurels: This error is characterized by positive thinking used as an excuse to avoid risk-taking. Often, individuals who have experienced past success become complacent, hindering their motivation to strive for further growth and improvement.
  2. Negative thoughts: The “not-good-enough” mentality often leads to self-sabotage, as individuals who constantly doubt their abilities tend to underperform and miss opportunities due to a lack of self-confidence.
  3. Silence: Choosing not to voice opinions, ideas, or concerns can result in missed opportunities and a lack of effective communication, which is essential for personal and professional growth.
  4. Freezing: Delaying or completely avoiding action due to fear or uncertainty can prevent progress and limit potential success.
  5. Making excuses: The tendency to attribute lack of progress or success to external factors like time or resources rather than addressing the real issues or putting in more effort.
  6. Blaming others: Instead of accepting responsibility for failures or shortcomings, some individuals shift the blame onto others, which can prevent personal growth and learning from mistakes.
  7. Not trying or risking: Staying within one’s comfort zone can limit opportunities for growth and new experiences, stifling potential success.
  8. Focusing on the small picture: Paying too much attention to minor details or immediate tasks while avoiding big-picture thinking can lead to a lack of strategic planning and vision.
  9. Focusing on feelings instead of facts: Allowing emotions to drive decisions, rather than grounding decisions in factual information, can lead to irrational choices and potential missteps.
  10. Allowing distractions to derail purposeful pursuits: Getting sidetracked by unimportant distractions can divert focus from important tasks or goals, decreasing productivity and effectiveness.

4 Key Steps to Conquer Self Sabotage

When faced with a challenge, you may be tempted to dwell on the barriers that stand in your way and use them as an excuse to defer action. However, self-handicapping will prevent you from reaching your career goals. In an October 2012 Harvard Business Review blog post, coaching expert Susan David identifies four ways to conquer self-sabotage:

  • Spot the warning signs. Are you holding back? Coming up with a list of excuses? Fixating on potential obstacles?
  • Clearly state your goals and avoid excuses. Don’t play the “what-if” and “if-only” games. Instead of obsessing over potential hurdles or what could have gone better, identify factors within your control and manage them effectively.
  • Take control of negative emotions. It’s normal to feel disappointed, angry, or frustrated when problems occur. Don’t beat yourself up as you experience these inevitable emotions. Shift your focus to what you can control.
  • Go for mastery. Self-handicapping usually kicks in when you’re trying to avoid negative feedback. Instead of worrying about colleagues’ reactions and criticisms, work toward mastering a domain you value. You’ll be motivated to move in the right direction by recognizing what matters to you.

It’s always helpful to work with an executive coach who can help you navigate your blind spots and develop greater self-awareness. Be sure to give yourself a pat on the back for being courageous enough to turn weaknesses into opportunities for growth.

Also, recognize that putting your best foot forward means stepping in mud occasionally. It’s up to you to decide which is more perilous: the risk of disappointment or the prospect of never reaching your potential.

Are you looking to work with a trained coach to help guide you through navigating your blind spots and developing self-awareness? I’d love to work with you. Schedule a free exploratory call here.

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