You’re Not Sabotaging Yourself


Following right on the heels of a lack of will power, the number two reason people come up with for not following through on what they set out to do is self-sabotage. This is a catchall phrase that seems to refer to any behavior that is inconsistent with one’s conscious intentions or goals. As such, it’s completely meaningless.

You may routinely do things that you regret doing:

  • Overeat when you’re trying to lose weight
  • Sleep in when you want to go to the gym
  • Fail to study for an exam you want to pass
  • Put less than your best effort into a project that matters

But that doesn’t mean you’re sabotaging yourself.

Here’s the Merriam-Webster definition of sabotage: “the act of destroying or damaging something deliberately so that it does not work correctly.” defines it as “any underhand interference with production, work, etc….as by enemy agents during wartime or by employees during a trade dispute.” says sabotage occurs “when you ruin or disrupt something by messing up a part of it on purpose.”

What these and all other definitions of the word sabotage have in common is the element of deliberateness. Sabotage, by definition, isn’t accidental or an unfortunate side-effect. It is intentional. So in order for us to be sabotaging ourselves, we would have to be engaging in counterproductive behavior on purpose.

This gets dicey right off the bat because we’re told our counterproductive (self-sabotaging) behavior originates in the unconscious. It is “hidden from our everyday thoughts,” according to one self-help author. But if we do something because we’re “unconsciously compelled” to do it, as a psychologist wrote, then it can’t possibly be intentional or deliberate.

Yes, it’s true—and inevitable—that we have competing or conflicting beliefs, goals, and intentions. In Incognito, David Eagleman says:

Brains…are built of multiple, overlapping experts who weigh in and compete over different choices. As Walt Whiteman correctly surmised, we are large and we harbor multitudes within us. And those multitudes are locked in chronic battle.

When the hostess at a party offers chocolate cake, you find yourself on the horns of a dilemma: some parts of your brain have evolved to crave the rich energy source of sugar [System 1], and other parts care about the negative consequences, such as the health of your heart or the bulge of your love handles [System 2]. Part of you wants the cake and part of you tries to muster the fortitude to forgo it.

Brains can be of two minds, and often many more. We don’t know whether to turn toward the cake or away from it, because there are several little sets of hands on the steering wheel of our behavior.

This is relatively straightforward and in no way implies that the part of our brain that craves sugar, System 1, has an intention to undermine System 2’s attempts to manage our health. The brain just doesn’t work that way.

Eagleman proposes that the brain is best understood as a team of rivals and adds:

Remember that competing factions typically have the same goal—success for the country—but they often have different ways of going about it.

How we frame a problem determines where and how we go about looking for its solution. If we view our counterproductive behavior as resulting from self-sabotage, we’re likely to divert our attention to trying to figure out why we’re sabotaging ourselves. But we don’t have direct access to the unconscious, which is where our so-called sabotage originates, so even if we were sabotaging ourselves we could never actually get to the bottom of things.

We harbor mechanical, “alien” subroutines to which we have no access and of which we have no acquaintance. Almost all of our actions—from producing speech to picking up a mug of coffee—are run by alien subroutines, also known as zombie systems.

Looking back into the past to find the trail of breadcrumbs that leads to the behavior of today amounts to a whole lot of wheel-spinning. It can’t succeed, and even if it could, it wouldn’t make any difference in regard to solving the problem at hand: getting our behavior to line up with our conscious intentions.

That’s because it isn’t the unconscious part of the brain that’s the problem; it’s the conscious part. If we don’t know what we want, we don’t have a clear direction. If we aren’t fully committed to what we set out to do (or claim to be setting out to do), we have no urgency. Without both direction and urgency, our best laid plans are dead in the water.

We can retrain System 1 to do more of what we want it to do and less of what we don’t want it to do. But that requires repetition and persistence. Lots of repetition. And lots of persistence. It isn’t easyand it isn’t as sexy as searching for our inner saboteurbut it’s both straightforward and effective.

Self-sabotage is nothing more than a good cover story.