Subconscious Self-Sabotage

The Hidden Handbrake – often, we’re our own worst enemies. We manage to somehow keep the things we really want just the right distance away so we never actually grab hold of them – whether a career position, goal, creative project or anything else. Why do people do this?

I call it the hidden handbrake because its literally like driving a car with the handbrake on – you sense your inner potential, you know you can do (and achieve) better, but for some reason an endless chain of setbacks and stupid decisions ensures that you never make the most of yourself.

The problem with subconsicous self-sabotage is that it can take years if not decades to realise its full effects. The mind rationalises that its something or someone elses fault, for as long as it can to protect your ego. But sooner or later, the patterns become so obvious, and the feedback from others so compelling unarguable, that you can’t help but look inward rather than outward for excuses. Examples may be a string of relationships, a string of jobs, giving up a project just before it could become successful, or endless procrastination.

I think a couple of the most common reasons are that people feel they either don’t deserve to be successful, or don’t deserve to be happy. When happiness happens, some people find it so uncomfortable that they do their best to ruin it. Same with success. Its the common cliche of the guy who gets a well paid job in the city, turns to gambling and cocaine, gets fired, wonder how the hell it all went wrong.

In my experience, its very difficult to pinpoint the causes of your own self-sabotage because its so hidden. An intricate network of self-beliefs and expectations that make up the self-image (your blueprint of what you expect for yourself) can rest on a myriad of beliefs – which are powerful because they are emotionally charged. Somewhere, an association exists between ideas of success, attention or happiness and guilt, shame or fear.

Some possible scenarios:

  • As a kid, when you did something you felt good about, you were made to feel shame by peers, parents or teachers.
  • You were taught (incorrectly) that only assholes are successful.
  • You were taught (incorrectly) that people who are self-confident are arrogant.
  • A parent figure wasn’t happy – and the idea of you being happy seems wrong.
  • You absorbed a huge sense of guilt (either through your own actions, or it was implied by someone else e.g. a parental break-up).
  • You absorbed a feeling of shame (e.g. caught masturbating as a kid, or ridiculed for something at school).

Goal-setting is an ever popular theme of self-help and get-rich-quick books.

“Visualise what you want – feel it – make it bigger, brighter – want it and you can attract it into your life!”

Hmm, maybe. But what I suspect the excited, hope-addicted readers of such books achieve instead, is the art of firmly grasping that stick with a dangling carrot and walking around in circles with it.

Actions speak louder (and condition the subconscious more successfully) than words. Figure out the steps that you need to take to achieve what you think you want to achieve. Carry them out and be aware of how if feels. Fantastic? Good – keep going until something else kicks in. The moment you start to want to give up, change direction or make a stupid decision – think about what outcome you would prefer and why. Who do you imagine you are pleasing in this scenario? Who do you imagine is watching over you? What is the child in you saying about it?

Everyone’s situation is different, so this is really just to stimulate some thought.

If you feel you self-sabotage, whether you know the causes or not, please do share and tell us about it. I would love to see some real-world examples. If you managed to do anything about it, that would be great to read about too.

Related – The Hidden Handbrake


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  • Don’t you think the hidden handbrake can just be an exceptionally developed sense of awareness that makes people being scared of failure? ‘If I don’t risk I will have something simple and stable. If I risk, I may be able to conquer the world or I may end up in a ditch… simplicity sounds less exciting but safe. I cannot make many mistakes or become a failure if I don’t risk and do as I am told’. It is not like denying to yourself that you are not good enough or depriving you of doing or getting something. You think you could potentially can do it, but realistically there are skills or abilities that other people intrinsically have (and you don’t or you are underdeveloped in these) that make them more successful with less apparent risk (and it looks effortless!!). It is a question of probabilities and being able to assume risks in life.

    I used to be an ok-ish horse rider when younger and I have jumped over 1,50m fences without hesitation and ridden any horse that was given to me. Nowadays, the risk of injury (and let’s face it, when you are young you are like plasticine, but not anymore that I am over 30!!) outweighs my desire of facing a big jump, or riding a young unbroken pony… because I am more aware of the risks.

  • I’m trying to figure out what is wrong with me. I just can’t force myself to get my work done. I’m smarter than average — everyone expected great things from me — and I had some excellent career starts that didn’t last long. Now, each day I plan to accomplish two or three projects in the time available — skipping a whole boatload of other stuff that needs to be done — just so I can keep up with the immediate deadlines. I can seldom manage to get even one thing done; if I do, I don’t move on. Here I am on the internet when I should have been working. This is the fourth day I’ve wasted and not been able to even start one critical project that should have gone out four days ago. Luckily the client hasn’t contacted me — probably he would never imagine that it wasn’t done already — and I think of how I could weasel out of the situation if he does contact me. I’ve tried meds for ADHD. The side effects were problematic and they didn’t seem to increase my productivity anyway. Could it be self-conscious sabotage. I am really appraoching my wits end. I need to do something. I just don’t know what.

  • This subject has been a constant feature of my life since early adolescence. I’m in my early 60’s now and despite years of psychotherapy and then intense spiritual practice I find that it is still active in my life. Self knowledge has provided me with no relief. I think I understand where it stems from (an older sibling who constantly undermined my accomplishments, sometimes with physical abuse) I am unable to recognize my self sabotaging behavior until after it’s done. I make ridiculous mistakes, bad decisions etc. things that are so obviously wrong that a child could see them, but I can’t, not until after the damage is done. I just lost another job because of my propensity to make unbelievable mistakes. It just leaves me exhausted.

  • It appears throughout my whole life, I have been driven by i’ll show you attitude. Possibly due to the constant doubt from others or being labeled as a kid who will end up in jail due to my disrespectful and unappriative attitude of my parents. Or maybe it was constantly the friend that did all I could to help and be there for my friends but did not receive the same loyalty in return. But I was okay with that. I prided myself on having the mindset that I will succeed and show everyone that they were wrong and that I was misunderstood. I was kicked out of my house at 15 and lived couch to couch for years.

    Later in life I was kicked out of my HS but with my need to succeed, enrolled in an alternative high school and received my HS diploma. A couple years later, I joined the Marine Corps and all of a sudden was a person my family was so proud to flaunt. While in the Corps and doing really well, I popped on a drug test shortly after boot camp and almost got kicked out of the military. Again, why?

    After departing from the military, I was accepted into Columbia University. I began shortly after a 15 month deployment so I returned lost, empty and started using cocaine daily for two years straight. This habbit caused me grades to seriously suffer and almost got dropped from the program.

    At this point, again, I had to show the world that I had the ability to overcome my issues, and ended up getting A’s, and graduated on the deans list. Now I am in a premedical program almost finished and plan to apply to medical school next semester, I am in the middle of finals, and for no apparent reason, started engaging in cocaine daily, alone and without letting anyone be aware of what I was doing due to being embarrassed, Again, why am I doing this when I am so close to finishing the program.

    The pattern is when I work hard and am so close to completing a goal no one I know has ever accomplished I decide to risk everything by sabotaging myself for no reason making the end so much more difficult rather than finish strong, Why Am I Doing This!?

    IF I was scared of succeeding than why do i go through these sabotage cycles but then get by somehow to move to the next milestone. TO the world I am an amazing story, but little do they know that when things are best, I hide in a hole and binge for days, away from anyone being able to know.

    I hate it but feel a need to feel some sort of suffering so that I can feel that nothing can stop me from succeeding but I know I have so much to lose if I were to allow these moments to end my progress. Maybe I need an excuse incase I dont reach my goal to be a doctor, but I know in my heart I can make it. When I go through this, its when I am so close to reaching one milestone and moving to the next, and I do this alone without sharing this with anyone, Like a secret need to feel like I need to put myself in a situation where I am risking everything, but everytime I get lucky and just make it. Then I stop the destructive behavior until I am almost about to move on to the next step in my career.

    I was told that maybe its a phenomenon called Control Mastery… but I dont know if I agree. Comments?

    • I pondered about this subject myself. It seems to me self-sabotaging is an anticipatory subconscious action because in childhood I experienced misery and sadness followed by slightest good fortune or good luck. In my case, my older sister and older aunts couldn’t stand seeing me happy; so they would mentally abuse me by calling me all kinds of derogatory names and routinely physically abuse me just so they can see me cry hysterically helplessly with shame and hurt for feeling good and laughing with giggles. They were thought police. They wanted to inflict pain and misery on my because they were mean lonely and bitter human beings, and they got sadistic pleasure in hurting me and seeing me suffer as a small child. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t protect me as they neglected me since birth.

      My adult realization is that I deserve my happiness and I allow myself to enjoy this good bliss as it comes and goes in the present moment. I don’t owe my happiness to anyone, so I don’t have to do or give anything to anyone to receive happiness and good fortune in return. Good moments will come and go in my life, and when they come I can enjoy them one by one like I’d find a flower and place it in a glass of water to enjoy its presence and energy in my safe place in my mind. It helps me sometimes to think this way because I believe it is true to me. As I start healing more and more from my childhood PTSD, this deserving mentality will become my subconscious and replace the childhood abuse neural pathways in my brain. As I allow my inner wound to heal on its own naturally; my body, mind and heart will be in coherence and co-exist with ease.

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