How to Overcome Self-Sabotage


I feel compelled to confess that I am republishing this article based on a conversation I had with a client last week. The head of an organisation was wondering out loud why the lack of confidence was so prevalent among members of his team whom he considered to be highly competent. I pointed out to him that, in my experience, the lack of confidence was the most common pain point that led persons to pursue coaching. Lack of confidence is not a horse that rides alone. What are the names of the other horsemen? I’m glad you asked… Procrastination, Perfectionism and Negative Self-talk.

The Conundrum

I recently came across a statement that really got me thinking. Here it is: The world will put countless obstacles in your path, but none will be as big as the ones you create for yourself.

The article went on to define self-sabotage as a what occurs when our conscious/logical mind is at odds with our subconscious or our critical inner voice. What begins as a battle between our conscious and subconscious minds then manifests as behaviours or thoughts that prevent us from doing those things that are required to achieve our highest goals and aspirations.

That got me to thinking about the following passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (7: 15 and 19)

15I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do. 19For I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I keep on doing the evil I do not want to do.

Like St. Paul, many of us struggle to adhere to the commitments we make. In my personal experience as well as in my coaching practice, I have found that this habit can be a source of deep frustration ultimately leading to self-recrimination. This is particularly the case with people who are generally successful in other aspects of their life.

Why is it that some people who are generally capable, committed, and successful repeatedly stumble over obstacles that – on the face of it – they should be able to overcome?


One major culprit is procrastination.  There are many factors that can contribute to procrastination. According to they include poor organization skills, lack of motivation, perfectionism and fear of failure. However, even highly driven and accomplished people can find themselves struggling with procrastination.

In an October 2020 article, accountability coaches Ali Schiller and Marissa Boisvert describe four procrastinator archetypes and are also kind enough to share the remedies.

  1. Those who wait until the last minute to get started and then assert that they work well under pressure – Solution: Instead of focusing on your deadline for completion, set a deadline for starting
  2. Those who criticize themselves for being lazy – Solution: Don’t be so hard on yourself. Really listen to what your body is telling you about your energy level. Perhaps you need to take a break and tackle the task at hand with renewed mind, body, and soul.
  3. Those who overcommit and end up feeling overwhelmed – Solution: This one can be tricky. Sometimes overscheduling is a tactic to avoid dealing with something else. So, think deeply and be honest with yourself.
  4. Those who get bored easily and move on to the next shiny object – Solution: Make note of the new exciting opportunity but discipline yourself not to pursue it until you’ve finished what’s currently on your plate.

Do you recognize yourself in any of the four archetypes? If so, what do you think about the solutions that Schiller and Boisvert proposed for your brand of procrastination?

Perfectionism – It’s Not a Virtue

There was a time in my life where I actually thought that it was a compliment when people described me as a perfectionist. I thought that they were paying homage to my high standards. Over time, I came to realize that my perfectionist behaviour was doing me more harm than good – that I was missing out on opportunities simply because I wasn’t willing to try new things unless I was absolutely certain that I would excel at them. 

You know what’s not a synonym for perfectionism? Flexibility! While flexibility and perfectionism don’t exactly hang out in the same circles, flexibility is the close companion of psychological health and wellbeing. A 2016 meta-analysis of 284 studies found a statistically significant correlation between perfectionism and mental health disorders. It’s also another example of self-sabotaging behaviour.

During my days as an unreformed perfectionist, it didn’t even occur to me that there was such a thing as an unimportant decision. Therefore, I habitually and automatically classified everything as being worthy of my full effort. I treated the simplest work task as if it were an Olympic sport with a gold medal as the only acceptable outcome.

Among the bitter fruit likely to be reaped by unreformed perfectionists are burnout, persistent stress and dissatisfaction, and resentment from other members of your team. Have you been nodding your head because you can relate to these stories?  On a scale from 1 to 10, how severe is your case of perfectionism? [PS: Relax, you don’t have to get a perfect score!]

Perfectionism – Diagnosis and Remedy

Here’s a litmus test for determining whether perfectionist thoughts or behaviour might be sabotaging your success. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I have trouble meeting my own standards?
  • Do I often feel frustrated, depressed, anxious, or angry when trying to meet my self-imposed standards?
  • Have I been told that my standards are too high?
  • Do my standards get in my way by making it difficult for me to meet deadlines, finish a task, trust others, or do anything spontaneously?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you may have a problem with perfectionism. Having made the diagnosis, let’s now shift focus to the solutions.

First of all, reframe your thinking.  Instead of seeing perfectionism as an identity trait, view it as a thought or behavioural pattern. Then engage in some introspection to identify your triggers and the underlying causes of your perfectionist thoughts or behaviour.

 After completing the foregoing work on your self-awareness, then turn your attention to self-regulation. Here’s a 3-point action plan to help with that:

  1. Focus on the big picture – don’t major in the minor.
  2. Validate your perspectives by determining what objectively constitutes acceptable standards for the task at hand – not just from your perspective, but in the eyes of the key stakeholders.
  3. Recognize the opportunity cost of going beyond the established objective quality standards for the task at hand. In doing so, you will identify the point of diminishing returns. Resolve not to cross that threshold.

There you have it – a system for diagnosing and resolving perfectionism. Remember, it’s not a life sentence but a thought/behavioural system that can be changed if you are committed to doing so. Need more help with that? Then keep reading…

Reframe Negative Self-talk

Years of negative self-talk and deep-rooted insecurities often cause us to self-sabotage. The good news is that, since you are the author of the script used by your inner voice, you can rewrite it so that it better serves your needs. Here’s a process that you can use to do just that.

  1. Really tune in to what your inner voice is saying.
  2. Be more curious and less judgmental.
  3. Articulate the old belief – e.g. I can’t…. because…
  4. Reality check that old belief – Is there current evidence that validates it? (NB: not evidence from eons ago)
  5. Reframe that old belief ➡️ I can and will… because…
  6. Retrain your inner voice by affirming the new belief daily until you have fully internalized it.

Why not give it a try? And if at first you don’t succeed, keep working at it. After all, it took you a lifetime to build up those self-limiting beliefs. Don’t you owe it to yourself to put in the effort to free yourself from the burden that they represent?

The power truly is within you. So, choose today to master your self-talk and leverage it as a tool to help maximize your performance.

Please like, share and comment below.  For more practical tips on taking your managerial performance to the next level, pick up a copy of my book Managers’ First Aid Kit


Ambassador Joan H. Underwood is a senior management consultant and policy advisor with extensive experience in both the public and private sectors.

Professional designations held by Ambassador Underwood include that of a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) from the US-based HR Certification Institute, the Society for Human Resource Management Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP), Accredited Director (Acc.Dir.) and credentialed Master Trainer as designated by the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

She also holds the designation of an Erickson Professional Coach (EPC) and is a member of the International Coaching Federation (ICF).

Joan’s most recent professional accomplishments include certification by the Human Capital Institute (HCI) in Strategic Workforce Planning and Change Practitioner as certified by Prosci© Canada and the Change Management Learning Centre.

If you are looking for the resources required to help you take your management performance to the next level in 2021, click HERE to obtain a FREE SAMPLE from the book which is being described in editorial reviews as a “must have for new, aspiring and even experienced managers” – Managers’ First Aid Kit.

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