Self-Sabotage and Self-Defeating Behaviors in Addiction Recovery


For people in recovery, thinking about using alcohol or drugs, or actually returning to their use is the ultimate in self-sabotage and self-defeating behavior. What good could come out of a return to the use of drugs and alcohol?

Bill Urell offers a pretty good working definition of self-sabotaging behavior. He says, “Self-sabotaging thoughts, behaviors, and feelings create a block in the road to success even when there is no rational or logical explanation as to why you cannot achieve your goals.”

We'll be looking at self sabotage and self-defeating behaviors common in early addiction recovery. A number of these behaviors may be the contributors, if not the cause of past relapses.

It is not a lack of knowledge, effort, or even desire that keeps you from achieving your goals and outcomes. But instead, it is the committee in our head or our inner self-dialogue that confuses the issue.

What is Self-Sabotage: Sabotaging Behavior vs. Successful Behavior

Let’s take a look at some of the characteristics in attitudes of self-sabotaging behavior. Daniel G. Amen, in his book, Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot, came up with the following attributes and contrasts.

  • Lack of personal responsibility vs. taking personal responsibility
  • Lack of awareness vs. taking the initiative to be informed
  • Poor communication skills vs. positive communications with others
  • Negativity vs. setting and working towards goals
  • Poor choice-making vs. making good living choices

If we labeled the left side of the list ‘engaging in addictive use’, and the right side ‘engaging in recovery,’ it would fit like a glove.

Self-sabotage can lead you to and position you in the middle of “relapse mode.” Self-defeating behavior can make you frustrated, bring up that feeling of being trapped again, and be very discouraging. Everybody makes a poor decision here and there, and none of us get the results we want all the time. Still, this idea of self-sabotaging and self-defeating behavior is problematic when it becomes insidious and a pattern rather than an exception.

What Do Researchers Say About People who Self-Sabotage?

People with self-defeating and sell sabotaging behaviors often have some of these five characteristics in common:

  1. They may come from family systems where behavior was inconsistent.
  2. Often there is a history of abandonment or detachment disorder.
  3. Many have a history of not getting their developmental needs met or knowing how to ask.
  4. Come from families with a "no talk" or "don’t let and see you sweat rule."
  5. They may have incidents of abuse in the past or present.

One concept that researchers put forth is this: because our needs were not met as children by our caregivers, we have a great deal of low self-worth and shame. Shame is a belief that we are defective inside, at the core.

Self-Sabotage and Unmet Needs in Childhood

It is only normal to have our needs recognized and met as children. Unfortunately, when that doesn't happen, what we learn are various ways to get attention. Some try to be as pleasing, hard-working, and as worthy as possible; they turn into overachievers. For others, acting and out in a negative sense is a way to get attention. Neither of these approaches is the best way to get your internal needs met.

Not getting your emotional needs met as a child might look like this:

As a kid, your adults ignored, belittled, or told you could do better when you raised your hand and said, Mommy, Daddy, look at me, look at me. You tried harder and harder, but it was never good enough. This creates the emotion of shame, which becomes deeply internalized into the core of one's being. The feeling of I am not worthy, I am never good enough, but ironically you keep trying harder and harder. Here is where the self-sabotage and self-defeating behavior comes in. You are right on the brink of success, finally proving to the people around you, and maybe even yourself that you are worthy, capable, and good. But all that shame you grew up with produces a sense of believing deep down that you are not good, so you mess things up just when successes are in your sight.

How to Tell if You Have Self Defeating Behaviors

Here are some of the attitudes and mindsets that can generate a posture of self-sabotage and self-defeat.

  1. Honesty is difficult for you, and you exaggerate the truth.
  2. You continue to engage in unhealthy habits such as smoking, drug or alcohol use, or overindulgence in destructive behavior.
  3. Right on the brink of success ‘something happens’ that screws it all up
  4. You set goals but never achieve them.
  5. You feel superior or inferior to everybody else.
  6. You tend to make excuses.
  7. You have a lot of self-doubts.
  8. You have unrealistic expectations.
  9. You worry a lot and have a great deal of anxiety.
  10. Feelings of rage, anger, shame, or resentment can be overwhelming and paralyze you into inaction.
  11. I heard this one all the time, ‘You’re not living up to your potential.
  12. You’re a big procrastinator.
  13. Your view of the world is something like ‘we are all born to suffer and die.’
  14. You do things that jeopardize your emotional, physical, and financial stability.
  15. You stay ‘stuck’ in situations and feel there is no way out.
  16. You have a lot of “poor me" attitudes, i.e., "nobody understands me."
  17. You often belittle yourself and those around you
  18. You stay stuck in abusive relationships

How to Stop Self-Sabotage

1. Ask yourself, what is your payoff?

What is it that you get from self-defeating behaviors and attitudes? Is it negative attention? A ‘reason’ to go back to using? Ask yourself, “What is REALLY going on here?"

2. Avoid situations that trigger extreme emotional reactions.

Extreme emotional reactions can provoke a relapse. If you can’t avoid these situations, at least try to get a realistic perspective on them. Ask yourself, “how important is it really?’”

3. Take a look at your past (just don't get stuck there).

Try to identify the origins of your belief system. Once you have identified where those defeating attitudes came from, let go of them. It is OK to acknowledge the past, but not to use it as an excuse to continue your behavior into the present.

4. Challenge staying in the victim role.

Again, in recognizing the past, we do not deny that bad things may happen to you. Try reclaiming your personal power by reframing your experiences as a source of strength. Not everyone has gone through what you have and survived. The process of growth in recovery is about regaining self-empowerment.

5. Stop blaming people.

Being the victim and blaming others results in one particular sneaky, self-destructive attitude. That is the attitude of not needing to change. Recovery is all about change, but if everything is always somebody else’s fault, why do I need to change? In the victim role, it is ‘poor me, look at what they have done to me’ I couldn’t stop it from happening, so I will be a perpetual victim and take no action.

6. First thought wrong.

People who have a habit of self-sabotaging have come to accept that they are never upset for the reasons that first come to mind. First thought wrong. We need to look at the underlying issues, again, ask the question, ‘What’s really going on here?’ Sometimes we will take those negative thoughts and try to make them come true by doing something really destructive. We create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

7. We need to change the thoughts we have about ourselves.

Stop the negative self-talk. Start thoroughly and rigorously questioning where your beliefs and perceptions are coming from. Don’t judge yourself as you’re doing this; become willing to let go of those negative thoughts. Stop defending your ‘right’ to be wrong.

8. Are you done suffering yet?

Just as this question is a crucial motivator to move from using drugs and alcohol into recovery, it is a prime motivator to start changing our self-defeating attitudes and actions. Nothing changes if nothing changes. How much longer are you willing to keep stepping on your own feet, tripping and falling? Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to stop the pain.

When we were discussing working with emotions and feelings in the previous module, we introduced the concept of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. We learned that the key to affecting emotional change is to challenge our beliefs about a particular action or situation. The same principle applies when we start to try to change self-defeating and self-sabotaging behaviors.

Looking at the other way around, it might be possible to see that our belief system can motivate our actions. What we mean by this is we act more on our beliefs than on logical solutions and practical approaches. You may have tried logic and being reasonable, yet still, things somehow get messed up. You continue to make poor and sometimes dangerous decisions and unhealthy choices time after time again.

Your belief system may be thought of as being responsible for what you look for in intimate relationships, the type of lifestyle you lead, and the work you do. If you have internalized messages of shame, being defective, and having low self-esteem, these can influence your actions and outcomes.

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