I was in the middle of a failing launch and my living room was over-stuffed with furniture. It wasn’t my furniture. And I was adding to the problem, driving around my neighbourhood, filling my car with donations from my generous neighbours to furnish an apartment for a woman I didn’t know, who was escaping an abusive relationship with her three children.

By the end of several weeks of frenetic collections, I had enough to fill her apartment three times over. Meanwhile, my launch limped to its sorry finale.

This was one of my most spectacularly obvious display of self-sabotage, of the common variant procrastination.

Procrastination – including owner favourites procrasti-research, procrasti-planning and procrasti-outsourcing – is the most common type of self-sabotage.

My launch-flop-avoidance extravaganza was a garden-variety attempt at avoiding my difficult feelings of a launch that wasn’t going well. Collecting the furniture also made me feel good about helping someone, while sitting at my computer reminded me of my failing launch.

This is understandable why we’d want to avoid feelings of failure, yes?

But the most surprising truth about self-sabotage is how often we sabotage ourselves when things are going well.

Crippling success

In business coaching, I’ve seen my clients self-sabotage when things are going swimmingly, over and over again.

It might look like:

  • Getting a great opportunity to quote for a dream job, and then spending weeks (or months) worrying, researching, talking … and not quoting.
  • Having several of your best and favourite clients ask you for a specific service offering that you don’t yet have. Instead of giving it to them quickly and easily, the owner spends thousands of dollars and many months over-engineering it alone.
  • When business is booming and things are going well, the owner inevitably gets sick or hurt.
  • A favourite client volunteers that a service is cheap and could easily be more. And instead of doing just that, the owner deflects, thanks them profusely, and charges the same.

Perhaps most commonly, the owner doesn’t take bold action or seize opportunities because they’re worried that more clients and more money will bring more problems.

This phenomenon, of self-sabotage when things are going well, has been coined the “upper limit problem” by Gay Hendricks in his book The Big Leap.

Futile worry

If you’re a chronic worrier and find it hard to stop spiraling negative thinking, it’s likely that you are sabotaging your success. In this state, you won’t be able to progress your business because you’re hindering the conditions for success and putting your foot on the brakes of progression.

This might look like:

  • Actively seeking evidence to back up what your inner critic is telling you, rather than finding evidence to support your good work, expertise, worthiness, etc.
  • Procrastinating on sending quotes or invoices, which hinders your ability to be paid, or be paid in a timely manner.
  • Fixating on tiny, unimportant things in the business in order to ignore the larger, more important thing.
  • Worrying about things in the future that have no relevance to the present.
  • Being a self-confessed control freak or perfectionist, setting an impossible standard for yourself and others that makes progress extremely slow and difficult.
  • Avoiding anything that runs the risk of pain, including learning new skills, trying new things, and changing your network and friendship group.
  • Being a people-pleaser with a lack of boundaries – one of the most socially accepted forms of self-sabotage, which also brings a hit of dopamine when you do something nice for someone. But meanwhile, you’re neglecting your own needs and wants.

Our brain likes what’s familiar, which is why it can be so hard breaking out of self-sabotaging behaviour.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you keep promises to everyone but yourself?
  • Does your business feel stressful and disorganised?
  • Do you feel stagnant and stuck?
  • Do you struggle to stick with the things you know you need to do to enable your business improve, such as regular marketing?
  • Are you on the hamster wheel of busy work and toxic habits, unable to get off?
  • Are you mad at yourself for never doing what you say you are going to do –whether it’s writing a book or starting a blog or podcast?
  • Are you secretly afraid of not being “good enough”, so you never commit? (Because if you commit and fail, then you’re REALLY screwed.)

How to stop self-sabotage

Breaking free from self-sabotage is not straightforward, but nor is it impossible.

First, it requires clear-eyed objectivity. Self-sabotage isn’t logical so it’s easy for us to ignore or justify it. A business coach may be required to lovingly show an owner their blind spots, where they’re sabotaging their progress.

Second, we need to delve into the past to discover where our self-preserving, self-sabotaging behaviours stem from. We’re not born with beliefs and thoughts – these are planted through our upbringing and experiences.

Once we can pinpoint where the behaviour started – and what role it served – we can apply self-compassion and, from there, adopt new healthier behaviours that serve our values, goals and progress. A business coach, as well as a therapist, can help here.

Third, we need a system to reinforce new habits. Much like a new habit of daily exercise, this is far easier to do with the system of a class, trainer, or group that you’ve committed to, that holds you accountable for your new behaviours. It’s very easy to slip back into old beliefs and behaviours. Don’t underestimate the power of accountability and a group of people where your new beliefs and behaviours are the norm. You likely also need to disengage from people and groups who reinforce your old identity, beliefs and behaviours.

New beliefs to try

Instead of “I don’t have the capacity/I can’t”, try “I can create systems of support and get comfortable being direct in asking for what I need and want”.

Instead of “I’m not the kind of person who (is good at business/is good at money, etc)”, try “I want to be better at these things, so I’m actively learning and applying what I’ve learnt.”

Instead of “When this {awesome thing happens} it’s going to ruin {my peace-of-mind/happiness, etc)”, try “I’m willing and open to the next stage of my business, knowing that I can handle whatever happens and stay true to the values I hold dear.”

Instead of “If I grow my business, I’ll have (more stress, more worry, more tax to pay, etc)”, try “When I grow my business, I’ll have more money to pay for more support, plus I’ll have the capacity to handle whatever comes.”