Understanding self-sabotage: Why do we undermine ourselves?

One of the things that most puzzle me in life is the capacity we all have to sabotage ourselves. In one way or another, all of us have done things we knew would be bad for us, from small transgressions like eating that forbidden piece of chocolate that would ruin our diet, to more destructive and complex things, like getting involved in a relationship we know is going to end up badly. Not to mention the more extreme self-destructive actions, things like self-harm, risky behaviour and addictions.

I think that the dynamics of self-sabotage is perhaps one of the main things that lead me to want to study the mind, as I wished to understand the ability we have to undermine our pursuit of a good enough life. And as a psychotherapist, I see how hard it is when patients realise such aggressive aspect of our human nature, when they come in contact with their own destructiveness expressed in patterns of self-sabotage, which can take different shapes and forms. This painful realisation is often accompanied by confusion, hopelessness, and sometimes even more destructive resentment.

But why do we do it? Why is it that from time to time we choose what’s bad for us, things we know will mess up aspects of our lives that we so much want to grow and develop? Why do we find ourselves locked into unhealthy and destructive cycles, be them in relationships, behaviours or feelings? It just doesn’t make sense to pursue something that will lead up to more suffering. But we still do it. So why?

First thing to consider is that there seems to be a conflict in the mind, a battle between the natural endeavours to develop and grow, countered by attacks that serve to undermine these efforts. It feels like an internal version of Newton’s law, that for every action there’s an opposite reaction of equal measurement. Except each opposite side has their own instinctual force.

Freud can help us understand this conflict a bit more. He proposed that we are all governed by two sets of opposing instincts: life instincts, which contain the drives that lead to development and growth (i.e. sexual, creative and survival instincts); and death instincts, the opposing force that seeks destruction (of oneself or others), breakdown and a return to death, to an inorganic state. Freud developed the concept of the Death Instincts from observing and analysing things like masochism, and also what he called ‘repetition compulsion’, an unconscious compulsion that leads the person to put himself repetitively in painful situations, like replicas of early experiences. Not so different from self-sabotage.

If we believe that the duality between life and death instincts permeates the way we feel, behave and relate to one another in every level, then it can help us understand how self-sabotage works.


In my psychotherapy work I come across different expressions and meanings to the undermining dynamics of self-sabotage. These are often unconscious, and it is part of the therapy for the patient to realise and then work through how anxious they feel about them.

I will give some examples of such unconscious meanings for self-sabotage, and their respective functions:

Neurotic loyalty: some people, for whatever reason, regard their mother or father (or other ‘loved’ one) a failure in life, an impotent and weak person. They may then unconsciously pledge a sort of neurotic allegiance to the failed parent, and thus sabotage themselves to make sure they will never rise above them. To grow, develop and become better may then be constituted as a betrayal, with unbearable guilt and punishment awaiting as a consequence. Being well is faced with an internal prohibition, enforced by a destructive and cruel part of the mind. Not only that, but some people believe that if they were to let go of the defeated object they are identified with, if they try to develop a separate better life, they would be killing them off or contributing to their destruction (i.e. the loved one would kill themselves, drink themselves to death, etc). And so a life of self-sabotage takes place, to prevent the greater destruction that the person fears would take place should they break this neurotic loyalty.

– Punishment: self-sabotage can also be a form of punishment. But punishment for what? For the crime of having forbidden (and often destructive) desires, feelings, thoughts and fantasies, which need to be pushed away from conscience and so relieve the person from having to bear particular destructive aspects of themselves, which are often directed towards loved ones. We all carry in our minds a part of ourselves that acts as an internal judge and jury, which makes us feel guilty if we do (or think, or feel) something that is against a sort of internal law. Freud calls this a superego, an internalised version of our parents that supervises and can punish us if we are ‘out of order’. Self-sabotage then is the act of a crushing superego, punishing the person for being guilty of something internally wrong (which not always corresponds to external morals, laws, etc).

Omnipotence: some people will sabotage themselves as a way of defending against an unconscious fear of rising too high and becoming all-powerful, which in phantasy [the ‘ph’ stands for unconscious fantasy] could unleash very destructive aspects of themselves (such as feelings of tremendous envy and greed). So some will remain collapsed and impotent for fear of hurting or damaging their loved ones. Self-sabotage then is like an internal safety system that functions as a protective measure.

Retreat: sometimes patterns of self-sabotage work as a retreat against some troublesome feelings that can result from real relationships. The pattern then serves as a way of never having to leave a zone of familiar defeat, a protection against exposing oneself to the perils of real relationships, where loss, frustration and hurt are always a possibility. So undermining oneself becomes the lesser of many evils.

Mastering: Freud links the repetition compulsion to an attempt to master painful past situations, an effort to take charge of circumstances that were hurtful and traumatic. So self-sabotage sometimes takes the form of an endeavour to take control of the suffering and pain, much like self-harm. It’s a manageable defeat, like when someone breaks up in anticipation, or cheats before he/she is cheated on. No less destructive though.

Protection: as destructive as self-sabotage can be, sometimes undermining oneself can act as a defence against destructive impulses towards loved ones. The extroverted kind of impulse. So the destructiveness is turned inwards, protecting the other from potentially dangerous unconscious impulses. This is often the case with depression, as hatred and anger is felt towards oneself and not others. In case of extreme self-destructive dynamics, things like self-harm or even suicide, a pertinent question would be: by attacking themselves, who is the person wanting to hurt in their mind? And in this sense, who is being spared in the external world?

Fear of disintegration: for some people, a weak mental structure is all they have. Even if they are struggling in life, they will resist change and so attack anything that may disturb the organisation that helped them survive until then, no matter how flimsy it is. So self-sabotage in this sense acts again as a defensive measure, stopping anything that may unhinge and threaten the system. It can also be an attempt to return to a previous ‘balance’, for fear of disintegration or major collapse.

Masochism: masochism points to the satisfaction in suffering. So self-sabotage in this sense draws a perverse pleasure that can be achieved by attacking oneself, or putting oneself through situations that will cause hurt and pain.

Despite its nuances, all of the meanings and functions that I mentioned above, observed in the context of my psychotherapy work and gathered through my readings, point towards two simple facts: self-sabotage is destructive, but it’s also defensive. However, until the person realises the cost of patterns and cycles of undermining oneself and seeks help for it, the likelihood is that self-sabotage will continue to take place over and over again.

In this way, psychotherapy can help the person come in contact with the more destructive parts of themselves, which can be then understood and worked through. Psychotherapy provides a centre-stage for destructiveness to be lived through, contained and transformed within the therapeutic relationship. Patterns of self-sabotage are brought forward in the context of therapy, so they can be untangled, unpacked and reorganised within the patient’s way of relating, behaving and feeling. Psychotherapy can help balance out the duality between instincts of life and death, attenuating the destructive impetus as it is expressed in the therapy work.


Allan Gois – Psychotherapist in the City of LondonPsicoterapeuta em Londres


What’s the difference between psychotherapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and counsellor?

I lost count of the times I’ve been asked: ‘so what’s the difference between a psychotherapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and counsellor?’ The combination of professionals for comparison of course vary from enquirer to enquirer, but this is nonetheless a valid question.

However, despite some overlapping similarities in the work, not all ‘shrinks’ are the same. There are in fact fundamental differences between mental health professionals when it comes to training, theoretical orientation, approaches, techniques, professional registration and many other aspects.

So in this post I would like to address some of the similarities and distinctions that permeate the work of psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts and counsellors, in the hope of clarifying this all but uncommon confusion. I refer here to the context of the United Kingdom, so the descriptions may vary from other countries.

– Psychiatrist: psychiatrists are professionals who went to medical school and then did a post-graduate specialist training in psychiatry, developing the skills for the diagnostic and treatment of mental disorders. So from all the professionals listed in this post, psychiatrists are the only ones who are medically trained doctors. Psychiatrists assess patients to ascertain whether their condition is a consequence of a physical illness, a combination of mental and physical or strictly a psychiatric one. They are able to prescribe medicine to help regulate symptoms related to mental illnesses (i.e anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, etc), as well as sometimes make use of psychological interventions (such as Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy – CBT) for treatment. They can also refer people for psychotherapy or counselling if they believe the patient may benefit from such approach. Psychiatrists often work in institutional settings (such as psychiatric wards), and as consultants in the health service or in private practice.

– Psychologist: psychologists are professionals who underwent a degree in psychology, followed by a doctorate degree of their choice in a field within psychology (i.e forensic, counselling, clinical, educational, occupational, organisational). These professionals are not medically trained, and therefore are not able to prescribe medicine. Psychologists assess, diagnose, treat and study mental processes and behaviours. Not all psychologists provide mental health care, but those who work with patients can help by offering a range of evidence based treatments, from cognitive-behavioural therapy to counselling. They also provide psychological evaluations, using psychometric tests, direct observation and structured interviews.

Psychotherapist London– Psychotherapist: a psychotherapist is someone who underwent a post-graduate training in psychotherapy, specialising in the work with those struggling with emotional, psychological, relational and other mental health related issues. Psychotherapy is a talking therapy, so no prescription of medicine is involved. Psychotherapists help patients understand themselves better, their feelings, relationship dynamics, their past traumas and experiences as well as current difficulties. Psychotherapy consists of attending weekly sessions (once or up to 3 times a week) of 50 minutes, where the therapist will help the person understand and work through their struggles. Whilst there are different approaches (i.e integrative, psychodynamic/psychoanalytic, transactional analysis, etc), psychotherapy generally looks into how the person sees themselves, experience others and the feelings derived from such interaction. The process can also vary in terms of duration, going from brief to long-term or open-ended.

– Counsellor: counsellors are professionals who did a post-graduate counselling course, training them to provide talking therapy to people struggling with emotional and relationship issues. Counselling and psychotherapy are often regarded as the same thing, and it is an ongoing controversial debate whether they are. In my opinion, they are not one and the same. Although counselling and psychotherapy share many similarities in terms of the setting, the approaches, the fact that they are both talking therapies and so on, they differ both in the training requirements and the ability to work with cases according to degrees of complexity. Psychotherapy trainings (particularly in psychoanalytic psychotherapy) tend to be longer (up to 4 years), requiring more patient contact, supervision and personal therapy. Counselling courses have been more demanding in the recent years, but there are still courses that can be completed in 1 year. This has an effect on the sort of work that counsellors and psychotherapists can do, and what sort of issues they are prepared to work with. So counselling, generally speaking, tends to be more focused and work towards overcoming symptoms and issues (such as depression, anxiety, stress, trauma), whilst psychotherapy tends to be a longer and broader process, often working with more thorough and complex cases (i.e personality disorders, bipolar affective disorder, severe depression, etc), with the focus in understanding and working through the function that symptoms, disorders and issues acquire for the whole of the patient’s personality. Of course, this is not a definitive distinction between counsellors and psychotherapists, and there are many exceptions and variables. I once read that whilst counselling works towards helping the person overcome the obstacles that prevent their development and personal growth, psychotherapy aims to help the person re-organise their internal world, their personality. Two different scopes, but each with its own validity, usefulness, recognition and field of work.

– Psychoanalyst: a psychoanalyst is someone who is already a qualified and experienced professional in their field of work (i.e psychiatrist, psychologist, psychotherapist, social worker), who then undergoes a long (no less than 4 years) and intense training that combines learning psychoanalytic theory, working with patients in 5 times a week analysis under supervision, and attending personal analysis also 5 times a week. Psychoanalysts work with people who wish to have an experience of analysis, meeting 4 or 5 times a week for many years, with the aim of unravelling and discovering unconscious dynamics that affect the way the person behaves, feels and relates to others. Psychoanalysis traditionally makes use of the couch, where the patient lies on as the analyst sits behind, interpreting what is unconscious in what the patient communicates throughout the session. Psychoanalysis can help people that are willing to explore their internal world, and also those who present more complex personality issues. Psychoanalysts can also offer less intense psychotherapy.

All of the practitioners mentioned above are part of a helping profession, and as such they can offer great help to those who suffer from the mildest of struggles to more difficult and complex issues.

I hope this simple article shed some light onto some of the similarities and differences between psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, counsellors and psychoanalysts.


Allan Gois – Psychoanalytic PsychotherapistPsychotherapist in London