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Chapter 4: self: Self-Knowledge

On Self-Sabotage

It’s normal to expect that we will always – and almost by nature – actively seek our own happiness, especially in two big areas of potential satisfaction, relationships and careers.

So it’s odd and not a little unnerving to discover just how often some of us appear to act as if we were deliberately out to ruin our chances of getting what we’re on the surface convinced we’re after.

Date Wait

When going on dates with candidates we like the sound of, we may suddenly lapse into unnecessarily opinionated or antagonistic behaviour, when we would have had no difficulty being charming with types we weren’t so keen on. Or in relationships, we could drive our partners to distraction through repeated unwarranted accusations or angry explosions – as if we were somehow willing to bring on the sad day when, exhausted and frustrated, our loved ones would be forced to walk away, still sympathetic but unable to take so much drama.

And similarly, we could destroy our chances of imminent promotion at work when, out of the blue, after lots of promising years, we get strident with our managers or on several occasions fail to hand in vital reports in time for meetings.


Such behaviour can’t be explained away as mere bad luck. It deserves a stronger, more intentional term: this is self-sabotage. What could possibly explain such destructiveness?

In large part, how plain unnerving happiness can sometimes feel to us. Though happiness is of course what we all fundamentally want, for many of us, it isn’t really what we know. We grew up in, and learnt to make our peace with, far darker scenarios. The prospect of happiness, when it in the end appears, can therefore seem counter-intuitive, and not a little frightening. It isn’t what we’ve come to expect, and it doesn’t feel like home. We may prefer to choose what’s comfortingly familiar, even if it’s difficult, over what is alienatingly fulfilling or good. Getting what we want can feel unbearably risky. It puts us at the mercy of fate; we open ourselves up to hope – and the subsequent possibility of loss. Self-sabotage may leave us sad, but at least safely, blessedly in control.


It can be useful to keep the concept of self-sabotage in mind when interpreting our and others’ odder antics. We should start to get suspicious when we catch ourselves pulling off mad or erratic performances around people we deep down really like or need to impress.

Furthermore, faced with certain kinds of viciousness and unreliability in others, we should dare to imagine that things are perhaps not quite as they seem; we might have on our hands not a nasty malevolent opponent, but an almost touchingly wounded self-saboteur – who chiefly deserves a little patience and should gently be coaxed out of doing themselves further harm.


We should come to terms with, and help others to see, just how hard and unnerving it can sometimes be to get close to some of the things we truly want.