Are You Being Productive or Self-Sabotaging? 

 March 23, 2021

By  counselingwithnatalie

Have you ever gone shopping and felt guilty for spending so much afterwards? Or treated yourself to a gourmet meal and then felt as though you could’ve gotten by with your ingredients at home. These feelings might indicate that you could’ve been subconsciously self-sabotaging and not actually “treating yourself.” Identifying and acknowledging your self-sabotaging behaviors could remove many self-created obstacles intervening to reaching your long-term goal. 

Just as everyone experiences moments of high vibrations, everyone has moments of guilt, depression and anxiety. When we feel as though we are the cause of these negative emotions, we falsely devalue our existence and challenge our self-esteem. Overtime, we might adopt self-sabotaging behaviors to revenge ourselves. Some common self-sabotaging behaviors include self-inflicted harm such as abusing substances, self-injury, and procrastination. However, there are self-sabotaging behaviors that are veiled by a sense of productivity and justification.

Productivity can quickly turn toxic as people tend to develop a connection between productivity and self-worth. (The Epidemic of Productivity-Based Self-worth, 2019). During self-induced anxious/ depressive moments, we might believe that being productive would make up for putting ourselves in an unfortunate situation. Self-sabotaging behaviors are defined as behaviors that intervene with long-term goals. Overspending is one of the most common yet unnoticed forms of self-sabotage. Splurging provides instant gratification but does not serve long-term satisfaction.

Another example can be seen in new mothers. Suffering from post-partum depression might cause the mother to feel guilty and overstimulate the maternal lifestyle – pumping throughout the evening and waking up early for the baby. Outsiders might notice and say that she’s productive, when her guilty emotions are being masked by physical productivity. Not getting enough sleep, and not making time for her own self-care regimen will eventually cause a burn-out and is hence considered a form of self-sabotage.

Additional self-sabotaging behavior includes isolation. Sometimes we need a moment to ourselves for self-discovery, but what if this moment is prolonged? Purposely losing friends and acquaintances is camouflaged self-sabotage as self-discovery and growth. Losing loved ones presents a risk of delving deeper into these unwanted emotional states. Beck’s cognitive triad is now at play, where one’s low vibrations motivates them to take unhealthy decisions – like isolating oneself from friends – and these decisions trace back to cause even lower feelings. Anxious thought processes will not recognize that it was a subconscious act to distance from friends but will relocate the blame internally into mistaking solitude for loneliness.  

In young adults, overworking and working out too often can deem beneficial, whilst posing detrimental effects on their mental health. When experiencing feelings of guilt or remorse, the physical pain caused from working out serves the same purpose as self-harm. Although overworking does not cause physical pain, working long hours serves as a productive distraction to neglect to heal the emotional trauma being experienced. Yet in order to heal, one must face these emotions. On the long run, neglecting to acknowledge and resolve these emotions will end up in dissatisfaction and emptiness.

Who’s most at risk to self-sabotage?

Women are more likely to experience anxious emotions due to societal standards and expectations. On average, women are 1.5-2x more likely to develop anxiety or depression than men, which might be due to repeated harsh societal evaluation. Anxiety is one of the few mental disorders that does not have a strong biological factor and is mostly dependent on environmental events. Hence having more societal pressure and expectations to fulfill, creates an anxiety prevalence gap between men and women. Typical anxious behaviors include harsh introspection and constantly feeling guilty, which are magnified in women. Consequently, women are much more probable to partake in acts of self-sabotage.

The most dangerous influence of societal expectations on self-sabotaging behaviors is that some unhealthy behaviors have now become “typical” feminine behavior. Overspending, and increased maternal lifestyle have become the norm, posing a threat to identifying and treating these unhealthy behaviors. Increased societal acceptance of these behaviors will not only cause more women to adopt these behaviors to conform to the norm but will also prevent proper healing.

How to recognize and treat self-sabotaging behaviors?

Conscious awareness of the consequences an action will bring, but pursuing it anyways distinguishes self-sabotaging behaviors. Cognitively distant people that might be experiencing mild depersonalization feel less discomfort, which ultimately undermines certain decisions. Dressing lightly on a cold day, comfort eating, and actively disregarding physical appearance are all decisions that if consciously taken, knowing the future reprimands, are considered acts of self-sabotage.

Being selfish is one of the most underrated acts of self-care. Putting yourself first, without overstepping others, should be the first process to overcoming self-sabotaging tendencies. Adopting behaviors that feed the soul, without anticipated repercussions will unravel new hobbies, passions, that might lead to a different lifestyle than the one being neglected. Instead of isolating yourself from friends, try meeting new people. Instead of overworking yourself at the gym, work, or as a mother, use the free time to work on yourself. Try adopting a more rational outlook of life: where emotions are identified and traced. Pin-pointing the true cause of the emotion will eliminate mistaking yourself as the perpetrator and unveil a new medium of life that satisfies your mental and physical well-being.

So next time you go shopping, make sure that the satisfying feeling of buying new outfits outweighs the expected guilt feeling. Or that the gourmet meal leaves you feeling content and fulfilled. Creating a healthier norm for your emotions that doesn’t involve self-blame will remove the blockages that you subconsciously create between you and your life goals.

Written by Maya Moustafa


McLean, C. P., Asnaani, A., Litz, B. T., & Hofmann, S. G. (2011). Gender differences in anxiety disorders: prevalence, course of illness, comorbidity and burden of illness. Journal of psychiatric research, 45(8), 1027–1035. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2011.03.006

Mind Tools Content Team (2020) Self-sabotage: overcoming self-defeating behavior. MindTools, Essential skills for an excellent career. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTCS_95.htm

Sansone, R. A., Bohinc, R. J., & Wiederman, M. W. (2015). Healthcare Adherence Among Patients Who Report the Self-Sabotage of their Own Medical Care. Innovations in clinical neuroscience, 12(9-10), 10–12.

Siegler, Saffran, & Eisenberg DeLoache, How Children Develop, 4th Ed. p. 428.

Siegler, Saffran, & Eisenberg DeLoache, How Children Develop, 4th Ed. p. 555-557.


Anxiety, Depression, Isolation, Self-Esteem, Self-Harm, Self-Sabotage

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