Overcome self-sabotage and succeed in setting goals

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Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

Self-sabotage is a common problem when setting goals. If you’re not aware of your internal chatter, you can talk yourself out of making changes in life before you’ve even started. Overcome negative thinking and self-defeating behaviour to succeed where others fail.

In the previous article, we discussed 10 common forms of self-sabotage when setting and following through on goals. Now we’ll look at ways of ensuring success by overcoming each of these unhelpful ways of thinking and acting.  

1 Lack of self-belief

Often not believing in yourself stems from disappointments in the past. Perhaps you failed to achieve an important goal by not planning well enough, or you gave up too soon.

Now you’re making the assumption that everything you do will be a failure. But where’s the evidence for this assumption?

Having failed in the past doesn’t mean you will continue to fail. It all depends on learning how to plan better now, and being consistent in your efforts.

a) Plan to succeed

Be willing to accept that you can learn to plan effectively and follow through on these plans. There’s plenty of information on the internet to help you learn these skills.

You can do this even though you may be telling yourself you can’t. You don’t have to believe your negative self-talk.

Even if you’re telling yourself you can’t do a certain thing, you can still actually do it.

In fact, prove this right now. Right now, say aloud, “I can’t get up from this chair,” and while you’re saying it – get up from the chair.

b) Challenge thoughts

Even if your brain is sending you unhelpful messages, you don’t have to believe them.

They are just thoughts. You don’t have to give them any power over you.

You can argue against these thoughts. Challenge them, and prove that they’re wrong by what you do.

You can also let unhelpful thoughts sit in the background, and do what you need to do anyway.

So just because you tell yourself you can’t do something, doesn’t make it true. You’ve succeeded in learning new skills in the past.

And you can do it again. Don’t self-sabotage when setting goals. 

2 Fear of stress

You fear the stress that setting goals will cause.

Good planning can also avoid this problem. Learn to prioritise your time better so you can focus on your goals.

a) Cut distractions

Firstly, cut down distractions that waste time while adding little value to your life.

Monitor the amount of time you spend on these timewasters, such as social media or watching endless DVDs. You may think they’re relaxing, but they’re often the opposite.

Of course, limited use of these distractions is fine. Just resist the urge to keep doing these activities for long periods of time. Set limits and stick to them, no matter how much you want to continue.

And lastly, take note of how many tasks you do that are merely busywork, and work to reduce or get rid of these where possible.

b) Monitor stress

If you’re worried about stress, monitor your stress levels. Doing this on a daily basis can prevent overload.

Then you can modify how many tasks you take on. Focus on those that are valuable and important to you.

Learn to say no assertively – not aggressively – when others try to take up your time. 

And practice mindfulness and relaxation strategies regularly through the day.

c) Ask for help

Finally don’t be afraid to ask for help. Maybe you could ask others for support at times. It’s never helpful to run yourself into the ground.

When you reach the point of exhaustion, it takes much longer to recover.  And then you really won’t be able to work on your goals.

So be sensible and learn to pace yourself, and don’t think you’re invulnerable.

You have a responsibility to yourself to treat your body and mind in a healthy way.

What makes you believe you should do everything on your own? 

3 Unrealistic expectations

Often, perfectionism is a way of self-sabotage when setting goals. If you believe you have to do everything perfectly, starting anything new seems too daunting.

So in a way, having unrealistic expectations can let you off the hook. It’s a good way to tell yourself you may as well not bother.

Perfectionism also makes you waste lots of effort once you have started. Most of the time it’s not necessary – or possible – to do things perfectly.

And sometimes, you have no control over outside factors that affect what you’re doing.

a) Accept imperfection

So be willing to accept imperfection in yourself and others. Sometimes, good enough is good enough.

b) Make a start with a tiny action

Making a start is often more important than perfection. Don’t worry if you don’t reach a high standard at first. Over time, you’ll improve. Better to start modestly, than not at all. 

4 Fear of disappointment

Of course, it’s not pleasant being disappointed if you don’t succeed at your goals. But again, you can minimise this with careful planning.

a) Take sensible risks

Staying in your comfort zone means you’ll be frustrated. Is that what you want? A life of boredom and tedium? Or would you rather take some sensible risks, and extend your horizons?

Sure, there’s the chance you may be disappointed again. But you’re short-changing yourself by avoiding these feelings. You’re strong enough to bear disappointment again.

And if things don’t go well the first time, try again, or change your goal a little. Accept your disappointment, and then have another go, but don’t just give up. Convert your feelings into action.

And SMART goals will help make success more likely.

b) Regret vs disappointment

In addition, weigh up the regret you’ll feel if you let the fear of disappointment stop you.

How much regret would you feel in say 5, 10 or 20 years if you give up now? That may be worse than the disappointment of not reaching a particular goal now.

You’ve got plenty of time to reach your goals – your whole lifetime. But if you never start, you’ll never get there, and your life will always be colourless and lacking in satisfaction.

5 Fear of success

You’re assuming that if you succeed once, you’ll have to keep on succeeding all the time. And that thought is so daunting that you can’t even start.

But who says you have to always maintain a high standard?

Forget perfection

You can choose where you put your efforts, and how much effort you make.

And don’t let others’ expectations dictate what you do. If you’re busy, settle for a more reasonable standard in areas where it doesn’t really matter.

Circumstances such as illness, stress, or other commitments often stop you reaching the same level you did previously.

This isn’t failing. It’s life.

Then you need to focus your energies on what’s important. Decide what needs to be done well, and what only needs to be good enough, or let go altogether.

Be reasonable. Be sensible. Just do what you can.

6 Comparing with others

Comparing yourself with others is rarely helpful.

Many people don’t let anyone know how hard they work in order to reach their goals. It’s a point of pride to make their “performance” look easy. So they put up a façade – after all, just look at Facebook!

Unfortunately, you may take these people at face value. Then you compare yourself with them, and think you’re lacking. But this is a classic way to self-sabotage when setting goals. 

See their side of the story

But you’re not aware of their side of the story. All you’re aware of is your own fear that you won’t reach your goals.

You can’t see the worry and fear inside other people’s heads. And everyone has doubts about their ability. Everyone struggles at some time in their lives, even high fliers.

In fact, they can have some spectacular “failures.”

So expect some difficulties, and pick yourself up if things aren’t working out. Sooner or later, you’ll find something that works.

Achieving goals doesn’t happen by magic. It’s a continual process of making deliberate, strategic efforts, bit by bit.

7 Fear of disapproval

You may imagine that others disapprove of what you want to do. And that causes you a lot of internal discomfort.

So what makes you think that others are judging you? Do you have proof of this, or is it just a fear that stops you from doing what you want to do?

Anyway, people who do disapprove may be focussing more on themselves than on you. They don’t want to be inconvenienced by what you’re planning. Or they’re scared of change themselves, and don’t want to be pressured into getting out of their comfort zone.

And some may be genuinely worried you’ll fail, but in expressing their concerns, they come across as critical.

a) Accept their views

If others don’t like what you’re doing, accept that. It’s disappointing and even hurtful, but you can manage those feelings.

Acknowledge the concerns of others, and thank them for their comments. Privately, you don’t have to believe or accept what they say. However, you don’t have to argue with them either, or make them happy.

Let them know you understand they may be worried, but you need to do this for yourself. If they continue to complain, say you’d rather not discuss it any further, and change the subject.

For example, you may want to stop smoking. However, your friends don’t want to give up themselves, and try to make you feel bad about your goal.

Now, your only area of concern is your own smoking habits. If your friends don’t want to change, or feel guilty about smoking – that’s their issue.

If they make life hard for you, then perhaps they’re not really friends.

b) Do what you need to do

Don’t allow others discourage you. In this example, to reduce temptation, avoid situations where people will be smoking.

That may mean changing where you see people, or not seeing some people at all for a while.

Similarly, for other lifestyle changes such as:

reducing alcohol intake

losing weight

exercising more

taking up a sport or new area of interest.

Other people could choose to make the same choices as you. If they choose to stick to their old lifestyle, you can’t change them. You can only change yourself.

So stick to your guns and keep to your plan. Otherwise you’re colluding in self-sabotage when setting goals.

8 Fear of uncertainty

If you don’t like surprises, you may avoid setting goals. You can’t tolerate the uncertainty of knowing if you’ll succeed or not.

Again, good planning will minimise surprises.

a) Tolerate the unknown

Teaching yourself to tolerate the discomfort of the unknown is also vital. Remember all those times you did cope when things changed?

Remind yourself of what you are capable of. Have faith you’ll work out what to do if things go “wrong.”

Notice the urge you have to panic and give up when you’re uncertain about what to do. Take a few slow breaths, and assess what’s happened.

Look at all your options. Does it really matter if you have to change plans a little?

b) Put it into perspective

Changing tack may be inconvenient, but is it really the end of the world?

You may think it’s a catastrophe. But is it really as bad as being bombed in Ukraine or Syria? Or being caught up in a natural disaster like wildfire or flooding?

Probably not.

Tell yourself that you can work out what to do. Then continue to put your plans into action.

The next time this happens, you’ll cope then as well.

9 Being inflexible

Being inflexible can really affect your ability to follow through on your goals.

You have a choice – to demand that life follow your rules, or to accept the reality that life is messy. Not everything happens the way you want.

And that’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes you find better solutions when problems pop up.

So try to remain open-minded. Embrace the challenge of the unexpected. Not just in setting goals, but in all areas of life. Does it really matter if you do things a little differently to the way you expected?

Being flexible also has the advantage that it helps new pathways develop in the brain. So each time something goes wrong and you have to adapt, you’re giving your brain a workout.

The more connections your brain forms now, the more you may be protected from dementia later on.

10 Being impatient

Being impatient is a classic way of self-sabotage when setting goals.

Now, it’s great to devote time and energy to reach your goals. But if you’re taking on something new, it can be wise to go slowly. Especially if your goal involves physical activity or major changes.

Making huge progress quickly sounds great. But you may exhaust yourself (and possibly others) in the process. Then you’ll need to take time out to recover.

You’re in this for the long haul, so pacing yourself gives you the best chance of success. If you set modest goals with lots of small steps, you’ll reach each goal more quickly.

You’ll have a greater sense of progress, without the burn-out.

a) Be realistic

It’s important to set realistic goals.

Gaining mastery of a skill takes time and practice. You’ll stumble and fall at times. Sometime you’ll reach a plateau and feel nothing’s happening. Those times can be hard for someone who’s impatient.

That’s when self-talk is important.

b) Coach yourself

Learn to coach yourself through the difficult times. Tell yourself your brain is sifting through new learning. It needs time to strengthen pathways for new skills. If you hurry to the next challenge, you could lose the gains you’ve made.

For instance, imagine learning a new language. Trying to learn too many words at once overloads your brain. Then you get tongue-tied when asked to speak aloud. You feel as if you’ve forgotten everything you’ve learned.

At that point, it’s easy to give up.

c) Accept reality

Accept that at times you need to revise what you’ve done already. Occasionally you’ll have to stay at one level for a while. Once you master a skill, you can strive for the next challenge.

Take your time with setting the groundwork at each new stage. It’ll pay off later.


Persistence is also a great quality to help with goal setting. Obstacles can pop up at any stage. Get a step ahead by being aware of potential problems. Mentally gear up for whatever might derail you.

Challenge your negative thoughts, rather than just accepting them. Then you’ll cope better, rather than giving up.

You can learn to keep going even if you’re discouraged. Persist in persisting, and you’ll succeed!

Recognise and stamp on self-sabotage when setting goals. 

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