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How to Identify and Address Self-Sabotage

Posted on June 3, 2016 at 8:37 AM by Iowa Weight Loss Specialists


By Paige Harnish, LISW -- Licensed Mental Health Clinician


Have you ever thought, “I know what I need to do, but I just don’t do it” when it comes to weight loss or other areas of your life? If so, you may be experiencing common mental conflicts that often lead to self-sabotaging behaviors.


Self-sabotage is a behavior that interferes with long-standing goals such as weight loss. These unhealthy behaviors can happen as a result of being faced with the choice of giving into a temptation or preserving a goal. But why do people self-sabotage and what can be done to avoid or manage self-sabotaging thoughts or behaviors?


Why do we self-sabotage?

Self-sabotaging behaviors are often developed early in life for the purpose of coping with emotion or stress. Stopping and avoiding self-sabotaging behaviors can be very difficult because the behaviors are often well-established and familiar, which can prompt fear of change, fear of the unknown, and negative self-talk such as reminding ourselves of past failed attempts to change. The stress of making lifestyle changes alone can be enough to promote self-sabotaging behaviors.


How can you avoid self-sabotage?

  1. Build an arsenal of stress reduction strategies. People rarely explore new coping techniques. Adopting new techniques can be difficult because new strategies may not work. Try a wide range of new coping techniques (e.g. Exercise, yoga, art, or anything that induces a calming effect). Practice and integrate the techniques into your daily routine to promote prevention.
  2. Avoid removing supports, even if unhealthy, if new ones are not yet established. Identify, practice, and integrate effective coping techniques while tapering off unhealthy techniques. Stopping “cold turkey” means to stop coping, which is not a healthy or long-term option.
  3. Recognize and accept thoughts and cravings. Research shows that suppressing food related thoughts and cravings are linked to an increase in both cravings and undesirable eating behaviors. Identify personal triggers to cravings and self-sabotaging behaviors and instead of suppressing and distracting, recognize and accept cravings. Talking with an accountability partner, journaling, and addressing the source of stress or emotion are healthy ways to avoid self-sabotaging behaviors.
  4. Establish realistic goals. Keep goals in scope by focusing on a small goal that can be built upon versus a long-term goal that may seem out of scope. Concentrate on long-term lifestyle improvements rather than temporary “diets”.
  5. Reward yourself. Celebrate victories big or small by involving important people in your life and establishing a system for incentives. Many excellent incentive ideas can be found on Pinterest or searching online.
  6. Follow someone who has reached similar goals. Follow a fitness icon, blogger, or weight loss peer to promote engagement and motivation to focus and work toward goals.
  7. Remind yourself of the why. Revisit why goals were established and what motivates you, especially when faced with temptation, stress, or triggers.


Practice prevention by committing to healthy habits. Managing stress, emotion, and eating habits requires healthy practice of a variety of lifestyle behaviors including sleep hygiene, exercise, nutrition, relaxation, social connection, and healthy coping.


If concern for self-sabotaging behaviors persists after practicing management techniques or if concern causes significant distress, additional support may be needed. Iowa Weight Loss Specialists offers a variety of supportive services that can be accessed at any point of your weight loss journey. Visit our website at for more information or call to make an appointment. 




Barnes, R. D., & Tantleff-Dunn, S. (2010). Food for thought: Examining the relationship between food thought suppression and weight-related outcomes. Eating Behaviors, 11(3), 175-179. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2010.03.001


Firestone, L. (2014, July 21). 4 Ways to Stop Sabotaging Yourself [Web log post]. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from

Karasu, S. R. (2012). Of mind and matter: Psychological dimensions in obesity. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 66(2), 111-127.


Kronick, I., & Knäuper, B. (2010). Temptations elicit compensatory intentions. Appetite, 54(2), 398-401. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2009.12.011

Pagoto, S. (2013, March 30). Why We Sabotage Ourselves [Web log post]. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from

Rock, B. (2014, November 24). The Secret to Stop Sabotaging Your Weight Loss Efforts [Web log post]. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from

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