People in recovery from an addiction sometimes engage in behaviors that could be labeled self-sabotage, intentionally burning bridges, destroying relationships or regressing in their recovery. For reasons that bewilder others and also them, they might find themselves repeatedly falling into these self-destructive behaviors, often in moments where they have the most to lose.

Some examples of self-sabotage include:

  • Relapsing on a 1 year anniversary of getting sober
  • Violating parole right before a final court date
  • Dropping out of college in the final semester
  • Not showing up for an important job interview
  • Ending a relationship just when strong feelings develop
  • Relapsing right after the withdrawal symptoms or cravings go away

These kinds of self-sabotaging behaviors don’t seem to make sense at all… leaving people with questions like: “Why do I do this?”, “Why would I purposefully destroy something I worked so hard to rebuild?” or, “Why do I mess things up on purpose, especially right when things finally start to work out?” Self-sabotage in recovery is confusing, frustrating, defeating and also very common.

Self-sabotage is common in recovery, but it almost always is a pattern that also drove the addiction. In fact, drug and alcohol use probably was a form of self-sabotage for people. At some point, their addiction started to cost more than just money. Despite growing costs to their physical and mental health, relationships, job, or reputation, they knowingly continued to use, which is a form of self-sabotage.

The chemical pull of addiction is strong and hard to resist, so self-sabotage in addiction is easier to understand than in recovery… but why would a person who worked so hard to get sober and rebuild their lives knowingly throw it all away? It may not be obvious, but there are reasons why self-sabotage is so common in addiction recovery, which are explored below.

  1. Shame: Shame is the uncomfortable and painful emotion that arises from feeling inadequate, unworthy or somehow “not good enough”. Instead of feeling bad about things they have done, people with shame feel bad about who they are. They might also feel like they don’t “deserve” for good things to happen, for people to love them, or for their life to improve because of things they said or did in the past. While most people feel good when good things happen, when relationships strengthen, and when life starts to look up, these all can be a trigger for people who struggle with shame. 
  1. Fear: Because people who have shame believe they are bad or unworthy, they often live in fear of messing things up, failing, and letting people down. They might feel like they are only pretending to be good, strong, reliable people and have an intense fear that others will eventually discover how bad they are. They also might be afraid of their life improving too much because the more they have, the more they can lose, and the more painful and devastating those losses would be. This helps to explain why self-sabotage is most likely to occur during times when things are going well or when people experience success.
  1. Assumptions:  After people have internalized the belief that they are inadequate, they begin to feel as though failure is not just a possibility, but instead an inevitability. They assume it is only a matter of time until they fail and mess things up, hurting or letting down the people they love. This assumption continues to strengthen the more they feed into it, keep it secret, and buy into it.
  1. Uncertainty: People who feel like failure is inevitable assume that they will fail, but don’t know the details of how, when, or where it will happen, which makes them more anxious, tense, and on-edge. It might become harder to be in situations and settings where people trust or depend on them, or when they are interacting with people who have supported their recovery. They might even begin to suspect that other people also assume they are going to fail, or are doubting them, leaving them feeling more unsure of themselves.
  1. Control: Certainty provides a sense of control. If a person can be in control of where, when, and how they fail, this feels safer than having it come up out of the blue. The more scared, ashamed, and convinced they become that they will fail, the more distress and inner conflict they feel. At some point, it is tempting to just “get it over with” instead of having to always feel on-edge, waiting for it to happen. Doing it intentionally helps people feel like they are at least in control of their failure, rather than at risk of having it sneak up on them. 
  1. Safety: Ultimately, controlling an outcome by engaging in self-sabotage is about seeking safety. It can feel threatening and emotionally unsafe for a person who has deep shame and anxiety to exist in a world where they are expected to be sober, responsible, consistent, and successful. While addiction and self-sabotage is painful, it is also familiar for a recovering addict, and there is a feeling of safety in a world without responsibilities, pressure, and expectations to meet. In this world, people can only hurt themselves in ways that are predictable, consistent, and familiar.

Preventing Self-Sabotage

People in recovery can avoid self-sabotage by addressing underlying emotions in therapy, recovery groups, or other therapeutic settings, and also by working to learn new ways of responding and coping with difficult thoughts and feelings, including:

  1. Develop self-compassion: Self-compassion is the practice of self-kindness and self-acceptance. These practices are most difficult during times when people are insecure, afraid or have made mistakes, but these are also the times when self-compassion is most needed. Learning how to interrupt critical self-talk, be more accepting of mistakes, and practice consistent self-care are essential parts of self-compassion.
  1. Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is the practice of bringing full awareness and attention to the present moment and has many proven benefits on people’s physical and mental health. Mindfulness can be practiced in many ways – through guided meditation, yoga, tai chi, breath awareness, or even just working to focus on sights, sounds, and smells. Mindfulness can help people in recovery manage stress, cope with difficult emotions, unhook from unhelpful thoughts, and feel more present and connected in their daily lives.
  1. Talk about feelings and fears: Talking openly about “secret” thoughts, insecurities, and fears takes power away from, and reduces their ability to drive self-sabotaging behaviors. Many people use individual therapy, group therapy, or recovery forums to express their emotions, which can also help them receive emotional support and validation. Talking to trusted friends, family members or partners can also help people struggling with difficult and intense feelings that feed into urges to self-sabotage.
  1. Challenge old storylines: Self-sabotage is almost always driven by old, negative storylines and beliefs that a person is bad, will fail, or doesn’t deserve for good things to happen. These storylines can trick people into thinking that self-sabotage is the best option. These storylines were often driving people during addiction and are in need of revisions. Working to install new, more helpful and hopeful beliefs is often an important aspect of protecting recovery from destructive and self-sabotaging behaviors.
  1. Learn not to act on emotions: Self-sabotage is almost always driven by intense emotions like fear, despair, shame, anger or hopelessness. In moments when these emotions arise, it is important to become still and let them pass, rather than reacting to them. Emotional decisions are often the ones that people later regret because in the heat of the moment, people are not thinking clearly or logically. Emotions can only become destructive forces when people allow them to guide their actions and choices.

While not everyone in recovery from an addiction will experience the urge to self-sabotage, many will. Essentially, self-sabotage is just a destructive way that people have learned to protect themselves against feelings of shame and fears of failure. These patterns are often a part of the addiction cycle and can continue into recovery unless people take active steps to interrupt and change these behaviors. By seeking professional help and developing new, more effective ways of managing and responding to difficult thoughts and feelings, it is possible for people in recovery to avoid patterns of self-sabotage.

Sources:

  1. Matthews, S., Dwyer, R., & Snoek, A. (2017). Stigma and self-stigma in addiction. Journal of bioethical inquiry, 14(2), 275-286.
  1. Potter-Efron, P. S., & Potter-Efron, R. T. (1999). The secret message of shame: Pathways to hope and healing. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

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