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The Maastricht Diplomat

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Have you ever ... sabotaged yourself ?

Have you ever procrastinated on a deadline even though you desperately wanted to do a great job ?

I know I have. And I always feel guilty afterwards.

Or have you ever given up on a night out because you felt overwhelmed by the workload, but eventually wasted your time and regretted your decision?

More often than I would like to admit, I have found myself burdened with remorse whenever I prioritised a much deserved break to an intense study session.

Similarly, have you ever belittled a success of yours by thinking “it didn’t mean much after all”?

Well, I am not trying to play “have you ever?” but if you do relate to these questions, then you may have unconsciously sabotaged yourself.

Most self-sabotaging people play off this self-destructive behaviour as being “a perfectionist” or being “a procrastinator”. Either way, avoiding, postponing or prolonging burdening situations only leads to unproductivity, regret and self-doubt.

I’m one of those “self-sabotagers”, and in my experience I tend to overthink everything and everyone to the point where the fear of being mistaken or facing a possible challenge leads me to procrastinate. Honestly, it is exhausting wanting to prove myself to others, while being the first one to doubt myself.

But moving on … what precisely is self-sabotage? And how does it manifest ?

A few common patterns that have been recognised as self-sabotaging are attempting to constantly gain people’s approval, comparing yourself to others, or staying within your comfort zone to avoid change. Further forms of self-sabotage are giving up when things seem difficult and overwhelming, taking actions that do not align with your goals and values or even overworking because “enough” is never enough.

But do not worry! The word “sabotage” makes it sound almost accusatory when – actually – it is a pretty common habit. In fact, self-sabotage is a form of protective mechanism that your psyche shapes in order to prevent you from facing disappointment and potential harm. It is an unconscious act that makes us feel “safer”.

Nevertheless, it is crucial to remember that this very behaviour is what is keeping you from achieving your goals and acknowledging them. As such, recognizing certain patterns is the first step to change them.

Among the various shapes that self-sabotage can assume, the most predominant one is the so-called “Impostor Syndrome” : that feeling of self-doubt and uncertainty which makes you feel like a “fraud”. To make it clearer ... have you ever felt unqualified for a task or a job even though you had the necessary skills? Yes, exactly that.

So, how does the Impostor Syndrome relate to self-sabotage ? Well, both emerge from lack of self- esteem and low confidence but, over time, they can turn into subtle forms of anxiety and depression. As a matter of fact, this self-questioning can be harmful for your mental health, for your productivity as well as for your lifestyle. Not only does it make you feel as a failure, but also leads you to believe you do not belong anywhere.

This syndrome does not necessarily stem from negative-self talking or personality traits, but from the environment that surrounds you. Whether you grew up in a family that stressed success and achievement or whether you feel the pressure of societal standards, such behaviour is mainly caused by external factors. One common example among students could be ... have you ever had to do a resit for a specific subject you always were good at and suddenly felt like all your previous success were a “fraud” ? There it is again!

In addition, belittling, bullying, discrimination and harassment from peers can also contribute to Impostor Syndrome, especially when the victim is a high-achieving worker or differs from the majority of the surrounding environment because of race, gender, religion, age or sexual orientation. An example is the fact that women are the ones who risk suffering from Impostor Syndrome the most.

Academia is one of the environments where this syndrome has the larger impact. As students deal with an engaging environment where people have different social and educational backgrounds, it is easy not to fit in at first. Especially when the academic standards for students are high. However, this can lead many people to feel stressed and in competition with their peers and when results do not meet their expectations, students begin to be critical towards themselves and belittle their own skills. This results in lower grades, worse academic performance, possible social isolation and can even last beyond graduation, leading students to make ill-fitting career choices.

Yet, students are not the only ones to be affected. Also top academic researchers face the risk of feeling like an impostor. Although academia is considered to be one of the best paths for personal and professional growth, it is a truly competitive environment where successes are not often acknowledged while failure is.

Therefore, how can we deal with this self-disruptive behaviour ?

One main suggestion would be to avoid comparison, which can be strongly demoralising when others seem to achieve constantly great results ... Remember, no one is perfect and failure does not define you! If then it is impossible for you to elude comparison, rely on the feedback of trustworthy people or practise positive self-talk. Exercises such as journaling, letters of self-compassion or reminders of your own achievements and goals can have a game changing impact on your efficiency and improve the environment you work in. And if all of this does not work, addressing self-sabotage through therapy sessions can be a further approach to personal improvement and self-reflection. Last but not least, celebrate your own achievements ! If you do not, who will ?

Interested in learning more about Impostor Syndrome and self-sabotage? Here a few resources:


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