Have you ever done something that felt wrong, that you knew was wrong, and that turned out wrong for you?

As the Beastie Boys said, “Listen to all y’all, it’s a sabotage.” Or, to be more precise: self-sabotage. Unfortunately, this sabotage is all the more insidious because you are the perpetrator.

Self-sabotage can happen at any time in our lives and careers. It could be something simple such as knowing you need to study for an exam and not doing so. It can involve sharing something with another person that your gut tells you is not a good idea. It isn’t any old action that happens to result in a bad outcome or failure by pure chance, such as investing time to write a proposal on a high-risk topic or endeavoring to be innovative or creative only to lead to an unintended, disappointing impact. And it isn’t the result of a mental health issue such as anxiety or depression; if you are struggling with this, that is a different story. Rather, I am talking about deliberate tactics to orchestrate our demise. To destroy our career. Done by us!

In its essence, self-sabotage is an action (or nonaction) that is completely misaligned with our internal structure and our knowledge of what is best for us. Self-sabotage implies that we have knowledge of what could be the right course of action and yet we proceed otherwise, in a way that is damaging. So, why on earth do we do it?

Many of the reasons stem from fear: fear of the future and the consequences of doing a good job. If I triumph at this moment, with this paper, proposal, or job or award application, what comes next? I will be expected to be better. My reputation will grow. Expectations of me will grow. My workload and pressure on me will grow.

So we consciously—or more often, subconsciously—connive with ourselves: I will do something to stymie this growth. I will do something that will protect me from impending doom in the future when others find out I am a fraud who has no place here. I will protect myself against having to be more innovative, agile, productive, and successful in the future. I will stop here so I will be safe.

But here’s how to really be safe: Recognize that we all have the capacity to self-sabotage, and we have the power to stop it.


Because self-sabotage is an act of subversion against your established internal architecture, you can identify and qualify it by examining whether the act is in alignment with your “floors.” Ask yourself: Does this act violate my core tenets? Is this decision misaligned with my values and overarching objectives? If so, it is most likely self-sabotage. Imagine yourself as a skyscraper. There is a framework holding up the floors and walls of the building. When you engage in self-sabotage, you bring instability to those floors. And when one floor is weak, the rest become unstable and can lead to system failure and building collapse.

Note that these questions have nothing to do with the likelihood of success or failure. Electing to spend time on a fellowship application that is highly competitive is not an act of self-sabotage if it is aligned with who you are and what you want to do in your career. But applying for that fellowship and ignoring emails from your supervisor and not achieving the goals of your project is a true misalignment that will not serve you in the long run, regardless of whether you win the fellowship.

If you’re not sure whether you’re about to commit a dangerous act, consider how you are responding to the idea. Does it feel good? Does it elicit a response of happiness and peace? Most likely, your act of self-sabotage will be accompanied by a wave of unsettling emotions, such as anxiety or trepidation. These feelings point to you doing something that goes against your architecture. Don’t ignore those feelings.

Instead, aim to set up a surveillance system to detect the emotions so you can make decisions accordingly. For example, early in my career as a speaker, other professionals in my field encouraged me to engage in what I could feel was risky behavior, in the name of “pushing myself outside my comfort zone.” “Try using a new type of vocabulary in your speeches,” they said. “How can you grow if you don’t try something new?” they asked.

For me, this suggestion was playing with fire. I could feel it was wrong. My surveillance system was hollering, so much so that I felt like I was drowning in nervousness—not excitement about adventuring into the unknown, but extreme fear about venturing toward a known hazard. So, I stopped. I listened to and trusted my gut. And as a wave of calmness and peace came over me, I appreciated my own power—to know what to do and to choose to do it.

I have learned from this and other previous acts (or almost-acts) of self-sabotage that when I feel uneasy, this is a moment of alarm. So, I have trained myself that, when I experience this feeling, I need to stop, breathe, find the origin of the emotional response, and make the decision that is right for me.

I don’t blame my colleagues for advising me as they did; they were just trying to help. They had no idea what my core architecture is like. I alone would have borne the blame if I had followed their advice and acted in a way that is against my architecture. Just because someone makes a suggestion doesn’t mean you have to implement it. Your inner voice, the internal you, is the only authority on what is right for you that matters.

Staying true to yourself and your values and principles does not mean that you don’t change and innovate as new information and opportunities become available. Indeed, we should all endeavor to grow, adjust, flex, and move to address new problems as they arise in our organizations, communities, and careers. But innovation will only succeed if it is aligned with our core architecture.

Buttresses can help support and protect complex buildings—and the same is true for your personal skyscraper. Your system of buttresses consists of your internal authority and expertise, as well as external champions and cheerleaders. If you sense you may be about to make a move that could be self-sabotage, approach a trusted mentor, member of your board of directors or network at large, or peer. Ask their opinion about your proposed action and weigh the costs and benefits for you. Your network of allies ideally bolsters you over time, providing a long-term, strategic cushion against potential acts of self-sabotage.

Your unicorn career is a precious commodity, and your architecture is awesome. Guard them carefully from attacks—especially those that emanate from within.

Concepts in this column come from and build on the author’s previously published works, including articles, speeches, and her book titled Networking for Nerds.