What is Self-Sabotage, Really?


There was a time in the therapy world where we used to say people were “self-sabotaging” when they would do something to mess up life when it was going well. Over time we have begun to see it differently. Today, most people in the personal development and growth world would call these self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors either limiting beliefs, or the upper limit problem.

Therapist and author Gay Hendricks did a great job describing the upper limit problem in his book, The Big Leap.

In this book, Hendricks spoke about the upper limit, what it is, how it holds us back, and what you can do about it. As I read his book I realized, this “upper limit problem” he was talking about, was actually what therapists for the longest time had been calling “self-sabotaging behavior.”

There’s another ideology, this one from therapy, that refers to this self-sabotage as “protectors.” These protectors, as they are referred to in Internal Family Systems, or IFS, by therapist Richard Schwartz, are actually parts which are trying to help keep you safe.

According to internal family systems theory, we all have parts that live within our minds and bodies that do so because of certain experiences we had (usually as a child or younger version of ourselves). Often times however, these parts were created because we experienced some sort of traumatic experience.

These traumas don’t have to be what therapists refer to as Big T traumas (abuse, neglect, violence). They can also be little t traumas, such as moving schools when you were a child.

Most of the clients who reach out to us for individual therapy and couples counseling at our San Jose office don’t realize they had childhood experiences that might be impacting how they view the world today. Our clients usually don’t call us saying, “I think I’m having an upper limit problem” or “my protector parts are scared I’m getting too successful.” Usually our clients call us and say, “I am not sure what’s wrong, but I feel like I’m starting to lose a sense of meaning in my life and my relationships.” Sometimes it also sounds like, “my passion and drive at work isn’t the same as what it used to be, what’s wrong with me?”

“I am not sure what’s wrong, but I feel like I’m starting to lose a sense of meaning in my life and my relationships.”

When we work with our individual therapy clients, we help them identify what upper limit thoughts they might be experiencing, or what protector might be trying to keep them safe. Once we are able to find out what’s going on under the surface, we can then do the work of becoming a loving witness to the part that is scared or the limiting belief that is arising. As we lovingly witness our parts, our parts begin to learn to trust us as the adults, and through a process that IFS calls “unburdening” we can allow our parts to be free, rather than keeping us unmotivated, uninspired, and bogged down all the time. As a result, clients feel their fire and their passion being returned and their lives once again have meaning.

As it relates to our work in couples therapy, we help our couples identify what each partner’s limiting beliefs might be and how these might be triggering protectors. Then, we skillfully help each partner learn how their stuff triggers the other person’s stuff, and how they can work together to better manage their triggers. As a result, couples leave our private day long couples retreats with a greater sense of understanding of themselves and one another, which allows them to feel more connected and restore the love they once felt in their relationship.

If you are ready to discover what limiting beliefs and protector parts might be keeping you feeling unmotivated, uninspired, and disconnected in life so that you can restore a sense of love and connection, schedule your Get Acquainted Call today.