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 Award-winning business author and broadcaster

Leadership trainer and coach

Keynote speaker

  • Writer's pictureAudrey Tang

When compassion becomes self-sabotage

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

In most of the articles I have read on the subject of "what is self-sabotage" the list has been similar:

- Holding a negative outlook

- Refusing to try anything new

- An overly-critical or negative inner voice

- Arrogance/refusal to reflect and learn

...and the more psychological issues of self-harm, and self-medication with drugs and alcohol - or even food!

None of them mention compassion.

This is probably because, at least on the face of it, caring for others is a good thing.

It's lovely to think of others - if I see something nice that someone will like, I might buy it for them, or at least tell them about it. If I'm making food for a group trip I'll pack extra just in case. If I'm in luck I try to share my windfall; and indeed the people who inspired this post - whom I have had the good fortune to recieve so much from too - will agree with this standpoint...but only to a point...!

There comes a time when you need to look at whether you are able to keep giving (because of what you are getting in return for your efforts; or because you are running out of resources).

So why does this happen?

Sometimes it's because of low self esteem - if I give, others will like me for it. (It doesn't always work this way - a bit like my dog - she loves me, but she loves me more when I have a treat for her).

Perhaps it's because we are naturally generous and thoughtful - of course we were brought up well - but it's as important to teach that you (and your things/desires/time/energy) are valuable too - so invest and spend wisely.

Maybe it's because we are self-sabotaging.

Again, people self-sabotage for many common reasons:

- Feeling they do not deserve what they have/to win/to be chosen

- Feeling a fear of failure (better to sabotage rather than risk it going wrong - that way we control our destiny better)

- Boredom (why not pick a fight - dramatics are better than calm?)

- Preferring the familiar (change gets hard, and scary, and maybe it's just better to be where we were - in our comfort zone)

This results in "acting out" in the manner of the first list.

But it also includes being kind and generous.

I hope that no-one leaves this blog thinking I am advocating being selfish, but I am suggesting that we all become more "self aware". (Let us not forget that we are not always "giving" to those "less fortunate"...often the recipient is closer to home...and in resources/options).

Simply asking - can I afford to offer this? or "Do I want to offer this to this person?" may be enough to keep us on the right track.

Compassionate self-sabotage can be as simple as eating a chocolate when you're on a diet because you don't want the other person to eat alone (or because they intimate they don't want to) all the way to giving up something you have coveted or even won, just because you feel someone else may deserve it more.

I have come to realise this type of behaviour is one of my derailment factors.

I used to dance Latin American at University (yes photo was at the time before digital!) - and I was quite good - but never "good enough". I could have

worked to get there, but instead I insisted I was happier helping out with the beginners classes, and focusing on producing shows (another hobby). Both in many ways were true, but when I look back on it now I know that I was deliberately making those choices. Producing shows kept me in my comfort zone (I love it, and am good at it); helping with the beginners was fun - I like seeing people succeed. However, I could have done both and practised a bit more myself - and, looking at the bigger picture, might well have helped with the silverware! It was only in my final year of dance when I focused on making the team and my partner and I took private lessons that we came home with a couple of trophies!!

Even now - if you've read my previous article - I've started to improve my fitness and have recently joined Park Run, yet I've volunteered to "tail walk" next week. Now I happen to think volunteering is actually important - Park Run is run entirely by volunteers, and it's important to give back - but I have also said to myself that I am not going to do it every week because I will fall into a bad habit... It's getting hard, so rather than keep pushing to beat my PB (Personal Best...I even understand sporty initialisms now!) I'll just volunteer and then I don't have to improve...and I won't have to fail.

My reasons for self-sabotage are much more commonplace - I know that I fear failure, and I also feel I "don't deserve" what I have. I have always had a sense of feeling "lucky" to come from parents who worked hard to give me the very best in life (only child) and an acute awareness that I hadn't done much to earn it. This, along with being called "spoilt" by a couple of people who had been close to me (when to my mind I'd always given away everything I had - ironically to the chargrin of my parents), I had to sit myself down and remind myself that I had earned my place on that Park Run track by completing the "Couch to 5k" - it wasn't handed to me...and this is true of a lot of what I do now.

Nonetheless, I am still a work in progress when it comes to giving time, money, even gifts - but I now try ask myself the following questions before making offers, and perhaps if this resonates with you, you might too:

- Can I afford it?

- Am I doing this to be liked?

- Has there been a pattern of reciprocity?

- Am I doing this to avoid failure/stay in my comfort zone?

- Is it because I feel I don't deserve what I have because I've not earned it (and have I actually earned this one - after all I'm not a layabout!)

- (optional) - will I contribute more by contribution through achievement rather than helping!?

Perhaps you think these questions make me selfish? I believe they remind me that while it's good to give, it's better to do it when I can afford to, 'ought' to, or simply want to - without expectation of return.

For further support to manage self-sabotaging tendancies, please see


Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt


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