self sabotaging

Self-sabotage is a very common behavioral issue to address with clients, although it can manifest itself as different forms. First, let’s understand what we are talking about when we say “self-sabotaging behavior”.

According to Psychology Today, a behavior is said to be self-sabotaging when it creates problems and interferes with long-standing goals. This type of behavior results from a misguided attempt to ‘rescue’ ourselves from our own negative feelings. In other words, your client is “getting in their own way” from achieving their goals. If it sounds counter-intuitive, that’s because it is! No one thinks they would intentionally sabotage themselves but it happens quite often.

As unique as your clients are, you may see them reveal self-sabotaging behavior in very distinctive ways. Here are a few common ones:

Procrastination – This happens to the best of us, and yes sometimes life gets in the way, but when excuses are continually made to keep you off course from your goals (e.g. continually canceling/rescheduling sessions, falling off the nutrition plan, ‘running out of time’ in the day to fit in a quick workout…) then action is needed.

Help your client discover what is distracting them or getting in the way. If their priorities have shifted, assist your client in setting small goals to get back on track so that they can quickly make small gains, which will, in turn, motivate them to continue making gains. You can read more about this in the Ask an Expert column “What questions should I ask that will help uncover any emotional resistance my clients have to their physical success?”

‘All-or-nothing’ mindset – This might be the most common self-sabotaging issue that I see… a client will push past the procrastination hurdle and get started, only to completely throw in the towel when they make one small misstep (such as giving into cravings for food they were trying to stay away from or missing a couple of workout days). They may try again but succumb to the same results. This mindset sets your client up for failure from the beginning because it requires an expectation of perfection… but, as we know, no one is perfect.

Talk to your client about establishing a routine that is flexible enough to fit their lifestyle while also working towards their goals. It’s one thing to help your client step outside their comfort zone in order to grow but it also needs to be realistic. Stress the fact that missteps will happen but if they can stay mindful of that, it may help them handle it in a more rational manner and continue on their path instead of falling off entirely. Keep their focus on the journey, not the outcome.

Negative self-talk – This might be a little less easily seen in a client unless they are open and honest with you about what they are thinking. Whether it’s a fear of failing, fear of not doing it right, or some other negative thought, this destructive little inner voice tends to create so much self-doubt that the result is inaction.

Work with your client to figure out when this self-talk happens and what it consists of. If they become self-aware, they can start to address it instead of letting it control them. Again, this is a good opportunity to help them achieve small goals in order to set them up for continued success.

Regardless of what your client is working through, whether it is one of these behaviors or something else, start small and work on building healthy habits with your client to work past the self-sabotaging behavior. Developing a consistent routine/habit will help them automatically stick with it.

Please note, although it is natural to want to help our clients move past whatever it is they are going through, keep in mind the scope of a personal trainer’s role and know when to refer to a qualified emotional behavioral specialist, as opposed to overanalyzing and making assumptions.

Everyone has the power to choose their daily thoughts but it takes practice and consistency. As your client’s personal trainer/coach, you can help them identify their emotional roadblocks, encourage positive thinking and continue to accomplish small victories to work past any self-sabotaging behavior that stands in the way of their goals.

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Maureen Faherty

Maureen Faherty

Moe oversees corporate wellness and fitness initiatives as a Wellness Specialist for a financial services company and all their U.S. locations.She is also a Personal Trainer at Harvard Business School and the creator of Fitness MoeJo, a blog in which she shares advice, personal experiences and inspiration on maintaining a healthy, fit lifestyle.

She has a B.S. in Business Administration from Framingham State University and a M.S. in Physical Education/ Strength & Conditioning from Bridgewater State University. She is certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and with USA Weightlifting as a Sports Performance Coach.

Moe lives in Boston where she keeps busy crossing things off her fitness bucket list.
Maureen Faherty


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