How Childhood Neglect Causes Self-Sabotage

I wrote previously about how self-sabotage negatively affects those who have been in abusive relationships. However, did you know that people who have been subject to neglect growing up also self-sabotage? Learned in childhood, it will have a negative effect on one’s life well into adulthood, including making life choices.

What is Self-Sabotage?

I described self-sabotage in an earlier post, so I’ll just do a quick recap here. I refer to self-sabotage as “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” It’s when people undermine themselves, just when they are about to achieve something they want, such as

  • Getting a promotion at work.
  • Committing to a relationship.
  • Finishing a class they need to graduate from school.

People who self-sabotage usually blame external circumstances when things don’t work out. However, when failing to achieve what you want becomes a pattern in your life, external circumstances are never the whole story. Understanding how you are sabotaging yourself is the missing piece to having a more satisfying life.

How Do Victims of Neglect Self-Sabotage?

People who have been subject to neglect self-sabotage for different reasons. One is because they don’t believe that they deserve anything positive in their lives, such as love and belonging. I have had clients who grew up with parents who struggled with alcohol or drug problems. They didn’t give their children the attention and guidance they needed or deserved. When my patients became adults, they continued to believe that they didn’t matter and were unable to enlist teachers and other mentors to help them succeed.

Another problem that victims of neglect is that they struggle with feeling that they are a burden to others. Parents who don’t take care of their children materially or emotionally often give their children the message that they’re too demanding, even when they make such minimal requests as help with homework or rides to sports practices. These children learn early on that, rather than rock the boat, it’s better to fend for themselves.

Is there a Typical Home Life That Sets-Up Self-Sabotage?

It’s easy to imagine that neglect happens mainly to people who come from families struggling economically. But, in my experience, people who self-sabotage come from poor families, rich families, and every kind of family in between.

I once had a patient who came from a very well-to-do family. (This is not a description of an actual patient. This is a composite of a number of people I have seen in my practice). He was extremely gifted academically. However, his parents did nothing to encourage him. They paid no attention when he skipped school and they never encouraged him to apply to college. He studied all kinds of subjects on his own but dropped out of community college. By the time I met him, he was extremely depressed and lonely.

After we had worked together for awhile, he was able to acknowledge his ambition to go to college and graduate school. He was accepted to a good college but, every time he began to do well in his classes, he did something to undermine himself, like not turning in a paper or not showing up for an exam.

As we continued working together, he began to recognize that his experiences of childhood neglect had led him to feel that no one cared about him and that his teachers didn’t care whether he succeeded or failed. Failing his classes became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only after we had worked together on this issue was he able to enlist the support of his teachers and start to achieve the success he was always capable of.

So What Can You Do as a Therapist?

People with a history of neglect are longing for someone care about them. However, when they first come to therapy, they’re often convinced that there’s something wrong with them and that no one, including their therapist, really wants to help them.

Over time, as these individuals experience being taken seriously in therapy, they begin to see what they missed growing up. At this point, we’re able to directly address the issue of self-sabotage. They’re able to begin to see how they undermine themselves because they feel they don’t deserve to succeed and to connect this with their experience of neglect. Once people start to feel that they matter, they no longer need to sabotage themselves.

Click here to learn more about making better life choices with Dr. Jane Rubin, Licensed Clinical Psychologist.

Jane Rubin, PhD., is a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California. She works with individuals in Berkeley, Oakland, the East Bay and the greater San Francisco Bay who are who are struggling with depression and anxiety. She also specializes in working with people who are trying to find meaning and direction in their lives.