You have six hours—six hours until your 30% paper is due.
You stare at your screen. You only have two paragraphs down. You tentatively tap out another sentence. You think you could probably take a break, have a snack, watch a bit of Big Bang Theory.
But “a bit” becomes six episodes.
You finally sit down and type for a steady three hours; you manage to submit your paper on time. You did the best you could, you tell yourself. After all, you only had three hours.
Many students experience self-sabotage at least once in their academic careers. Most pass it off, thinking, “I’ll try harder next time.” Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.
But what is self-sabotage? An Australian study that looked into motivational factors among students defined it in broad terms. Self-sabotage, researchers wrote, was anything students did to “reduce their chances of success at school”.
The idea seems counter-intuitive. Why would anyone purposely try to fail?
In a 2011 paper, professor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton suggests that self-sabotage has everything to do with self-esteem. He divides students into two types: incremental theorists and entity theorists.
The incremental theorists believe that if they work harder, they will do better.
The entity theorists believe that the outcome of their efforts is fixed. In other words, they will do the same no matter how much effort they put in.
The seemingly logical conclusion is that incremental theorists have a healthier attitude towards their work. Mendoza-Denton, however, says this isn’t always the case.
Mendoza-Denton explains that the feeling of control that incremental theorists have can easily backfire and eventually lead to self-sabotage. Why? Because the control produces a sense of responsibility. The incremental theorist thinks, “If I don’t do well, it will be entirely my fault.”
That’s where self-esteem comes in. Mendoza-Denton cites a 2010 study to explain the relationship between how students perceive themselves and their tendency to self-sabotage.
The study found that students who based their self-worth on their academic abilities were more likely to sabotage their own work.
In a separate analysis, psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter also links self-sabotage to self-worth. Carter suggests that students who continually compare their results to the results of their peers are more likely to become self-saboteurs. Carter lists procrastination, settling for less, and focussing on the negative as self-saboteur behaviour.
You can probably guess that frequent academic self-sabotage can’t be good. Many psychologists give advice on how to prevent self-sabotage behavior.
Most of these lists, however, don’t include anything we haven’t heard before: stay positive, focus on the future, plan ahead…
Clinical psychologist Eddie Selby, who blogs on dealing with self-sabotage, describes an interesting way of looking at a potential self-sabotage situation.
Selby reminds his readers that self-sabotage always has a motivation behind it; the main advantage, of course, is having fun instead of doing work. Different self-sabotage behaviours can have different advantages as well, like when you systematically distract yourself to get your mind off of the stress.
Selby advises that self-saboteurs list the advantages and disadvantages on a sheet of paper. This, he says, will help the saboteurs identify long-term and short-term advantages of their behaviour. Then they can compare the lists and decide which one they really want more. He recommends returning to write down more pros and cons whenever you remember them.
Selby believes that separating and identifying the thoughts behind self-sabotage behaviour must come before attempting to stop it. Only once a saboteur fully understands their “conflicting desires” can they begin to develop a better work ethic.