Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Can OCD cause someone to self-sabotage?

By Stacy Quick, LPC

Jan 25, 20237 minute read

Have the symptoms of OCD ever caused you to hold back from doing something you wanted? Have you ever felt the need to set limits on what you’re allowed to do for yourself? OCD can make you feel as though you are not good enough for the things you want, or that you don’t deserve to be happy. 

These sorts of behaviors and beliefs are sometimes referred to as self-sabotage. What does it mean to self-sabotage? It means you undermine, interfere with, or damage yourself, your desires, or your goals, often without even being aware of it. It’s a form of psychological self-harm, and over time it can cause people with OCD to feel like their own worst enemy.

The driving forces behind self-defeating behaviors

Examples of self-sabotaging behaviors can consume many areas of one’s life. People who suffer from OCD often report feeling like they are always waiting for the next shoe to drop so to speak. The nature of OCD’s tendencies to come and go can leave a person feeling on guard for the next ‘bad thing’ to happen. Even when someone has been living in recovery for long periods of time there can be an intense fear of it returning. 

One of the driving forces behind this can be low self-esteem. We know that how we talk to ourselves can have a huge impact on how we feel about ourselves. It can also guide our decision-making progress. Distortive beliefs about yourself can have a long-lasting impact on feelings of self-value and worth. People with low self-esteem are more likely to underestimate their abilities, and when OCD leads people to distrust themselves and fear that they are bad or unworthy, their self-esteem can suffer greatly as a result. 

People with OCD will likely also have low levels of distress tolerance. This means that they feel that they cannot tolerate difficult emotions such as anxiety, fear, or anything uncomfortable. While no one particularly likes these feelings, most people recognize that they can get through them and that by dealing with feelings of distress, they can attain goals and other desired outcomes. In OCD, the combination of low self-esteem and distress intolerance creates a recipe for self-sabotaging behaviors. When someone underestimates their perceived ability to handle something, they will be far more likely to throw in the towel before they ever get started, keeping them from their goals and intended outcomes.

This self-sabotage may initially impact only small areas of life, but over time these missed opportunities can make an enormous impact, and reinforce similar behaviors in the future. When people meet with difficulty or failure, their low self-esteem and distress intolerance can make it even harder for them to live life on their own terms in the future, seeking more and more opportunities to feel safe from failure. In this way, self-sabotage becomes a persistent pattern in the lives of many people with OCD, feeling that their safety-seeking behaviors increasingly interfere with their ability to live according to their own desires.

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What are the signs of self-sabotaging?

OCD is often referred to as the “doubting disorder” because it causes doubt and uncertainty to proliferate and interfere with people’s lives. The presence of uncertainty about something can feel like too much to bear: What if I fail? What if people are disappointed in me? How can I be sure this will work out? How do I know that this is the right relationship? OCD digs into each of these unanswerable questions and demands the impossible: 100% certainty.

Many people with OCD also struggle with perfectionism. It involves all-or-nothing thinking, also referred to as black-and-white thinking. If something isn’t perfect, it can’t be tolerated. These ways of thinking can cause people with OCD to be highly indecisive or avoid anything that risks imperfection or distress. It can seem better to not do something than to have the slightest potential of doing it wrong. This is also seen in the high threat bias in people with OCD, or the idea that there is a greater likelihood of negative things happening.

In concert, all these tendencies set the stage for persistent patterns of self-sabotage. Here are some examples of people with OCD who are engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors:

Amelia just became engaged to her boyfriend of five years. She is in love with him but cannot shake the feeling that something is “off.” She wants to enjoy the moment. Her friends and family are all excited and are busy planning the wedding. However, she notices that she has been irritable with him since the proposal, even distant at times. In the back of her head, she keeps thinking that her marriage will inevitably end in a divorce as her parents did. She reassures herself that her relationship feels secure and loving, but always returns to doubt: “What if we get divorced? It’s always possible.” 

Amelia makes lists of pros and cons and the positives far outweigh any negative ones. At the same time, this isn’t how she imagined she would feel. She feels that this must be a sign and calls off the wedding. There are too many things that are not how she thought they should be. But two weeks later she is consumed with regret over the decision. She wonders why she acts the way that she does. She never feels she deserves to be happy and worries that she’ll never heal her relationship, despite her partner remaining by her side throughout the process.

Linus was asked to give a presentation at work. He is well-established in his career and very knowledgeable. He wants this to go smoothly and feels passionate about the topic he’s presenting. It is vital to him that the presentation is informative, accurate, and engaging to the audience. He knows that he should spend a lot of time preparing, yet he keeps putting it off. 

When he feels overwhelmed, Linus tends to procrastinate. When he does start to work on the presentation, he spends hours trying to organize his thoughts and the flow of the speech only to end up frustrated and tired. Finally, he tells his supervisor that he will be unable to do the project after all—he just can’t bear the thought of messing it up. 

Can self-sabotaging hold you back from getting treatment for OCD?

One of the most harmful outcomes of self-sabotaging can be avoiding getting treatment for OCD, reinforcing patterns of self-sabotage over time. OCD may come up with all kinds of reasons why someone shouldn’t get the help that they need. It can create a refrain of negative self-perception, like “I don’t deserve happiness.” Or it may cause doubts about one’s own experiences and abilities: “I don’t really have OCD—I just need to be stronger” “What if therapy doesn’t work for me? It’s not worth it.”

OCD is always looking for a new angle, a new way to get you to engage. Even if you commit to finding relief from OCD, it can call into question what you deserve, your own experiences, and the ability you have to make a change. That’s why it’s so important to recognize all of the ways OCD operates in your life, especially when they cause you to sabotage your own goals.

ERP can help you to stop self-sabotaging

Sometimes, it can feel like OCD is always a step ahead, interfering with your goals before you get a chance to work toward them. The good news is that real solutions to every challenge OCD may bring are more accessible than ever. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with a trained OCD specialist, you can stop finding yourself stuck in self-sabotaging cycles. 

In ERP therapy, you will track your obsessions and compulsions and make a list of how distressing each thought or fear is. You then progress through exposure exercises, at every step resisting the urge to engage in compulsions like avoidance or reassurance-seeking. When you continually reach out for quick relief from fear, you teach your brain that self-sabotaging is actually keeping you safe from harm. But when you lean into discomfort, anxiety, and uncertainty over time, your brain can re-learn that you’re able to live life on your own terms, even when it’s hard. 

If you’re struggling with OCD and want to take power away from the rampant doubt and fear it causes, NOCD can help. Our licensed therapists deeply understand OCD and are specialty-trained in treating OCD with ERP. We work side-by-side with the OCD experts and researchers who designed some of the world’s top OCD treatment programs. I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment and get started with OCD treatment.

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