A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
Unleash your inner champion
Strategies to begin your journey of conquering self-sabotage
By Rebecca Pianta and Marilou Ryder | September | October 2023
Let’s take a reality check. Do any of these situations feel familiar?
  • Your boss encourages you to apply for the new director position, but you hesitate, believing you should wait until you acquire more skills.
  • A coworker compliments you on your recent project, but you respond by downplaying it, stating it could have been significantly better if you had more time and resources.
  • A colleague suggests you need to improve your listening skills, but you dismiss her feedback by saying she is always negative.
  • You decide not to voice your thoughts at a school board meeting because you fear appearing stupid.
  • Despite feeling overwhelmed with your current projects, you continue to take on new work responsibilities.
If any of these situations sound familiar, you might be experiencing what experts refer to as self-sabotage. While the term is commonly used, understanding its meaning is crucial. Throughout our lives, we will encounter numerous obstacles, but none are as damaging as the ones we create for ourselves. When people hear about self-sabotage, they often assume it’s a personality disorder or a character flaw. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Self-sabotage is something that everyone experiences, often in subtle ways that are easy to overlook. However, self-sabotage can be particularly detrimental when we actively or passively impede our own goals. This behavior can impact our relationships, personal aspirations and career prospects.
While self-sabotage is not exclusive to women, research suggests that women tend to engage in self-sabotage more frequently than men for various reasons. One contributing factor is women’s fear of failure, which can be particularly debilitating in the workplace. The imposter syndrome, characterized by feeling inadequate and believing success results from luck rather than ability, can also lead to self-sabotage. Also, women’s tendency towards perfectionism and their ongoing struggle with low self-esteem can undermine their progress, especially in high-stakes leadership careers.
The good news is that women leaders can minimize the impact of these challenges on their lives by taking some simple steps. The first step to overcoming self-sabotage is to notice specific behaviors that prevent you from getting ahead. Behavior: Engaging in negative self-talk such as, “I am not very good at finance, or I don’t have the talent to be a principal.”
The second step involves developing strategies to cope with these self-destructive habits, often rooted in feelings of self-worth. Strategy: Learn to catch yourself when your inner critic rears its head and talks down to you.
Finally, the most crucial step is to reflect on why you keep stabbing yourself in the back and then to identify one or two areas to target for self-improvement. Target areas: Fear of failure and lack of confidence.
Below are a few strategies to begin your journey of conquering self-sabotage.
Step outside your comfort zone
A crippling fear that prevents women from embracing change is that of leaving one’s comfort zone. To effectively address fear, it is crucial to identify its source. Is it a fear of the unknown, a fear of failure, or a fear of losing control? By pinpointing the root cause, you can develop a plan to mitigate those concerns. Change offers a unique opportunity to expand one’s skills and knowledge base. Lean into new challenges. Embrace that fear is a normal part of the process and view it as a signal that significant growth lies ahead. Reframing fear as a stepping stone rather than a roadblock can pave the way for transformative progress.
Engage in constructive preparation
Professional learning is a continual journey that ensures you remain at the forefront of educational innovation. Make it a practice to attend conferences, workshops and seminars to expand your knowledge and stay abreast of current research and best practices. Seek opportunities for professional growth through certifications, advanced degrees or specialized training programs. Investing in your own learning enhances your expertise and ability to lead effectively in an ever-evolving educational landscape.
Ignite your confidence
Confidence is a powerful attribute that fuels success. To bolster your self-confidence, make a list to celebrate all your accomplishments, skills and expertise. Use equalizers such as addressing a person by their first name to remind yourself that you belong at the table. Dress professionally and choose outfits that make you feel confident. Engage in regular exercise to maintain mental and physical well-being. When people provide you with feedback, consider their intentions to determine if the feedback is constructive or destructive. If the feedback is constructive, then strive to improve. If the feedback is destructive, separate facts from opinions and let it go. Learn to replace self-critical thoughts with positive self-talk and affirmations to cultivate a resilient and confident mindset. And if you ever begin to feel insecure in a particular situation or environment, embrace a “fake it ’til you make it” attitude by embodying a confident demeanor, even when you might not initially feel it.
Form a power network
Women who understand the importance of community and personal power know that building a network of people committed to their growth is critical for success. Building a robust personal and professional network can provide invaluable support and guidance. Cultivate connections with sponsors, coaches, mentors and peers who can offer diverse perspectives, advice and growth opportunities. Lean on your family and caregivers for unwavering support. You can access resources, gain new insights, expand your influence and overcome obstacles by leveraging your power network. Surround yourself with individuals who believe in your potential and can help you.
Recognize your unique destiny
Take time to reflect on your professional journey. Consider the experiences, challenges and successes that have shaped you. Identify the common threads and themes that run through your story. You can gain valuable insights into your unique destiny by understanding your journey. Reflect on your core values, passions, aspirations and legacy you wish to leave behind. Envision your noble purpose by asking yourself: Why do you do what you do? What is the greater purpose behind your work? Reflect on the impact you want to make and set goals aligned with your noble purpose. By clarifying your noble purpose, you provide a guiding light that informs your decisions, actions and priorities. Embrace your uniqueness and the path that leads you to your fullest potential.
Dr. Ashley Sandor (2022), an esteemed educational leader and a colleague in the UMass Global doctoral program, conducted a comprehensive study on self-sabotaging behaviors and their implications for women. After interviewing many women, she summarized her study with a compelling message that struck a chord with many.
Throughout our lives, we will encounter numerous obstacles, but none are as damaging as the ones we create for ourselves.
“Self-sabotaging behaviors are developed by women to shield themselves from the brutal realities that face them in the world. They are coping mechanisms we create to deal with external forces like gender bias, sexual and gender discrimination, and societal expectations placed on us from the time we are little girls. We develop this path of least resistance to achieve all we desire without the constant barrage of confrontation, self-explanation and continuous requirements to prove ourselves as ’worthy.’
“Women must be equipped with the tools to realize that although barriers exist, we have the power to prevent additional obstacles that we place on ourselves. Once we increase our awareness about the internal and external barriers we face, we can finally do something about them.
“We must also teach our young girls that they are not at the disposal of men, that they can forge their own paths, and that they do not have to subscribe to a particular mold to do so.
“We can also help educate the men in our lives who want to be allies and don’t want to repeat past mistakes but are unsure how to support us. Most importantly, women need to lean on each other, learn from each other and build each other up in our lives and professions.”
Some of the passages in this article have been adapted from the following publications:
Ryder, M. & Briles, J. (2003). The SexX Factor: Breaking the unwritten codes that sabotage personal and professional lives. Farr Hills, NJ: New Horizon Press.
Ryder, M. & Thompson, J. (2022) Self Sabotage: Ten personal power tips to be your best self on a good day. Huntington Beach, CA: Delmar Publishing.
Sandor, A. (2022). Shattering your own glass ceiling: The self-sabotaging behaviors of secondary female principals and strategies used to overcome them. (Doctoral Dissertation). ProQuest Information and Learning.

Rebecca Pianta, Ed.D., is coordinator of College and Career Readiness at Santa Ana Unified School District. Marilou Ryder, Ed.D., is a retired superintendent and professor, Ed.D. Organizational Leadership, at UMass Global.