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The Unfortunate Art of Female Self-SabotageU.S. Embasssy Tel Aviv / Flickr

The Unfortunate Art of Female Self-Sabotage

Mar 3 2014
How women inadvertently undermine their own success.

I was surprised when my friend was terminated from an organization where we both worked for several years. She was a hard worker—always first to volunteer to do thankless tasks and the last to leave the office each day.

"That's what cost me my job," she said. "I thought I was being a good witness for Christ by serving as the office doormat. People wipe their feet on doormats."

She had raised her two children as a single mother, earned her college degree at night, and had once been active in local politics. But at work, she hid the brightest parts of herself under a bushel so she could focus on serving her coworkers. What she saw as shining the light of Christ in the office actually was stifling any aspiration for advancement.

This friend's desire to do Something Big For God was a heroic-sounding case of self-sabotage in the name of Christ. Self-sabotage can be loosely defined as the way in which a person works against her own best interest. Our work, school, and church cultures tend to affirm in women some of these unhelpful patterns of thinking and relating to others by trying to convince us that those self-sabotaging practices are virtues. They're not.

Self-sabotage can take obvious forms, like self-injury or addiction. But for most of us, we work against ourselves in far more subtle ways: being perfectionists, avoiding conflict, procrastinating, focusing on the trivial. In the case of my friend, a seemingly noble quest to serve others communicated to her superiors that she was a nice enough woman capable only of handling trivial tasks.

Many women first learn the art of self-sabotage when they're growing up. Heidi Grant Halvorson described a study comparing the way in which bright fifth-grade girls and boys responded when they were presented with challenging material to master. The brighter the girl was, the more helpless her response tended to be. Grant Halvorson said, "The only difference was how bright boys and girls interpreted difficulty – what it meant to them when material seemed hard to learn. Bright girls were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence, and to become less effective learners as a result."

Consider the ways adult women defeat themselves in the workplace as well as in personal relationships: lacking boundaries with coworkers; settling for an unclear purpose, identity or both; waffling on commitments; or allowing the emotion of the moment to drive your actions.

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