How Our Brains Enable Self-Sabotage

How Our Brains Enable Self-Sabotage

emotional intelligence - self awareness emotional intelligence - self regard emotional intelligent leader May 20, 2022

If we truly want to show up for our best self, why do we self-sabotage? Might it just be another part of being human?

As I wrote in my previous post Show Up for Your Best Self:

  • Suffering and pain are part of our human condition.
  • Distracting priorities and uncertainty compete with our sense of what’s best for us and hold us back from thriving.
  • Self-handicapping behaviours lead to self-sabotage and feed the imposter syndrome.
  • Developing emotional intelligence in the realms of Self Perception and Decision Making are key to showing up for our best self and for thriving.

Fortunately, our brains can help us maintain a state of equanimity and thriving in the face of adversity. Our brains can be powerful instruments for practising self-compassion and showing up for our best self. Studies in positive neuroscience1, using neuroimaging techniques to explain the neurobiology, reveal the power of our brain in regulating our emotions.

This blog touches on key research about our brains and our emotions and my observations during my leadership coaching services that are underpinned by emotional intelligence.

Each one of us is inundated with information, situations, and stimulus that can evoke or trigger an emotion. Whether it is happiness, gratitude, sadness, sympathy, empathy, or any other emotion, we vary in how we respond based on many variables. One study2 leads researchers to conclude that happier people are better able to see opportunities without missing threats.

The Research and My Observations

High positive affectivity: In the research, happier people—persons with high positive affectivity—are typically characterized as open-minded, sociable, and helpful. They demonstrate positive energy and enthusiasm. They are alert and active. They carry themselves with confidence in their ability to achieve—if not now, then later—and they have a plan.

In my personal and professional life, I have observed that they bounce back from difficult situations to a state of well-being efficiently and effectively. They maintain healthy energy reserves and proceed with grace. I notice that they do not dismiss or trivialize their challenges by quoting platitudes or adages such as “This too shall pass”. Their optimism is authentic, fueled by their belief in the power of impermanence, equanimity, and trust in their ability to care for their emotional well-being and resilience. They consciously develop self-trust by committing to making decisions and taking actions that are in their best interest. They are not swayed by comparison with others or the fear of missing out. They are self-directed and self-accountable. They are highly coachable and they thrive with coaching.

High negative affectivity: In the research, persons with high negative affectivity are typically characterized as having a poor self-concept. Nervousness, guilt, fear, disgust, contempt, and/or anger are common experiences for those with high negative affect. 

I have observed that their day-to-day challenges, what they express as “struggles”, impact their happiness and optimism – intensely and negatively. They often express that “life is too hard”. They tend to be most vulnerable to self-handicapping behaviours such as comparing themselves with others and are in constant need of external reinforcement. Typically, they do not respond well to coaching unless they can get past the “it’s too hard” mantra and recognize how they self-sabotage with self-handicapping behaviour (9 ways we self-handicap). With this self-awareness, they can retrain their brain and become delightful coaching clients. I have experienced that transformation in myself after multiple setbacks and I have witnessed transformation in others who work on uplevelling their emotional intelligence.

Retraining Our Brain – Understanding the Amygdala Hijack

With the use of fMRI studies, researchers find that our amygdala responds to emotional stimuli according to our affective style. Most likely, you have heard about the amygdala hijack3.

If we have a more positive affect style, we are less reactive to stimuli and are better able to regulate our emotions. Our disposition is more positive. We respond with the appropriate emotion.

If we have a more negative affect style, we are more reactive and less able to regulate emotions. Our disposition tends to be more negative. With due respect to our brain and especially our amygdala, this is not always bad news. Negative affectivity does have benefits4 including better performance in situations involving deception, manipulation, impression formation, and stereotyping. It can be helpful in developing healthy emotional boundaries.

Nature and Nurture – Adapting and Evolving

According to researchers, our affective style is the result of our genes, attachment style5, adversity in early life, and mental disorders. While we cannot go back in time to change our genetics or early life influences, we can change our style or at least adapt our style to serve our best self. Specifically, we can change how our own brains respond to emotional stimuli or situations by being aware of our emotional intelligence strengths and weaknesses and consciously taking action to nurture our BEST self.

Consider how your affective style adapted and evolved through the pandemic.

When you are ready for the deep work on serving your BEST self, the effort is worth it: YOU are worth it. And you don’t have to do it alone. If you need help, ask someone who you identify as an expert companion, a trusted mentor, or a qualified professional. If I can be assistance, please let me know. 

Would you like to explore the connections I make with this topic and emotional intelligence? You can reach me on LinkedIn. Or click to Get in Touch


  1. Positive Neuroscience, Wikipedia
  2. Attitude, evaluation, and emotion regulation, J. J. Gross (Ed.), Cited in Handbook of Emotion Regulation the Guilford Press.
  3. Amygdala Hijack: When Emotion Takes Over,
  4. Negative Affectivity, Benefits, Wikipedia
  5. Attachment Style: Take the Quiz, Science of People

You might also be interested in reading the blog series about how “attributional styles” affect your leadership.

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