Do You Constantly Sabotage Yourself?

Few people are likely to understand self sabotage more than traders. While it’s an innate tendency in almost all of us, traders get to experience it more often and more directly than most others. If you’ve traded for any period of time, you know what I’m talking about. It seems like whenever things start to go well, you find a way to mess it up. It almost feels like you want  yourself to fail. But how could that be? Who would want themselves to fail?

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. – Marianne Williamson

This quote may be the very thing that helps you understand your tendency to sabotage yourself. Marianne Williamson is an author who has ventured deep into the human psyche in her writings on spirituality. What she’s bringing to our attention here, is that what we often fear most is not failure, but success. Of course this is completely unconscious. No one goes out there and thinks “man, it sure would be scary if I succeeded, made lots of money, and got everything I wanted.” Consciously, most of us want very much to succeed. But it’s not the conscious mind that is in control.

Of course, the natural question that arises at this point is: why do we have this unconscious fear? And the most basic answer provided by psychology and the great spiritualities is that we all carry around unconscious guilt. Deep down, we believe we are lacking in some way and that we don’t deserve to receive abundance in any form. However, the reality is that we indeed are powerful beyond measure and do deserve great success. But it’s hard to accept that because it conflicts with our unconscious beliefs. And nothing is more uncomfortable to a person than having reality conflict with their beliefs. We’ll do anything in our power to alter reality so that it comes back into synch with our beliefs. In the world of trading, this translates into doing those things that cause losses whenever you’re up a lot of money, because succeeding like that is uncomfortable and causes internal resistance.

If you’ve experienced that nagging feeling that something feels wrong when you do very well, that’s the resistance in action. If you suddenly stop doing what made you successful just as you’re really succeeding, that’s the resistance in action. It’s not always obvious. In fact it’s usually quite subtle. But it’s there in most people, and now you have an idea why. It’s just something that is a deep part of the human psyche.

But having said that, what do you do about it? Well, like I’ve mentioned a few times before on this blog, there is great power in awareness. It has a momentum of its own. So next time you experience these signs of self sabotage coming up, instead of fighting them- which is the natural reaction- simply watch them with awareness. Recognize that they’re normal and don’t judge yourself for having them. When you bring what’s unconscious into the realm of conscious awareness without fighting or judging it, it loses its power over you. You’ll now have a means of severing that link between it and the actions you take. And this is the key. You have to realize that you may never get rid of the unconscious fear of succeeding, but that doesn’t mean that it has to keep leading to sabotage. Awareness severs that link between it and automatic action, and then you can use the power of choice to accept the success and not sabotage yourself out of it.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Have you experienced self sabotage in trading before? What form did it take? Do you have any techniques that you use to deal with it? Your comments are welcomed.

  • It’s crazy the hold our beliefs have over our emotions and, therefore, our actions. My first introduction to this concept was through Anthony Robbins book, “Awaken The Giant Within”

    “Awareness severs that link between it and automatic action, and then you
    can use the power of choice to accept the success and not sabotage
    yourself out of it.” – Brilliant :).

    The greatest form of self-sabotage that I’ve had to deal with is fighting the trend. I’d see a reversal pattern, trade it, then get stopped all the way to the top/bottom. If I was really on form, I’d then skip the only reversal that would’ve worked.

    I just kept thinking that it had gone far enough and that I’d miss the reversal if I didn’t take part. I would make sure they were at good S/R, but they’d pop straight through it.

    To avoid this, I do two things: 1) Try to observe myself from outside of myself (I think I remember mention of that in a recent post here in this blog..). Then I was able to see myself as part of the crowd and utilize that information that would’ve worked against me and use it in my favour (later creating a pattern based on those failed reversals) and 2) Remember Newton’s First Law of Motion: “A body in motion stays in motion until acted on by an equal and opposing force”! The market will keep doing what it’s doing, until it doesn’t…This allows me to stay with what’s happening rather than forecast and, inevitably, mess things up!

    • Thanks for the comment! Fighting the trend is a huge one for traders. Nice insight on observing yourself as part of the crowd. That’s a great way to deal with it and it also allows you to think about what other traders are doing. I also think it’s great to read books like Awaken the Giant Within because they really open our minds to what’s truly possible.

  • Trader Mozart

    I believe self sabotage is nothing more than your reaction toward repetitive thought patterns and mind chatter about a false projected future or an illusory past. Have you ever tried looking at price action without letting your mind chatter interrupt your observation? Just be still and watch. Try it. Whatever comes out of that stillness while watching the price action unfold is usually the right “action” or “inaction.” This is what took my trading to a whole another level. It’s another way of practicing self-awareness.

    • Great insight. Trading from a place of stillness naturally means that you’re connected to a different source than the unconscious beliefs and thought patterns in your mind. It was talked about extensively in the book “The Intuitive Trader”.

    • Hank Williams senior

      That is true – but so hard. I’m extremely disciplined person with a lot focusing power, and I scalp 10h days – however, only a very small portion of that time is really just watching price action in the stillness. Why? Because it’s so demanding. When I try to get in the stillness AND watch the tape simultaneously I start immediately to feel dizzy with adrenaline or something, I start to get pulled away from the stillness. I can’t stand the mix of stillness and tape watching for more than a couple minutes at a time. Don’t know why.

      • Buddhist monks spend years practicing the ability to be still and focus. Don’t beat yourself over it Hank! It’s definitely not easy.

  • maciek618

    Another excellent post Ziad, thank you. I have to say that I have been experiencing self sabotage in my trading since the begginings (5 years now). It was an unconcious pattern which affected other spects of my life. I knew that something was wrong but I couldn’t figure out why. So I started to focus more on psychology and I have modified my approach to markets (and life in general). At this point I would like to recommend books of Dr Steenbarger. Anyway just recently I have realized within myself that I was always very modest person, even at school when my grades were far too good comparing to others I felt discomfort and a willingness to return to the mean. Same thing happened to me in trading – I was (and still I am) struggling with increasing my position size. I couldn’t make proper decisions when I was trading bigger sizes. Bigger gainers overwhelmed me or even scared. Big losses felt more ‘normal’ but still were depressing. I’m not talking about overleveraging and using too big position size related to account size. I was trading bigger account which could handle those sizes. Interesting fact is that I could never make money trading bigger account – leading to making a living in $ terms (scarry success). When I trade 3-4 digit accounts my results are very good but the monetary reward is too low. Also I have experienced drowdowns after series of excellent trades – planned in advance, good R/R, executed and closed objectively. Those drowdowns werent results of lower accuracy but of letting bad trading practicies into play. It looked like I wanted to come back to worse reults – so I over-traded, allowed low probability trades, lacking patience etc. I’m still in the process of development but as you said Ziad – awareness is a powerfull force on it’s own and the first step to change any habbit. I’m trying hard to be aware of my errors and their origin, slowly becomming a better trader…

    • Wow thanks for the great comment. This is exactly what I meant by sabotage and I have experienced what you have myself. A great book that talks exactly about this subject is “The Secret Code of Success” by Noah St. John. I recommend it for you. I wish you all the best with working through this issue.

      • maciek618

        Thanks a lot for the kind reply and a book recommendation – I will definietely buy it. Cheers.

    • EasySkanking

      Anyone who wants to deny the importance of psychology in trading (and in life in general) is kidding themselves. It’s amazing how someone who can have very good results with smaller account sizes can have poor results with bigger ones. What seperates us from the animals is our brains – what builds the great buildings that we have, the technology, the art and the ideas are our brains – why don’t we focus more on them, instead of trying to pry things with our hands only and move them around trying to get them to be as we want them to be – this is what animals do – not us! Let’s use more of what seperates us from the animals to “do” what we want (ie. become a successful trader.) I think the ability to change our beliefs is what separates us from animals – animals can’t do this, if they believe something is dangerous they never unlearn it (unless they are trained by someone else to). We have the ability to change our own programming. And if our beliefs determine what we are able to do and not to do (what stops us from being successful with bigger acct. sizes for example), then we should “work” on them, either by direct work by changing them or by “awareness” and letting them be. It ain’t easy, but it makes all the difference (literally) :P

  • Kishan Bobba

    Ziad Masri,

    you call it ‘self sabotage’ i call it ‘retracement’. If someone thought he ballooned to an unsustainable highs he retraces back to what he thinks is sustainable. It happens all the time and in every walk of life. I can see it happening people surrounding me and with in me. It crippled me many times. When I first aware about it I was amazed how something of this nature existed within me.

    I understood this exists in me because I attributed myself to a certain personality. If someone pulls me down I resist with great force. If situations elevated me to a high I fight back. I was just anchored to my personality. If I devoid of any personality I will just do what is ‘necessary’. That is what I am practicing about.

    Someone talking about chatter. Chatter happens when we are unsure of the outcome. That means many possibilities. Possibilities naturally attracts speculators. After a considerable speculation things move towards certain outcome. My interest is chatter. There is no great (self)indicator than Chatter if we understand and apply it properly. If ‘self sabotage’ occurs in one’s chatter that is not a good sign.

    -Kishan Bobba

    P.S. Following is an video

    • Thanks Kishan. The chatter the other trader was referring to is the emotional chatter filled with doubts and fears. Entertaining possibilities objectively is not chatter, but a way of thinking in scenarios, which is indeed good. Thanks for the comment.

  • berzerk

    Hi Ziad,

    It’s really interesting that I saw and actually named self sabotage in my trading some time ago. I tried to google “self sabotage in trading” but there’s actually very little in the internet about it, at least stuff that makes sense.

    And then I came across this blog post of yours. It’s really incredible that you can NAME and provide interesting solutions to the situations in trading that others don’t pay much attention to. Respect :-)

    What I’ve noticed in my trading was that whenever I was trading well, it really was me being in the zone, just seeing things the way they are. I’m always trading well within a trend, placing trades when others (at least me) would be afraid to place them, not trying to pick a top or bottom.

    My self sabotaging comes whenever I THINK I KNOW WHEN THE MARKET TURNS. I used to give back lots of profits whenever I try to pick a turning point in a current swing.

    Now I understand that this “I KNOW” syndrome is my EGO at work and that it’ll always, ALWAYS cost me money.

    At the moment whenever the trade keeps going my way, I don’t touch it. If I were doing simply that last year I would have trippled my account.

    I’ve seen a good definition of EGO which is “your EGO is at work whenever you try to make a JUDGEMENT”

    Still, it’s so difficult NOT to make a judgement in trading. I mean there are those S&R zones, ranges, trends etc. when one wants to say “I see a support here” or “this one is in an uptrend” which is making a judgement i.e. allowing your ego to play tricks with your mind???

    Do you see a way NOT to make a judgement when trading?

    thanks again for a very valuable post!!!

    • The judgement that is being referred to regarding the ego is not this type of judgement. It would be impossible to function without the type of judgement you mention, and in trading you need these kind of judgements. What is being referred to regarding the ego are the judgements that say this is “good” vs. “bad” or “right” vs. “wrong”. Only when we judge something as bad or undesirable can it inflict pain on us. If everything was seen as ‘neutral’ and simply as part of what IS, then we would never suffer, and our decisions would come from a still place that would allow for optimal performance. So the judgement to avoid is that which creates an emotional attachment. This is what the Buddhists practiced. But of course, the best way to avoid something is not to fight it, but rather to welcome it without judgement. So the key is to not even judge yourself for judging ;)

  • TradeWithHumility

    As someone who has been on both sides of the self sabotage thing, I can only tell you what it was for me. It began at what I would call a breaking point. Now, the rest of this is going to sound wierd so hang in there.

    After years of feeling like this was a never ending battle that was going to take my hair and replace it with an ulcer, I finally began “just doing it” as most losing traders recommend. I determined to just leave the trade in until it hit my stop or just pyramid when I’m scared out of my mind. This led an escalation of my inner resistance (self sabotager) and an extremely vivid daydream where a young girl, who I felt had a strong connection to me (as if we were the same person) kept shouting, “What makes you think YOU’RE so special. What makes you think that YOU can succeed. Miracles don’t just happen! This won’t work. Stop it!” The experience was so strange, yet very real. I felt the need to reconcile with this “imaginary” person. I wrote out all my thoughts until I had a whole letter outlining how sorry I was for trying to kill her (I didn’t know I had been doing that, but I felt as if it was true) and promised to protect her from now on, even going so far as to adopt her as my a member of my family.

    I began looking on google for answers to this very surreal psychological experience and was led to a couple of websites describing a part of the psyche called “ego.” Not ego like, “he has an enormous ego,” but ego like “id, ego, superego.” Apparently, there is a part of you called the ego whose job it is to makes sense of the world before you have reasoning capabilities (zero to 7 years old) and it creates defense mechanisms that enable you to feel the least amount of pain. The downside to this is that, until you sit down with it and explain how the conclusions it came to when you were a kid are no longer true as an adult, it will continue to impulsively “force” you to avoid the thing it’s scared to experience.

    Long story short, I started taking care of this “ego” as if it was a real child. Whenever I would feel anxious in the market, instead of suppressing it or just using self discipline to follow through, I would stop and say to it, “I understand that you’re scared, but remember these two things. First I promised to care for you and not let you get hurt again. Second, my system is tested and the law of averages says we will grow over time. Just relax. No matter what happens to this trade, we’ll be fine. I promise I’m not taking you through anything that is actually harmful.” And it’s amazing how my nerves subside in an instant. I’ve heard the term ‘inner child’ before, but to think that being its “dad” is the key to ALL emotions during trading is something that I have had to let sink in over time. It was surreal at the beginning, like a fairy-tale. But it worked, and hasn’t failed. I’m even starting to crest that magical point where my “inner child” begins to get excited about trades that are going to go well instead of afraid of them.

    What’s more impressive than my success at trading is how very little stress I feel during the process.

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