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  • Jim Taylor, PhD

11 Perceptions That Sabotage Your Relationships

Is it better to end a relationship than risk rejection?

11 Perceptions That Sabotage Your Relationships

  • Low self-esteem may be related to certain perceptions people hold about themselves.

  • People may protect themselves from rejection by sabotaging their relationships.

  • Certain unhealthy perceptions lead people to end relationships before they think others will.

Is there anything more central to our psychological and emotional health and well-being than the quality of our relationships? And is there any other topic in the “self-help industrial complex” that receives so much attention? In both cases, the answer is sadly no. What these two questions suggest is that so many of us struggle to build and maintain relationships (family, friends, intimates) that are meaningful, satisfying, and joyful.

What I have seen in both my professional and personal lives is the capacity of people to not only be attracted to others who aren’t healthy for them but also, even more painfully, to see people sabotage what could otherwise be a truly wonderful relationship. The reasons are myriad, but I have found that low self-esteem lies at the heart of this self-destructive behavior.

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Self-esteem has become a part of our psychological zeitgeist as an all-purpose explanation for many of the obstacles that so many people face in their lives. As such, its significance in our lives can be trivialized as a label that people attach to themselves. Yet, self-esteem is far more than a label; rather, it is a descriptor that encompasses a powerful set of perceptions that people hold about themselves that lead to their actively (though not consciously) sabotaging their relationships.

Simply put, self-esteem can be characterized as how you value yourself. Are you competent? Do you consider yourself worthy of love and respect? Do you have healthy values and morals? Are you a good person? How you answer these questions has immense implications for how you come to think about yourself, the goals you set, the emotions you experience, how you behave, with whom you interact, and how you interact with them.

The challenge is that self-esteem doesn’t develop consciously or by choice. Rather, it emerges from early life experiences with family, peers, institutions (e.g., school, religion, sports) and our broader popular culture (which has grown in influence due to its promulgation through the internet and, specifically, social media). Receiving early love, support, encouragement, and validation can produce healthy levels of self-esteem. In contrast, early traumas, including abuse, neglect, bullying, and rejection, can all contribute to the development of perceptions that lead to low self-esteem.

As self-esteem relates to relationships, I have found a descending progression of perceptions related to oneself and others that lead to sabotage in relationships. The purpose of the sabotage is to protect yourself from the pain of rejection. The unfortunate result of the self-destructive perceptions is that you create a self-fulfilling prophecy that prevents you from nurturing healthy relationships and affirms the low regard you hold for yourself.

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Perception 1: “I am not worthy of love.” This simple perception grounded in low self-esteem sets the stage for failure in relationships because you don’t believe that you are a good person who is deserving of respect, appreciation, and love. From this starting perception, every subsequent perception leads to complete destruction of whatever relationship you are in.

Perception 2: “They will reject me.” There are few more painful experiences in life than rejection because, as many of us believe, it is a direct reflection of our value as people. The rejection would simply affirm Perception 1.

Perception 3: “I will feel excruciating emotional pain when I’m rejected.” Because the rejection is personalized, you expect to experience emotional pain (e.g., hurt, sadness, humiliation, shame) so powerful that it will be debilitating. It is this emotional pain that ultimately triggers the need to sabotage your relationship.

Perception 4: “I will experience intense anxiety.” In response to your perceived threat of emotional pain, your primitive brain (specifically, your amygdala) kicks into high gear to protect you from the threat. Your survival instinct is triggered, and your fight-or-flight reaction switches on. In other words, you experience potentially devastating anxiety.

Perception 5: “I must protect myself against that emotional pain.” The intense emotional and physiological experiences based on the previous perceptions lead you to an inevitable conclusion: You must protect yourself at all costs against the perceived threat and the emotional pain.

Perception 6: “If I don’t protect myself, I will experience lifelong trauma.” Further girding the perception that you will feel excruciating emotional pain is the assumption that it will lead to a life of trauma that will be unavoidable and incapacitating, and that will encompass every aspect of your life.

Perception 7: “To prevent this from happening, I must take control of the relationship.” This leads you to take action to protect yourself from the above perceptions. Paradoxically, by taking “evasive action” in your most dearly held relationships, you are actually intentionally (though, again, not consciously) causing to happen the very thing that you fear the most, namely, ending the relationship when there might be a good chance that the relationship will work out, which, for another part of you, is the thing that you want the most.

Perception 8: “It’s better for me to end the relationship than for the other person to end it.” By sabotaging the relationship, you believe that it will make the end less painful because you have a sense of control over the break-up by your making the decision to end it before “the other shoe drops.” In doing so, you avoid the chance that the other person will reject you (Perception 2) and the pain of the rejection that you believe will be unbearably painful and long-lasting (Perceptions 3 and 6).

Perception 9: “I evade confirmation that I am truly unworthy of love.” Through this proactive, though largely unconscious, process of self-sabotage, you will protect yourself from receiving confirmation of your greatest fear—that you are, in fact, unworthy of love.

Perception 10: “My anxiety diminishes, and I feel better.” When you end the relationship, you find that your fear abates and your anxiety diminishes. You don’t feel happier, but, perhaps more importantly, you feel less unhappy because you aren’t experiencing the tsunami of negative thoughts, emotions, physiology, and interactions that comes with making yourself vulnerable to something else.

Perception 11: “I remain alone and unhappy.” The first 10 perceptions result in a life of loneliness and discontent, which, though neither desired nor pleasant, is the lesser of the two “evils” you believe you must choose from—the other being rejection and confirmation of your unworthiness. Hint: This perception is not true.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., - Website -


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