Does self-sabotaging instincts come from the ego? Where does the urge to self-sabotage come from and how to break free from this cycle?

Here is what I found from the internet

The cause of our suffering is clinging to what we believe to be our “self” or “ego.” When we feel unsafe or uncertain, our habitual defenses arise, and we tend to cling even more defensively to our ego. Self-sabotage is a defense mechanism of the ego to protect us from some sort of pain or suffering – it's our own survival instinct working against us.

  • 2
    I don't know what "self-sabotage" means? Maybe add some examples of what you're asking about.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 2:42
  • @ChrisW I think self-sabotage is a psychological term.
    – Desmon
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 5:05
  • 1
    That link says, "There are many reasons", as well as, "different forms" -- so a more specific question might be better.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 10:44
  • The one place I found the quote was at believerspray.com/what-is-the-concept-of-self-in-buddhism I don't think that's a good summary of Buddhist doctrine. For decades this kind of thing -- i.e. modern authors writing their opinions of what Buddhist doctrine -- was all I had. There's a Buddhist "canon" though i.e. original texts (translated), and a lot (or most) of the questions on this site are about that.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 18:59
  • 2
    In my observation, people ask abstract questions like this when they don't feel comfortable sharing the details of their actual situation that prompted the question. And yet, having a glimpse into that would make it way easier to write a specific helpful answer... As Chris W said, self-sabotage is a rather broad term, and is context-dependent.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 22:12

4 Answers 4


Does self-sabotaging instincts come from the ego?

In a way, yes. Like all beings, we want what is best for ourselves. We want to be happy but we have a deluded understanding of happiness, one that is narrowly focused on ourselves resulting in selfishness and short-sightedness. I believe this came from an innate instinct that is partly evolved for our species’ survival. And this is the reason, I believe, why our brain constantly hungers for immediate rewards. We can see this in the behaviour of babies and their need for sensory stimulus. I observed a baby who was crying seemingly out of boredom. The mother picks it up and cradle it in her bosom. For a while, it was pacified but then it started crying again. The mother placed the baby in a pram and pushed it around. This pacified the baby until the next cycle. The baby wasn’t sick, hungry or soiled. It was just craving for sensory stimuli and had not yet developed the ability to inhibit this urge.

In Buddhism, this craving for sensory stimuli is defined as craving for sensual pleasure. As we grew older, we learned to modulate this craving through higher cognitive pathways. In fact, unlike other animal species, our species had evolved a large cerebral cortex that seems devoted to the inhibition of sensory stimulation. Inhibiting our urge for immediate rewards is important in several ways. First, to satiate this urge, we often rely on sensory stimuli. However, such reliance causes addiction, selfishness and anti-social behaviour. It is self-destructive in nature and, in my view, the root cause of self-sabotage.

Second, in order to maximize our overall welfare, we need to be able to see and understand what is the future consequences of our actions. This is necessary for us to plan ahead and perform actions that result in greater welfare in the long run. However, this objective conflicts with the constant urge for immediate rewards. An analogy would be a person playing chess. A poor player only focuses on the immediate gain or advantage in front of them without looking at 6, 7 or more steps ahead. Then several moves later, they end up in a severe material or positional disadvantage or may even be checkmated.

Third, higher cognitive capabilities in individuals are associated with the emergence of restraining behaviour that makes it easier for a species to co-operate and live harmoniously in a community. Selfish behaviour in the community is punished precisely because it is very destructive. However, this does not mean our ability to restrain this innate urge is always successful. As we grew older, the means of satisfying this immediate urge also grew more sophisticated. We get addicted to smoking, drinking, gambling, mobile games, social media and so on.

Where does the urge to self-sabotage come from

As above, it arises from our innate craving for immediate rewards. It causes us to be short-sighted in various aspects of our lives. For example, our craving to boost our ego could result in a habit of condescending behaviour e.g. making disparaging remarks. While this gives us an immediate feel-good effect, it causes a stain in our relationships with our husbands, wives, parents, friends and so on. Even though there was never any intention on our part to sabotage our relationships with our loved ones, unintentional damage had been done.

how to break free from this cycle?

The approach taught by the Buddha is that when we are acting, we need to understand if our actions lead to long-lasting happiness and well-being or long-lasting harm and sufferings. This is a counter-intuitive training that aims to offset our instinctive tendency to focus on immediate gain, rewards and gratification. It also help us not to ignore potential harm to others, to the environment and to ourselves that usually happens many, many years later. This is one approach that requires a willingness to reconstruct of our view and understanding of good and bad, gain and loss, right and wrong (i.e. right view or understanding). It forces us to focus at the long-term rewards versus the immediate ones. However, it can be a slow process that takes potentially years or decades.

Another approach is to be disciplined and regimental in the way we think, speak and act (right action and right speech). If we observed the relatively happy people around us, one common observation is the good habits that these people possessed. They are careful with their words and act appropriately when alone or with others. They are disciplined and regulated in their daily activities, not prone to activities that are heedless, complacent or throw caution to the winds.

Whether we adopt the first or second approach, the aim is the same i.e. to maximize our overall welfare (in Buddhist terminology, this is our long-lasting happiness and well-being) while minimizing the probabilities of self-sabotage. To achieve this, restrained behaviour must emerge in the individual. In Buddhism, this is achieved through right understanding (first approach) or the practice of sila or virtue (second approach). Both are in turn supported by right intention i.e. aiming for our long-lasting well-being. With Metta.


Here is what I found from the internet

I found that quote here on the internet (and nowhere else) but I don't really trust it -- it's someone's description, summary, interpretation, explanation of Buddhism.

There's a Buddhist canon i.e. the original Buddhist texts, which you can read for yourself (translated). Some of my earliest questions on this site were about that, and a lot or most of the questions on this site are about that canon.

But now I'll mostly link to Wikipedia articles instead of to the canon!

Does self-sabotaging instincts come from the ego?

I don't think so.

What I think -- though I've never been taught nor studied psychology -- is that the "ego" was a term invented by Freud, and that Freud was a 19th century quack (or a more charitably, a "pioneer"). He didn't invent the word of course, it's the Latin word for "I" the first-person pronoun, but maybe the first to apply it that way.

Have you heard of medieval medical theory, Humorism? It's nonsense to talk to a modern doctor about "humours", it's the wrong vocabulary and the wrong state of mind, the wrong theories. To me the word "ego" is a word in search of something to refer to -- "the word 'ego' exists so there must be such a thing as 'ego' or 'an ego'" -- but not a useful word.

This theory of mine is based on what I've read of the Pali suttas (which I'll explain in more detail soon, below). But there are other forms or schools of Buddhism, perhaps more modern, and I've read other people on this site write about "ego" as if it's an entity which tries to continue (hence "ego-defence"), and I'm not saying they're wrong (see also the parable of the blind men and the elephant), and they do say to beware of ego-driven behaviours.

What I do read in Buddhism is a lot of analysis:

There's a lot more than only "analysis" in the suttas, but there is a lot of analysis -- by which I mean identifying (lists of) things-which-exist, phenomena, dhammas.

Curiously none of these so far as I know correspond exactly to the modern word "ego" which I why I say that Buddhism does not describe "self-sabotaging instincts" as "coming from the ego".

I don't even know what "self-sabotaging" means in this context. I guess it means "action or non-action which isn't in your best interest" and quite probably "something which you judge to be 'harmful' but you do it anyway".

There are many behaviours that might fit this description:

  • Smoking cigarettes and other addictions
  • Being angry with people
  • Procrastination in your duties (including "displacement behaviours")

The "three poisons" is maybe the most basic description:

  • Ignorance (don't understand what's good for you, misjudge things)
  • Greed (wanting some short-term pleasure)
  • Aversion (avoiding some short-term discomfort)

There are other descriptions, like "the five hindrances" linked above -- of the kleshas/kilesas.

Kleshas, in Buddhism, are mental states that cloud the mind and manifest in unwholesome actions. Kleshas include states of mind such as anxiety, fear, anger, jealousy, desire, depression, etc. Contemporary translators use a variety of English words to translate the term kleshas, such as: afflictions, defilements, destructive emotions, disturbing emotions, negative emotions, mind poisons, and neuroses.

In the contemporary Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist traditions, the three kleshas of ignorance, attachment, and aversion are identified as the root or source of all other kleshas. These are referred to as the three poisons in the Mahayana tradition, or as the three unwholesome roots in the Theravada tradition.

There's a lot of talk about "the self" or "non-self" in Buddhism, which may be related to "ego". One of the first is the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta which I understand to be saying, "the idea of 'self', for example 'this is me' or 'this is mine', is not a useful idea".

See also A thicket of wrong views which I think implies that the idea of self isn't useful -- doesn't help to solve problems, isn't an actionable explanation of phenomena, is a useless theory.

how to break free from this cycle

I don't understand the specific question.

The general answer is probably, "the noble eightfold way" (and "the four noble truths which precede that") -- possibly starting with "right view", or possibly starting with "virtue" of the Threefold training.

The Kimatha Sutta (AN 11.1) identifies "skilful virtues" as fundamental, the bases.

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi in Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's monastery. Then Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: "What is the purpose of skillful virtues? What is their reward?"

Skillful virtues have freedom from remorse as their purpose, Ananda, and freedom from remorse as their reward."

"And what is [etc]


While 'ego' is a core teaching of Buddhism, Buddhism points out ego is caused by underlying defilements or cravings, namely, greed, hatred & delusion. Therefore, self-sabotage would be from some type of anger, hatred or aversion.

How to break free from this cycle is developing gratitude & appreciation for what has been developed & to have vigilance to guard what has been developed from the underlying tendency of self-sabotage.

In the Pali Suttas, a term similar to 'self-sabotage' is 'attaghātāya', translated as 'self-destruction'.

  1. Whoever, on account of perverted views, scorns the Teaching of the Perfected Ones, the Noble and Righteous Ones — that fool, like the bamboo, produces fruits only for self destruction.



Where does the urge to self-sabotage come from..?

One reason might be to induce samvega - a strong feeling of disgust, wretchedness, etc. that propels one towards seeking liberation. It might help like that, but I'm not so sure, so I am not recommending it or anything like that.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .