Emotional Reactance and Self-Sabotage: When FOMO Get’s In The Way of Your Happiness

In my own personal quest to figure out why I had such intense FOMO and would sometimes self-sabotage, I came across reactance theory. Are you sometimes compelled to do the opposite of what you know is good for you? Do you resent people who constantly do nice things for you and think ‘I can do it myself’? Have you been called stubborn by friends or family more times than you can count? Brehm’s reactance theory might explain why you feel this way.

What Is Reactance?

Reactance is the negative feeling that emerges when people experience a perceived threat to or loss of their personal freedom. Experiencing reactance can motivate you to either move towards or withdraw from or avoid something or someone. The level of reactance you feel often depends on the importance you place on what you believe you could lose. Losing personal freedom can feel like a threat and can be a motivator for taking action to restore what was lost. This is often done by making choices out of fear rather than focusing on the benefits of the experience.

People who experience reactance tend to make choices that they feel will restore their freedom. When you feel capable of resolving an event or situation you view as threatening, it’s likely because you have good coping skills for dealing with difficult situations. The way you see yourself also affects how you react. Individualistic people with an independent self-construct are more likely to be affected by ‘threats’ to their personal freedom, while collectivists who see themselves as interdependent to others and as part of a group will be more affected by threats to their collective freedom such as political decisions that restrict their rights.

When Reactance Becomes Self-Sabotage

Reactance is what motivates you to pull back or move towards something or someone. People who experience the feeling of reactance tend to consider a past restriction they observed in another person during their life. It’s possible they had one parent who controlled the other, for example.

Reactance can negatively affect your social interactions with others. When you feel restricted, constrained, coerced, or controlled by others, this can affect your relationships. It also has implications for self-sabotage. If your knee-jerk reaction is to panic, withdraw or get angry when someone tells you what do to, you’re experiencing reactance. People who experience reactance often react strongly to persuasive or forceful messages from others and can be argumentative or angry in these situations.  

A strong need for personal freedom can have a negative impact on your emotional security and negatively affect your relationships. If you’ve experienced romantic or parental relationships as controlling and negative, it’s likely you’ll associate a potential connection as a risk to your freedom rather than view it as positive. It’s also possible you didn’t have a positive model for relationships growing up and feel anxious and fearful when you think about committing to another person or having to compromise, which are part of a healthy relationship.   

Emotional safety is necessary to have an emotional connection. It’s only by making it a priority to create a safe, secure connection that you will begin to see your commitment as a benefit rather than a threat to your freedom. You have the right to be yourself, make your own decisions, and say no. The question is, are you using it? Or are you falling into the habit of handing over your power to the other person and withdrawing from the connection?

How To Disarm Psychological Reactance

Reactance doesn’t have to control you if you recognize it in the moment. Don’t let your initial reaction to something affect the decision that have a broader impact on your life. It’s a good idea to give yourself time to check-in with yourself emotionally and find ways of re-establishing inner balance. Take the time to decide whether that action is truly a threat, or whether it will benefit you in the long wrong. By taking away the emotional reaction, you will logically come to the right decision for yourself. Is this action going to help you achieve your ultimate life goals? If the answer is yes, Reactance can potentially work against you and sabotage what you’re trying to accomplish.

When reactance is working against you, use it to your benefit by recognizing why you’re reacting the way you are to a specific situation. Instead of giving your power away to the person you perceive as threatening your freedom of independence or choice. Recognize that only you can hold the power to take or withhold action. Reactance is a reflex that can cause you to overreact, rebel, or even freeze under pressure. It’s possible to learn how to manage this by using the seven strategies below:

Find Positive Role-Models: If your parents had constant negative interactions you may need to look to couples in your life with healthy positive relationships to replace your own models. You can also work with a counselor or coach to find new ways of dealing with situations that trigger you. This way you can develop new skills and strategies for dealing with a partner in a non-controlling positive way.

Change Self-Talk: To disarm psychological reactance, you must change the way you talk to yourself. Instead of thinking you “have no choice” or “have to do something”, tell yourself you “get to” or even “deserve to” do it. By reframing your inner dialogue, you shift the negative energy and immediately create the feeling that the situation will be beneficial.

Set healthy boundaries and limits: A task is seen as a bigger challenge when it involves risk-taking. Find a balance between giving up your personal freedom and micromanaging your life. Taking risks means opening yourself up to more uncertainty, being more creative, and ultimately, having better life experiences.  

Develop autonomy: You can stop reactance from sabotaging your life by fostering your autonomy and setting reasonable limits with others. You will then feel more confident in your decision-making and actions. As the person who is in control of your own life, you will feel more empowered to try things outside your usual box, give yourself opportunities to make mistakes, and feel more comfortable giving up control now and then.

Use Reverse Psychology on Yourself: When someone tells me “don’t touch this red button”, all I can think about is “I wonder what would happen if I touched this red button”. Instead of focusing on what can be lost, focus on what you’re gaining from the situation. Identify all of the options outside of what you’re expecting. If you have four buttons to choose from and one was taken away, that leaves 3 buttons to choose from.

Retrain your brain: You can learn to manage your initial reaction by questioning your thoughts. Is what you’re expecting really likely to happen? Why are you really resisting? What are you afraid of/ Does the situation remind you of a past experience? Flip the script by asking yourself what the benefits are rather than the negatives. Even when you feel annoyed or uncomfortable, you can take deep breaths and take a moment to think before reacting.

Learn to be vulnerable: The best things in life come from taking risks and having the courage to be vulnerable. Our struggles make us stronger and more self-confident. Sometimes this requires being uncomfortable for a moment and being willing to open ourselves up to new possibilities. It takes courage to risks after being disappointed or hurt. Courage in the face of fear is the only real only way to release self-sabotage.

No one likes being told what to do. But it’s only by learning to recognize your reactance that you can get control back and avoid doing things that may damage your relationship. By changing the dialogue and focusing on the benefit of the experience, you empower yourself and take charge of your emotions, perceptions, and reactions. What the unconscious self perceives as a threat isn’t always bad. It can be an opportunity to push ourselves out of our comfort zone.

Disclaimer : This article is not meant to replace advice from a trained medical professional or provide diagnostic information.  

Copyright Michelle Thompson 2022.


My name is Michelle. I have over twenty years of experience as a group facilitator, zen meditator, and public educator. I help people re-imagine their lives and create concrete plans for self-improvement. I’ve facilitated loads of workshops and support groups on topics like stress management, mental health and wellness, goal setting, grief counselling, safety planning, and confidence building. I create self-study courses to help you learn to practice self-care and master your self-doubt. I’m a former social worker and non-profit consultant, and after struggling for years with my own feelings of anxiety, low self-worth and uncertainty about who I was and what I wanted, I did the work. What I learned helped me get out of my own way and create a life that allows me to be myself and feel happy. Now I teach others to do the same. I created Authentic World Inc, to offer a supportive space for people who want to learn these important skills.


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Published by Coach Michelle

Founder, Authentic World Inc

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