How would you express "self defeating" in German?

Specifically, to express that someone is taking a perspective or actions that are actually leading him or her away from their goal instead of towards it?

10 Answers 10


A possibility to express "leading away from agoal instead of towards it" would be


"Self defeating" literally translated is "selbstzerstörerisch", but this would not express the mentioned meaning. "Kontraproduktiv" however expresses that the actions taken lead to the opposite goal.

  • 4
    To me, "counterproductive" implies a slightly different context than "self-defeating." The latter feels like it's done to oneself, whereas the former is more generic.
    – Dan
    Jun 8, 2018 at 9:59
  • 12
    For the purpose of thie question, "kontraproduktiv" describes it best. As OP asked "to express that someone is taking a perspective or actions that is leading them away from their goals", "kontraproduktiv" best describes this. Of course, "self-defeating" may have other uses, such as "A measure that obsoletes itself", which would be translated differently.
    – MechMK1
    Jun 8, 2018 at 10:20
  • 3
    I would say the literal translation of "self defeating" is "(sich) selbst besiegend". Jun 11, 2018 at 7:32
  • I disagree. „kontraproduktiv“ usually is not used in a personal context. It is more commonly used in a interpersonal context or even more in perspectives which are considered somehow „objective“ or „neutral“. You will find „kontraproduktiv“ in conjunction with e.g. project goals, teamwork or similar terminology. This can even be derived from the word itself. The latter part „produktiv“ is rarely associated with personal perspectives and goals in German.
    – Ariser
    Jun 11, 2018 at 12:41
  • This is the proper term to use in contexts other than prophecies (where it is "selbstzerstörend"). It is a good translation for all examples e.g. in dictionary.com/browse/self-defeating. Sometimes it even heals a doubtful use of "self-defeating", as in "self-defeating violence" -- it's likely that violence actually begets more violence, so the violence is not at all selfdefeating. But it is often counter-productive to the original goals. Jun 11, 2018 at 15:44

We also have the idioms

  • ein Eigentor schießen (colloquial)
  • sich ins [eigene] Knie schießen (colloquial)
  • der Schuss geht nach hinten los (colloquial)
  • sich ins eigene Fleisch schneiden (standard)

each meaning to work unintentionally against your own goal.

  • 16
    I used to score a lot of goals, but then I took an arrow to the knee! Sorry, I couldn't resist ;-)
    – Philipp
    Jun 8, 2018 at 9:30

A similar established phrase is

sich selbst im Weg stehen

which means: oneself being an obstacle on the way to the target. It does not imply that you made the situation worse yourself, however.

I'm not aware of any adjective summarizing this.


Here are a couple of options:

sich selbst Steine in den Weg legen: Mit seinem Verhalten im Unterricht legt er sich selbst Steine in den Weg.

nicht zielführend sein: Dein ewiges Herumgediskutiere ist wirklich nicht zielführend! (Herumgediskutiere is obviously very colloquial.)

es sich nicht leicht machen: Du machst es dir aber auch nicht gerade leicht!


The Cambridge Dictionary says "self-defeating" is either

used to describe something that causes or makes worse the problem it was designed to avoid or solve.

or in American usage:

self-defeating — done in a way that keeps you from succeeding:

Even in German there are some more and very short alternatives to express this:

  • sinnlos
  • zwecklos
  • unsinnig
  • widersinnig
  • selbstzerstörerisch
  • aussichtslos
  • abwegig
  • das Gegenteil des Gewünschten bewirken

There is quite a long list to choose from, including from the other answers here.

Definition and example from wiktionary:
self-defeating (comparative more self-defeating, superlative most self-defeating)

Of a plan or action: containing elements that will cause it to fail; destined not to succeed by its very nature.
__ Cutting off your nose to spite your face is self-defeating.

Translation: Deine Nase abzuschneiden, um dein Gesicht zu ärgern, ist völlig [choose your poison from this page].

Or going with the Collins Definition of 'self-defeating'

A plan or action that is self-defeating is likely to cause problems or difficulties instead of producing useful results.

--> Ein Plan oder eine Aktion, die sich [choose again, this time I'd suggest: selbst schadet], kann Probleme oder Schwierigkeiten verursachen, anstatt nützliche Ergebnisse zu erzielen.

"Selbstschädigend" ist actually the nicest way to simulate official sounding German language usage.

  • What do you want to express with "Ihre Nase abzuschneiden, um Ihr Gesicht zu ärgern, ist völlig [choose your poison from this page]." Google translates the idiom with: Die Nase abschneiden, um dein Gesicht zu bekämpfen, ist selbstzerstörerisch.
    – Iris
    Jun 11, 2018 at 13:34
  • @Iris The aim is to demonstrate that Google offers just one option, where there are many. Jun 11, 2018 at 13:55
  • I didn't understand the idiom in English and your translation didn't help me at all (Ihre Nase abzuschneiden, um Ihr Gesicht zu ärgern, ist völlig sinnlos/zwecklos...). I had to check different translation services to understand it (google translate was the best in this case). If I have this problem, other people might have it too.
    – Iris
    Jun 11, 2018 at 14:37
  • @Iris Oh. Thx for the heads up. Since it is not my example idiom but just quoted from wiktionary I am a bit lost on how to fix that. Wiktionary people seem to think of that as good enough for most. Open to suggestions and invite you to edit as well. Jun 11, 2018 at 14:53
  • English is not my first language and idioms in other languages can be quite challenging. I think "Die Nase abschneiden, um dein Gesicht zu bekämpfen, ist ..." is better than your translation "Ihre Nase abzuschneiden, um Ihr Gesicht zu ärgern, ist völlig", but I might be wrong.
    – Iris
    Jun 11, 2018 at 15:10

I believe the best translation would be "selbstsabotierend"

  • 9
    First time I heard that word combination...
    – AnoE
    Jun 10, 2018 at 8:38
  • 2
    @AnoE I never heard or read it, either, but it would be understood by every german reader or listener instantly.
    – Ariser
    Jun 11, 2018 at 12:43

As a native English speaker, I'm wondering what your exact meaning is, however I would use "selbstvernichtend" :-)

  • He is probably thinking on some similar like "suicidal".
    – peterh
    Jun 10, 2018 at 17:57

For self-defeating prophecies the opposite of "selbsterfüllend" (self-fulfilling) appears to be "selbstzerstörend"1. The uses I found were all based on translations of Merton's essay from 1948 though (Merton, Robert K. (1948), "The Self Fulfilling Prophecy", Antioch Review, 8), and I'd say the term is not in general wide-spread use. "Selbsterfüllende Prophezeiung" is more common in non-academic contexts.

1 wikipedia, and generally the first links in a google search for "selbstzerstörende prophezeiung".


"Ein Schuß in den Ofen." is term for an attempt at something that turned out worse than nothing, typically used like "Na, das war ja wohl ein völliger Schuß in den Ofen."


Depending on context, "selbsterfüllende Prophezeiung" (lit. self-fulfilling prophecy) could also work (i.e. the negative outcome is implied by the negative perspective at the outset).

  • 6
    No, this is not the meaning of: "self defeating". Jun 8, 2018 at 19:00
  • Correct, that's why I included the literal translation. Jun 8, 2018 at 19:59

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