Self-sabotage, in its many and varied forms, is ubiquitous in humans. However, we can harness neuroplasticity to work and retrain our brains to overcome this form of negativity bias. Read on if, like me, you suspect you get in your way.
Recognition is a prerequisite for overcoming self-sabotage. It’s easy to recognise when other people are in our way, challenging, undermining, expecting too much or simply refusing to see the magic we bring. And it’s easy enough to call out the circumstances around us as the cause of our troubles; wrong time, different place, not enough space. Yet why is it that we so often fail to see the very thing that is sabotaging our happiness, productivity and relationships? And that, unlike other people and circumstances, we can do something about? Why do we fail to see what is right there in front of us, our self-sabotage?
What quality of mindset would you have if you no longer ruminated on your shortcomings? How rich would your relationships be if you agreed and held reasonable boundaries? What would you be capable of if you weren’t hampered by procrastination and perfectionism? How would life be if you really could get out of your way?
I have been lucky enough to have had many rich and wonderful friendships throughout my life. I consider myself to be a good friend to others. However, at three times during different ages and stages of life, I’ve got my fingers badly burnt. I’ve poured time and energy into friendships that left me feeling used and abused. The last time this happened, a small voice inside me asked why I was repeating the same unhealthy script at the ripe old age of 40. However, I drowned out any deeper self-reflection with the more comforting conclusion that “some people don’t know what real friendship means”. Until that is, I came across the work of New York Times bestselling author and Stanford lecturer Shirzad Chamine.
I now look at these friendships through very different lenses. As a result, I can see the significant role my self-sabotage played. The problem wasn’t my three friends. Instead, it was that I took as gospel the lies my Saboteurs were feeding me.
Meet the Saboteurs
The Saboteurs are a metaphor for the parts of our brain that work together to generate our negative and unhelpful emotions.
You can’t challenge what you aren’t aware of, so the first step in getting out of your way is to discover your particular flavour of self-sabotage; identify your Saboteurs.
Step One: Identify your Saboteurs
We all have a resident Judge: more than simply an inner critic, our Judge negatively assesses us and those around us and our circumstances. This is the voice you hear in the middle of the night telling you, on repeat, how embarrassing your behaviour was at a wedding ten years ago, how controlling your manager is and how impossible it is for you to juggle everything you need to do.
The Judge has a team of nine accomplices that are all involved to a greater or lesser extent in your self-sabotage: Avoider, Controller, Hyper-Achiever, Hyper-Rational, Hyper-Vigilant, Pleaser, Stickler, Restless and Victim.
Which ones are getting in your way? Perhaps you can guess the most significant culprits from their names alone? Even if this is the case, I invite you to get curious and take the free (and quick!) Saboteur Assessment run by Positive Intelligence. As a result, you might surprise yourself.
Their negative impact
In my case, identifying my people Pleaser and perfectionist Stickler was pretty straightforward. What I was less prepared for was seeing with absolute clarity the unnecessary negativity they bring into my life. The good news is that with this level of self-awareness, real change becomes possible.
It’s important to note that whilst some Saboteurs sound worse than others, there is no hierarchy in the realm of self-sabotage. All Saboteurs are guilty of getting in our way and ruining our best-laid plans.
As Shirzad explains in his book “Positive Intelligence”, our Saboteurs fulfilled an original survival function. They were psychologically helpful to us in our early development. As we mature, we develop habitual responses that may no longer be so useful. And the voices of the Saboteurs become warped as they keep up an unnecessary, misguided and ultimately harmful battle for our psychological survival.
Step Two: Challenge their lies
How come these devious characters do such an excellent job of hiding under the radar? Why can’t we see through the lies that keep us trapped in negative thought spirals?
We believe their whispers because we recognise shades of our strengths within the Saboteurs’ insidious chatter. In the hands of the Saboteur, these strengths have become twisted and no longer work for us.
For example, a profound ability to empathise and be sensitively attuned to others is a strength when it comes from a place of love. However, when the driving force is fear, this quality can morph into pleasing others as a means for gaining acceptance. No longer a strength, it has become a need. This is classic Pleaser territory.
I self-sabotaged the friendships referred to above by my inability to set reasonable boundaries or communicate what I needed. Driven by my inner Pleaser, far from being a good friend, I became a resentful doormat. If I wanted the situation to change, then the responsibility lay with me and not my friends.
A Fresh Lens
Challenging the truth of their internal chatter is a crucial stage in slaying these Saboteurs and enabling us to overcome self-sabotage. The fresh lens we have on the world once we question whether we are thinking is a) true and b) helpful is illuminating. Clients of mine are surprised when their assumptions of The Truth are revealed as simplified versions of reality. And ones that have been played out in their heads enough times for them to become strong beliefs.
It is these very Truths that keep us trapped in narratives that no longer work for us. Replacing these saboteur-driven truths with more helpful, genuinely believable new truths is fundamental when it’s time to get out of our way, stop self-sabotaging and affect real change in our lives.
Challenge limiting beliefs
For example, looking at how my Pleaser shows up in my personal and professional relationships has encouraged me to address the limiting belief that my needs always come second. Following this, I am getting better at communicating my needs and establishing clear and reasonable boundaries.
Challenging my inner Stickler has led me to address my deep belief around good work, always being hard, long, perfect work. I now try to apply the 80:20 rule. I look for the 20% in life and work that does need my full attention and accept that, for 80%, good enough is good enough.
Recognition and challenge have diminished both the volume and frequency of my Saboteurs, and, as a consequence, my head is a happier and more optimistic place to hang out in.
Step Three: Engage the Sage
The third step in getting out of your way and ditching self-sabotage is to learn to engage your Sage. Your Sage is a metaphor for the way parts of your brain operate together to form a positive mindset. This is the one that handles challenges with a clear, calm mind and positive emotions.
Imagine what life would be like if you were able, more frequently, to show up in your life as the very best version of you? The one that is empathetic, curious, playful, purposeful and laser-focused? When our Sage is running the show, the positive impact on our happiness, relationships, and productivity are enormous.
If the above sounds too good to be true, it might be helpful to know two things;
1) We can all engage our Sage.
2) With practice, we can learn to increase the amount of time we operate from Sage.
Gym for the mind
Shifting to Sage involves building our self-command muscle. Not to be confused with self-control, self-command is the ability to recognise self-sabotage and shift our brain activation. Regular, short periods of mindful presence is a key part of this. Over time, our neural pathways to Sage become stronger, and the negative impact of self-sabotage lessens. This can be thought of as “gym for the mind”. With time, repetition and dedication, we really can train our brains to move out of self-sabotage and into the more optimistic mindset of the Sage.
I can truthfully say Shirzad’s work has positively impacted every area of my life. Perhaps the most significant result is greater ease and flow around my decision to live an alcohol-free life. What was once a fairly rigid daily practice has morphed into a gentler version of Sage driven self-command.
Why not get out of your way and liberate yourself from self-sabotage? Building powerful Sage muscles is the path to genuine freedom and change. Why not choose to work with your best self rather than continue to throw up unhelpful roadblocks and diversions through self-sabotage? I invite you to get curious.
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