Select Page

In working with my own coach, today’s topic has helped me personally more than almost any other mechanism—exposing the inner saboteur.

Furthermore, the people I have coached in the past few years have universally identified this to be the most useful part of the coaching process. Today’s topic is one of the most important things you will ever learn about mindset, and has its roots in cognitive psychology.

Without this knowledge, you may have a significant disadvantage in achieving your work goals, or effective relationships in your personal life.

The Big Idea—Nearly every person has significant internal negative voices (“Saboteurs”) that can prevent them from reaching greater levels of success and happiness. Saboteurs are a normal part of the human condition. But unless we clearly recognize them—and their resulting influence on our behavior—we are extremely unlikely to take the kind of action needed to improve our lives and reach our potential.

A quick personal example…

Two things I want to do with my life are writing and speaking. But for years, before I would click “post” on my blog, or walk in to teach a seminar, I was nearly paralyzed with fear.

Will people think my class is terrible?

What if I write something that offends someone?

Learning how to identify and step over my internal Saboteurs has greatly reduced these fears and helped me to take much more action.

Executives trained at Stanford

The concept of Saboteur is not new in the coaching field, and there are some great books on the subject.

One great book is Positive Intelligence—Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential by Shirzad Chamine.

This framework draws upon well-researched psychological interventions such as cognitive behavioral psychology, mindfulness, performance psychology, positive psychology, and the science of happiness. All of which have been proven to be effective for changing human behavior.

Chamine is a lecturer at Stanford and former chairmen of CTI, the largest coach training organization in the world which has trained managers at most Fortune 500 companies, and faculty at Stanford and Yale.

Remarkably, 95% of executives he has trained at Stanford report that their inner “Saboteurs” have caused significant harm in achieving their potential.

In his popular TED talk, Chamine paints a clear picture of how even highly successful people struggle with inner critical or unhelpful voices.

After leading a 2-day leadership retreat with high-level CEOs and company presidents, everyone filled out a 3×5 card with a deep fear they had never shared (for fear of losing credibility and being rejected).

Then the cards were read aloud. The answers left the audience in silence.

Each card reflected a feeling that they were inadequate, undeserving, unworthy, or unloved. They all felt guilt, regret, or shame as a parent, spouse, or leader.

They feared that they were lucky rather than competent.

They feared that they were irreparably flawed in some way.

They feared they would finally be discovered as a fraud.

Many of the participants expressed enormous relief that they were not alone in their inner torment.

I resonate deeply with this story because these are my fears. No amount of achievements or certifications has ever erased the self-doubt or insecurity I frequently feel.

But recognizing and bypassing our Saboteurs is a powerful way to make big changes in your life, and develop an unshakeable mindset.

Common Saboteurs

The following are common Saboteurs (you may notice they are closely related to Carl Jung’s personality types and the Enneagram types)…

The Judge This is the primary Saboteur that everyone has. The judge finds fault with self, others, and life circumstances. I once heard it is impossible to judge others without also judging yourself. The opposite is also true, the more harshly you judge yourself, the more you unconsciously impose those same impossible standards on others.
Victim Focuses on painful feelings as a way to get needs met or empathy from others.
People Pleaser Must please others in order to gain acceptance.
Avoider Procrastinates or avoids conflict.
Perfectionist Deep need for perfectionism which harms relationships and suffocates happiness.
Restless Never at rest. Contentment is fleeting. Perpetual busyness.
Controller Must control self, others, and situations to manage anxiety.
Hyper-Achiever Pursues achievement and performance to get approval from self and others.
Hyper-Rationale Rigid logical stance on everything including relationships, which are often harmed by this tendency.
Hyper-Vigilant Fear can never rest. Worries constantly. Tries to predict, plan, and avoid.

Strangely, a common problem with combating the Saboteurs is that most people mistakenly see them as beneficial and have blind-spots around how they can be harmful.

For example, a people-pleaser clearly gains favor with some people, but often at the cost of rarely meeting their own needs—which causes them great suffering and usually leads to resenting others.

So what can you do about your Saboteurs?

I want to emphasize this point—the single most important thing you can do to neutralize your Saboteurs is labeling them and identifying when they show up in your life.

In becoming very aware of them—they lose their invisible control over your actions.

Once you see them popping up in certain situations, you can make a more conscious choice about how you really want to proceed.

There is very real neuroscience behind the Saboteur concept.

Here is the super short version—The saboteur voices can trigger fear or aggression, which activates the fight or flight response. This shuts down the most creative parts of the brain that are needed to do our best problem-solving.

When we are not aware of this, we are not in the driver’s seat of our lives. We are being reactive, not proactive.

The Wise mind is the opposite of the Saboteurs. It helps you embrace empathy for yourself and others, find the most creative solutions to problems, and identify opportunities for growth in every circumstance.

And these tools aren’t just for leaders and teams.

They can dramatically help your marriage, and you can even use them with your kids when they face setbacks in life.

I want to leave you with an incredible quote from one of the great pioneers of psychology—

“Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake. We are making use of only a small part of our physical and mental resources. Stating the thing broadly, the human individual thus lives far within his limits. He possesses power of various sorts which he habitually fails to use.” —William James (1842-1910)

Exposing your inner Saboteurs will help you recognize the voices that are holding you back from taking the actions you need to take to make big changes in your life, so that you can boldly give more of your unique gifts and talents to the world.

Turn information into action

  1. I highly recommend you take the free Saboteur Self-Assessment here:
  2. After you take the test, give your top saboteur a funny name (humor is vital in this process) and journal about what situations they are most likely to show up in. (example–my critical voices get louder when I write my blog or teach a class, I know to expect them at these times).
  3. For the brave, application to marriage—Identify your Saboteurs using the self-assessment link above and share them with your spouse. My wife and I did this and found it helpful to identify when our Saboteurs are influencing our behavior.
  4. Application to parenting. Notice when your kids are beating themselves up after making a mistake. Help them identify the voices they might be hearing and how they can turn the volume down.

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed Parker’s Blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast where Parker Co-hosts every other episode. We discuss science-based practices for leadership and interview leaders who are personally and professionally successful.

Suggested Resources

  1. Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine
  2. Taming Your Gremlin by Rick Carson
  3. TED talk on Saboteurs:
    Dr. Parker Houston

    Parker Houston

    Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
    Get the latest posts delivered to your inbox

    Get the latest posts delivered to your inbox

    Subscribe to receive the latest news and updates.

    You have Successfully Subscribed!