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This week I want to share something that has perhaps had the greatest overall effect on my own happiness than anything else I have posted in this series so far.

Today’s BIG IDEA— Nearly All of us have significant internal negative voices (“Saboteurs”) that can prevent us from taking the kind of actions needed to reach greater levels of success and happiness. Unless we clearly identify them and develop strategies for managing them, we are unlikely to take the action needed to improve our lives and reach our potential.

In the world of executive coaching, inner saboteurs are a well-known and frequently discussed phenomenon.

I recently re-read Positive Intelligence—Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential. Author Shirzad Chamine draws upon research in cognitive psychology, positive psychology, performance psychology, and happiness studies—to demonstrate the devastating effects that negative internal voices can have on our lives.

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 members at Stanford and Yale. I will include the link to his popular TED talk at the bottom.

Very successful people often struggle with harsh inner critics

Chamine shares a powerful story that shows how many people struggle with internal critical voices.

After leading a 2-day leadership retreat with high-level CEOs and company presidents, he asked all of them to fill out a 3×5 card with a deep fear they had never shared (for fear of losing credibility and acceptance). He then collected the cards and read them aloud to the group.

The responses shocked the participants and left them in stunned silence.

Each card reflected a deep feeling of being unworthy, inadequate, undeserving, or unloved. Some acknowledged guilt, shame, or regret they felt as a parent, spouse, or leader. Many believed they were lucky rather than competent. Some believed they were deeply flawed in some way. Many feared that one day—they would finally be exposed as the frauds they really were.

Keep in mind, these were extremely “successful” people by most worldly standards. Not surprisingly, they all felt tremendous relief to know they were not alone in their fears. As humans, we can be so creative in hiding our vulnerabilities—although this often leaves us feeling isolated and disconnects us from the intimacy we truly want.

I resonate with the story because these are my fears too. And I have found the tools in his book to be extremely useful in recognizing these negative thinking habits, and then consciously taking action that is healthier and more productive.

But you can’t fight an enemy that is unseen. You must begin to label and recognize your saboteur voices—and the situations in which they are most likely to arise.

As an example, I’ve been teaching classes on leadership topics for about 10 years. Until recently, nearly every time I walked into a room to teach, my internal critical voice would go into hyper-drive saying things like:

  • “People are going to think your class sucks!”
  • “Who do you think you are to talk about leadership, you aren’t a real leader!?”
  • “You haven’t researched this topic enough. You are no expert.”

It’s clear—the fear and anxiety created by these thoughts did not help me perform at my best. It’s also no surprise that constantly telling myself how much I sucked didn’t boost my happiness either!

Fear thoughts can affect us in a very real biological way. This has commonly been dubbed the emotional hijack when a part of your brain called the amygdala is activated. This can put us into a moderate state of—freeze, fight, or flight. And research conclusively shows that this state is not the optimal state for peak performance.

This reaction may have been helpful in the Stone Age when fleeing a large predator, but it’s not particularly helpful for the complexities of modern life!

After a year of working with a coach, I’ve made great progress by learning to identify and manage my saboteurs—and the situations they are most likely to show up in.

This has had an enormous impact on reducing self-criticism, given me a better likelihood of succeeding, and helped me to practice self-compassion when I make mistakes. Ultimately, it has had a dramatic effect on my personal level of happiness.

Even as a psychologist—a profession in which I had been well-trained in self-understanding—I was largely unaware of how these forces were tormenting me and holding me back, until I devoted more focus to it.

The 10 most common saboteurs

In his work and research, Chamine has identified the following most common Saboteurs:

The Judge This is the primary Saboteur that nearly everyone has. The judge finds fault with self, others, and life circumstances. It is nearly impossible to judge others without judging yourself. The opposite is also true. The more harshly you judge yourself, the more you unconsciously impose those same relentless standards on others.
Victim Focuses on painful feelings as a way to get needs met or empathy from others.
Pleaser Must please others to gain acceptance.
Avoider Procrastinates or avoids conflict.
Stickler 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-Rational Rigid logical stance on everything including relationships, which are often harmed by this.
Hyper-Vigilant Fear can never rest. Worries constantly trying to predict, plan, and avoid.


Without going into excessive child psychology, let’s just say that people generally develop Saboteurs to protect themselves from experiences in childhood.

The Sage mind is the opposite of the Saboteurs. It helps you see learning opportunities, creative ways forward, and possibilities for growth in all situations.

You might notice the Sage concept sounds very similar to well-established ideas by psychologists such as Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset, Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology, or Shawn Anchor’s Happiness Advantage. It takes work, but you can retrain your brain to be grateful, optimistic, and see the positive elements in more situations.

I love the Positive Intelligence tools because they have borrowed good concepts from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and mindfulness—and made them easy to understand and use.

And identifying your Saboteurs isn’t just useful for leaders and teams. It could help you identify common sources of marital conflict, or be useful in helping your kids when they face setbacks in life!

Here are some very quick and simple tips on dealing with your Saboteurs:

  • Admit you have them. The first step in any problem is to admit there is a problem.
  • Name them. You may want to write them down and give them silly names and tape them to your bathroom mirror. This might sound strange but can be tremendously beneficial in helping you recognize the voices of your inner “Drill Sergeant.” This idea is consistent with mindfulness research which helps you distance yourself from your distressing thoughts, and reinforces the idea that you are not your thoughts!
  • Humor is key. Sometimes our Saboteurs make us sad, scared, or angry without us knowing. Treating them with lightness and humor is a great way to diffuse their power.

Your homework—Turn information into action

  1. Watch the TED Talk by Shirzad Chamine. Link below
  2. Take the Saboteur Test Online. This is a great starting point. Then begin to notice how these tendencies show up at home or work.
  4. For the brave—discuss your saboteur test results with your partner!

Suggested Resources

  1. Positive Intelligence: Why only 20% of individuals and teams reach their true potential—Shirzad Chamine
  2. TED Talk by Shirzad Chamine
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.
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