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When I speak to people about self-sabotage, most everyone seems to relate to this frustrating, self-destructive behavior. Maybe you too are aware of your own patterns of self-sabotage, or maybe your saboteur works in more subtle ways.

The Mark of the Saboteur

The Saboteur shows up in a variety of ways. Here are some of its favorites:

  • Procrastination (especially when important deadlines lurk)
  • Distraction (Squirrel!)
  • Forgetfulness (If I can’t find my keys, then I guess I can’t make it to the meeting)
  • Accidents (these are among the loudest disruptions)
  • Physical symptoms (can be tough to combat when your body itself is compromised)
  • Not feeling like doing something (you finally have the time to write that blog and, of course, the muse abandons you)
  • Talking yourself out of taking action (a deflating trick that quickly robs your energy for the task)
  • Self-doubt (my Saboteur loves to fantasize about comments from flamers as I’m composing blog posts)

There are special flavors of sabotage that can show up for writers, such as:

  • Not knowing what to write about (often maddeningly paired with this next one)
  • Having so many ideas you don’t where to focus (or you let your disparate ideas take you on tangents)
  • Impostor Syndrome (who are you to write about this? And who’s going to read it anyway?)
  • Believing that you don’t have the time to write (an effective way to shut you down before you write a word)
  • Frittering away the time when you do have it (because who can write when the pens aren’t pleasingly arranged by color?)

And then there’s writer’s block which is really just a complex constellation of self-sabotaging tricks.

Sometimes our Saboteurs can get together and collude with someone else’s Saboteur… This happened to me recently when I had a coffee meeting with a fellow entrepreneur. I was excited about the meeting with Michelle. When the day of our appointment rolled around, however, I just didn’t look at my calendar. I already “knew” that I had nothing scheduled that day.

Imagine my horror when, five hours later, I happened to spy the missed appointment. I was mortified. I called up with apologies and gave the true reason for my rudeness: an inexplicable brain fart. Graciously, Michelle rescheduled. Two weeks later, I sat alone waiting for her at the coffee shop. Turns out her Saboteur played the same trick on her. When we finally foiled our Saboteurs and managed to meet, we really hit it off and became fast friends.

The Way of the Saboteur

So what is all this self-sabotage really about? According to Caroline Myss, we all accompanied by a Saboteur. It is one of ‘survival archetypes.’ Archetypes are universal patterns of energy that play out in our lives. You can think of them like characters that sort of possess us at various times, or even exert a strong influence over our entire lives. For example, you might personally relate to archetypes like the warrior, the princess or the magician—or maybe you can see those influences in the lives of others. Our archetypes accompany us on our life journey and serve to help us, sometimes by imparting painful lessons that help us grow. As a survival archetype, the saboteur is one of our oldest companions.

Each archetype is neutral and capable of expressing both a shadow and a light attribute. We associate the Saboteur strongly with the shadow because the name has a negative connotation. But really the Saboteur is here to help us by highlighting our fear of taking responsibility.

When we take responsibility, we start to grow. Our identity starts to change as we become a different person. A part of us, namely our current identity, finds this threatening and rebels. It doesn’t want change; it wants us to stay safe, small, comfortable.

So, when the shadow Saboteur is manifest, it hides the keys so that we will be late for that important meeting and miss our chance to shake things up with our new-fangled ideas. It lies to us and tells us nothing is on our calendar so that we don’t have to push past our introverted comfort zone to make meaningful connections. It undercuts our confidence so that we don’t have the mental energy to write that blog post which saves us from the opinions of people who disagree or the rejection of not being read.

Keep Calm and Carry On

So what’s the antidote to the Saboteur? Caroline Myss counsels taking courageous action and using our intuition when confronting the shadow Saboteur. The first thing to do is to answer the Saboteur’s call to awareness. When the Saboteur raises its flag through disruption, attend to where you might be afraid to take responsibility.

Ask yourself:

  • What is this disruption causing me to avoid?
  • Why might I be scared of that?
  • How might I grow if I find my way around this disruption?

What does a courageous action look like?

Usually, it’s following through on the very thing that the Saboteur has disrupted. Acknowledge the Saboteur’s misguided attempt to keep you safe. Say, “Thank you very much, but right now I’m choosing to grow!” Then plow ahead.

I’m reminded of a bittersweet story. A few months after 9/11, my mom and I took a trip to lower Manhattan. We stayed in a hotel a few blocks from ground zero. Apparently, the hotel was having problems with their fire alarms being constantly triggered by debris in the air. On one such occasion, a hotel employee made a flustered announcement telling us to ignore the alarm. With a classic New York accent he said, “Just go back to what yous was doing.” That’s become a saying now in my family.

When our laughter died down, we couldn’t even remember what we were doing before the anxious scramble to get our shoes on. It’s a funny reminder to get back on course, to ignore the disruption.

Sometimes when planning my day, I play up the idea of courageous action. I look at my to-dos and identify those that will take the most courage to tackle. I give those tasks high point values and I reward myself when I’ve collected a certain number of points.

As you continue to take courageous action, the activities of the Saboteur will morph. You will be growing your comfort zone so that a larger and larger range of actions will take less and less courage. But at the same time, the stakes will be higher, pushing the Saboteur to cut you down in more dramatic ways.

Again, turn to your intuition. As the Saboteur’s tricks surface, acknowledge to yourself that it’s happening because you’re engaged in significant work that has the power to bring meaningful change. Inspire yourself by focusing on the change itself. What are you trying to create? What will be your new status quo when you get there? Focus on the end game and let that momentum carry you past the obstacles.

The Saboteur is a wily trickster and almost always unwelcome because we immediately focus on the archetype’s shadow attributes. But if you can remember that the Saboteur is simply calling on you to make the more courageous, more intuitive choices, you can embrace the Saboteur as an ally.

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