Quite a lot of us, quite a bit of the time, feel like we have an internal “Saboteur” – a voice of negativity and self-doubt that kicks in just after we’ve had a brilliant idea.

One part of our brain is going, “WOW! I LOVE this idea! Can’t wait to get going!!!” Then another part of our brain says, “You can’t do that. You’re not smart/courageous/athletic/experienced enough”.

And too often that snide little voice stops us in our tracks. “Oh, yeah, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea after all – I’m not really up to it.”

Sound familiar?

And how does that make you feel?

When it happens to me, I feel deflated, like a punctured balloon. I can almost hear the enthusiasm rushing out of me until I’m reduced to a little shrivelled heap on the ground. Not a good feeling.

But guess what? Neuroscientists have figured out what that sabotaging voice is, and the good news is that it is not YOU!

When we have a great idea for our future, at first we know a good thing when we see it. We’re excited and optimistic.

But (neuroscientists reckon) the brain doesn’t particularly like thinking about the future. To the brain, tomorrow looks uncertain and risky and so the brain reacts as if it is a physical threat. To quote Neuroscience for Leadership (Swart et al), “The ambiguity inherent in decisions about the future can lead to ‘safe’ decisions, or, more worryingly, delay them. Creativity is constrained by fear of uncertainty.”

The five survival emotions (fear, anger, disgust, shame and sadness) involve the release of the chronic stress hormone, cortisol. They are likely to be represented in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that is functioning largely below the conscious level, and are all escape/avoidance/survival emotions, and can produce complex and unpredictable reactions.

The renowned sports psychologist, Prof Steve Peters, calls this phenomenon the Chimp, and suggests in his book The Chimp Paradox that it tends to think in black-and-white extremes, and that it can be paranoid and often catastrophizes future outcomes.

Put another way, the Saboteur is really just an automated response from our brain, which has the good intention of trying to protect our safety, but it does so by attempting to stop us from trying anything new.

But if we carry on doing what we’ve always done, we will (probably) get the results we’ve always got.

So if we want a new result, we NEED to try something new!

The key is awareness. Recognise the Saboteur for what it is. Thank it for trying to protect you, but reassure it that we live in an era where serious physical threats are few and far between.

And move on.

Follow your passion. Follow your dreams. Don’t let anything (least of all that pesky Saboteur) stand in your way!


I’d love to get your comments. Has the Saboteur ever stopped you? Have you managed to conquer the Saboteur? How?


[Image: looks harmless enough, doesn’t he? But could really mess with your dreams! Image source: onekind.org]


  • So true: “But if we carry on doing what we’ve always done, we will (probably) get the results we’ve always got. So if we want a new result, we NEED to try something new!”

    I’m at this very juncture with two projects now, pondering a course correction for both, accepting the realities and road blocks encountered, navigating around unforeseen obstacles. But as a wise mentor once said: “Just keep going. Just keep rowing.” Thanks, Roz!

    • I still go forward with idea/project but every so often I doubt my ability, so I stop, just as it is to be completed. Currently I mfg the product but now have doubts about selling it

      • I know it’s really hard, Ken, when you’re putting something out there and want other people to love it as much as you do. It makes us feel very vulnerable. I was super-excited about getting my books published, but it’s still really nerve-wracking! But there’s only one way to find out if people want what you’re offering, and that is to offer it to them. Maybe it would help if you focus on how your product could change people’s lives for the better – and who are you to deprive them of this massive benefit?! 🙂

  • One of my favorite inspirational quotes is “Those that say it cannot be done shouldn’t stand in the way of those that are doing it.” – So don’t stand in your own way!

    It’s easy to stay in a self-created safe haven and not take risk, but then what are your gains and accomplishments? You’ll never know that you cannot do something until you try. And like Roz says, if that doesn’t work, try something new – and keep trying.

    Look at the photo of the monkey (above). Even the monkey is trying a different approach – he is eating the banana upside down (it is actually easier to open a banana that way…)

    Thanks Roz for your wise words and for making us take a moment to think about our potential.

    • I love that quote! And yes, I know what you mean. I spent a lot of time on the Atlantic wondering, “Can I do this?” Eventually I realised the only way to find out was to keep on doing it and see what happened!

  • I am battling the saboteur on a daily basis, trying to launch a new business and get a book out into the world. My first step is to try to acknowledge the saboteur and thank her for sharing. Then I think of all the big accomplishments in the world – like rowing an ocean – and remind myself that on any given day a massive shift could change everything, just as long as I show up.

  • Today, my dreams usually revolve around doing something physical (hiking or running) that people 67 years old don’t normally do. A brief story along those lines:

    Last summer while nearing the summit of Mt. Langley, 14,200’ in the Eastern Sierra Nevada’s, my son and I passed resting groups of hikers, shortly they repaid the favor, then we passed them again and on it went, leapfrogging our way to the top. One of the groups consisted of three young men and during one of our encounters a memorable conversation took place. One of the young men approached me and innocently asked, “Do you mind if I ask how old you are?” To which I good naturedly responded, “I don’t mind at all, I’m 66.” In response, the young man shrugged his shoulders and proclaimed, “You’re 66, I’m 30, and we’re climbing this mountain shoulder to shoulder. That’s outrageous!”

    No matter the goal, we all need to be more “outrageous.”

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