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The Zen of Overcoming Self-Sabotage


The Zen of Overcoming Self-Sabotage (Tweet this!)

Do you sabotage yourself?

A lot of people certainly do. I’m not talking literally, by the way! By self-sabotage, I mean the process of mentally blocking yourself from taking the necessary actions you require in order to achieve success.

Why do we do it to ourselves? This is a question I’ve often wondered. I know that I’ve sabotaged myself many times, more than I care to remember. In fact, I can think of some real howlers through-out my own lifetime which I now tend to regret.

However, you should have no regrets – everything happens for a reason. That said, it is desirable to stop self-sabotage  because the long term effects of such behaviour can seriously damage your prospects of obtaining success!

What causes us to self-sabotage?

As stated above, I’ve wondered about this question for a while. And, after having given it a lot of thought, I believe it comes down to fear – the ‘Fear of Failure‘ created by one particular entity. It’s our old friend, the ‘inner critic.’

The inner critic is a very powerful inner opponent that manifests itself as a result of conditioning implanted in the subconscious from childhood. At least, that’s the way I understand it. If, as children, we are subjected to conditioning that causes us to avoid taking what are perceived as ‘risky’ actions then this tends to persist into adulthood. Very often, the source of the external influence which creates this ‘conditioning’ is a ‘critical’ or ‘nurtuing’ parent.

This is something which comes from the Eric Berne school of thought based around ‘Transactional Analysis.’ In a nutshell, Berne argued that people interact with each other in terms of ‘child, adult and parent.’ In the literal sense, parents will often behave towards their children using  ‘critical’ (i.e. constantly criterising and controling) or ‘nurturing’ (i.e. being protective, sometimes over-protective) behaviour.  To find out more about Berne and his ideas, click here.

Because the human character is formed during childhood (especially during early years), the conditioning imposed is usually carried into adulthood and can, in my opinion, lead to the creation of a very powerful inner critic in most people. This is the inner entity that aims to hold you back and ‘sabotages’ you against pursuing anything it deems as risky – mainly, because it sees this as being in your best interests.

Why would it be an ‘enemy’ if it has you best interests at heart?

The inner critic is a powerful inner enemy. Although its ultimate aim is to maintain your best interests and protect you from harm, it is doing what many ‘enemies’ aim to do – to control you and make you bend to its will. Although the inner critic could be seen as useful partner, it can also be a very bitter impediment to progress.

By controlling your sub-conscious thinking process, it causes self-sabotage by generating thoughts deep down that are contrary to any significant aims. Essentially, it says that you are not capable of achieving a goal because to do so would be too risky and outside of your capabilities (‘limiting beliefs’ in other words.) Your subconscious subsequently processes and accepts these limiting beliefs, thus preventing you from taking the action you need to succeed.

So how to defeat this ‘inner enemy’?

One of my favourite books is by an ancient Chinese strategist called Sun Tzu: ‘The Art of War.’

Written two and a half thousand years ago, the book is the greatest ever treatise on the application of strategy in war. Despite its age, much of what is taught in the ‘Art of War’ is still used by military students of Sun Tzu today. (General ‘Stormin’ Norman Swartzkopf was one such notable example, the US General who led Operation Desert Storm against Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1991.)

It is also extensively used by business people (especially, and somewhat unsurprisingly, those based in China) who see the lessons as translating very effectively over to the complex and competitive world of commerce. The truth is that, as an essentially psychological work, it can be applied to almost any situation where conflict is involved.

It was whilst reflecting on the issue of self-sabotage that it struck me – what can Sun Tzu advise with regard to dealing with the problem of self-sabotage by the inner critic?

I think there are essentially two good pieces of advice that Sun Tzu gives to the General which could too be adapted for this inner conflict:

1. ‘Know Your Enemy, Know Yourself’

This is actually quite a well known statement from Sun Tzu (which appears to sometimes be confused with the well-know line ‘Keep your enemies close, keep your enemies closer’. Although along the same lines and not – as far as I’m aware – stated by Sun Tzu, there is a subtle difference between the two.)

‘Know Your Enemy, Know Yourself’ implies that you should gather as much information about your enemy as possible, but in order to act against him effectively you also need to know yourself implicitly. In other words, your strengths, weaknesses as well as the opportunities available to you as well as the threats that could present themselves (sound familiar? Click here for a more in-depth analysis of this well know management tool AKA SWOT.) This analysis should be equally applied to your enemy.

The acquistion of this knowledge is essential in order to overcome an enemy, otherwise your ability to defeat him is tantamount to zero. However, I think there is a double-meaning to this statement (as often seems to be the case with any work rooted in Chinese Taoism, as the ‘Art of War’ is.) 

By this, I’m implying that if you know yourself, you will also know your enemy – essentially because he is the same as you. In war, it should not be forgotten that the opponent is as human as you are. Despite any cultural differences in mindset and capabilities, the enemy is still from the same species as you and, therefore, open to the same flaws and vulnerability. 

How much more so for the inner opponent? This ‘enemy’ is more than being the same as you – it is you! So how much can we can gain by paying close attention to the fact that this opponent is you? A significant amount – because this means that we are taking responsibility for our actions as they come from within ourself. They have little to do with external influences (apart from, maybe, the conditioning that created the inner opponent when still a child.)

By recognising this and taking responsibility, we are in a much stronger position to take control of the situation and devise strategies for dealing with the influence of the inner opponent.

2. The ‘Double-Agent’

Another piece of advice that I believe can be gleaned from Sun Tzu on this subject is the employment of spies. In ‘The Art of War’, he speaks of five types of spies. The one that might be most relevant here is the ‘double agent.’

Bear with me on this one, I’m not talking about secret agent’s living inside your head! However, metaphorically speaking, the inner critic is constantly gathering information on you in order to release its pronouncements into your subconscious (in the same way that an enemy employs agents.) These pronouncements form the basis for the subconscious acting against you to impede progress towards your goals and -ultimately – the achievement of your dreams. The process becomes cyclical, because the more vulnerable to the inner enemy’s attack you become through subconscious sabotage, the greater the chances that you will give up.

The ‘agent’ which it uses to gather information about your ‘vulnerabilities’ is your self-belief. As well as being a ‘self-sabotuer’, it also acts as a information conduit for the inner critic. If you are not in control of your self-belief, it will merely send confirmatory information of your weaknesses back to your inner enemy who will then use this to work against you. 

How to counter this? In the military context, Sun Tzu states that we should identify the enemy’s agents in order to turn them against him. In effect, create ‘double-agents’. This could also be done with your self-limiting beliefs. All you have to do is identify and ‘turn’ them by the use of ‘reprogramming’. In other words, turn the limiting beliefs to positive ones, which then ‘feedback’ positive information to the ‘inner enemy’ The more you do this, the less likelihood that  it will seek to engage you and eventually withdraw.

So, in summation, you just need to follow this simple advice: turn a ‘double-agent’ by changing your self-belief. NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) is one particular useful system that can be employed in tackling limiting beliefs!

(NB -For reference, an excellent version of Sun Tzu’s work can be found on this link: ‘The Art of war’ by Sun Tzu and Thomas Cleary.)

Action Step

1. If you like doing visualisations and meditation, here is one suggestion which you can do to understand your enemy ‘turn’ your limiting beliefs into a ‘double-agent’ who can work for you.

(Please note: this is only recommended if you are already experienced in this type of practice, as you need to be as comfortable as possible doing this sort of work. If you are new to this, I’d recommend first of all trying out some ‘guided meditations’ such as the one featured here before you continue to this type of practice. Alternatively, check out this article on the ‘Skills You Need‘ website for an authoritative guide on how to do self-hypnosis. As ever, if the issues you are attempting to deal with run deep and are likely to cause emotional or psychological distress, then you should instead seek the help of a qualified professional or medical practitioner rather than attempting any practice like this on your own!)

First of all, relax yourself in the way that you normally do to enter an altered state of consciousness (I usually meditate in a seated or lying position, close my eyes and listen to some relaxing music. Alternatively, you can use the guided mediation featured here as a starter to bring you into a relaxed state,  but you can do whatever suits you personally.)

Now, envisage your ‘inner critic’ as your ‘inner enemy’ who is fighting against you. What does he or she look like? Is it male, female, an animal or some type of object? How do they speak or communicate? How do they act? What are their motivations and objectives? What tactics do they use against you to achieve their goals? What is their overall strategy? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Be as vivid as possible as you need this information to understand this enemy as much as you can.

Now, imagine that you have ‘captured’ the agent that works for your ‘inner enemy.’ This ‘agent’ is your limiting beliefs. Imagine that you are extracting information from it. What are it’s motives for working against you? What are the actual beliefs it holds against you that are so restrictive? What information about your strengths, weaknesses, opportunites and threats is it passing on to your inner enemy? (Imagine that this is more an ‘interview’ than an ‘interogation’ – you want your limiting beliefs agent to be totally honest with you, we are not talking about ‘forcing’ the information out of the ‘agent’!)

Once you have analysed all that you need to, imagine beginning to ‘turn’ the agent to your way of thinking by telling it all the things you are good at, what you have achieved in the past and how capable you are of achieving again in the future. Tell it how much you believe yourself deserving of success and accomplishment, that all the hard work you have put into your goals warrant the fulfillment of your dreams. Inform it that you will succeed, no matter what. Success is a certainty.

As you tell the ‘agent’ this, see it start to change its attitude and start agreeing with you. See it smile and nod its head in confirmation. Feel the new-found admiration and respect being directed towards you by the ‘agent’ as the beliefs it holds about you begin to turn from a negative outlook to a more positive one. Soon, it is converted over to your way of thinking and agrees that it will work for your benefit instead.

Finally, imagine releasing the ‘agent’ and see it returning to the ‘inner enemy’. Watch as it starts to feed all the postive information you have programmed it with back to the enemy. See how the ‘inner enemy’ reacts. As a result of the information, it now decides you are too strong and unassailable to attack and you watch as it decides to no longer attack you and withdraw. You have succeeded in detering it’s strategy.

The thing I really like about visualisations is that the subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between what is real and imagined. This fits in with another of Sun Tzu’s pronouncements that the art of war is the art of deception! Repeat this visualisation a few times and you might just perhaps make an impact on the ability of your ‘inner critic’ or ‘enemy’ to sabotage you.

What do you think of this? Is this something you would find useful? Do you have any alternative methods of dealing with ‘the inner opponent’ or ‘critic’ you’d like to share. If so, please feel free to add a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

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