Meet Your Saboteurs

By Ann Elliott

Animated man with his head in his hands while small saboteurs float around his head yelling at him.

Have you ever met a saboteur you didn’t like? Of course, you have never met a mental saboteur you did not like, and here is the reason why. These mental saboteurs can be very likable until you discover how sneaky they are. These rascals tell you all sorts of lies so that you continue to rely on them to make your life choices. You think they are allies because you have experienced some success by believing them. The successful business owner who creates a thriving business by pushing relentlessly is living the lies of the saboteurs. They may have success in the eyes of the world, but they are not fulfilled. When they sacrifice their own health at the altar of success, they discover the rewards are not worth the price. To the world it looks the ultimate to strive for. Would you be willing to pay the price of failed relationships to succeed in the eyes of the world and risk losing what you value most? 

What are Mental Saboteurs? 

Mental saboteurs are thinking patterns adopted early in life to help you get through the challenges of growing up. For people growing up in toxic and dangerous environments, these were necessary strategies to keep them safe. 

Remember these thinking patterns served you at one time. To keep them from taking over healthy thinking strategies, it is important to recognize them, not as an enemy to defeat with force, but rather weakening their power. Recognize, name it, bring it into the light, and use a different neuron in your brain to activate healthy patterns of thinking.

In the simple operating system developed by Shirzad Chamine in Positive Intelligence®, he describes ten saboteurs and how they work. The Judge is the “ringleader” with nine accomplice saboteurs. With the scientific based principles of neuroscience, in only 21 days you can change your mental pathways to choose life-affirming thinking and action. Following  the Judge, these saboteurs and a description of their preferred mode of operation are in alphabetical order. No one saboteur is more important or powerful than another. They are equal opportunity abusers. By noticing them, you begin to see how they act to your detriment.  

Animated image of a judge aggressively pointing and bringing down the gavel
Image by Positive Intelligence

Judge: finds fault with you, others, or circumstances

Everyone has the judge saboteur that is a major player in hijacking your mind. The judge sees everything through a negative lens. It finds fault with what you do or don’t do. There’s no winning with this character. If you have ever admonished yourself for what you said in a meeting, for example, long after the meeting was over. The judge has you in his grasp.

In judging others, this saboteur blames others for problems. If you saw the film, “A Man Called Otto,” you notice Tom Hanks’ character finds fault with his new neighbors moving in. The husband cannot properly back up his car towing a trailer. “Idiot!” Otto finds many things to blame.

The judge as saboteur finds plenty to blame in circumstances, too. When you are in a group of people, listen to people around you complaining about the weather, traffic, government, relatives, business, and you name it. 

The judge doesn’t act alone. He has nine accomplices who often collude with one another to step in to assist with hijacking your mind. When you are feeling negative about something, be curious about which saboteur has joined forces with your judge. When you know what to look for you see more.

Animated image of person pulling a paper bag over their head in shame
Image by Positive Intelligence

Avoider: goes to extremes to avoid unpleasant tasks and conflicts

This saboteur seeks out only positive, pleasant situations. They tell themselves procrastinating is not a problem. The hallmark of the avoider, who is an expert procrastinator, is the lie, “I work better under pressure.” They convince themselves to accept an unwanted task that demonstrates teamwork even when they do not have the time or resources to accomplish the task. The team suffers because everyone cannot give enthusiastic attention to the work.

For example, at tax time the head saboteur, Judge, convinces you working on income tax preparation is no fun and it will be extremely difficult to do. Enlisting the aid of the accomplice saboteur, Avoider, you delay starting the work. Your stress compounds because you know you must get the tax returns done.

Determine what action you are willing to take to move your tax preparation forward. With clear-eyed focus, take the action, one small step by one small step. This builds confidence because you can see progress.

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Controller: knows what needs to be done and takes charge to get it done

Do you feel anxious when projects and people are not moving along at the pace you want? If you are frustrated when circumstances are not working out like you know they should be, your controller saboteur has taken over your mind. Your direct communication does not land well with people. Others you need to help accomplish a project feel intimidated by you.

The full-steam-ahead bulldozer approach gets the job done yet leaves in its wake resentful colleagues whose contribution is not valued. The CEO of a small service-based company had a revolving door for new hires. When they came on board, the leader made it clear no one wanted to hear their ideas for at least a year. He controlled their task assignments to a minute degree. New hires were given the most menial work despite their experience or education. In retrospect, he wanted there to be no doubt who was in charge. It was a self-defeating strategy because very talented people left the organization. An important point to remember is a saboteur is a strength that’s taken to extreme which becomes a detriment.

When you notice this dysfunctional thinking pattern emerging, stop to remember a vast majority of things, personally and professionally, are uncontrollable. Put your attention on what aligns with your values. Invest your thinking and energy into what you control—that is your thinking.

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Hyper-Achiever: thrives on accolades for accomplishments

The saboteur most associated with goal achievement is the hyper-achiever. When you are in the saboteur mode, accomplishing a goal at all costs dominates your thinking. The satisfaction dims in achieving a goal because you are on to the next milestone. When the hyper-achiever runs the show, you exhibit the symptoms of a workaholic. Feelings and emotions take a back seat.

Portraying a good image is vital. When calling on a company in Atlanta, one of the up-and-coming stars told me how important it was to earn a minimum of $250,000 annually. Only at this level could he afford to live in the right neighborhood, send his children to private school, drive the car he deemed fitting, pay his dues to his private club, and take a vacation. If these outside validations fall away, he suffers because he has believed the lies of the hyper-achiever saboteur.

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Hyper-Rational: uses logic for decision-making and disregards emotions

Facts are the end all be all when your hyper-rational saboteur oversees your thinking. This saboteur convinces you that logic trumps everything in decision-making. Yes, facts are important in the rational processing of information. However, other channels to receive important information are feelings and emotion. These are messy and it takes longer to come to a decision when you include them in the process. Leaders perceived as intellectually arrogant repel resources who contribute to a more well-rounded approach. 

Being the smartest person in the room because you know the most, have the greatest insight, and deepest understanding puts you at great risk for isolation. Unapproachable people typically cannot develop deep, meaningful relationships. Consider the person with advanced degrees and a curious intellect. People who know him keep him at arm’s length because he is intense and leaves no room for debate. He is the poster child for the hyper-rational saboteur. Only when his beloved mother died did he get a glimpse of what it meant to be open to engage the emotion of others. He was convinced barricading himself by locking the doors and turning out the lights was the way to process his grief. A   friend wisely counseled him that a generous gesture would be for him to openly receive the chicken salad, casseroles, brownies, and other southern delicacies waiting to be delivered to him. These were expressions of love, the foundation of all relationships.

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Hyper-Vigilant: sees danger around every corner

“Looking for danger in all the wrong places’ ‘ to paraphrase the song recorded by Johnny Lee for the film Urban Cowboy could be the theme song for the hyper-vigilant saboteur. With this saboteur, you are on constant alert for the next danger. Everything could be dangerous. This puts you in a place of perpetual anxiety. To guard against any unforeseen occurrence, your checklists have checklists. To operate from this mental space, you expend a lot of energy to guard against something that has a low probability of happening. Your comfort comes from rules, authorities, standard operating procedures, and institutions.

This dysfunctional thinking is a strength taken too far. In running a business, for example, having guidelines and procedures saves not only time but money. As the leader you want standard ways of carrying out the mission of your business, so your customers expect excellence.

This saboteur of hyper-vigilance expresses itself in your personal life, too. I recall a close friend complaining about being so tired. When I inquired about her exhaustion, she explained it to me this way. Her husband had been out of town on a business trip for several days. In his absence, she was looking for danger. She would go downstairs to check the windows and door to confirm they were locked several times during the night. No wonder she was so tired. 

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Pleaser: does whatever it takes to meet the needs of others in exchange for approval

When does saying “yes” to all requests for help undermine your mental well-being? The pleaser saboteur would have you believe you are a selfish person when you say “no.” To win approval from others by neglecting your own needs so you can respond to their needs sets the stage for burnout. Not only does it make burnout possible, but it also creates resentment. 

When you teach people how to treat you by acquiescing to their needs at the expense of your own, they come to expect your people-pleasing behavior. It is an expectation that others take for granted. When you don’t feel appreciated for all you have done for others, no wonder you feel resentment.

In some cultures, women are taught to be subservient and to please others at their own peril. I’m thinking particularly of southern women. The pleaser saboteur has an entire culture as an accomplice. Today there are still pockets of this dysfunctional thinking. This saboteur is especially harmful because it is disguised as being kind, unselfish, and loving to others. When called into the light, this pleaser saboteur cannot survive. In truth, self-compassion is not a selfish act. It makes it possible to give from a generous heart not from obligation. 

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Restless: jumps from one thing to the next and fears missing out 

The present experience is never enough for the restless saboteur. Always on to the next thing because it surely must be better than this. When the restless saboteur is running the show, you might be described as a whirling dervish, in constant motion always. Busyness is characteristic of this saboteur’s influence on your thinking. 

While it is exciting and interesting to be around the restless saboteur, it is an energy drain, too. They find it difficult to concentrate on one task to completion. My grandmother would describe this as like “a worm in hot ashes.” You can count on the restless saboteur to keep things interesting and new. This tendency keeps new ideas on the table until there are too many new things which create a distraction.

The founder of a small company hired me to plan and facilitate a corporate retreat for his company. He told me at the start, his team and he were not good at following through. He expected me to hold them accountable. I was up for the challenge. As we progressed in the project, it became apparent why the company and its leader were weak at follow-through. His restless saboteur and his controller saboteur were colluding. Having read a book or attended a seminar, the CEO told me how he wanted the sessions to go because he had learned something new, and he knew the right way. With confidence and compassion, I held firm on my plans for the project. When feasible, I incorporated his input into the work. At the conclusion of the project, the office manager, a long-time member of the team, said, “This is the first time we’ve had any tangible results. We’ve never followed through until now.”

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Stickler: must make one more change to make something perfect

How well do you tolerate clutter? If your files are organized so you find things easily every time, you would make a great addition to a team. Punctuality and a methodical approach to tasks make you a great team player, too. When everything must be perfect for you to be satisfied, you’ve gone to the dark side. Your stickler saboteur commands the ship. Your strength has become a weakness.

When things must be in perfect order to meet your standards, there is no room for mistakes. People tend to get snarky when the need for perfection is not met. Rigidity and inflexibility prevail. When there is little room for different styles or approaches to something, people become discouraged. They know whatever they do will never be good enough.

“Hidden Figures” is a film about the women who worked for NASA in the early 1960s. John Glenn asked for ‘the girl’ to check the numbers before he was launched as the first astronaut to orbit the earth. Katherine Johnson double-checked the trajectory for Glenn’s flight even though the mainframe IBM computer had electronically made the calculations. If those calculations were off, it would not only cost millions of dollars but human life. Her work was so precise and trusted that Glenn was willing to put his life in her calculations. 

A saboteur is a strength that is in the extreme and becomes destructive. There is a difference between being precise and being perfect. It is important to note when precision and exactness is critical and when it is not. With the stickler running your mind, every single thing must be done to perfection.    

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Victim: places intense focus on painful life experiences

When the victim saboteur is in full blossom, the preferred behavior is sullen or temperamental. This is a method for gaining attention. Being the martyr is a common characteristic of this saboteur. We all have unpleasant and even traumatic experiences. What is devastating for one person may be a mere inconvenience for another.

According to Albert Einstein, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” The victim sees the universe through a hostile lens. They have ample evidence to prove it is true. There is an unconscious attachment to difficulties. No wonder holding on to the victimhood of this saboteur creates unexpressed rage. Lack of energy, depression and giving up on life express themselves.

Although this experience occurred a long time ago, I recall it vividly. I had an exhibit at a trade show. A young woman stopped by to visit. In less than 2 minutes, I learned she had been sexually assaulted. She not only wanted to share all the details with me, but she also had the newspaper articles to prove it. While I would have liked to take away her pain, it was not my work to do. Being around people who garner love and affection as a victim, exhausts the ones who care. It can push away others because weakening the victim saboteur is an inside job. 

How to weaken your saboteurs and why it’s important

Here’s the good news. You have taken the first step to weaken your saboteurs simply by being curious about who they are and how they can be harmful to you.

Have you noticed that when you learn a new word, everyone seems to be using your new word? The same thing holds true for these dysfunctional thinking patterns, our mental saboteurs. When you know what to look for you see more.

The seven-week mental fitness course developed by Shirzad Chamine has helped thousands of people worldwide create success without stress. How would it be to operate with ease and flow instead of pushing and struggling? Imagine improving relationships not only professionally but also personally. 

Discover your saboteurs by investing five minutes to take this free assessment

My invitation to you. Reach out to me at [email protected]. Discover how to take your insights from discovering your saboteurs to better relationships, confidence, and peace of mind. You may qualify for the next POD to develop your Mental Fitness. Let’s explore how this seven-week program benefits you.

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Ann Elliott

Ann Elliott, founder of The Berkana Company, excels at leadership strategy

An expert at helping business leaders enjoy more profits and improved productivity with less stress, she blends fun and excitement with executive coaching and training to yield results for her clients.

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