Self-sabotaging Voices

Self sabotaging behaviour

In the first few years of our lives, we learn the ‘rules’ of how to behave and think in a way that allows us to survive. This is the time when we learn what we should do, what we can’t do, what we have to do, in order to be accepted, loved, to belong, and to receive all the things we need to survive as a human being in this world.

The problems come if we reach a point in our lives when these beliefs no longer seem to ‘fit’ us any more – they no longer seem to be working well for us and only seem to be keeping us in a career that no longer gives us joy, in a relationship that we’re no longer committed to, or just makes us feel generally unsatisfied and unfulfilled.

What’s happening is that at some point we begin to see glimpses of who we truly are and what we truly want – either because we are made to take a long hard look at our lives due to a forced change in circumstance, e.g. redundancy or having a child (as in my case), or because of a combination of things.

However, these glimpses are pushed back by the voices in our heads that are now so strong and have become such an integral part of us, that having/doing/being what we truly want just seems impossible and out of our reach, leaving us feeling sad and generally disenchanted.

What is happening and why now?

This sense that our life no longer ‘fits’ can develop at a point when we are forced to question the meaning or purpose of everything in our life – often following traumatic events or illnesses.

Up until then we’ve spent most of our lives meeting or having our needs met in terms of survival and safety, love and belonging, respect and recognition. We’ve been living our lives according to the voices in our heads that say, ‘You’ve got to work hard’, ‘Security is the most important thing – don’t risk all that to go and chase some silly dream’, ‘Don’t get noticed, keep your head down and your nose to the grindstone’.

These voices may have helped you build a pretty good and solid life for yourself, a good career, gain a lovely house or flat, a great circle of friends, a relationship and children. However, these limiting beliefs, or ‘sabotaging voices’ as I learned about them with CTI, are not yours. They never were.

They have been absorbed and passed down unconsciously from generation to generation. For example, I was brought up in an army family. My father was a sergeant major and my mother worked part-time, mainly in shops on the army bases.

As you can imagine, a sergeant major in the army has a strong presence and some firmly held beliefs. As my father’s daughter, I naturally learned and absorbed lots of his opinions and ways of getting by in the world.

Many of these have served me very well (I am rarely late, extremely organized and goal-oriented– basically I get stuff done), but some were holding me back from living the life I really wanted to be living.

There was nothing wrong with my father’s way of living, it was just not right for me. Psychologists say these self-sabotaging voices can also develop as a result of not having our needs met at different life stages. There are various different psychological models that describe these stages, but in his book What My Soul Told Me, Richard Barrett lists them as: Surviving, Conforming, and Differentiating.

The surviving stage

Barrett states that when we are a baby in the ‘Surviving’ stage and completely dependent on others, literally for our survival, we learn how to gain control to get our needs for food, shelter and affection met. If we are not able to – for example, if our parents aren’t responsive enough, or we are left for long periods of time – we are likely to develop fear-based beliefs that the world is not a safe place and people can’t be trusted.

The conforming stage

In the next ‘Conforming’ stage, as a young child, we learn that life is better and less threatening if we get along with those around us, and therefore ‘belong’ – to a family, a school culture, a religion, etc.

This is when we’re likely to take on those firmly held fears, beliefs and rules about how things are done or not done within a group.

The differentiating stage

During the ‘Differentiating’ stage (when we are teenagers), we need to feel special and different. It’s absolutely vital that we get praise and recognition of our successes from our parents or primary caregivers. If we don’t we will develop the subconscious, fear-based belief that we are just ‘not good enough’, which again develops into a sabotaging voice.

This will be discussed more fully in Chapter 4. The important thing to remember here is that, in general, these ‘rules of life’ aren’t passed on with any malice (although sometimes I’m afraid this is not the case – more on this later) – they are passed on unconsciously with the intention of keeping you safe and supporting you on your potentially treacherous journey through the world.

You may have started questioning the fit and purpose of your life now because you’ve starting to realize that maybe, just maybe, you’ve had it wrong all these years. You start to dream about what life might be like – if only you were free of the big mortgage, or you’d studied your passion (art, instead of accounting, for example, like one of my clients, whose father told them that there was ‘No money in art’ and that accounting would give them a stable, long-term career with a good income).

You are now experiencing moments of connection with your true self – who you really are underneath all of that ‘conditioning’. Your soul or spirit (whatever you want to call your ‘true self’), is rising up inside you and challenging everything that has gone before – by which I mean all of your survival techniques and the parts of your ‘personality’ you’ve developed to survive in the world.

Your true self is saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t it for you, there is more’, but the problem is that the other voices are so strong, and the circumstances you’ve created in your life are so reliant on you maintaining the status quo, that any other way of doing things just seems impossible – and really, really scary!

As I mentioned in Chapter 1, psychologists call this stage in our lives ‘self-actualization’. This term basically describes a process through which you are getting to know who you truly are, what’s really important to you, and what your purpose is (yes, I believe everyone has a purpose).

For me, this is where coaching comes in, as it can help you get in touch with who you really are, and what you really want your life to be like. This may sound easy, but when you’ve been living a life according to everyone else’s rules, it takes a lot of courage, and a lot of hard work to get there.

During my time as a coach, the single most common sabotaging voice is that of my clients’ mothers (followed closely by fathers, then various uncles, aunties, grandparents, and even school teachers).

Time and time again, when a new client walks through my door for the first time, and I ask them to tell me how they really want their life to be (remember that ideal world scenario?), up she pops saying, ‘You should stick to what you know’, ‘People won’t take you seriously’, ‘But what if you fail?’ In actual fact, the first time I hear my client’s sabotaging voice speak, nine times out of ten, when I explain the theory of saboteurs and ask if the voice reminds them of anyone, they instantly say, ‘Oh yes, my mother!’.

‘Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit at home and think about it. Go out and get busy.’


I have become quite the ‘saboteur sniffer’ over the years and can sense the insidious voice of a saboteur on my first meeting with a client. It shows up in their apparently convincing justifications as to why their dream life just isn’t possible for them – from the ‘Oh, I’ll do it when I’m retired as I’ll have the time and won’t need to earn so much money then’, to the ‘I couldn’t set up my own business as I just don’t have the time/experience/knowledge’ and the more obvious, ‘I’m not talented/ smart/experienced enough’ … and so on.

How to stop the voices running your life

Let me reassure you straight away – you can get hold of these voices and stop them running the show. That’s the good news; the not-so-great news is that it’s not a quick fix, and it takes a lot of work. Just being aware TIME TO WRITE of the voices is the first step.

The next one is to give them an identity, and then every time you hear them saying, ‘You can’t/ should/have to …’, assign that voice to the person it came from, and then send them off. This is what is possible if you can get hold of that voice, separate it out, and stop it controlling and limiting your life.

It’s not completely black and white I know – this voice has probably kept you safe for a certain period. A great check-in question to ask when you’re not sure if it’s a good idea to listen to the voice or not when you really can’t work out if it’s helping or hindering you to get the life you want – is to ask yourself: ‘How is it serving me to listen to this voice right now?’ If it’s not, you have a choice: be a victim (or a martyr because you are not making a real choice and then complaining about it), or take a stand for yourself and your life. Which will you choose?

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