What’s Next? When you get stuck.
The “What’s Next?” series of blogs follow along with folks who just wrapped up their job the first week of November and want to make their next career move really count. Most of the advice in this series is also applicable for people who are still working at a job they think they want to leave, or people who picked up some work after their last job ended — but it’s not fulfilling work. The goal of this series is to share a process to help you through your transition, give you some homework to help you along, and share resources.
What’s Next? When you get stuck.
As soon as you start on something big or different, you’ll hear internal voices that slow your momentum. They might tell you that you’re not qualified or your idea is stupid. They might tell you that you that if you sleep in and don’t get out of bed and start working, you’re actually doing the right thing by taking care of yourself. Coaches call these voices “saboteurs.” It can be hard to figure out if a voice is a saboteur if you’re thinking this through on your own – the biggest clue is looking at the impact it has on you. Does it stop you from moving forward? No matter how sweet or hard core, or reasonable this voice sounds, if it’s getting in your way, it’s a saboteur.
I don’t know about you, but it sounds pretty hard to figure out if you should be taking any of these voices seriously. This is where it can be really helpful to have a coach or someone else with another perspective working with you. I’m going to try to give you some ideas you can try on your own though. If you try these strategies and you end up feeling overwhelmed, definitely find a buddy.
The first, most important step, is to notice what voices are popping up and holding you back and be aware that this is happening.
Start to notice your saboteur voices. In my first meeting with one of the most high-powered clients I’ve ever met, I started jotting down each mean thing they said about themselves. I was shocked by the disconnect between who I saw – a really powerful, creative, energetic person who got shit done – and the things they said about themselves. When we stopped and reflected, I had about a dozen really nasty comments that I read back. The client was a little stunned to hear the words coming out of my mouth. They hadn’t realized they were undermining themselves in this way, and hearing their harsh words repeated back was eye-opening. The more powerful the person, the more powerful their saboteurs are. This client’s homework was to list possible areas where they wanted to take action, and to keep track of the nasty voices that spoke up.
Noticing these voices is a really important basic step for a bunch of reasons.
- They tend to pop up when you’re thinking of doing something different. If you actively want to make a change, having a saboteur pop up is a great sign! The more powerful the saboteur, the more powerful the change you are considering.
- Recognizing them gives you the power to do something about them. Noticing that these voices are not you, gives you the distance to maintain the driver’s seat and make a choice about what voices you want to listen to.
- Saboteurs are usually trying to protect you, but are by definition hindering you. By carving out some specific space — after you have filled your toolbox a bit — you can explore what they are concerned about and figure out more effective strategies that will serve you.
Notice and keep moving. Once you notice it, you can say – “Oh, that’s a saboteur, I must be considering something good, let me keep going this direction.” Sometimes the most effective strategy is to notice it and move on. If you’ve ever done any organizing, this is like when you get the really negative cynical person who wants to talk. You have a choice – you could spend your day talking to them, but then you’re missing out on all the people out there who do believe that things can be different, and who are ready to take action to make things better. Most of the time you’re better served by noticing that this is a cynic who is not persuadable and moving on.
Get up and take a break. When one of these voices takes over, all of a sudden, things are overwhelming, impossible, there are no options. Your perspective narrows until very little feels possible. A client recently reminded me of the power of just getting up and taking a break. They walked away without realizing that their saboteur voices were in charge, but once they stepped away, the perspective made them aware that this was what was going on. Now this is a strategy they use intentionally when they notice the saboteur voices are gaining too much power.
Take some action. A saboteur’s job is to stop you from doing something that will create change. By just taking action, you can show it up for the illusion it is & neutralize it. This is especially helpful for the ‘nice’ saboteurs that say: “Oh, I’ll totally do that, but first I need to… ” or “Today I should really take a break and take care of myself, I don’t need to call someone about that informational interview.” These are like the sirens that spin a soothing illusion that sucks you in and make you nice and comfy. Just don’t move…
When I was first starting coaching I had a ‘strategic’ saboteur that told me I couldn’t reach out to someone until I developed a thoughtful strategy to approach the industry. With my background in outreach, I knew that I had the skills to find new clients when I was ready, but I kept finding reasons why I wasn’t ready yet. My coach challenged me to reach out to five people who I’d really love to work with. The first message I sent was with someone I really respected and would love to work with. They never responded, but it really didn’t matter. Just the action of reaching out kinda set me on fire. Just the fact of taking action broke the ice and unleashed a huge amount of momentum to do more of the same. Is there a role for strategy? Sure. But I would have never gotten to strategy without taking action first, and the best strategy develops out of action and reflection.
Sometimes those saboteurs are really persistent. If they are, it can be helpful to engage them with caution and a plan. I like playing with metaphors or personifying a saboteur as a way to come at them from a really different direction. Here’s some approaches I’ve seen work.
Develop a caricature. I have another “melodramatic opera singer” saboteur. I make a mistake, dread calling someone, or even just start something new and exciting, and out comes this over dramatic voice. “You’ve really done it this time, you’ve ruined this project, this relationship, you’ll never get a job with these people again, that person will never pick up your phone call…” This diva takes the stage with thick makeup, a huge dress with ruffles and folds. Her hand goes to her forehead, she sobs as she sings about how terrible things are — and she’s really lost power over me. Of course it’s not that bad! I laugh a little bit, and something shifts. Once that voice has lost power over me, a little bit of willpower and maturity help me make that call, and it’s never as bad as I thought it would be. Usually the mistake is minor, or isn’t a mistake at all. If there is a mistake, I’ve learned how to accept responsibility and work to make it better. The world really doesn’t end.
Extend compassion to your saboteur. One of my clients has a ”Consultant Saboteur” who is the client, but dressed to perfection. My client realized that this consultant saboteur’s job relies on pointing out other people’s failings and making them feel bad about themselves so they will hire a consultant to improve the situation. So they extended compassion to this “consultant saboteur,” and thought “Wow, it’s really sad that this is what you have to do to make your living. It’s really sad to have to break other people down to get work.” This makes it easier to discount the force of that saboteur’s argument.
Build up your personal board. You get to pick who to listen to. So why not imagine some other helpful voices to counteract that negative voice? Another client has a “Nerdy Teenage Queen Bee” saboteur. This client is a charming, creative, personable teacher who loves their introvert tendencies. When this saboteur voice comes up though, it’s hard to speak up and get to know new people in their field or network. The teenage saboteur is ready to pick the client apart for not being cool enough, smart enough, enough… This client brings in a Kate Moss board member to shut down the judgmental Nerdy Teenage Queen Bee. Kate Moss is a honey badger type who doesn’t give a…. The Kate Moss voice reminds this client not to let the Nerdy Queen Bee and other imaginary critics stop them from taking action.
In the consultant saboteur case, this client also has an activist/organizer voice on the board who stands up to the consultant saboteur and won’t accept bullying. The organizer reminds the consultant saboteur that they don’t have the full context to understand what the client needs, and that it’s counterproductive to break the client down.
Turn your saboteur into an imaginary person and have a conversation with them. Use this strategy with caution – it’s tricky to engage your saboteur without an ally who can help you have some perspective. The critical voice might sound like a person you know in your daily life, but don’t let it actually be them. One client noticed that her voices sounded like “mom” voices, and imagined Amy Chua (Author of “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”) who allowed no room for error and another immigrant mom voice that told her to “keep her head down.” This client listened to these voices for a minute, pulled out what was helpful, and decided to ignore the rest. We imagined them in a car, with the client at the wheel, and the other voices as back seat drivers. The client extended some compassion to these voices and realized that they wanted to be protective, but that the specific advice was not helpful in the White, male dominated, creative industry where my client works. The voices saying ‘keep your head down’ and ‘make sure your work is perfect’ were from a place of love and might work in certain circumstances. However, the impact of this internal voice for the client was cooperating with the power structures that keep people of color, women and LGBTQ people invisible in the workplace. This voice made it hard to strike up conversations with top management, argue for a raise (since their work wasn’t perfect, who would pay more for it, right?), suggest new ideas or try new things.
By creating space to listen to these voices, the client could appreciate where it was coming from, but keep control of the steering wheel of the car and make their own decisions about what was helpful (do keep working to improve yourself and your work) and what to ignore (judgement and a feeling of inadequacy).
All of this isn’t to be confused with “think positive!” approaches that require frozen-smile-masks-of-fear plastered on your face at all time. You have to make space to listen to your worries, get the information from them that will help you prepare, and take action on them. Research has shown that the most successful strategy is to think about what you want, get excited about it and open up possibility first, and then switch gears to identify barriers and come up with strategies for overcoming them. Most of the time the strategies I mention above can be really helpful in getting past a stumbling block. But if you notice really big ‘negative’ emotions come up during this process, that’s different than a saboteur voice, and worth getting some help to look at. When I notice big emotional reactions in myself, it’s a sign that there’s something for me to learn here.
All coaching stories are shared anonymously with client permission.
Julie Roberts-Phung is a career and leadership coach who works with really interesting clients. If you’re curious about coaching, you can book a free, no-obligation sample session to ask questions and try it out here: booketc.youcanbook.me