Sabotage – An Inside Job

I work in clandestine realms. Shadowy and furtive by nature, I orbit in the background, the underbelly of your mind.

You will not see me coming.

I’ve infiltrated the velvet ropes and I have free reign over your unconscious landscape. I roam pathways and corridors that even you don’t know exist.

You cannot hear me coming.

I am suspicious of change and progress. I detonate, undetected, as soon as I feel threatened. I live parasitically inside of you.

You will always be caught flatfooted.

My networks are savvy, tactical, and coordinated.

You will not smell, feel, or anticipate my presence.

I am relentless and I am unpredictable.

This is an inside job.

Do you know who I am?

I am sabotage.

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Coming to work with me is voluntary. No one is court ordered. You can come and you can go. People show up because they want to. They want to feel better. They want to perform better. They hunger for change.

And yet, for so many of us progress and change is achieved slowly, if at all. Most of the people I work with, be it in therapy or in my consulting business, have had long periods of time stuck in defeating patterns that are not reflective of their effort and desire to achieve change. In fact, nowadays, as I shift increasingly towards working in the realm of performance consulting and positive psychology, people come in with a good deal of information on the topic of peak performance and optimal psychology. They are well read, they listen to all the right podcasts, and they “follow” all the sentinel leaders in this increasingly popular field.  And yet, progress still eludes them.

So the question for me shifted from “how” do we change our behavior to what are the sources of stagnation?  Why can’t we just simply will our way towards change? How come we can’t take a pill and make it all better? How come we can’t “learn” or “study” or “understand” our way towards insight and growth? What’s getting in the way of a more linear progression line?

Universally I have found sabotage at the epicenter of this disconnect between desire for change and our ability to make it happen. Our patterns of sabotage impact our ability to leverage our suffering, to use friction to achieve lasting behavioral changes and emotional shifts. Sabotage keeps us orbiting endlessly around self-defeating dynamics. We can’t outrun it. We can’t trick it. The fix isn’t downloadable. There is no app to hack it. This is an inside job.

Sabotage is a universal human trend. It doesn’t matter if you work with me in therapy, consulting, or other venues of self-examination, sabotage is one of the primary dynamics we will observe. It is at the core of a lot of the self-defeating, self-limiting aspects of our behavior. Addiction, relationship problems, business performance, anxiety fueled processes, enabling, co-dependence, and a lot of the personality disorders I see in my line of work are all fueled by aspects of sabotage. With sabotage, it’s you against you.

Sabotage, while its impact is enormous, it is always stealth. Sabotage operates unconsciously. It is subtle by design, that’s how it gains traction in your life.  Sabotage doesn’t announce its arrival.  There is no Jaws music playing in the background as sabotage spreads itself out over your psyche’. And here’s the other thing, sabotage is unique in each person. That’s why you can’t hack it. It’s too diverse, too unique, like a fingerprint. You can’t copy or mimick your way out of sabotaging patterns. 

But it’s there. And we can find it if we know what to look for. We can cast light on the feelings, behaviors, and thoughts that fuel a quiet riot of your mind. Like I said, sabotage doesn’t announce its arrival. It hacks your motherboard quietly, painlessly, while you are sleeping. It is both patient and has a hairpin trigger. It’s highly adaptive and prone to shape shift. Sabotage, like fear, often appears in those pockets of our ego where we are most wedded. Part of its warfare is that you cannot actually find the source of your own ruin. Until you uncover your covert patterns of sabotage, your demise will eternally be an inside job.

Sabotage is so effective that it is part in parcel of your greatest strength(s). They are woven together, bonded as a pair. This is one of the ways it operates unconsciously; it hides in broad day light, tucked on the underbelly of your personality assets. You aren’t looking for it because to do so would mean to begin to examine even those aspects of your psychology that “work” for you. Most people don’t willingly do this kind of analysis. A lot of people live by the motto “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Rarely has someone walked into my office requesting to examine his or her sabotaging patterns. Most people come in looking to “feel better” and maybe to address some specific symptom, let’s say anxiety. What they don’t realize yet is most psychiatric symptoms are, at the core, merely a byproduct of much more complex psychological and neurobiological phenomena. My experience has been that deeply unconscious and firmly rooted patterns of sabotage are routinely at the epicenter of what infringes on our ability to make lasting changes in our lives.

I know. I know. You are thinking, as you always do, so what now? What can I do to “fix” these dynamics?

Trust me when I say this, I wish I was the kind of shrink who could give you a 5 step process, a to-do list, that would yield the results we are looking for. I wish I believed in those kinds of approaches, the ones that outline a few nicely organized steps you can take to change your behavior. Viola, it’s all better.

But I am not and I do not have that for you. Again.

What I can offer is what I have done from the start on this site; I can offer you an opportunity to become still and steady inside yourself. Learn how to just simply be present in your own skin and bones. No phones, no apps, no ipad, no tv, no music, no sound. Nothing. Just start to become comfortable in the discomfort of stillness.  You can call this mindfulness, meditation, etc. etc. I don’t have a horse in that race. What you call it is irrelevant as long as you do it.

Do this every day for 90 days. Attempt to do 10-30 minutes.

Break it up.

Do it all at once.

Dealer’s choice.

But do it.

As always please don’t try to “find” the time.

It’s not lost.

You must create the time.

And here’s the thing, do it especially when you least want to. Stay in it when it’s hard. That’s the early indications of feelings and emotions that will give us “data” for our work together. Those feelings, the ones that make it uncomfortable to sit still, the ones that make you cringe, that make you reach for the phone, grab the drink, light up the joint, search social media, all those behaviors are fueled by a psychological process. We need to get “under the hood” of those feelings and to do so, you must first create the ability to simply be still and observe your interior world. This is where you get really clear and really honest about your own bullshit, the ways in which you stunt your own progress. I repeat, this is an inside job.

Trust me, I know this is hard. I know it is easier to close this blog out and go back to the ones with those neat and tidy lists. I am more human than otherwise. I suffer from all the same self-limiting and self-defeating crap that plague our specie. I’m no guru, trust me.

But the truth is that just this task, the request for you to be still in your own skin and bones, will bring you to your knees. It’s the hardest thing I have ever asked of my clients. It is the one thing that every single person resists. And yet, it is the only thing that truly yields results. Without this muscle, all other efforts toward change will be moot.

After the 90 days, if you are still interested, genuinely curious about how and where you sabotage your own growth, call me. Or call someone in my line of work. That’s when you’ll know you are ready.


About the Author: Dr Sarah Sarkis

Sarah is a licensed psychologist living in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally hailing from Boston Mass, she has a private practice where she works with adults in long-term insight oriented therapy. She works from an existential psychology vantage point where she encourages her patients to “stay present even in the storm.”  She believes herself to be an explorer of the psyche and she will encourage you to be curious about the journey rather than the destination.  She emphasizes collaboration, partnership, and personal empowerment.

She approaches psychological wellness from a holistic and integrative perspective. Her therapeutic style is based on an integrative approach to wellness, where she blends her strong psychodynamic and insight oriented training with more traditionally behavioral and/or mind/body techniques to help clients foster insight, change and growth. She has studied extensively the use of mindfulness, functional medicine, hormones, and how food, medicine and mood are interconnected.  Her influences include Dr.’s Hyman, Benson, Kabat-Zinn and Gordon, as well as Tara Brach, Brene’ Brown, Irvin Yalom and Bruce Springsteen to name only a few.

Please visit her website at Dr SarahSarkis.com and check out her blog, The Padded Room

3 Comments

Jenny/Shiroe

I really like this article. I am a student who just started my Bachelors’ (I have my Associate’s) but I am also 43 and well-studied in what I term “spiritual psychology.” The kind of practice Dr. Sarkis writes about is the kind of practice I would like to have when I finish my degrees.

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Sue F

I did bring me to my knees but if I hadn’t done anything about it a few years ago I would still be the blubbering, people pleasing, co-dependent person that I had been. It’s hard to look at yourself, to really look at yourself but I had got to the stage where I just didn’t know who I was anymore. I felt like a puppet and somebody else was pulling my strings. I had no boundaries, I could not say NO to people and I felt like a doormat. Lots of reading and research about my family of origin. I was curious as to the why’s. The first book I read was “Whose Pulling Your Strings” by Dr Harriet Braiker. Game changing for me.

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Rob S

Wow !!! This will go down as one of those ‘reads’ that is actually more beneficial than anything I’ve previously read. I can so relate to the Sabotage thing, but like most people fail to understand how it ‘lives’ within our psyche. This explanation was brilliant. Thank you.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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