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.

__________________________________________________________________________

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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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