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How we self-sabotage our career

“It's not what you say out of your mouth that determines your life, it's what you whisper to yourself that has the most power.” - Robert T. Kiyosaki

Have you ever found yourself not going for that role or making a change in your career as you think you’ll just mess it up anyway? Feeling frustrated or angry with yourself? Perhaps you feel like an imposter and someone’s going to ‘find you out’ any minute and tell you that you shouldn’t be there?

Maybe you tell yourself…

I'm not good enough

I don’t deserve it

Who am I to apply for that?

Why would anyone pick me?

If you’re nodding along to all of this, firstly know you’re not alone. Secondly - you could be self-sabotaging your career and getting in the way of your own success.

Negative self-talk is just one of the ways we can self-sabotage ourselves. It comes from that little voice in our head we all have - also known as our saboteur or inner critic. If we listen to our saboteurs often enough, it becomes hard to listen or believe anything else.

What is a saboteur?

Our saboteur is that internal narrative in our head that puts us down, criticises and judges us - usually more harshly than we would do to others.

It’s our go-to negative pattern of thinking that often shows up when we feel threatened or perceive danger. After all, it’s a survival mechanism we’ve had since childhood to help us make sense of things and keep us safe. Our saboteurs are always on the lookout for anything that could harm us physically or emotionally, whether that danger is real or imagined.

They like to point out all of the things that could go wrong or remind us of what has gone wrong in the past to prevent us from making the same mistake again and putting ourselves in danger. It triggers a whole host of negative emotions, convincing us that we are to blame, it’s our fault that things didn’t go to plan and that we’re just not good enough.

In our careers, this could be trying something new for the first time, doing something we find uncomfortable or scary such as going for a promotion or giving a presentation or even taking a risk and starting our own business.

Despite its purpose of keeping us safe and away from danger, it isn't always helpful. When our saboteurs feel threatened, they hijack our thinking - catastrophising, exaggerating, blaming and punishing. They create anxiety, fear, and shame with all that negativity in a bid to stop us in our tracks and venturing beyond our comfort zone. They make us feel inadequate and tell us we needn’t bother as it’ll just go pear-shaped anyway.

We hold onto these negative, self-sabotaging beliefs we’ve developed from childhood, which in turn shape our actions and how we show up at work and in life as an adult. They can affect our confidence and self-esteem and ultimately, hold us back from doing what we really want - especially when we perceive the risks to be too great.

But without stepping out of our comfort zone, we only limit our growth and career success.

In what way do we self-sabotage our careers?

Negative self-talk is just one way we can self-sabotage our careers. Here are some other ways that we can self-sabotage our own careers:

Imposter syndrome and self-doubt - we doubt our abilities, we feel like a fraud and tell ourselves we're not good enough or qualified enough to do anything else. This means we close ourselves off to new opportunities and learning.

Fear of failure - we're so worried about the consequences of getting it wrong or failing that we don't try anything new or put ourselves in those situations. This could mean avoiding taking on new responsibilities in your role or not applying for promotions.

Desire for control - when we're in control, we feel safe but that can mean we sometimes steer ourselves off course (even if that means the outcome isn't what we wanted). For example, you may have wanted to apply for a new job but doubted yourself so you end up missing the deadline to apply and tell yourself, it wouldn’t have been right anyway.

Uncertainty - the unknown can feel too risky to make a change so we overlook the benefits of new opportunities, despite how appealing they are in fear of not knowing what the outcome may be. This could mean staying in a job you hate as you’re not sure how an alternative would pan out (or what that could be) so you tell yourself it’s not that bad and it’ll get better soon!

How can you overcome self-sabotage and feel more confident in your career?

Sometimes, we're not even aware of our own self-sabotaging behaviour. How we react in certain situations can be so ingrained in us that it's not always easy to see how it could be holding us back.

Here are some top tips to help silence your saboteur and feel more authentically confident in your career:

  1. What are your triggers - reflect on the times when you’ve felt your saboteur creep in. Note down what was going on at that time, how you felt and what stands out - can you spot any patterns or themes? Identifying what your triggers are is the first step. After all, before you can silence your saboteur, you have to know what you’re up against! Here’s a great tool to help you discover your saboteurs. It explains how we all have a ‘master saboteur’ but it’s helped by one (or more) accomplices that cause most of our setbacks.

  2. Focus on the wins (however small) - instead of focusing on what has gone wrong or that you’ve failed, take note of what has gone well and celebrate the little wins. I can bet none of it was by chance. It’ll be a combination of your skills, expertise and hard work that has made it happen! And just remember, failure is normal. Failure is part of the learning process - it’s how we grow and develop ourselves.

  3. Stop aiming for perfection - perfection doesn’t exist! We can easily hold ourselves accountable to extremely high standards and beat ourselves up when we don’t reach them. Perfectionism can also lead to procrastination - we set ourselves big and unattainable goals which can feel overwhelming. This often means we stop taking action altogether - hello analysis paralysis! Instead, focus on progress over perfection. Take small steps and break things down into more manageable chunks (and repeat number two and celebrate those wins along the way!).

  4. Work with a qualified coach - Our self-sabotaging behaviours can be hard to spot ourselves as we’ve been doing them for so long. Our saboteurs are clever at making us believe our own thoughts - even the ones that aren’t true! That's why working with a coach can be so powerful. They can help you to identify your triggers and develop the right tools and strategies to break free from your saboteur. It’s important to find the right coach for you, however - you’ll only get the best results when you have that rapport and trusting relationship. If you would like to discuss how I can support you, book a free discovery call - I’d love to chat!

Although everyone’s saboteurs and self-sabotaging behaviour will be different, understanding what triggers them is the first step to silencing them. By letting them hijack your thinking when unfamiliar situations or new opportunities arise, you could be missing out! Follow these tips and you’ll feel more confident and have that self-belief so you can find your stride – whether that’s in your current role or a totally new adventure.


Anna Hewitt, Founder of Steps into Strides, works with ambitious professionals who want to achieve the next step in their career with confidence and clarity. Anna works with individuals on a 1:1 and group basis and offers team and group coaching for organisations looking to support, nurture and grow their staff.

If you would like to discuss how coaching can support you or your employees please contact


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