Stop Sabotaging Your Own Success; Change How You Think of Yourself

Today I want to give you a way to figure out whether your have a common block which can completely derail your progress. I’ll also give you a way to defuse it.

Although this block is common, it often manages to go unrecognized in most people since it only shows up when they start to make—and actually see—real progress towards their goals. That’s when it starts driving them to sabotage the progress they are making, which can be completely confusing as well as frustrating.

Why would anyone sabotage their own efforts just when they are starting to see some success?

tree trunkActually, it makes perfect sense that someone would sabotage themselves when they are starting to see improvement if the block they have is a fear of letting go of how they think of themselves. Take my client “Dominic,” an independent consultant who has a history of cycling back and forth between periods of expanding his client list and backing off from his business and letting it shrivel. He’s even been known to take a job in an entirely different field during a period where he is stepping away from his business. He truly loves what he does and wants to build a thriving practice, so we’ve been knocking down the internal blocks that get him off track.

After making some initial progress on his blocks, we decided to tackle his backlog of paperwork. Dominic had been letting his billing slide, which was doing a number on his cash flow. We made a plan, breaking down the project into several steps, then putting the steps on his calendar. We also made a plan for him get the billing done on a weekly basis going forward. What had seemed an insurmountable problem turned into something he could catch up on within a few days, then easily take care of after that. Dominic must have felt great, right?

Wrong. When I asked him how he was feeling, Dominic said with surprise in his voice that he was feeling “a little anxious.” As I asked more questions, he admitted that he didn’t know what it would be like to have his business running smoothly. He was a “flake.” Everybody knew that, including him. Who would he be when his business was thriving? He wouldn’t be that flake anymore. So who would he be?

Fear of losing…everything

When we have been holding a picture in our mind for a long time of who we are, anything that threatens to replace that picture can feel dangerous, even if on the surface we really want the change. It can seem to us, on some deeper level, that who we are will die if we change too much—even if we think the change is for the good. That’s extreme language, I know, but that’s how this block makes us feel. Then we will do anything, even sabotage what we want most in life, to avoid that frightening feeling.

Of course, we know that becoming more successful in our business or job will not make us die. But simply knowing that on an intellectual level does not change the emotional reaction we have to the “threat” to our self-image. And those emotions get triggered if we take a significant step towards change.

So if you notice that you start out full of good intentions on a new effort to move forward in your job or business, but pull back whenever you start to make progress, you may have this emotional block. If you have a pattern of doing something to screw up what had been off to a good start, you may have this block. Perhaps you just have a feeling that this might be a problem for you. If you have any of these indications, try this experiment.

What do you see when you visualize change, in detail?

Close your eyes. See yourself as more successful than you already are—maybe you are one more rung up the corporate ladder, or your business has a wait list of clients clamoring to hire you. Whatever you’ve been telling yourself is your next big goal, imagine you have achieved it and it’s effortless now. What do you look like? What does your workplace look like? Picture what you do during the day. Are you busy in important meetings? Traveling and giving presentations? Do you have more direct reports or people working for you? Who do you talk with and how do you interact with each other?

I assume that you will have more income. What are you doing with it? Imagine what it feels like to have more than you need to pay the bills, pay off all your debts, be able to go on more exotic vacations, pay for education, move to a bigger house, or donate more to your favorite charities—whatever you would do with the increase.

Now hear in your mind what the important people in your life are saying to you about your newfound success, whether that is your spouse, family members, clients, co-workers, bosses, or friends. Include important people from your past (your soccer coach, first wife, and brother you haven’t talked to in years). Don’t forget to “talk” to people who have died. Next, imagine what those same people are really thinking. Some of their thoughts will be the same as what they say to you, but some will be different.

If I’ve missed anything, be sure you put it into your picture. The goal is to really imagine all the aspects of your success. When you’ve spent some time getting a complete picture of this success and what it will change in your life, check out how you are feeling about it. You might expect to feel happy, excited, hopeful, even relieved, and you probably will feel some of those emotions. But if anything negative came up—like nervousness, worry, fear, heaviness, sadness, or overwhelm—some part of you is probably trying to avoid the loss of the “old” you.

Getting a negative feeling from inside yourself while visualizing your dreams coming true? Yep, you’ve got the block we’re talking about here.

Three simple steps to end the self-sabotage

One way to get around this block is to set aside time every day to do exactly what you just did. Visualize yourself as this more successful you, going through your day with all the perks of the success. You really only need to do this a few minutes at a time. But to make this work, you need to do three other things:

    • First, if negative things come into your visualization, like your boss yells at you, or you screw up and tick off your clients, or you are working too many hours, correct that part of the visualization. Visualize it again, but this time visualize the way you really want it to turn out (even if you have your boss acting out of character). After all, this is supposed to be the success you want, so see it that way.
    • Second, while visualizing, put each of your thumbs on the side of the index finger next to it and rub gently in slow circles near the base of the fingernail. This is a relaxation technique that will help you let go of the negative emotions that come up when you are visualizing your own success. This is key, since those negative emotions are the ones that are driving you to sabotage yourself when success starts to loom on the horizon.
    • Keep doing this exercise for a few minutes each day until the new you feels comfortable, and there are no more negative emotions connected to seeing yourself as successful.

We usually think that, to change how we think of ourselves, first we have to change what we do. It’s counterintuitive to think we have to change how we think of ourselves in order to change what we do, but that is exactly how you will get past this particular block.

So if you’ve discovered you have this block—you’re thinking of yourself as less successful than you want to be—it’s time to get started changing your thoughts. Until you do, it’s going to be nearly impossible to change what you are doing.

For two other ways to improve how you see yourself, check out my articles on visualizing yourself tackling things you have been avoiding and on dressing for success.

How To Get Optimistic

In my last two tips I’ve described the benefits you get from using optimistic explanations when you have setbacks in your business (“What Optimism Will Get You”) and what the elements of such an optimistic explanation are (“The Elements of Optimism That Can Unblock You”).  I have culled this information for business owners from Martin Seligman’s classic book Learned Optimism, which is filled with ways to use optimism in multiple areas of your life. I recommend going to the source if you really want to dig in and make significant change to your whole life.

Of course, some people are naturally optimistic. If that is you, you have my permission to skip the rest of this post. This post is for the rest of us. It shows us how to develop an optimistic explanatory style to use when things go wrong in our business so that we can avoid feeling helpless and instead keep our energy and motivation going.

First, a quick recap. A pessimist explains bad things that happen in her business as permanent (“I’ll never sell this”), universal (“no one wants what I have to offer”), and internal (“It’s all my fault; I’m horrible at marketing”). An optimist explains his setbacks as temporary (“My sales figures have gone down with the dip in the local economy, but they’ll go up again when the economy picks up”), specific (“The last person I talked to didn’t need my services, but the next one might”), and external (“She wouldn’t listen to my offer all the way through; now must be a bad time for her”). For more examples of what this looks like, check out my last article.

Seligmandebate has an involved technique using the ABCDE model from cognitive therapy to recognize and change your pessimistic explanations to optimistic ones, but I’m going to boil it down to its essence here, which is the “D.” “D” stands for “dispute.” When you catch yourself overwhelmed or feeling like giving up when you have a setback, call to mind what you told yourself about it. You probably have thoughts like: “I’m such a loser;” or “Why would anyone hire me?” or “Nothing is ever going to work out.” Those thoughts feel pretty powerful—and true—don’t they? And they sap your energy for going forward, making you feel like giving up.

Now imagine that those words were being yelled at you by your worst enemy. They don’t feel so true or powerful now, do they? In fact, you probably would tell your enemy exactly where he got it wrong. It’s time for a big realization. You are your worst enemy. So dispute what you are saying the same way you would dispute it if it came from your enemy.

Of course, this is easier said than done. You’ve probably got years, maybe a lifetime, of practice coming up with such negative explanations. So Seligman provides four ways to dispute with yourself:

  • look for the evidence;
  • consider alternative ways of looking at what happened;
  • think about the real implications of what happened; and
  • decide how useful your explanation is.

What Is The Evidence?

So you have been telling yourself a lot of lies and half-truths with these negative explanations for what happened. They only feel true because they are coming from inside of you. But just because they feel true doesn’t make them true. I’ve heard of one ABCDE approach that describes “E” as “play detective and look for the Evidence.” Look for the evidence that what you told yourself is true or false, or likely to be true or false. Look for ways that it is overstated. Look for what the statement missed. Be Sherlock Holmes. Often you will find you jumped to the worst possible conclusion based on very thin evidence indeed. This can often come up naturally when you think about disputing what an enemy said.

What Are the Alternatives?

So you’ve told yourself that you are a total loser and nothing ever goes right for you because something went off the rails at work. I know, I know, it feels true. Stop listening to your feelings now and listen to your head. What are other ways to look at what happened? If you are having trouble getting started, go back to the list. You are looking for explanations of the negative event that make it temporary, specific and limited to what happened, and/or due to causes outside of you.

If this still has you stumped, ask a friend you trust to give her alternatives. Don’t argue with her, just write down her list. Some of her possible explanations will be acceptable as is. You can also use her ideas as a springboard to get your own creative thoughts flowing.

Once you have a few alternatives on your list, you can go back to look at the evidence. Which one fits the evidence you have best? Or if there is no evidence, recognize that you can’t choose between the alternatives. (“She just hung up on me. I don’t know if she’s mad about the report, just got an urgent message about her kid, or AT&T decided to take away my cell phone service again. It could be any of them.”)

What Are the Implications of Your Explanation?

Let’s say that your explanation is correct. Yes, this client has fired you and is never coming back because you screwed something up. Does that really mean no one will ever hire you again? That you have nothing to offer? That all your clients will pull their business and you will have to go into bankruptcy? That you will end up living under a bridge? Take a deep breath and stop catastrophizing. Go back to the evidence. Consider what is likely to happen. Then look at what you can do to improve the situation going forward.

How Useful Is Your Explanation?

Let’s say you got yourself dead to rights. You screwed up big time and it’s bad. Will thinking about that screw up now do you any good? Of course, if you make a mistake you want to learn from it. (“My presentation was really poor. I probably did my reputation some damage with that one. I need to get some help on developing my presentation skills and put in some practice before the next one.”) But what about just brooding about how bad it went; going over and over how you blew it? Is that really useful? Probably more likely it is getting in the way of things you need to do, so you need to stop thinking about it.

There are three great ways to get out of dwelling on a negative event:

  • Do something physically distracting, then force yourself to think about something else that can hold your attention. So, if you keep flashing on that awful presentation, splash cold water on your face or snap a rubber band on your wrist whenever the thought comes to mind. Then think about, say, what additional product your favorite client might need from you. For this to work, you will want to have your interesting alternative thing to think about worked out in advance.
  • Schedule a time to think about what is bothering you. Then, whenever you catch yourself dwelling on the event, you tell yourself “Stop! I’ll work on that at 8 tonight.” You need to actually schedule the time, it needs to be at least fifteen minutes, and you really need to sit down and think about it during that time for this to work, though.
  • Write down your troubling thoughts as soon as they come up. You can then come back to work on ways to fix the mess deliberately rather than having the thoughts come up and pull your focus at inconvenient times.

Of course, you could combine two or all three of these approaches to get the maximum benefit. Schedule a time to think about the negative event. Then, whenever a negative thought about it comes up, write it down, snap that rubber band, say “I’ll think about this at 8 tonight” and think about something else. Or just pick one approach. Whichever you choose, do something to get on with what is important to you and get out of the negative spiral of dwelling on a negative event.

Get Optimistic

So go ahead and dispute the negative things you tell yourself when things go wrong. Pretend that a drunk on the street just said what you told yourself. Tell him all the ways he’s wrong. Tell him what the evidence is. Tell him the big picture and the real implications for what happened. Or decide what he’s saying is not useful now and take steps to turn your attention on to other matters. Whatever you do, don’t roll over and take it. You wouldn’t take it from a drunk or your worst enemy. So don’t take it from yourself. Dispute it and get your energy and motivation back. It may just be the way to get your business on track.

Are You Being Blocked By The Wrong Goal?

Last week I wrote about using visualization to start doing something you’ve been putting off. You can also use visualization to uncover some hidden blocks. Here’s how.

Go somewhere you won’t be distracted. Bring a notebook and pen because you will want to take notes. Get comfortable and close your eyes. Now imagine that you have achieved everything you have been striving for in your work. Maybe you are now the CFO of a large company. Maybe your business has topped five million in sales and you are hiring your tenth employee. Whatever it is, be as specific as you can.

Picture yourself with as much detail as you can: how do you look? What are you wearing? What’s your expression — relaxed, grim, excited? What are you doing — meeting with a lot of potential clients, hunched in front of your computer, shaking hands with the board members? How are those around you treating you? How much time do you see yourself having for family, relaxation and vacations?

Open your eyes and write down what you saw. Don’t gloss over any negatives — they are the most important indicators of internal blocks. Now write down how you felt. Were you happy, relaxed, excited? Were you relieved? Did you feel blah, bored, or disconnected?

Now close your eyes again and imagine how others are reacting to your success. Include employees, partners, and clients or direct reports, co-workers, and bosses of course. But also think about other important people in your life, like your significant other, your kids, your parents, your siblings, your friends. It doesn’t matter if they are estranged or even dead for this exercise. If they were important to you, for good or bad, include them. And don’t lump them together, but think about each one individually. Imagine what they are saying to you when you tell them how well you are doing. Now imagine what they are really thinking.

Open your eyes and write down the highlights and lowlights of what you heard. Did your sister sneer that now you’re too important to come to family get-togethers? Did your golf foursome complain that you have nothing to talk about since you can’t join in the weekly bitch-session? Did your father secretly think that he’s not good enough now that you’re so successful? Write it all down, even the responses that came up that you know they would never have in real life. Next write down the feelings you had while telling them of your success: Generous? Excited? Grateful? Resentful? Angry? Enervated?

One more time: close your eyes and picture yourself with all your goals achieved. What are you going to do next? Enjoy your new position? Sell the business and start another one? Take more vacations and finally start to enjoy yourself? Retire early and go into teaching? Go on a permanent vacation?

Now, look back over your notes. First, notice the negative reactions of others, real or imagined. Make a note of them. These are likely some internal blocks for you that you will want to work on. Sometimes just recognizing that you imagined a response that would never actually happen is enough to let go of the block. It can also be enough to look at a belief that someone might be angry or envious of your success and realize that it is just not that important to you. Sometimes it takes more effort to get beyond such a block. Either way, identifying the block is the first step to getting rid of it.

Wrong Way - Do Not Enter!Your negative emotions when visualizing your success also point to probable internal blocks. They can be anything from feeling like you don’t deserve such success or being afraid that success means you’ll have to pay in other ways, like working too hard, missing out on family life, or having something bad happen to balance the good (a la The Monkey’s Paw). These feelings don’t have to be rational to block you. Again, make a note of them. Some will go away once you’ve recognized them; some will need more work.

What I want to focus on here, however, is the really negative reactions to success. Did you feel terrible, or completely unemotional? Did you want to make a huge change, like starting a completely new career or escaping from work forever? If not, great. You are on the right track. Keep taking steps towards your goals. (FYI, a desire to sell one company and start another is the typical reaction of a serial entrepreneur, not usually the sign of being in the wrong profession.)

But if you did have one or more of those highly negative reactions to success, that can be a big sign that you are chasing the wrong goals entirely. This can happen if you’ve internalized someone else’s goals for you, often a parent’s or a spouse’s. Or if you’ve decided to go after a job just because you think it will bring you the most money, even though the work numbs your soul. It sometimes happens when the job (including running a company) turns out to be different from what you expected in a way that feels wrong, either morally or simply by not matching who you are.

If your visualized reaction to achieving all your goals is this strong, I have a difficult message for you: no amount of trying to get past your blocks will lead to success with your goal. This is for two reasons. First, you will sabotage yourself over and over if you are going after the wrong goal. A big part of you doesn’t want that goal, and it will keep getting in the way of doing what you need to do to achieve it. Second, even if you manage to push yourself past these internal blocks and reach that goal, you won’t feel any real satisfaction in achieving it. Remember how you felt when you visualized that success—the anger, or dejection, or numb feelings? That’s what you will get if and when you actually put in all the effort and “win.” That is not my definition of success, and I suspect it is not yours, either.

My message that you really need to change the track you are on is not just difficult, though. It is also liberating. You can change. In fact, you really need to. And when you do, these huge blocks, like procrastination or patterns of self-sabotage, will change too. Then you can achieve real, meaningful success.

So if this is you, get started. If you know what you really should be doing with your life, start taking steps to make it happen, even if that first step is just saving more money to give yourself more flexibility to change. If you don’t know what you should, or even could, be doing, now is the time to let yourself daydream. What did you want to do before you chose the path you are on currently? What do you like to do now? If you knew you would be successful, what would you do? If you feel stuck and the daydreaming isn’t bringing up any thoughts, get your hands on a book by Barbara Sher called I Could Do Anything: If I only knew what it was. It’s an oldy but a goody, and it is full of things to do that will get your brain moving again.

Good luck to you!

My 7th Technique for Overcoming Stress: Visualization

Last month American Express’s OpenForum published an article describing six of the techniques I use to help people get past blocks to doing things they need to in order to grow their business. I chose those six because they were easy to explain and readers could try them on their own. Each of them can be quite powerful with any blocks you have, whether or not you own a business. If you missed the article, you might want to give it a look here.

There is a seventh technique I use, however, that readers can “try at home.” It can also be powerful, but it takes a bit longer to explain so I decided to describe it here where I can do the technique justice. It’s called “visualization.”

Here’s how you do it. Take something that you have been putting off, like networking at a monthly gathering in your industry or making those cold calls. Turn off all the distractions (yes, I mean close your laptop and turn off the phone), get comfortable and close your eyes. Stay sitting up, though, since falling asleep would be counterproductive here.

Now picture a movie screen with you sitting in the auditorium in front of it. On that screen play a scene of yourself doing the activity you have been avoiding. As you watch the scene, make sure that you are doing the activity just the way you want to in real life. But there might be outtakes. So if you see yourself trip on your way to shaking someone’s hand at the networking event, stop the scene, hit the “rewind” button until you get back to a place in the scene where you were doing fine, then push play again. This time watch yourself walking easily over to the other person, smiling and shaking their hand while introducing yourself. You only want to watch yourself doing the activity the right way.

Heck, you might as well see yourself being the best networker on the planet, full of poise and confidence, putting the other person at ease. Put in lots of detail—visual, verbal and kinesthetic, or how it feels physically. The more detail you have, the more powerfully it will work to get you moving.

Also, be sure to change the scene. Once you are comfortable watching an easier version (say, seeing yourself going up to someone standing alone), make it more challenging (approaching a group of two or three people talking together). With each new version of the scene, make sure you are acting just the way you want to no matter what the other people are doing. In fact, make sure some of the versions you watch have people acting in ways you don’t like so you can practice reacting in the professional manner you want to convey at all times.

In addition to making what you do in the scene just right, you also want to make sure that your emotions are on track. So if you are watching yourself walk up to that group of people with a smile and an open expression but inside you feel pure dread, stop, rewind, get yourself comfortable again, then play the rest of the scene over with that comfortable feeling. You may need to do a lot of rewinding to get this part right, but it is very important that you not ignore any negative feelings that come up. You’re programming yourself to take this action in the real world just the way you visualize it, so don’t program in negative emotions. You’ll want to be calm, cool and collected in real life so visualize yourself that way. You may even want to play around with getting yourself to feel enthusiastic, or excited, or some other more positive emotion that would suit your action.

As you can guess, you will probably need to have more than one ten-minute visualization session to really work through any action you have been avoiding. But, hey, if you are already not doing this very important thing, you have that time just lying around, right? Plus, if it is that important to your business, it’s worth not just getting yourself to do it but also to do it right.

And visualization will help with both of those things. First of all, the more you see yourself taking an action, the more a part of your brain accepts that you have already done it. So when it comes time to walk in the door of the networking event, you will do a lot less sweating about doing something new or different from what you usually do if you have been visualizing it beforehand. It will feel like it’s normal, just something you do. Second, you will be much more likely to ace the networking right from the beginning rather than having a long ramp-up period where you practice networking by going to events and awkwardly sticking your hand out at people while trying to remember your own name.

There was a study done that shows the efficacy of visualization. In the study, a bunch of non-basketball players were tested on how many free throws they could make out of ten tosses. Then they were divided into three groups. The first group actually practiced free throws. The second group visualized making free throws. And the third group went for a walk or something. Then they were tested again. Not surprisingly, the first group made more free throws than they had before they practiced. Also not surprising, the third group made about the same number of free throws as they had the first time around. What was really surprising was that the second group — the ones who only thought about making free throws — improved almost as much as the first group.

So now that you know this visualization thing actually works, why not try it on something you’ve been avoiding. Do it now. At least schedule it on your calendar for ten minutes every day for the next week. Because if you don’t take action now you will let it slide and never get around to doing it. But that’s a topic for another article.

Happy visualizing!