It sucks, but it’s true. I know, because we all do it. (Yep, even you!)

Or rather, if we aren’t paying attention, if we aren’t actively guarding against our inner “Saboteur”, we all get in our own way of fulfillment. 

The Saboteur, or “Sabo” for short,  is your self-sabotaging voice of fear, and we all have one. We can also call it the inner critic, negative self talk, the fear self or fear voice, or “the itty bitty shitty committee.”

It is the polar opposite of your true, or most authentic, core self (that’s the one that that leads us to fulfillment, purpose, meaning and all that juicy stuff…so we like that one).  

Evolutionarily, the Saboteur was designed to keep you safe, aka alive, by being super vigilant to any possible threat, or change, in case it was a predator. That’s awesome if you are Cro-Magnon and live in a cave, but today, not so much. It means that our bodies and brains can’t distinguish between the “threat” of failure if take on a new role, or give a big presentation to a large room of C-suite execs, and the threat of a saber-toothed tiger or an assassin. When you’re about to give the preso, it may feel physically as if you are about to die (you’re not imagining that…). 

Since most of us are not under physical threat for our lives in most cases on most days, especially when it pertains to our careers, in practice,  it just holds us back and keeps us stuck by preserving the status quo and keeping homeostasis in our lives, in efforts to keep us “safe.” 

It’s like trying to run 2020 software on a 1984 computer. It’s really buggy, and it’s slow and clunky, and you may need to rewrite a bunch of code to make it work.

In other words, our nervous systems are designed for a world that doesn’t exist anymore. 

In practice, the Saboteur works like this: we feel inspired to try something new (that gets us closer to fulfillment and meaning), which freaks out our Sabo, so we get an uncomfortable feeling, and we read that as a sign to back the hell up, and we let it override the whole “invigorating” part. But, it isn’t always a real red flag. Often, it is a FALSE NEGATIVE. 

This “false negative” situation can be a real mindf*ck. It’s at this juncture that I usually start to get quizzical looks with clients. 

You may be thinking: “Well, how the hell am I supposed to know if it’s a real negative, or a false negative?! If these are my true intuitive red flags telling me to shut it down ASAP, OR if it’s just my saboteur being endearingly obnoxious?!”

Buddhist thought leader Ethan Nichtern describes this conundrum beautifully: 

Inhabiting a human nervous system is kind of like living in a house where the doorbell and the burglar alarm make exactly the same sound.”

Our job is to get to know our Sabo well enough to recognize it, and discern it from our true warmer-colder inner GPS system, so that we aren’t self-sabotaging, or confusing the doorbell for the burglar alarm, anymore.

In Buddhist teaching, they often instruct, “invite your fear to tea”.

The good news is that the Sabo has only 5 “tells”, or predictable communication strategies, that give it away. Every. Single. Time. 

It’s like a jukebox that only has 5 greatest hits songs to choose from on rotation. The catch is that they can be covered endlessly, so they always sound a little bit different (and trust me, your Sabo will get super creative). BUT, once you know the 5 songs, and that there are only 5 songs, it’s pretty hard to be surprised. 

Once we learn the 5 identifying “tells” of the Sabo, it becomes much much easier to discern when it’s scared Sabo sabotaging, or when it is our true self directing us to change direction. Said another way, it becomes much harder for the Sabo to sabotage our fulfillment, our purpose, our success, when we know there are only 5 “greatest hits” to choose from.


These are the 5 “tells” of the fearful Saboteur:

  1. The “Shoulds”
    • “I should get a Master’s degree”
    • “I should stay at Google”
    • “I should have a podcast”
    • “I should post on instagram every day (at 3pm).”
    • “I should do that Keto diet thing.”
  2. The “Toos”
    • “It’s too hard/easy”
    • “I’m too old/young”
    • “It’s too expensive.”
    • “It’s too much time”
    • “I’m too female”
    • “I’m too risk-averse”
  3. Scarcity & Not Enough-ness
    • “There are so many coaches out there, there’s no need for another coach in the world.”
    • “I haven’t been at this company long enough to ask to work on that project (that I’m so excited about and very qualified for).”
    • “It’s so competitive to get into business school, and there are so many smart, qualified people out there, it’s not even worth applying.”
    • “There are so many great journalists/marketers/hair stylists/academics/filmmakers out there, I wouldn’t add anything new to the field.” 
    • “I’m not smart enough to be a great professor/charismatic enough to be a great leader/nurturing enough to be a good mother/pretty enough to be in a great relationship.”
  4. Exceptionalism & “Compare and Despair”
    • “Everyone else has a ‘life purpose’ and a ‘passion’, but it doesn’t exist for me.”
    • “Everyone else has 10K followers and that “swipe up” function except me, so I might as well quit.”
    • “I’ll never be as successful as Oprah, so what’s the point?”
  5. Urgency
    • “I have to be married by 30, or…I’ll never be happy”
    • “I have to get promoted THIS quarter, or…I never will get promoted.” 
    • “I have to be a VP within 2 years or…I have to change careers”
    • “I need to be on the Forbes 30 under 30 list or…my career is doomed.”
    • “If I don’t finish my dissertation this year, then I should not finish it and drop out.”


Lest you think that your Sabo will go away “once you figure out your passion”, the super fun irony is that the closer you get to your purpose and path to fulfillment, the louder the scared Saboteur voice gets. 

On some level, this makes sense, right?! The more something is core to your essential self, the more that is at stake, the more dramatically the status quo will get disturbed, so the louder Sabo gets. 

Moral of the story: get some Sabo tea time on your calendar. It’s worth getting to know this guy. 

There’s even a step-by-step guide to researching your personal Sabo below, so #noexcuses. 

BUT…once you know exactly what yours sounds like and its 5 greatest hits, it becomes like NYC street noise: it mostly recedes into the background, startles you on occasion, and one day you may even find that you can’t sleep without it. 



  1. List at least 5 examples of things that may be your saboteur, but you kind of also think might be true.
  2. What are your Sabo’s signature lines?
  3. What are the “tells” of your Sabo? (see above 5 “tells”)
  4. List at least 5 examples you know are your saboteur, or inner critic. (Think about all the reasons that you are stuck and unable to change and write them down. They are likely mostly, if not all, your saboteur.)
  5. What do you notice about how you feel when your saboteur is present?
  6. Personify Your Saboteur: If your Sabo was a person, what would it look like? What would it sound like? What is its name? Now, find a picture of your saboteur, or draw it. Etch it into your mind and/or keep it somewhere prominent.