What if I told you that toddlers have a better sense of self than you?
It seems ridiculous, right?
Well, I have two little ones, and I’ve seen it firsthand. It’s just the truth.
My son, Oliver, who is three, knows he’s always right. When his friend takes away his toy car, he calls him out because he knows it’s his. He stands up and holds his own.
My daughter, Maddy, who is one and a half, is 100% confident in her decisions. She never doubts the dress she wants to wear or her choice to wear a bow. She’s not afraid that someone will judge her. Frankly, she doesn’t give a shit.
They both know their limits well - there’s a reason Maddy always waits for me to go down the stairs and Oliver won’t jump into the pool unless I’m there to catch him.
It’s part of the reason we love children; they are so sure of themselves and have such a good understanding of how magnificent they truly are.
Look at them... they’re awesome (ok, I'm bias).
So what happens?
What happens as we grow up that causes us to lose our sense of self? How do we move from this wondrous place of curiosity, joy, and creativity to one of anxiety, shame, and/or guilt?
Let’s think about what happens after birth. As you go out into the world, you begin to have experiences, you face challenges, and you begin to be told certain things about yourself. Maybe one day, Oliver gets told that he’s not good enough to make the basketball team. Another day, someone makes fun of Maddy’s shoes. A child gets bullied. A teenager faces ridicule in the lunchroom. An adolescent confronts failure without anyone to celebrate it or show him how it might actually be an opportunity.
Throughout our lives, we’re given feedback (or maybe not even directly given feedback) that cuts us down and rips away the beautiful and true toddler vision of ourselves. It’s so rare to get regular acknowledgement or support in a way that helps you grow. And even if we are lucky to have a consistent source of support, our brains are trained to hear the criticism so much louder than the praise.
Over time, a narrative forms. We’re not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough. We got lucky. Someone will figure us out. And this narrative takes us further and further away from the truth. And we begin to believe it.
This is our SABOTEUR. This is our self-sabotaging inner voice (or, more likely, voices!) that hold us back. The Saboteur preserves the status quo. Any time you step forward to make a big change, the Saboteur wakes up and sets off the alarm. The Saboteur has all the reasons ready for why your plan (whatever you have in mind) is a stupid, dangerous, hopeless course of action. The Saboteur is particularly good at taking a small piece of the truth and fabricating it into the reason for stopping, or maybe even never starting.
Chances are that you already have a pretty good sense of this Saboteur, but maybe you’ve just never really focused on it. This Saboteur is the narrator in your head. Your Saboteur - for better or worse - is always with you - and tells you who and how you are, and really defines and interprets every experience.
Think about it: the world we live in is designed to squeeze people into boxes - often very comfortable boxes, but boxes nonetheless. Choosing to create a truly fulfilling life is almost certain to upset the status quo and create ripples in the pond.
And when you contemplate moving forward in a big way - in an outside the box way - it wakes up your Saboteur. Quite honestly, the bigger the dream, the more hefty the Saboteur that you will be wrestling with.
If you want to get all scientific about it, the Saboteur lives in the left side of your brain - the limbic system - where it’s all about survival. Your Saboteur isn’t all bad, it’s protecting you, but maybe in that helicopter parent type way that doesn’t allow you to grow and develop. Your Saboteur keeps you small.
So what do you do about it? How can you combat your Saboteur?
The good news is that there’s another side of your brain - the right side - the middle prefrontal cortex that is focused on helping you thrive. And somewhere in there lives your true self - that self that you knew so well when you were two years old. The trick is you just have to wake that true self up… and shut up that pesky Saboteur.
(Sidenote: I’m not a scientist, but Shirzad Chamine is. He did all the research leg-work on this subject and I highly recommend his TED Talk and book, Positive Intelligence, if you want to dig even deeper.)
In the spirit of action (come on, I’m a Coach, so you knew it was coming), here are three steps to help you begin that work:
#1: Simply notice
The first step is knowing you have a problem, right? Seriously. Just starting to notice the Saboteur voice will begin to put it in it’s place. (H/T to Rick Carson on this one and his work on Taming Your Gremlin.)
I’ll use a personal example. Back in the day, I had a micromanaging boss, let’s call her Julia. Julia would send me menial assignments and then demand that I make changes like adding a semicolon instead of a period. And her email would usually come late at night with multiple :) :) :) (these were the days before bitmojis!). I began to believe that what she thought of me and how she valued me was who I was. I thought that I had to work crazy hours and be a perfectionist if I wanted to succeed, not just at this job, but in life. This began translating into how I connected with my husband, treated my parents, and even my exercise routine. I forfeited my sense of self to be who Julia wanted me to be. And I wasn’t very good at it.
It took some time (and coaching) for me to realize that I could blame Julia for making me feel small, but ultimately, I chose to make myself invisible. Or should I say, my Saboteur made me invisible. My Saboteur - fondly named Ursula after the sea witch in the Little Mermaid who made Ariel trade in her voice for human legs only to sabotage her at every chance she got - created a narrative that wasn’t true.
And just naming her and actually picturing this villainous creature allowed me to recognize when Ursula was talking and when Lisa was talking. So, step one: just notice. And if you’re able, personify it so you know exactly who is doing that talking for you.
#2: Lock the Saboteur away
You’ve exposed your Saboteur. Now, what are you going to do with her? Where can you send this pesky, obnoxious gremlin when you know you need to channel yourself? For me, I actually have a printed picture - laminated! - of Ursula. I keep her in my wallet. In the zip pouch with my loose change. I know she’s with me - can’t deny it - but I keep her zipped up and held down by those coins.
Setting up some type of structure can be useful so that you can remind yourself that you have power over your Saboteur. You are not your Saboteur and you get to choose who does the talking.
When I notice Ursula swimming around, I pull her out of my wallet, and give her the once over before I banish her back to the bottom of the coin collection. At first it felt a little contrived, but it’s been a really valuable structure.
#3: Find your Sage
This is the hardest part because you may have to go way back. You may even have to go all the way back to your toddler days. Your Sage (or Captain, True Self, insert whatever is true for you) is your inner leader. This is the part of you that is clear, that is knowing. It’s that toddler version that knows you are special and wants so much for you. Your Sage is satisfied with you and all that you are, and at the same time wants more for you. This true you knows your strengths, limits, and gifts. No one has more gentleness or compassion for you than your Sage.
Just like your Saboteur, you’ll need to get to know your Sage. She’s always been with you, but you may not have connected in a while - or ever. Try giving him, or her, or it, a name and a face… maybe more.
Then you’ll want to know when and how to call upon your Sage. Your Sage is who you want in your corner when you hit a roadblock. He’s there to celebrate those failures and turn them into opportunities. Your Sage with have empathy for you while also getting you back on your feet so that you can go after your next adventure.
I write about this in three simple steps, but this is a long - potentially life-long - quest to know both your Saboteur(s) and your Sage. But a lot happens on the journey. You begin to reclaim your self - who you really are - and open a new world of possibilities.
So my question to you: How will you expose (and banish) your Saboteur and bring your wise Sage to your side?