I wrote a post last week about “making friends with your saboteurs” — those inner negative voices that show up to trip us up when we’re trying something new, or hard, or laden with emotion for us. It prompted a lot of discussion in all the spheres — comments here and on facebook, an in personal texts with my friends — so I wanted to circle back on one of the themes: sometimes what the voices are trying to “protect” us from is pretty hard to figure out.
A few of the comments about this included this one, from Bettina: “When it comes to fitness, my own internal gremlins like to tell me “You’ve been doing this [insert bouldering, swimming, running as appropriate] for so long now and you still suck/can’t do this/are ridiculously slow”, or “you’ll never be able to do this”. With the latter, I recognise it “protects” me from trying and failing, but what the former is trying to keep me “safe” from, I don’t know.”
And Sam: “I like the idea of thinking of my inner critics as protective but I’m not sure that’s really what they are up to! Where did those voices come from? Where did they get their peculiar script? I’m not sure we just disagree about what’s best for me!”
And from Emily: “I have similar gremlins (or hedgehogs!) as the ones you describe. While I’m not sure what they’re trying to “protect” me from, sometimes I’m able to channel my frustrations with not being “good” enough into motivation to work on specific skills that I want to be better at. I also try to remind myself that my standards for myself have gotten higher as I’ve continued to participate in various sports and activities – beginner-me would be impressed at some of the things that current-me thinks I suck at.”
And — in a slightly different vein (no pun intended!), from clubschadenfreude: well, evidently they were trying to protect me from a “primary exertional headache” that I got on my second class. Holy cats, I’ve never had such pain. Went to see the doctor about it and he gave me percocet and scheduled a CAT scan.
I loved the comments, and the inherent puzzlement: how could this negative self-talk actually be something valuable? I had a conversation about this with my sister, who’s been a life/work coach for more than a decade. We agreed that there’s an inherent, sometimes confusing, paradox in that these things often show up when we’re trying to do something that we want to do — and many times, on some level, that we yearn to do. And that it’s rarely about this particular moment in time (although maybe, in clubschadenfreude’s case, her body COULD hear that something was off and she needed to rest). Your saboteurs really don’t care if you do grab this boulder today or go for this run — they are really commenting on the kind of person you are being when you do this thing.
A lot of the time, when we look at the narratives over our entire lives, we can map our saboteurs to specific incidents in our earlier lives, or the values — spoken and unspoken — of our cultures or families of origin. Sometimes, it’s really easy to see and map — I know that sometimes, when I’m trying to do something in the gym that I can’t seem to grasp (which happens at least once a week), I have a running commentary about my clumsiness, that I’m going to hurt myself, that I’m ungraceful. And I *know* that this is a story I put together over my life because of being told I wasn’t flexible or graceful at gymnastics and skating as a child, and all of those moments where my grandmother literally gave me lessons in how to sit like a lady, and my grandfather continually criticized the way my feet hit the ground — again, unladylike, ungraceful, too loud. So what is that saboteur of clumsiness trying to protect me from? Clearly, looking inappropriate, being foolish. And at another level — disapproval from people I care about — which of course means, being unlovable.
(The inverse also works remarkably strongly — I once found myself on a trip to the Arctic having to demonstrate that I could shoot a rifle — which I’d never done. As I picked up the ancient weapon leftover from WWII, family lore about how my grandfather was an excellent marksman somehow flicked at the edge of my consciousness, and I had this sensation of “the Desmarais family is good at shooting” — and then, I hammered that thing with confidence. And hit the target).
Sometimes the explanatory narratives aren’t so obvious, and sometimes they are terribly painful to actually unearth and look at. I had a colleague some time ago who had a steady stream of “reasons” why she could only work out by running slowly around her neighbourhood in the dark, wearing clothes that fully covered her body — she said she couldn’t go to any kind of exercise class because she was “always the worst person in the class,” couldn’t ride a bike because “my head is too big — they don’t make helmets in my size.” Her story clearly had an incredible flowering of shame — and her saboteurs were protecting her from scrutiny, from being shamed. Even as they kept her isolated, lonely and frustrated.
Using Bettina’s comment as an example, I can’t say what her saboteurs that are telling her she sucks or is slow are trying to do for her — it’s a deeply personal thing. But if I were having that set of voices, I would probably find some meaning in an inner tension I have about the fact that most of my adult life — since I was 30 — I’ve been a non-smoker, moderate drinker, more or less healthy eater and incredibly active. But before that, I was one of those artsy adolescents that scorned athletics as “unserious” (I ostentatiously read Sartre in the bleachers when forced to go to pep rallies), and then in my 20s, my health went off the rails. When I turned 30, I quit smoking, became a runner, went down 5 sizes and — in the eyes of much of the world — was a “completely different (much more desirable!) person.” And just as Sam has posted about the ambivalence of the weight loss she’s doing to prep for her knee surgery, I have a lot of inner conflict about loving the particular body and strength I’ve built over 24 years. Yes, it feels like me — but sometimes, relaxing into it, trusting it too much — that feels like I’m rejecting and not loving the younger part of me. I think my mean inner voice is somehow reminding me that the earlier version of me is still part of me, and was just as worthy of love.
Figuring out the origins of our stories can be helpful — and, from a coaching perspective, the origin doesn’t matter as much as understanding the role it’s playing now, and how that is limiting the fulfillment we really yearn for. Last week, I talked about making friends with my saboteurs, learning to appreciate them. My sister suggested going even deeper and really trying to figure out the “biography” or character of the saboteur — including figuring out its values and its fears — and how it hijacks your values.
I think it’s a great approach. I imagine the saboteur that tells me how slow and clumsy I am as having my grandmother’s voice — even though she never directly told me I was either of those things. But if I create a biography of that creature as my well-meaning grandmother, I can hear that its values are about fitting in, and not calling attention to yourself. Those values fit my grandmother — she grew up a dirt poor francophone in a huge family, and in three decades, class traveled to a life of company jets and the fanciest restaurants of the auto sector in the Mad Men era. She never spoke French to me except when she was braiding my hair and telling me “il faut souffrir d’etre belle” (to be beautiful you must suffer). The values of fitting in, following the “rules” of the Anglo middle class world — they served her. And I’m sure her secret fear was being found out as not belonging. She was trying to protect me from that — just as the voices of my clumsiness are trying to protect me from being denounced as being in the wrong place.
But those aren’t “my” values — and they don’t help me. But I can make friends with that voice, and let it remind me that not only do I want to belong in the gym, I do.
Thanks, saboteur. (And thanks to my sister, for her unfailing support).
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives, lifts weights and ponders imaginary voices in Toronto.