Sidestep your saboteur

The training for a medical career is demanding. We often work longer hours than we would like, striving to learn more and be better at what we do. As a result, the medical field selects out for people who know how to push themselves and who aren’t often satisfied with themselves. This critical, driving force becomes internalized and can take hold as a voice (or voices) that can keep us locked into situations that may no longer provide fulfillment for us. It can sabotage our attempts to break out of the box we’re in and won’t even allow us to consider other options.

These saboteurs are those voices in our heads that tell us we are unreasonable, irrational, expecting too much, or setting our sights too high. While these ideas may have come from our parents, authorities, the administrators where we work, our spouses or even our children, we are tricked into thinking that they are our thoughts. At one time, they may even have been adaptive. Now, they can get in our way and keep us from making changes in our lives so we are more aligned with our values. If we want to try something new, they tell us not to. They are worried that we will fail, or that we will lose the love, admiration, or support that we believe we need. Saboteurs always invoke a bit of truth, so they can be difficult to dismiss. Many times, their plea is that “this is just the way it is.” As if we have no choice.

The truth is that there is always a choice.

We can choose to continue doing what we are doing, and to feel the way we do about it. Or, we can choose to shift our behavior so we honor our values more. There will be consequences, but we are in control of the choice.

Do you want to participate in a research project? Volunteer in your community or abroad? Spend time each day reading or exercising? Your saboteurs, I’m sure, will come up with dozens of reasons why you can’t do that. The administration won’t like it. Your partners will resent you. You don’t have enough time/money/resources/support/experience/etc. But saboteurs are just that – voices that allow you to sabotage yourself. One way of neutralizing your saboteur is to personify it and give it the floor. Let it really tell you what it thinks. Sometimes that will allow you to see how out of touch it is.

Another powerful way is to tune into the values that you’ll be honoring by making the change. Imagine that it’s a year from now and you’ve made this change – how would that feel? How would your life be different? What is important to you about that difference?

Change is hard – no one disputes that. Yet, we each know people who have made dramatic changes. The group at Vital Smarts outlines a great approach to change in their book Change Anything and their website, If you’re itching to do things differently in your life, try involving a family member or friend to support your efforts. Or consider hiring a coach who can help you define your values, decide what changes will honor those values, and keep you on track to successful implementation of those changes.

You know the old adage, “life is short – eat dessert first?” Well, life is short! It’s also too full of great opportunities and enriching experiences to allow those saboteurs to keep you from living it fully and on the terms that reflect your values and priorities.

About Helane Fronek

Over the past 28 years I have had a fascinating and fulfilling career in medicine, initially practicing as a general internist and then as a procedural specialist, caring for patients with vein disorders. As Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at UC- San Diego School of Medicine, I’m thrilled to be teaching medical students crucial communication skills along with many other aspects involved in the practice of medicine.
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