Mutiny! Making sense of self-sabotage

Did I really need to go to the meeting? I’d agreed to go even though it was a long train ride away and I was preparing my notes when that thought came up again. ‘Yes’, my thinking mind said, in a tone like my parents used to use: ‘I agreed to go, so I’m going.’

Twenty minutes later I’m at the station, but the train just left! There’s no way I can get to the meeting now and what follows is a painful phone call of apology. It doesn’t go well and my colleague is really not happy. He’s disappointed and surprised, as this is out of character. But the fact that I’m genuinely mortified wins grudging understanding.

I have a golden rule of screw-ups which I highly recommend. When you mess something up, there are three things you need to do: First, try to fix it; Second, learn from it and third move on. So what did I learn from this particular débâcle?

We like to imagine that our conscious mind is running the show. We have free will, make rational conscious choices and act on them. Maybe those choices don’t work out, but I decided to do it. Sadly that’s largely fantasy and I was reminded of that fact as I stood at the station that day watching my train disappear into the distance.

Our conscious mind is like the Captain of a ship. The Captain navigates the course of the ship and issues orders to the crew. So far, so good. But what if there’s a mutiny? The crew think that the Captain has made a bad decision. Maybe the Second-in-Command has mentioned this disquiet to the Captain, but in any event, the decision stands. The crew now take things into their own hands; it’s mutiny! The ship changes course and the Captain is left powerless.

This is basically what happened to me that day, but there’s a simple strategy that can help avoid this kind of self-sabotage. When there’s something you need to do but really don’t want to do, spend a moment negotiating with the part that’s resisting. Imagine you’re speaking to a child – which in a way you are, as our unconscious is a bit like a kid. First, acknowledge the resistance: ‘I know you don’t want to’. While this simple acknowledgement may be enough, be open to the possibility that there’s some wisdom in the objection: Maybe there’s a good reason why this plan of action is being resisted. The next step is to explore options: ‘If I don’t do this, what would happen?’ Finally, you can offer a bribe: ‘Let’s do this and then get cake!’ (or whatever else it is likely to win over the grumbler). But if you ignore that inner voice, dismiss its concerns and push ahead anyway, don’t be surprised if you can’t find your car keys, forget your wallet or end up missing the train…

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